Best Small SUV | Testing (almost) Every Compact SUV

Kyle Patrick
by Kyle Patrick

Welcome to the single most important comparison we will have all year. The AutoGuide 2022 Best Small SUV Comparison sponsored by NRS Brakes.

The average family car these days isn’t even a car at all anymore. Compact SUVs are the sweet spot these days, selling thousands of examples every single day in Canada and the United States. So we’ve assembled 11 of them, from all corners of the market, to figure out which one is best. Yes, eleven. Go big or go home, they say. It’s time for AutoGuide 2022 Best Small SUV Comparison.

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This group covers all the big hitters, including the segment-leading Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Mazda sent us two SUVs, in the shapes of the subtly different CX-5 and CX-50. More rugged options like the Ford Bronco Sport and Jeep Compass are here, too. Amongst the pack are of course a few hybrids as well. If you’re shopping this part of the market, at least a few of these SUVs will be on your short list.

Need a better illustration of how important these compact SUVs are? Just these 11 models accounted for over 20 percent of US car sales in 2021. Most of them are their respective brands best-sellers, and four of the brands involved don’t even have a mid-sized sedan in the ranks anymore.

Which compact SUV rules the roost? Managing editor Mike Schlee, contributor Lee Bailey, and yours truly spent a week finding out. Below you’ll find most of the pack in no particular order, followed by the podium finishers, and then the winner.

Jeep Compass – Great Interior, Worst Engine

Words: Kyle Patrick

They say you can’t appreciate the sweet in life without the sour. Jeep evidently heard the talk, because the Compass Trailhawk is a tale of extremes. With a significant facelift for 2022, the second-smallest Jeep impressed and frustrated in equal measure, scoring some of the highest and lowest marks in this comparison.

Let’s start with the positives. The interior updates are a hit, especially the addition of a big, bright Uconnect 5 infotainment screen. The Jeep easily has the best setup of the whole group, as easy to use as it is to look at. This is one of the few to offer wireless phone mirroring, not to mention user profiles.

The redone interior also earns its fair share of praise, cleanly styled and with better materials than before. There are some hard plastics still, but they’re relegated to lower, out-of-sight panels.

Despite its diminutive size, the Compass has a more comfortable on-road ride than the BroSpo or CX-50. It handles bumps well, with the chunky 17-inch tires soaking up the worst of the roughness. There’s a reasonable amount of weight and resistance in the steering wheel too, which breeds driver confidence.

While we stuck to the tarmac for this test, the Compass’ 8.6 inches of ground clearance, not to mention the Trail Rated badge on the sides, tells us it should be more than up to the task of the occasional cottage road.

SEE ALSO: Jeep Cherokee vs Compass: Which Crossover is Right For You?

That dynamic goodness is mostly undone by the worst engine in the group. The 2.4-liter “Tiger Shark” engine is more of a minnow, spitting out just 177 horsepower and 172 lb-ft. The four-pot needs the snot revved out of it to make decent progress, but the nine-speed auto has four, YES FOUR, overdrive gears, so it’s not much help.

The small size also translates to a tight rear seat. On paper it’s no worse than the Ford, but in practice, the tallest and smallest production crew members felt more comfortable in just about anything else. There’s comparatively little storage space, too.

Even as the smallest, least-powerful choice of the lot, the Compass Trailhawk lists for more than average. Admittedly, you do get a lot of kit with that, like ventilated front seats and the customizable digital instrument panel. You also get an entirely too aggressive front collision warning, which regularly activated during typical rush-hour traffic.

With a different drivetrain, the Compass’ quirks would be easier to accept. As is, it’s simply too compromised to be in serious contention for the crown.

Volkswagen Tiguan – Unique Utility

Words: Lee Bailie

Despite its mid-pack finish in our test, the Volkswagen Tiguan posts decent scores in most categories, including drivetrain, ride comfort, handling, and braking. It’s not the highest finisher in any of these, but its scores are in the upper half. Same goes for front seat comfort and cargo carrying capacity. The Tiguan also benefits from a 2022 model year freshening, which adds a new front fascia, updated headlight and taillight designs, along with a redesigned console and center stack.

As for the drive, the 2.0-liter turbo and eight-speed automatic hustles the Tiguan along quite impressively. With 221 lb-ft. of torque at the ready, the Tiguan is one of the friskiest in the competition from rest, despite feeling less quick at speed. As mentioned, its handling and braking scores are not exceptional, but are still quite good.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Volkswagen Tiguan First Drive Review: Refinement is the Name of the Game

The only categories where the Tiguan really suffers are in rear seat comfort, where it finished second last ahead of the Compass, and fuel economy where it ranks just ahead of the last place Bronco Sport.

To sum it up, the Tiguan’s placing reflects the depth of competition within the category. It’s a good car, but when the field is this deep, good will only get you so far.

Toyota RAV4 Hybrid – Undeniable Value

Words: Mike Schlee

Toyota played the value game here, entering a mid-trim SE Hybrid RAV4 in this comparison. The incredibly efficient compact SUV is rated at 40 mpg combined; a number no other vehicle can touch in terms of fuel economy. Not even the Hyundai Tucson Plug-in Hybrid is rated that high once its all electric range is depleted.

But Toyota sees the RAV4 Hybrid as more than just an efficiency champion. The brand considers it a performance upgrade as well. Producing a combined 219 hp from the 2.5-liter engine and electric motors, there’s a combined 219 hp available. It’s quite responsive and we were shocked by how much top end power it has. Even at highway speeds, it just keeps accelerating.

Toyota has been at the hybrid game a long time and the brand has really nailed the formula. And for a reasonable price too. The cost to upgrade to the gas/electric powertrain isn’t all that steep anymore. As tested, the RAV4 Hybrid SE AWD is the second least expensive vehicle in the comparison.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid SE Review: Hooked on a Feeling

So why isn’t it the top three? Simply put, compromises. To make it so affordable, money had to be saved elsewhere. This is the least equipped vehicle here, and the interior leaves a bit to be desired in both terms of design and material quality. The center screen is a particular sore spot, not meshing with the rest of the interior.

Hurting it more, the front cloth front seats got the lowest marks for overall comfort, and the chassis is neither the most responsive nor the most comfortable.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the value proposition here. Especial for those that place higher importance on fuel economy and pricing above all else. And then there’s Toyota’s excellent track record of reliability. Just be prepared to make a few sacrifices elsewhere.

Mazda CX-50 – Belle of the Ball

Words: Kyle Patrick

The compact SUV segment is so enormous that now brands are starting to offer numerous options to clamoring customers. Take the Mazda CX-50 here, the second, slightly larger offering from the former Zoom-Zoom brand.

The CX-50 is ostensibly Mazda’s Outback: longer, lower, and wider than the upright CX-5, with a stronger focus on off-road ruggedness. And dang does it look great. The Mazda was far and away our fave from a design perspective, scoring top marks in exterior styling, and staying near the front for interior design, too. We don’t love the CX-50’s blockier dashboard quite as much as the stylish CX-5’s, but it’s still a classy joint to spend time in.

Another CX-50 strength is the turbocharged powertrain. With a whopping (and comparison-topping) 320 lb-ft when drinking the premium stuff, the CX-50 is effortlessly quick. The Tucson and Sportage can keep pace with it on the way to highway speeds, but the Mazda retains the edge should you need to pass. All that power is paired to a clever AWD system and a chassis that can be genuinely entertaining, should your mood call for it.

SEE ALSO: 2023 Mazda CX-50 First Drive Review: Destination Outback

That’s where the CX-50 starts to lose points, however. While it’s the most fun to drive, the stiff suspension and low-profile tires make the ride busy around town. In fact, the CX-50 had the worst ride comfort score from our judges. For family-oriented vehicles, that’s kind of a big deal.

It’s also the second-priciest SUV here, only undercutting the Tucson plug-in hybrid. This top-trim tester does include niceties like ventilated front seats, a 360-degree camera, and head-up display. Yet it still misses out on features like the Rogue’s tri-zone climate control, or a fully digital instrument panel. Not to mention Mazda’s frustrating infotainment, which is slow to respond and still not touchscreen. Well, unless you’re using the now-wireless Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. And the car’s stationary, during a full moon, on the third Wednesday of the month, during the summer solstice… You get the idea.

The CX-50 is a desirable, fun-to-drive SUV with the active lifestyle look marketing departments fawn over. It’s very cool, but the CX-5 is the more well-rounded option.

Honda CR-V – The Last Hurrah

Words: Lee Bailie

Due in large measure to its age, the CR-V really struggles to keep up with newer competitors in the segment. This reality is reflected in our test, where it has trouble keeping up with the front runners.

The current CR-V dates to 2016, and while it was face-lifted for 2020, it still brings up the rear in handling, front seat comfort, exterior styling, and interior styling. Its powertrain and ride comfort don’t rate highly either, although its cargo carry capacity is second only to the Tucson.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda CR-V Review: A Cross For The Weekend?

Power delivery from the 1.5-liter turbo four cylinder is adequate, but the CVT feels vague and rubber-bandy, often making it difficult for engine revs to find their level. Its handling feels mushy, and it gets bounced around considerably on cracked and bumpy tarmac.

It doesn’t get better in the cabin either, where the CR-V sports a dated, plasticky aesthetic that looks and feels old. Trim materials, layout and finishes all need a major overhaul, which the all-new sixth gen model, due out later this fall, should address. In the meantime, however, the CR-V in its current form is no longer a segment leader.

Subaru Forester – Unchanged Familiarity

Words: Mike Schlee

If sticking to the status quo was an Olympic sport, the Subaru Forester would be a multi-time gold medalist. Not much ever changes with the Forester it seems. Even the general exterior appearance, although tweaked here and there, still looks like it did 15 years ago.

Maybe though, that’s the point. The Forester continues to be a sales success for Subaru and many customers are repeat buyers. Why mess with a formula that works?

The uninspiring boxy shape leads to terrific sightlines all around and a greenhouse unmatched by any competitor. It’s also a factor in the rear seats being rated the most comfortable overall for passengers of various heights.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Subaru Forester Wilderness Review: First Drive

And while on the topic of comfort, the Forester’s long travel suspension ranks second best in terms of overall ride quality, just trailing the Nissan Rogue. Our fully loaded Touring trim is one of the better equipped entries, and the materials used on the interior are good quality.

But that’s the Forester’s main problem. It does many things good, but not many things great. It kept scoring just above average in multiple categories, never really setting itself apart. Except for the drivetrain that is. There it ranks second worse, just beating the Jeep Compass. It’s noisy under hard acceleration and lacks the power, refinement and efficiency when compared to the likes of the Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and Kia Sportage Hybrid.

If Subaru was willing to significantly overhaul the drivetrain with a small, turbocharged engine, or better yet, an advanced hybrid system, the Forester would be knocking on the door of the top three.

Ford Bronco Sport – Safari Style

Words: Kyle Patrick

If this were a sports car comparison, the Bronco Sport would be the Lotus Elise of the bunch. Maybe a Caterham Seven. Realistically, it was never going to win, being too focused on one aspect of the driving experience; in this case, off-roading. But it serves as an important measuring stick of what’s possible in this class.

Not to mention it just looks cool. Yeah, the big boy Bronco is even cooler, but Ford did a good thing with the retro, rectilinear styling here. Boxy is in, and the BroSpo merges that silhouette with a friendly face.

Don’t let those unassuming looks fool you: the Bronco Sport is one of the quickest SUVs here. Ford’s torquey 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder puts down big numbers, to the tune of 250 hp and 275 lb-ft, all funneled through a well-mannered eight-speed automatic transmission.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Ford Bronco Sport Review: Full of Bucking Character

That mission of recreating the old-school SUV experience does present some challenges. The wide-angle view out over the hood, and the clean sightlines? All good. The noticeable body lean in corners, constant hum from the tires, and somewhat vague steering? Less so. Sacrifices you’ll have to make for the off-road life.

The BroSpo interior could best be described as “business like.” Some of the plastics are tough, but that works with the vibe the Ford is putting out into the world. The seats in this top-trim model feel good and are quite comfortable. Second-row riders don’t miss out either, since the two-step roof offers up plenty of headroom.

Pricing hurts the Bronco Sport, too. It’s one of the spendiest models here, but other than a front-facing camera, it doesn’t have many standout features. It’s the only one missing a power liftgate, for instance. You’re paying for the looks and the drivetrain here, and if you spend more time off the pavement than the typical compact SUV buyer, that might be enough to sway you to the BroSpo’s charms.

Mazda CX-5 – Family Fun

Words: Lee Bailie

Like the CR-V, the current second gen Mazda CX-5 is getting a bit on in years (all-new for 2017), but unlike the Honda, this Mazda’s age isn’t as apparent. For 2022, the CX-5 receives some facelifting which includes new headlights and taillights among other changes.

The CX-5 posts a strong showing in our test, where its handling, braking and interior and exterior styling earn high marks. In fact, it ranked first in both interior styling and material quality. Across its lineup, Mazda interiors have been trending up-market in recent years, and the CX-5 cabin is no exception.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Mazda CX-5 Review: For Those Who Think Young

On the road, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic may not make for the slickest powertrain or the most powerful, but the combination hustles the CX-5 along just fine and with planted, responsive handling and braking.

So where did the CX-5 fall short? For one, the mid-grade Carbon Edition we tested isn’t bare bones, but it is a little light on included features, a category in which it finished second last ahead of only the RAV4. Its sleek styling also comes at a cost of cargo carrying capacity and rear seat comfort where its confines are a bit cramped.

2022 Compact SUV Comparison 3rd Place

Nissan Rogue – Comfort Champion

Words: Mike Schlee

In some major league sports, an award is given out at the end of the year for the most improved player. If we were to give out such an award for 2022 in the world automobiles, the Nissan Rogue would be our pick. From a forgotten player among compact SUVs, the recently reinvented Rogue is now a front-runner, as can be seen by its third-place podium finish in our comparison. It is also the highest placing pure-gasoline powered vehicle.

It’s obvious Nissan spent a lot of time working out the details with the current generation of Rogue. During the comparison, it never placed last or second last in any of the categories we used to evaluate the SUVs. Only one other vehicle achieved that feat and it’s the one that is the overall winner.

The Rogue excels at comfort, scoring top marks in overall ride comfort and placing second behind the Subaru Forester for rear seat comfort. Other standouts are the quality interior materials and the sheer number of features that are equipped. There’s tri-zone climate control, a power operated passenger seat, and a fully programable digital gauge cluster.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Nissan Rogue Platinum AWD Review: Small Family, Values

The real secret to the Rogue’s success though, lies under the hood. The 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder engine makes over 200 hp yet is rated for a combined 31 mpg. That is easily the best power to efficiency ratio out of any of the pure-gasoline powered SUVs we have on hand, although it still falls short in both regards to the hybrids.

Another plus for the Rogue is the conservative, yet attractive styling inside and out. If the two entrants from Kia and Hyundai are a bit too wild and brash for your liking, this Nissan is the perfect counterpoint. It just happens to be a terrific compact SUV as well.

2022 Compact SUV Comparison 2nd Place

Hyundai Tucson Plug-In – Space-Age Spaciousness

Words: Lee Bailie

Finishing second in our test is the Tucson PHEV, a vehicle which impresses in its all-around capability. Its 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder and electric motor / battery pack combo delivers a combined 261 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. making it among the most powerful in the test. It feels like it on the road, where its power and tight handling put it near the top of the class. It tied the Mazda CX-50 for second in drivetrain performance, came in third overall in handling, and tied the Forester for second in ride comfort.

We weren’t as impressed with the look of the Tucson’s somewhat plasticky interior, but it ranks second in front seat comfort and third in included features.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Hyundai Tucson Hybrid Review: Stylin’ On You

Among these are heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, eight-way power driver’s seat, Bose premium audio with eight speakers, dual front and rear USB ports, wireless phone charge pad, 19-inch alloy wheels and a lot more.

The Tucson also tied for first in safety and is second only to the RAV4 Hybrid in fuel economy. The only category where the Hyundai got whacked was in pricing, where its $44,495 ($48,424 CAD) as tested MSRP is the highest in the test.

2022 Compact SUV Comparison Winner

Kia Sportage Hybrid – Does It All

Words: Kyle Patrick

Kia has straight-up Moneyball’d the compact SUV segment. The 2023 Kia Sportage, specifically in regular hybrid guise, is a stats champ, consistently placing at the top end of the field in objective measures like space, fuel economy, and price. More than that, the Sportage brings plenty of clever, feel-good features to the segment, making it the top choice in a hyper-competitive class.

It starts with the N3 platform, a longer, wider foundation shared with the Hyundai Tucson. The new platform gives the Sportage a smooth and quiet ride, insulating passengers from road and wind noise. That said, the Sportage is one of the better-handling cars in the test too, with our judges ranking it just behind the Mazdas and VW.

That sort of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too goodness applies to the Kia’s excellent hybrid powertrain. The 1.6-liter turbo-four and electric motor combine for an above-average 227 horsepower, plus a thick slug of instant-access torque right down low. The result is a car that feels on pace with the quickest cars in the group, yet also posts the second-best fuel economy figures of the whole pack.

SEE ALSO: 2 023 Kia Sportage First Drive Review: Whatchu Lookin’ At?

We all gave the Sportage high marks for its modern, spacious interior. The curved, twin-screen setup wows, and while the swappable climate/audio control panel is confusing at first, at least it has physical rotary knobs. Front seat comfort levels are high, the infotainment is easy to use, and visibility is good. The rear seat experience is mid-pack, but the Sportage earns bonus points for its smart USB-C ports, located on the front seat backs for easier access.

Best of all, this stylish SUV doesn’t break the bank. As tested, the Sportage Hybrid ranked fifth in list price. That’s more than fair for one of the most well-equipped models here: this tester came equipped with Kia’s full battery of driver assists, a 360-degree camera, heated seats (plus ventilated fronts), and more.

Wrap it all up, and the results are clear. The winner of the AutoGuide 2022 Best Small SUV Comparison is the 2023 Kia Sportage.

AutoGuide 2022 Best Small SUV Comparison Gallery

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Kyle Patrick
Kyle Patrick

Kyle began his automotive obsession before he even started school, courtesy of a remote control Porsche and various LEGO sets. He later studied advertising and graphic design at Humber College, which led him to writing about cars (both real and digital). He is now a proud member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), where he was the Journalist of the Year runner-up for 2021.

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