By Tom Burkart
Compact crossovers are a miracle for buyers. They’re the perfect intro to the taller ride heights and big cargo room of proper SUVs, but they’re cheap to buy. With four-cylinder engines, FWD as standard, and road-friendly aerodynamics, the ten CUVs (crossover utility vehicles) on this list are also very cheap to own.
As cheap as a compact car? Not quite. But the premium is usually only a few thousand bucks. That’s easy to justify with any larger machine, and the bonus of not driving a sad little subcompact (think Kia Rio or Nissan Versa) is certainly worth a bump in payments for many shoppers.
A final incentive that’s helping the compact crossover biz explode on the sales charts? These mini trucks have, generally speaking, better resale values than their car siblings. This makes them much cheaper to lease than a sedan or coupe costing the same mid-20s price.
So let’s say you’re among the millions considering a city-sized SUV. Which look the coolest, drive the best, and have the best tech for 2017?
We’ve put together a thorough ranking of the CUV landscape, and where our dollars would go. Priorities like style, space, or brand preferences aside, all these are solid choices to avoid the tiny-car blues.
10. 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
The Outlander Sport is revised for the 2017 and 2018 model-years, but the 2018 facelift seems like the best recommendation. The exterior freshening includes new LED daytime running lights in a vertical arrangement beside the front grille.
Photos courtesy of Car-Revs-Daily.com
This new look for the face of Outlander Sport takes a nice 3D twist to the previous chrome nose. And extends the look deep into the bumper for an Audi-esque single frame grille.
The rest of the Outlander Sport’s plucky design still feels fresh even a few years since its arrival. Outlander Sport might be the most affordable on this list – but isn’t short of speed or AWD grip versus its rivals. A solid recommendation for SUV practicality in a tight size, at a low price.
9. 2018 Subaru Crosstrek
The Crosstrek also might have ranked higher if this 2018 redesign arrived sooner. As it is, the new-look model is a huge upgrade over the 2017 cars. Visually, Crosstrek still wears big plastic fender flares, a high 8.7-inch level of ground clearance, and a tall cargo rack. This becomes the style of the machine that’s the only with standard (and excellent!) AWD despite being based on the Impreza five-door.
Crosstrek ranks extra high for those in the mountains and very snowy climates. The 50/50 torque split in the Crosstrek provides massively more traction than the part-time systems in the others on this list.
We also love Crosstrek for its surprisingly huge and comfortable backseat, upgraded tech/touchscreens for 2018 and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Crosstrek comes standard with an awesome five-speed manual or the creamy Shift-tronic CVT automatic. Highway mileage of 33 is very good for the 2017 models and may improve on the 2018’s when they arrive in mid-summer.
8. 2017 Kia Niro
The Kia Niro is brand new on the market as a low-roof, low-sling compact crossover. Niro takes a different approach versus the coupe-like rooflines of the HR-V Honda, C-HR Toyota or CX-3 Mazda.
Instead of a low roof in back, Niro has a low floor and lower seating to keep the backseat headroom intact. A wagon-like smoothness in profile actually hides available AWD and Hybrid drive options.
No other manufacturers have a compact Hybrid crossover – and this one is state-of-the-art. For Uber drivers or city warriors doing big miles, the +10 MPG of the hybrid will pay for itself.
7. 2017 Chevrolet Trax
The Trax is a favorite for being so easy. Easy on the eyes for this all-new look in 2017, and also easy to master. The new touchscreens are rapid and high-res, while active safety features galore are now on the options list. The new Trax is actually fresh
A new nose for 2017 adds the latest Chevy face and respectably premium LED lights outside. This new generation keeps the previous Trax assets of a big backseat and roomy cabin all around. It aims to be smoother and quieter, but not faster or more efficient.
Trax sticks to its 1.4-liter turbo and six-speed conventional automatic. This versus the many CVTs in the compact car market. Real gears use more fuel but are more satisfying to drive.
6. 2017 Honda HR-V
Perfect case in point? The Honda HR-V. This pocket SUV is much smaller than it looks in photos. It’s really a big size tighter than CR-V and loses much of the backseat space of the CR-V or the Fit wagon.
We’re fine with that. Plenty of room for dogs, backpacks and infrequent passengers.
The exterior design makes for a racy, fastback shape with hidden rear door handles. A crisp diagonal beltline rising from the nose to the back doors is chic and sexy to look at.
Our concern with HR-V comes from its lack of LED lighting outside and pretty un-fun drive mood. The Honda struggles to crack 10 seconds to 60-MPH and feels pretty pokey versus some rivals. A six-speed manual and AWD are each offered as options. Until a turbo from the latest-gen Hondas joins the HR-V range, however, this is a car for cruisers over speed demons.
5. 2017 Fiat 500X
The Fiat 500X is a CUV that far more people should consider. Its rounded and Euro-chic exterior styling actually hides a premium cabin and drive experience that’s a bit sportier than the Jeep Renegade, with which the 500X shares its platform.
Even with shared engines versus the Jeep, the 500X somehow has much better steering feel and precision. It also feels slightly quicker thanks to a Sport drive mode the Renegade lacks.
For those willing to trade some off-road ability, and some cargo flexibility, the 500X is a great choice. Its excellent cabin and drive position help the 500X drive like a car costing $10,000 more – and wearing a German badge.
4. 2017 Toyota C-HR
The C-HR is downright wacky the first time you see it. It’s a racy expression of an SUV coupe – and one teased by numerous large-wheeled Scion concept cars. The result is a low-roof, hidden-door wonder that’s almost as wide as the RAV4 but barely taller than a Prius.
Expressive curves and rounded hood details confirm C-HR isn’t for everybody. But for those who love its low-slung coolness, the C-HR is right on the style money for 2017 and beyond.
Adding to its designer cache? A few contrast-color roof choices to reinforce the MINI Cooper-inspired uniqueness of this new Toyota.
Of course, with any Toyota you get excellent resale, dependability and build quality. At a price barely higher than the Corolla sedan, C-HR makes perfect sense in the range.
3. 2017 Nissan Rogue Sport
Rogue Sport is brand new on the scene and hits dealers in mid-May 2017 as a 2017 model. A late arrival, perhaps, versus the 2018 change in September does nothing to dull Rogue Sport’s impact.
This is a machine that will sell like crazy from day one. Why?
Leveraging the width and friendly drive manners of the Rogue 7-seater in a shorter, cheaper package.
Nissan has unique design elements all over Rogue Sport versus its big brother, but they’re near clones from front and rear. In profile, Rogue Sport has more muscular metal surfacing and a much tighter glasshouse. The rear door glass basically meets the tail edge of the roof – confirming you’re cool and don’t need a seven-seater yet.
2. 2017 Jeep Renegade
The Renegade is the second rung available from Jeep since the relaunch of the new Compass subcompact. Renegade makes it to the top of this list not by a sexy, chopped roof. But by embracing the iconic Jeep blockiness, squared lines and functional off-road elements of the designs.
But this time, in a worldly package that’s build in Italy, has an extremely modern drivetrain and is seriously practical. That square roof means headroom and cargo space in back are class-leaders.
Renegade also brings a form of locking differential and off-road modes. Its ground clearance, meaty tires and Trailhawk trim level is begging for some time in the dirt. Unlike all the others on this list, Renegade will not be stuck instantly.
Fun details like Jeep emblems throughout the cabin are a treat. The removable roof panels are extra cool and not available on any others here.
1. 2017 Mazda CX-3
The CX-3 races to first place by being so cool! Here is a machine that actually looks like its worth twice its price on the roads. How?
Sexy design details like the low, long hood and vertical grille set the tone nicely. A great stance and big wheels confirm sportiness, while the slashed roofline makes clear this is no CX-5.
CX-3 is a great insider’s secret that has posh-BMW levels of LEDs all around, a premium cabin with sporty drive position, and quality that feels very premium indeed at these mid-20s loaded prices.
The CX-3 does not just look sporty, but actually drives exceptionally well too. The CX-3 has firm, feelsome steering and great grip up front. A willing Sport mode and available AWD make the great drive experience even better.
Is the backseat big? No, it’s not. But is the CX-3’s premium, designer feel – at mainstream prices – a class-best? Oh yes.