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Published: Apr 21, 2023 7 min read
Illustration of an SUV in the spotlight
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Subcompact SUVs blend the utility — if not the spaciousness — of a midsize SUV with the handling of a small car. These pint-sized SUVs are fuel efficient - making them popular with first-time buyers – and easy to maneuver in tight spaces, which gives them appeal to empty nesters and city drivers. In short, they offer versatility at some of the lowest prices on the new-car market.

We used a step-by-step methodology to compare the subcompact SUVs on the market, considering such factors as value for money, safety and performance. Below are our five top choices and how each stands out from the pack. The specs we list in bullets below each review are for the model or “trim level” we assessed, which was the one we judged as having the best combination of features and price.

Our Top Picks in Subcompact SUVs

Nissan Kicks — Best Overall and Best Value
Hyundai Kona — Best for Features
Volkswagen Taos — Best for Handling
Mazda CX-30 — Best for Safety
Buick Encore GX — Best for Technology

Reviews of the Best Subcompact SUVs

Best Overall and Best Value: Nissan Kicks

Courtesy of Nissan
  • Inexpensive, even for this category
  • The most fuel-efficient of this group
  • Lower in power than many competitors

The Nissan Kicks packs a lot of features into its tiny frame, proving that affordable doesn’t have to mean sparse. Pricing for the Kick's most popular trim – the mid-tier SV – starts at $22,150. All models come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The SV trim adds a larger, 8-inch screen and safety features not normally found on a car at this price point, including intelligent cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert and a forward-collision warning.

Despite its small size, this subcompact SUV provides ample room for adult passengers. And with 25.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear seats, the Kicks has more space than the Mazda CX-30, the smallest among our other picks.

The Kicks does lack a little kick, though, being less powerful than all other picks in the category. The 122-horsepower engine will get you where you want to go — it’ll just take a little longer doing so than its competitors.

Best for Features: Hyundai Kona

Courtesy of Hyundai
  • Loaded with safety enhancements and other features
  • Punchy ride
  • Less cargo space than competitors
  • Headlights could be better

The Hyundai Kona’s base model comes loaded with advanced safety features such as blind-spot collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic avoidance assist and a driver-attention warning. Indeed, only the Kona's ho-hum headlights prevent it from being our safety pick as well. Upgrading one trim level from the base model to the SEL trim gets you power-adjustable seats and optional amenities including heated front seats, wireless device charging and a 10.25-inch touch screen.

The Kona delivers a peppy ride via a 147-horsepower engine and, like others in this category, its small size makes it easy to maneuver in tight parking spots. However, it has less cargo space than our other picks — and than most other subcompact SUVs on the market.

Best for Handling: Volkswagen Taos

Courtesy of Volkswagen
  • Sporty ride
  • Lots of room, both interior and cargo
  • Bare-bones design

The Volkswagen Taos stands out among subcompact SUVs for its lively ride. Equipped with a 158-horsepower turbo-four engine — powerful for the category — the Taos accelerates quickly and remains composed around corners.

Inside, this Volkswagen feels well-constructed, yet it lacks the design flourishes found in competitors like the Buick Encore GX or Mazda CX-30. It makes up for its lack of style with a roomy cabin and the most cargo space of this group.

The SE trim has heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and wireless charging. The SE also upgrades to an 8-inch infotainment touch screen, compared with the base model’s smaller (and likely too small for many) 6.5-inch screen.

Best for Safety: Mazda CX-30

Courtesy of Mazda
  • Outstanding headlights
  • Many driver-assistance features
  • Dynamic handling
  • Tight rear seating
  • Small cargo hold

The Mazda CX-30 is a solid, if somewhat pricey, pick in the subcompact SUV segment; its distinctions include a sporty ride, a stylish cabin and top-of-the-category safety considerations. Named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the CX-30 received high ratings for its headlight safety, which is crucial for nighttime visibility. The mid-grade Premium trim comes with a slate of driver-assistance features, too, including blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive front lighting.

The Premium trim also adds leather-trimmed sport seats, heated in the front, to create a luxury feel. The front row offers plenty of room, but taller passengers may feel cramped in the rear. The CX-30 has one of the smallest cargo capacities of its segment – 20.2 cubic feet.

Best for Technology: Buick Encore GX

Courtesy of Buick
  • User-friendly infotainment system
  • Upscale interior
  • Not a top choice if cargo space is a priority

The Buick Encore GX stands out for its easy-to-use Buick Infotainment System. The subcompact SUV also comes with the wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and an 8-inch touch screen. The Select trim adds premium upholstery and heated front seats.

The Encore GX earned top honors in this segment for having the fewest owner complaints, according to J.D. Power’s most recent Initial Quality Study. Indeed, Buick as a whole is the highest-ranking brand for overall initial quality, according to J.D. Power, with the fewest number of reported complaints of any brand.

While the GX provides 23.5 cubic feet of space behind its rear seats, giving you plenty of room to cart even a large grocery haul, it’s not the most capacious of our picks for cargo capacity. Look to the Volkswagen Taos (27.9 cubic feet) or Nissan Kicks (25.3 cubic feet) if you need more space.

Jaclyn Trop is an award-winning journalist who road-tests and reviews vehicles and covers automotive news. Her byline has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Fortune, Consumer Reports and U.S. News & World Report, among other publications.