Forget low-ratio gears, knobbly tyres and an ability to climb mountains – most small SUVs and crossovers are bought as alternatives to conventional family hatchbacks.
Our favourite small SUV should have a practical interior with plenty of equipment, a comfortable ride with composed handling, plus refined, flexible performance with running costs that won’t break the bank.
Nissan Qashqai -
The previous Qashqai was all about comfort. However, this new version is much more rounded; it feels agile and secure in corners, yet still rides well. Refinement is another strength, because it's available with a smooth 1.5-litre diesel engine and is brilliant at shutting out wind and road noise.
Our favourite Qashqai emits less than 100g/km of CO2, so it's a cheap company car choice. While prices have gone up for private buyers compared with the old model's, you’re now getting more equipment as well as a much better car. It’s not only our favourite small SUV, it’s our 2014 Car of the Year.
Pick of the Nissan Qashqai range: 1.5 dCi 110 Acenta 2WD
The best of the rest
Audi Q3 -
If your budget stretches beyond a Qashqai, there are several premium-badged models to choose from, but none matches the ability of the Audi Q3. Go for entry-level SE trim, and you’ll get precise handling with a comfortable ride. Our favourite diesel engine is smooth and punchy, and the cabin is as plush as you'd expect – if not quite as roomy.
Pick of the Audi Q3 range: 2.0 TDI 140 SE
Citroen C4 Cactus -
In a class of cars where style is in reasonably good supply, the Cactus still stands out. It is impossible to mistake it for anything else, thanks to the dent-absorbing plastic panels, contemporary colours and voguish styling. A tactile, minimalist interior, good ride comfort and suprising refinement push it to the front of the small SUV pack.
Pick of the Citroen C4 Cactus range: 1.2 110 Puretech Feel
Land Rover Freelander -
If you’ll need to use your small SUV for a fair amount of off-road work, then the Freelander is the best option in this list. It’s just as secure on the road, too, with a smooth ride and a great driving position. The classy image and off-road excellence doesn’t come cheap, though, and there are much roomier rivals for the money.
Pick of the Land Rover Freelander range: 2.2 TD4 150 GS 4WD
Renault Captur -
The Clio-based Captur has a spacious and user-friendly cabin and is one of the quietest cars of its kind. Its low list price and CO2 emissions make it easy to justify as a private or company buy, too. The engines need to be worked quite hard to keep up with traffic, and the cabin feels cheap, but in our favourite trim it’s seriously well equipped - and great value.
Pick of the Renault Captur range: 0.9 TCe 90 Dynamique Media Nav
Skoda Yeti -
The Yeti is one of the best small SUVs to drive, thanks to sharp steering and fine body control. It’s great for families, too, because it has a massive cabin and versatile rear seats that can be slid, folded and even removed. CO2 emissions are nothing to write home about, though, and the ride and refinement are disappointing.
Pick of the Skoda Yeti range: 1.2 TSI SE 2WD
The ones to avoid
Jeep Compass -
There’s a decent amount of space for four people in the Compass, and every version comes with a good amount of equipment. However, the diesel engine is very noisy and there are too many low-rent plastics in the cabin. While the Jeep may impress off-road or when towing, the on-road performance is wholly disappointing. Most rivals are classier and much better to drive.
Vauxhall Mokka -
The Mokka is a stylish crossover that comes with plenty of standard kit. It also has room for four six-footers in the cabin, plus a decent-sized boot – but so do the best rivals. The Mokka’s main problems are its noisy engines, firm and fidgety ride, and the cluttered, unintuitive dashboard. Its sister car, the Chevrolet Trax, has similar issues, and actually offers less value for money.
Mini Countryman -
There’s no doubt that the Countryman’s practicality impresses within the Mini range. Compare it with other small SUVs, though, and it looks only average. The Countryman’s ride and refinement are below par, and the handling isn’t as good as smaller Minis', either. All versions are well equipped, but there are many more comfortable and spacious cars for the money.
Subaru XV -
The XV’s diesel engine is strong and flexible, and standard four-wheel drive means there’s loads of grip. Unfortunately, the suspension does a poor job of smoothing out the scarred and patchy roads in the UK, so ride comfort isn’t up to scratch. The boot is also disappointingly small, and the Subaru looks far too expensive compared with rivals.