SUVs and 4x4s can be thirsty, expensive to fix and expensive to buy, but it's hard to deny that they make a lot of sense when it comes to dealing with family life.
By buying used you can avoid the worst of the depreciation. In all cases, ensure that the car you are looking at has been well maintained and cared for. A full dealer service history is probably a little unlikely for the oldest cars here, but evidence of regular servicing in the form of receipts is the least to insist on.
The other thing to pay particular attention to in cars of this type is tyres. SUVs are notoriously tough on rubber, so if the car you're looking at has dog-eared tyres, budget for to replace them when negotiating on the purchase price.
Less than £7000
Nissan X-Trail (2001-2007)
Our choice: post-2004 2.0 dCi SE
The Nissan X-Trail is a great car, providing you get the right version. Less plush but generally more reliable than the model that replaced it, this generation of X-Trail has plenty to commend it. It strikes a fine balance between being an efficient mud-plugger and a comfortable family car, with good ground clearance and a decent ride among its virtues. Petrol models are pretty anaemic, so opt for a dCi diesel and avoid the early, poverty-spec S models, many of which came with no air-conditioning. SE trim and above is perfectly comfortable. As far as reliability is concerned, owners report very few problems. The only issues concern timing chain rattles and some incidents of turbocharger failures on diesels, so be sure to check these.
Honda CR-V (2002-2006)
Our choice: 2.0 VTEC SE petrol
The X-Trail’s big rival at the time was the Honda CR-V, built up to 2006. Unlike the Nissan, the Honda is generally thought of as a soft-roader, being far more at home as a spacious family car with some extra grip when required. Diesel models are relatively rare and the price premium is high. These were introduced late in the model’s life so you won’t find any prior to 2005. So opt for a 2.0-litre petrol model and avoid the £1500 price penalty. Even the more basic specification SE models were well equipped, but the most basic models with steel wheels and black bumpers look a little low-end. The X-Trail's reliability is consistent with it wearing a Honda badge: excellent.
Toyota RAV4 (2000-2005)
Our choice: 2.0 GX 5dr petrol
If it's fun you're after, the RAV4 delivers. It's more of a road car, so stick with the X-Trail if you need any off-road capability. With even the youngest cars nearly a decade old, care needs to be taken to ensure your chosen car is up to scratch. Prices hold up pretty well, despite the vintage, thanks in part to a great reputation for reliability. Diesels are noisy but frugal so the 2.0-litre petrol is our pick of the range. GX trim is best, but in 2003 this name changed to XT4. Although problems are extremely rare, if you are buying an early diesel model check that the clutch and flywheel have been replaced; these are known to give trouble.
Avoid Land Rover Freelander (2003-2007)
The first-generation Freelander was a very capable off-roader, with some nice design touches such as an electric rear window for easy access to the boot, and the later BMW-sourced TD4 diesel engines are strong performers. However, in general the Freelander is less reliable, more expensive to fix and less good to drive than Japanese rivals. Petrol models are particularly troublesome, with head gasket failure common.
There are a host of very capable vehicles on offer at this price. Whether your preference is for a comfortable soft-roader or something that can combine good on-road performance with decent
mud-plugging capability, there are plenty of options to choose from. Aim for something with a warranty to give you peace of mind, but certainly a stack of receipts and service history to prove it’s been well cared for.
Honda CR-V (2007-2012)
**Our choice: 2.2 i-CTDi ES**
This CR-V is refined and comfortable, but isn't very rapid or involving to drive. It's also very reliable, and while main dealers are not the cheapest for servicing, CR-Vs tend not to spend much time needing attention. Lower-mileage examples are best, but CR-Vs shrug off huge mileages while still looking pretty factory fresh, so a leggier model with a bulging service book should not necessarily be ignored. SE models are comfortable but ES trim adds climate control among other creature-comforts, without adding hugely to the cost. The 2.2-litre petrol model is also worth a look if you don't cover many miles, because it is smooth and quiet.
Volvo XC90 (2002-2014)
Our choice: 2.4 D5 SE
The Volvo XC90 is a versatile, seven-seat SUV and has just been named our Used Large SUV of 2014. It's plush, well equipped and has a premium feel, although it is not the most dynamic SUV on the road. The petrol versions are too thirsty to warrant consideration, so sift through the many D5 diesel versions on offer to find what you need. The middle row of three seats each has independent adjustment, similar to many MPVs. At the rear, the third row of seats are only suitable for kids, but it folds into the boot floor when not in use, leaving plenty of luggage space. As you might expect with a Volvo, there’s lots of standard safety kit including front, side and curtain airbags. The entry-level S trim comes with climate control, CD player, cruise control, and alloy wheels. Meanwhile, SE models include leather upholstery and Executive trim adds a fridge and a rear DVD player.
Hyundai Santa Fe (2006-2012)
Our choice: 2.2 CRTD CDX
The Sante Fe deserves to be on your shopping list for a number of reasons. It’s good to drive, with a comfortable ride and decent handling characteristics, and it can be specced with seven seats, although this extra pair is fit only for kids. Buyers have the option of petrol or diesel power, but our choice would be the 2.2-litre CRTD diesel - upgraded from 148 to 155bhp in 2009 - because it’s smooth and all but matches the petrol for acceleration. The entry-level version is badged GSI, which comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, air-con and up to eight airbags are standard. CDX models are rarer but add climate and cruise control, leather seats and bigger alloy wheels. Reliability is good, but check that all the electrical items and the air-con is working, because failures in these areas are common.
Land Rover Freelander (2006-)
Our choice: 2.2 TD4 SE
The Freelander II represents a vast improvement over the previous generation. More rugged looks have proved popular with buyers and assisted in its sales success, and went hand-in-hand with more rugged mechanicals. On the road it offers a compliant ride and reasonable handling. It’s also a relaxed motorway cruiser, despite some road and wind noise. Off-road is where the Freelander is particularly adept, with a sophisticated four-wheel-drive system able to keep it moving in all but the toughest of terrains. All models come with alloy wheels, air-con and a CD Player. GS models add climate and cruise control, rear parking sensors and for superior off-roading abilities, Land Rover’s Terrain Response system. XS models have electric seats and a better stereo; SE versions get sat-nav and HSE trim comes with leather seats. Top spec HST versions have 20-inch alloy wheels, a roof spoiler and different body side mouldings.
Volkswagen Touareg (2003-2010)
Our choice: 3.2 V6 petrol
Being twinned with the highly acclaimed Porsche Cayenne means the VW Touareg has a lot to live up to. Unlike its illustrious sibling, which majors on sportiness, the Touareg has a softer chassis mode, and it does a decent job of being a comfortable, reasonable handling road car. It’s not bad off-road either – not quite a match for anything wearing a Land Rover badge, but it's certainly more proficient than an X5 or XC90. It doesn't have seven-seat versatility, but the five that it does have offer room for six-footers and the boot is huge. We would recommend either the smooth and refined 3.2-litre V6 petrol or the 2.5- or 3.0-litre TDI diesels if your priority is economy. All Touaregs have plenty of standard equipment including stability control, 17-inch alloy wheels, air-con and cruise control. SE trim upgrades include dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, and larger 18-inch alloys.
Avoid Range Rover (2002-2013)
This is an odd one, because the Range Rover, in many ways, is an extremely good car. In fact, arguably one of the best SUVs ever built, being supremely comfortable, great off-road and having serious badge kudos. So why is it here? The reason is that for under £12,000, you need to be extremely careful about what you are buying if you don’t want to end up owning a money pit. That’s why, for this budget, we would recommend steering clear.
More than £12,000 Always buy with a full service history, and main dealers should have the best pick of well cared for cars backed up by a manufacturer approved used warranty.
Volvo XC60 (2008-)
**Our choice: 2.4D DRIVe SE**
The XC60 has much to recommend it as new car, so it makes even more sense once someone else has taken the initial hit of deprecation. Although it’s not as big as something such as the Discovery, it still offers plenty of room inside for five adults and the load bay is a good size, with the rear seats up or down. We'd recommend is the 2.0-litre D4 diesel, because the performance is more than adequate and it is the cheapest model to run. However, it comes with just two-wheel drive, so go for the 2.4-litre D4 diesel if you need some mud-plugging ability. On the road the XC60 is particularly refined, has a smooth ride and offers plenty of grip. The interior looks very smart with the 'floating' centre console, although some of the switchgear can be confusing to operate. Historically the XC60 has proved reliable; in 2013 it placed 17 out of 116 in the JD Power survey.
Audi Q5 (2008-)
Our choice: 2.0 TDI SE
The Q5 competes with the XC60 in the premium SUV category. It falls just short of the Volvo in terms of space, especially for rear-seat passengers, although the boot is big. With the option to slide the rear-seats forward it can be made even bigger. The ride is very firm, particularly so with the larger wheels or S line suspension fitted. The trade-off for this is great body control. The 2.0-litre TDI engine with 141bhp will be fast and flexible enough for most people's needs, while proving economical and efficient. Audi’s legendary cabin finish is evident on the inside, and while the company’s reliability record has been questioned of late, the Q5 still placed 29 out of 109 models tested in the 2014 JD Power review.
BMW X5 (2007-2013)
Our choice: 3.0d SE
This is the second generation of X5, which gained the added practicality of seven seats as an option. BMW has always focused on making the X5 a 'soft-roader' rather than an a pure off-roader; the driving position is excellent and the high-quality cabin is well laid out. There is also plenty of space, front or rear. On the road the X5 belies its size with agile handling, helped by minimal body roll, but still manages to offer a pleasant ride. The best engine to go for is the 3.0-litre 232bhp diesel, which is plenty fast enough and plentiful on the used market. There is a 282bhp diesel, which is rarer, as are the two petrol options. Look for cars with leather interior, 19-inch wheels and the Media Pack, which has sat-nav, Bluetooth and a CD autochanger, because these are popular with buyers.
Land Rover Discovery 4 (2010-)
Our choice: TDV6 SE
Originally launched as the Discovery 3 in 2004, the current 4 model received a more Range Rover-like interior and visual cues to move it upmarket. If you are looking for a spacious, seven-seat vehicle that’s comfortable and refined on-road, plus highly capable off it, then there really isn’t much out there to top it. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine mated to the six-speed auto gearbox, is smooth and offers relaxed rather than brisk progress. Despite the car’s bulk, it can also average more than 30mpg. All models from entry-level GS spec up come with seven seats, keyless entry and go, air-con and Bluetooth. XS trim adds cruise control, front parking sensors, auto headlights and wipers, heated leather seats and sat-nav. Historically the Discovery’s achilles heel has been its reliability, but in the latest 2014 JD Power survey it was ranked third in the SUV category, one place higher than the BMW X5.
Range Rover (2002-2013)
Our choice: 4.4 V8 Vogue
Yes, early, cheaper versions should be avoided, but the previous-generation Range Rover is worth a look if you spend a little more initially on a newer example and can set aside a sensible budget to maintain it. You'll hopefully find that the car is more dependable, and if things do go wrong, there’ll be some warranty left. Find a good, well looked after example, and you will struggle to fault it. The interior is plush, well equipped and comfortable, whether you’re in the back or the front. On the road, while it might lean in the bends a little when pushed hard, it has predictable handling and a comfortable, air-sprung ride. All the engines give good performance, with the V8 diesel having plenty of shove, while the V8 petrol is smooth but thirsty. Off road, it will keep on going on all but the toughest terrain.
Avoid Nissan Pathfinder (2005-)
Taken in the context of a pure off-roader, the Pathfinder is rugged and will go anywhere. However, as an all-round family car, it falls way behind the others here. The 2.5-litre diesel engine needs to be worked hard, at which point it produces a lot of noise. The ride manages to become unsettled even on smooth roads, and it will wallow through corners as you grapple with the vague steering. Inside, the cabin is reasonably well laid out and equipped, but the quality feels like it’s from a different era.
You can find some of the cars in our selection listed in our Approved Used car classified section. Run in partnership with Trusted Dealers scheme, it is one of the safest places to buy a used car. Click here to see the full selection.
For other great buys on the used car market, why not check out our What Car? 2014 Used Car of the Year awards for a comprehensive list of the best used cars?