An SUV can basically be anything these days. They can be huge, they can be tiny. Cheaper than $20,000 or deep into six figures. They can be giant boxes or sleek “coupes.” They can pack humble three-cylinder engines, 600-horsepower twin-turbo V8s or silently waft along on electricity. Then there’s the matter of how they’re constructed. Do they satisfy the literal SUV definition of a body-on-frame, truck-like vehicle? Or, more likely, are they crossovers with car-like unibody construction that most people generally identify as an SUV? In the end, you know one when you see one.
It can obviously be tough to sort through this sea of rugged(ish) vehicles, so we’ve compiled this grand list of the best SUVs. We’ve broken them down into size segments, plus a separate list devoted to the best luxury SUVs, providing at most three choices each to help you narrow down your shopping list.
Chevrolet Bolt EUV
Why it stands out: 250 miles of electric range; usable back seat; rapid acceleration; low price for an EV
Could be better: High price for a small SUV; small cargo area
Our full 2021 Chevy Bolt Review
The all-electric Bolt EUV is new for 2021. The U in its name indicates it’s more of an SUV than the existing Chevy Bolt, but the differences really only amount to a considerably enlarged back seat and more squared off, SUV-like styling. Whatever, the Bolt EUV is a compelling electric car in a small SUV wrapper that will go 250 miles on a charge and delivers acceleration that’ll blow the doors off everything else in this size segment. It’s enjoyable to drive, well-equipped and decent to look at. It also offers hands-free driving with GM’s updated Super Cruise advanced driver assist system. The starting price of $33,995 is hefty compared to the other small SUVs here, but don’t forget the hundreds to thousands of dollars per year you’ll be saving by not buying gasoline and that maintaining an electric car is cheaper long-term.
Why it stands out: Ample space and abundant features for the money; unique style; strong turbo engine upgrade
Could be better: All-wheel drive is not available
Our most recent full Kia Soul Review
The Kia Soul definitely didn’t start off as a small SUV, and the term “crossover” is probably better applied to it. Still, what started life as an undefinable funky tall hatchback now finds itself in its third generation with numerous vehicles of similar shape and size that are dubbed “small SUV” or “small crossover.” If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck … Call it what you will, but the Soul delivers the goods with tons of equipment and space for its price and size, an agreeable driving demeanor, and an even more powerful engine upgrade than the Kona’s. We also think it’s pretty cool. All of the above helped it win our subcompact SUV comparison test. Now, if there’s one area where the Soul does not satisfy a typical SUV requirement, it’s the lack of available all-wheel drive. That there are more such vehicles in the segment, including our next entry, only seems to further secure the Soul’s membership into the club.
Why it stands out: Best-in-class ground clearance; standard all-wheel drive; cargo space and functional roof rails
Could be better: Slow base engine; CVT transmission; roly-poly handling
Our full 2021 Subaru Crosstrek Review
The Crosstrek proves just how all over the place this segment is. It’s basically just an Impreza hatchback with some styling tweaks and a massive lift (its 8.7 inches of ground clearance is way more than most crossovers), but that’s actually good enough to better many vehicles that were built from scratch to be a small SUV. Besides that ground clearance, the Crosstrek has become a darling of the outdoor adventure set for its manageable size, easy-to-use interior, sturdy and easily reached roof rails and a comfort-oriented driving experience that serves it well on longer drives. That it finally offers a more powerful engine option for 2021 satisfies a long-held complaint among owners that the base engine was just too darn slow.
Ford Bronco Sport
Why it stands out: Off-road capability; cargo space; clever storage and cargo features; distinctive style
Could be better: Fuel economy; some cheap interior bits
Our full 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Review
Although its exterior dimensions and back seat space fall in between the compact and subcompact segments, one of the great things about the new Bronco Sport is that it actually has as much or more cargo space than models that are considerably bigger on the outside. So it can hold a lot of stuff for a weekend away, but the “Baby Bronco” does so much more for those looking for something a little more Swiss Army Knife than the typical small SUV. There are numerous clever features throughout, like zippered map pockets and campsite lighting in the liftgate, plus a vast accessory catalog. Every version is much better than usual off-road (though the Badlands is definitely the one to get for those going further afield) with its standard all-wheel drive, ample ground clearance and “G.O.A.T. Modes” that set the vehicle for a variety of road and terrain conditions. It’s also impossible to ignore the Bronco Sport’s distinctive style inside and out, plus a driving experience that’s a bit more SUV-ish … and in this case, we do mean that in the traditional, body-on-frame truck-based SUV way.
Why it stands out: Surprising space; acceleration from Turbo models; user-friendly tech; distinct design details
Could be better: Some cheap interior bits
Our full 2021 Kia Seltos Review
The surprisingly good Seltos proves you don’t have to spend a lot of money for both function and fashion. Its price and exterior dimensions fall in between the subcompact and compact SUV segments, yet it boasts more interior volume than is expected and an abundance of special design details throughout that successfully counter some of the cheaper bits applied to keep the price down. It also looks pretty good, and the available turbocharged engine produces shocking acceleration for this segment. Basically, it provides even more value beyond Kia’s usual extra-long features list and warranty. Like the Bronco Sport and CX-30, we’d actually consider the Seltos before many of the compact SUVs that didn’t make the cut above.
Why it stands out: Luxurious interior; best-in-class driving dynamics
Could be better: Interior space is more hatchback than SUV; those plastic fender flares have to go
Our full 2021 Mazda CX-30 Review
If the Bronco Sport provides ruggedness and versatility, and the Seltos value and style, the Mazda CX-30 provides driving fun and luxury. We actually consider it a smarter buy than luxury subcompacts like the BMW X2 and Audi Q3, and not just because of its lower price. Its interior doesn’t really give up anything to them in terms of luxury or features, and it can actually be more engaging to drive, especially with the new-for-2021 turbo engine. Despite all this luxury talk, though, the CX-30 price still starts in the low $20,000s, and only barely crests $30,000 when fully loaded. Basically, it’s a bargain without looking or driving like one.
Why it stands out: Best-in-class space, strong-yet-efficient base engine, available hybrid, middle lower LATCH anchor
Could be better: Antiquated and glitchy tech interface, a bit dull
Read our 2021 Honda CR-V Review
Consider the CR-V the baseline for any compact SUV search. Objectively speaking, it’s tough to beat due to its massive cargo capacity, voluminous back seat, strong-yet-efficient engines (including the CR-V Hybrid), well-balanced driving dynamics, competitive pricing and features, strong safety ratings and well-regarded reliability. It’s easy to see why it continues to be such a best-seller: for the vast majority of compact SUV buyers, and especially families, it checks every box. Of course, people don’t make buying decisions based solely on objective criteria, so you may find it dull to look at or drive, be frustrated by its tech interface, or some other reason only you can think of. That’s why other choices exist, including the next pair of small SUVs that may satisfy those subjective wants a little better.
Why it stands out: Budget Porsche driving experience; luxurious cabin; powerful turbo engine upgrade
Could be better: Less cargo, passenger and storage space; non-touchscreen infotainment won’t be for everyone
Our full 2021 Mazda CX-5 Review
Basically, the CX-5 delivers in areas where the CR-V falls short: style and driving fun. However, it can also be considered an alternative to luxury compact SUVs. It all starts with its elegantly sporty styling and carries inside where its handsome design and plush materials are a clear step up from others at its price point. Then, when you’re behind the wheel, the CX-5 impresses with engaging driving manners that we’ve routinely described as being indicative of a “budget Porsche.” Furthermore, its available turbocharged engine even has as much or more power as several similarly sized luxury models. Now, it doesn’t have as much passenger or cargo space as the CR-V or RAV4, so it won’t be for everyone, but it should definitely be considered.
Why it stands out: Unmatched variety of models including two hybrids; spacious back seat and cargo area; reliability
Could be better: Unrefined base engine; antiquated tech interface
Our full 2021 Toyota RAV4 Review
The RAV4 has more passenger and cargo space than most. It’s comfortable and surprisingly responsive to drive. Its interior is well built with quality materials, and offers user-friendly controls and abundant storage. Its resale value and reliability should be better than almost anything on the road. Those are all the basics that the RAV4 nails, but the latest version really stands out by offering an unparalleled variety of models. From the run-of-the-mill RAV4 LE or XLE you can go in different directions toward the more rugged Adventure and TRD Off-Road models, or toward the sporty XSE Hybrid and Prime. And those latter two are particularly significant, as the RAV4 is the rare small SUV that’s not only available as a hybrid, but as plug-in hybrid (Prime) as well. The Ford Escape is the only other. We like that there’s a little something for everyone with the RAV4.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Why it stands out: Off-road capability; towing capacity; user-friendly tech; variety of models
Could be better: Meager performance from base V6; old and about to be replaced; interior space
Read our full 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review
Sure, it’s been around forever and is about to be replaced by an all-new model. Nevertheless, the Grand Cherokee soldiers on as a top pick among two-row midsize SUVs because it offers a unique mix of attributes. Whereas other two-row midsizers like the Honda Passport and Ford Edge offer questionable value compared to three-row models that cost a pittance more, the Grand Cherokee has clear advantages over the family haulers. It has genuine off-road and towing capability, plus numerous engine upgrades (including the truly absurd 707-horsepower Trackhawk) and styling that most definitely avoids the family hauler look. It’s also more refined, efficient and modern than the other go-to off-roading midsizer, the Toyota 4Runner. Although we haven’t tested the all-new, three-row Grand Cherokee L, its excellent two-row predecessor is a good sign for things to come.
Why it stands out: Off-roading legend; vast variety of models and options; it’s really cool
Could be better: On-road handling; ride comfort; interior noise; fuel economy; cargo space; cabin security
Read our full 2021 Jeep Wrangler Review
The Wrangler isn’t really a competitor for any of the above midsize SUVs, and we definitely don’t recommend it as a family vehicle. In fact, we are quick to point out the Wrangler’s innumerable practical drawbacks: handling, ride comfort, interior noise, safety ratings, fuel economy, cargo space, windows that come undone with a zipper. … Basically, think long and hard about whether you can live with these drawbacks to what is otherwise a masterful off-roading SUV. Available in two- and four-door body styles, five engine options (including the plug-in hybrid 4xe and 470-horsepower Rubicon 392), multiple hard- and soft-top roof styles, and numerous trim levels and special style packages, there’s bound to be a Wrangler for everyone. Heck, there’s also the Jeep Gladiator pickup. Ultimately, we recommend the Wrangler because despite those many drawbacks, this latest generation is in fact far more refined and livable than past generations. A Honda Passport it isn’t, but it’s now unlikely to beat up your spine, blow out your ears and confuse your hands with spooky steering.
Why it stands out: More space and ground clearance than other midsize crossovers; fuel economy; easy-to-load roof racks
Could be better: The droning CVT; boring to drive; hyper-vigilant driver assistance tech
Read our full 2021 Subaru Outback Review and what you can expect from the new Outback Wilderness (pictured above)
You’re right, the Outback isn’t technically an SUV. But then, everything else on this list except the body-on-frame Wrangler, Tahoe and Expedition aren’t technically SUVs, either. They’re crossovers that feature car-like unibody construction — just like the Outback. And despite looking like a wagon, it has more ground clearance, more cargo capacity, more back seat space and better fuel economy than most other midsize crossovers. It’s a genuinely sensible and usable vehicle, especially for those who actually like to take their vehicles off the beaten path (versus those who just like to project the appearance of such weekend adventures). Throw in its abundance of safety and infotainment tech, standard all-wheel drive, solid reliability ratings and improved interior quality with its most recent redesign, and you have a vehicle that’s easy to recommend.
Why it stands out: More third-row and cargo space; well-executed tech; high-style interior
Could be better: No hybrid or performance version
Read our full 2021 Hyundai Palisade Review and follow updates on our long-term Palisade test
The Hyundai Palisade is mechanically related to the Kia Telluride, and choosing between this pair of masterfully executed family haulers could basically come down to a coin flip. Or, more realistically, which you think looks better. For its part, the Palisade has a more luxurious vibe, which is most obvious in its Limited (pictured above) and Calligraphy trim levels that could easily compete with actual luxury-brand SUVs. The main reason for this is the stylish, well-made cabin that not only looks great, but boasts useful storage, user-friendly infotainment tech and more space than nearly every competitor — bigger kids and even adults will be perfectly comfortable in the third row, and you can fit more stuff behind the raised third row. Hyundai’s driver assistance and safety tech is also among the best-executed in the industry. If there’s a major hole in its game, it’s the lack of a hybrid powertrain or a more powerful version.
Why it stands out: More third-row and cargo space; well-executed tech; well-made interior; doesn’t look like a family hauler
Could be better: No hybrid or performance version available
Read our full 2021 Kia Telluride Review
If you’ve already read the above description of the Hyundai Palisade, you’ve already been briefed about its mechanical commonalities with the Telluride and that they share the same fundamental strong points: space, technology, quality and value. They also do so to an extent that outpaces their competitors. Of the two, the Kia Telluride has received the greater share of accolades, largely because its styling seems to resonate with more people. Basically, style is the tie breaker. There’s more than a whiff of Range Rover to its blocky proportions and restrained detailing. Heck, “Telluride” is even written across the hood, much like a Range Rover would be. Basically, the Kia Telluride doesn’t look like a three-row family hauler despite being one of the best three-row family haulers. Win-win.
Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Why it stands out: Best fuel economy in its segment by many miles; high-end interior
Could be better: Cramped third-row seat; sluggish and simplistic infotainment
Read our full 2021 Toyota Highlander Review
The Telluride and Palisade might be excellent, class-leading three-row crossovers, but their fuel economy is simply average for the segment at 21 mpg combined. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid, on the other hand, gets 35 mpg combined. That difference is as massive as it seems. Besides the environmental benefits, you will save an average of $850 per year at the pump with the Highlander Hybrid, according to the EPA. When you consider it costs only $1,400 more than a comparable V6-powered Highlander, you’re looking at an incredibly quick payback time. True, it has only 243 horsepower, which means it’s on the slow side for the segment, but considering how most people drive their three-row family haulers, we think the 14-mpg advantage will more than make up for that. Besides its fuel economy, though, the recently redesigned Highlander is appealing in its own right with Palisade-rivaling interior quality, composed ride and handling, and ample feature content. If there’s reason for pause, it’s the rather cramped third-row seat. Toyota says its customers were content with the Highlander’s smaller-than-average size and therefore didn’t expand it greatly, but there’s no ignoring that most three-row midsize SUVs are bigger.
Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban and GMC Yukon
Why it stands out: Fuel-efficient diesel engine; more third-row space than most; luxurious interiors
Could be better: Many driver assistance features not available on lower trims
Read our full 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban Review plus our GMC Yukon Denali Review
The Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban have long been best-selling full-size SUVs, but those sales didn’t reflect its strength relative competitors. A switch to an independent rear suspension for the all-new generation for 2021 has radically transformed it, however. The third-row in the Tahoe and its GMC Yukon twin go from nearly uninhabitable to one of the biggest in any vehicle. Cargo space has ballooned, including in the extended length Suburban and Yukon XL, and the cargo floor is lower. The ride and handling have also been dramatically improved. Besides the suspension-related improvements, there’s a new diesel engine option that gets you crossover-like fuel economy, numerous new features and a best-in-class interior. The GMC Yukon even gets its own interior design for the first time, but it’s exclusive to the Denali trim level. Add it all up, and you get a full-size SUV family that we can now recommend.
Why it stands out: Silky smooth V6 with class-leading torque and fuel economy; best-in-class third-row space
Could be better: Same interior design as the F-150
Read our full 2021 Ford Expedition Review
Until the Tahoe was redesigned, recommending the Expedition was an easy choice. Now, the playing field has largely been leveled between the two, with the scales tilting toward the GM SUVs in terms of interior design and quality (the Expedition is just an F-150), infotainment features, and the available diesel engine. The Ford still has the biggest, most comfortable third-row seat, though, plus the piece de resistance: its silky smooth 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 that produces 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque (and it goes up to 400 hp and 480 lb-ft in the Platinum). Besides that being class-leading torque, it’s horsepower also blows away most competitors, including GM’s 5.3-liter V8 found in most trim levels. In other words, just because it’s been around a while doesn’t mean you should ignore it.