The UK car market is awash with high-riding SUVs that are spacious yet decent to drive when the occasion arises. Find out which make our top 10 list
The UK and mainland Europe have something of a soft spot for SUVs. The segment has been growing steadily for years, but it has really taken off more recently.
Manufacturers from across the spectrum have launched their own take on these high-riding, family-orientated cars, giving buyers more choice than ever before.
The ones listed here are just below average on the size chart but are the most popular. Some even represent the best-selling SUV model for that particular brand, while a couple are even semi-permanent fixtures in the sales chart top 10.
Customers expect Tardis-like space and premium-brand quality on the inside, as well as a commanding driving position and the compactness of an average family car to help keep palms dry in town and on narrow lanes. They also want the sort of reasonable running costs that are usually at odds with these bluff-fronted machines.
Here are our favourites.
Land Rover has seized the critical lead of the most important market segment in which it now plays with the second-generation Range Rover Evoque.
Based on an all-new mixed-material platform, the car has adopted mild-hybrid engines and sits on a longer wheelbase than its predecessor for improved interior space without having grown significantly in any outward dimension. The Evoque derivative range has also recently gained an important plug-in hybrid entry, the Evoque P300e, which squeezes into the UK’s 12% benefit-in-kind company car tax band.
The car has taken big leaps forward on mechanical refinement, interior space, luxury ambience and technological allure. While it isn’t the most practical car of its kind, it’s very competitive on that score, with plenty of room for adults in the second row – albeit behind a fairly high window line that restricts visibility a bit.
The D200 diesel engine is the best pick, providing strong drivability and better refinement than we’re used to from Land Rover’s four-cylinder diesels. The P300e model is also seriously impressive, with an exceptionally slick plug-in hybrid powertrain, strong electric range and engaging handling.
Having rather come of age as a Range Rover, the Evoque now represents as luxurious-feeling a car as it’s possible to buy in this class – and that will help justify what’s a fairly high price to a great many buyers.
2. Volvo XC40
Volvo’s first attempt at a compact sibling for its established XC60 and XC90 SUVs is a real success, and in the XC40, the Swedish marque has given us a car with the sort of instant kerbside appeal you’d expect of the class-leading act that it very recently still was.
With a design sufficiently charismatic and alluring to bring younger family buyers into Volvo showrooms, the XC40 backs up its funky exterior with a cabin of laudable richness, comfort, usability and quality. While this isn’t the most practical car in the compact SUV class, it certainly has plenty of luxury car ambience, not to mention all the in-car technology you’d hope for.
The engine range has been recently revised, with all diesel derivatives withdrawn. There’s now a choice of two plug-in hybrid models, a couple of mild-hybrid petrols, an entry-level T2 and a T3 petrol and the fully electric Recharge version, which is available in 228bhp single-motor and 402bhp dual-motor guises – the former switching from a front motor, front-wheel drive layout to a rear-mounted motor and rear-wheel drive for 2023.
The XC40’s ride and handling represent Volvo at its best and the small family 4×4 at its most relaxing. Rather than chasing other premium brands for driver appeal, the XC40 is happy to play the comfortable, refined, convenient and easy-to-use option – and it’s an effective one. If an SUV’s mission is to lift its driver above the hustle and bustle and filter out the pain from the daily grind, few do it better.
3. Mazda CX-5
This is easily one of the best-looking SUVs on the market and is objectively much more refined than its predecessor, with respectable fuel economy and an unusual level of handling verve for this class.
The CX-5’s interior is solid and quietly stylish, and it offers plenty of passenger and boot space. A 2021 facelift introduces Mazda’s latest infotainment system, along with a new range-topping 2.5-litre petrol engine that previously appeared in the Mazda 6 saloon. Although it’s now a bit older than some of the other entrants on this list, the CX-5 hasn’t lost any of the handling pep that has made it one of our favourite compact SUVs.
Of the engines it’s the unfashionable 2.2-litre diesel that’s the pick, its blend of mid-range brawn and decent efficiency making it well suited to the CX-5’s SUV remit. The petrols are a little smoother, but with no forced induction they all feel a little overwhelmed by the Mazda’s rather bulky frame, requiring plenty of revs for lively progress.
The CX-5 offers a healthy mix of fun, frugality and family-friendly space, so it deserves serious consideration from buyers who want a car that does a little bit of everything.
The arrival of the fourth-generation Tucson was something of a watershed moment for Hyundai. Stylistically, it’s a drastic departure from its handsome but slightly dull predecessors, and its cabin reaches new heights in terms of material appeal, too. Hyundai has long been trying to rebrand itself as an upmarket contender in Europe, and the Tucson is its most convincing effort yet.
Dynamically, it plays things pretty safe, with a handling balance that prioritises ease of use over out-and-out dynamism, but it’s still enjoyable enough to pedal down a twisty road. Its hybrid powertrain offers strong performance and impressive efficiency, and – being a Hyundai – it comes incredibly well equipped and backed by a cast-iron warranty.
More so than ever before, this is an impressively polished compact SUV that’s absolutely worthy of your attention.
5. BMW X1
Like all of us, the BMW X1 has been getting larger as it gets older. In fact, the latest third generation version of the small SUV that debuted in 2022 is now only a biscuit shorter than the original X3 – a car that’s theoretically in the class above. Still, this swelling in size is good news for those with growing families, because it means you can fit more people and things inside.
Built on the same UKL platform as the 2 Series Active Tourer, the X1 gets a wide range of engines, from mild hybrid-assisted petrols and diesels through to a pair of plug-ins and even an all-electric iX1 complete with a handy claimed range of 272 miles. Regardless of motive force, the BMW is a composed and capable steer but perhaps not the very embodiment of the ‘ultimate driving machine’ that the brands marketeers would have you believe. There’s decent grip and body, but the accurate steering is largely mute and it can’t match the lithe agility of the simularly priced 3 Series Touring.
Still, for most buyers ease-of-use is more important – and it’s here the X1 scores well. It’s a doddle to drive and refined, while the interior is spacious and nearly designed with handy features such as a sliding rear bench and usefully-sized boot. The fit and finish is also a cut above, with the use top notch materials, slick styling and a infotainment system that looks good and is fairly painless to use.
Right up until the end of its lifecycle, the old Qashqai stayed doggedly at the sharp end of the sales charts in this class, and so with its new, lighter chassis, more commodious dimensions, and much-improved dynamics, you’d expect this new third-generation model to hit the ground running.
And for the most part, it does. There’s little here for keen drivers, and both the 1.3-litre petrol mild-hybrid and novel ‘self-charging’ e-power range-extender-style hybrid are a little breathless, but what did you expect? Performance and handling aren’t what the Qashqai is about, and as one tester put it, “it’s very thoughtfully designed for families, well-equipped and costs peanuts to buy and run”.
Convenience is everything, but while you have the Qashqai in two-pedal form and with a CVT gearbox, we’d go for the manual, simply because it improved the car’s rolling refinement.
A game-changing effort? Not any more, but a demonstration that Nissan knows its customers extremely well. It’ll be difficult to beat among the non-premium ranks.
The Tiguan is Volkswagen’s third-best selling model after the Golf and Polo hatchbacks. It’s flexible, spacious, solidly built, comfortable and refined. With just a little more driver engagement, it would be an even more formidable package – but even as it is, it takes some beating. It’s a slightly pricey option and its interior isn’t particularly interesting, but what it lacks in visual drama it more than makes up for in solidity.
A recent facelifted has added a plug-in hybrid powertrain and a range-topping Tiguan R performance derivative, among other powertrain line-up tweaks. The car’s driving experience is a little spec-sensitive: with the better, more powerful engines and adaptive suspension, the Tiguan performs and handles very well and rides with all the sophistication you will want, but the more basic versions are more dynamically ordinary.
A premium offering? Perhaps not in every sense, but it’s a cut above most cars in the growing compact SUV segment.
And don’t forget there’s also the Allspace version, for those who like what they see in the Tiguan but need space for seven (at a squeeze).
The new Kuga sits above the reinvented Puma in Ford’s SUV hierarchy and happily shares a similarly impressive dynamic DNA with the smaller car. In short, it’s unusually good to drive by the standards of the class, although this has been a strong point for the Kuga since the original debuted in 2008 (this latest version is the third generation to bear the name).
What’s changed, apart from the heavy redesign, is the range of powertrains available, which now include a 222bhp plug-in hybrid that can travel up to 35 miles on electric power alone. It’s a reasonably well integrated unit and delivers enough urge to offset the extra mass of the battery and electric motor, but the standard and lighter 148bhp 1.5-litre petrol is the sweeter steer. A recent cull of models from the line-up means there’s now no diesel option or four-wheel drive version.
Highlights are the rolling refinement – which does more to push the Kuga upmarket than the interior – and good levels of comfort and practicality. Performance could be stronger for the heavy PHEV version, though, and we’re eager to try lesser petrol variants, which might prove to be the sweetest all-rounders in the range. All in all, the Kuga is well worth considering.
Skoda’s Enyaq iV crossover brings the brand’s pragmatic and increasingly design-aware approach to the electric sphere, and it’s currently our pick mid-sized family cars that come with a plug.
A real-world range of more than 260 miles also means you might well consider this car as an alternative to the ICE cars seen elsewhere on this page.
What we like about the Enyaq is that it’s just so roomy, and the cabin fixings are high-quality in feel. The dynamics are also well-considered: hardly exciting, but pleasant and well-rounded. Finally, the pricing is attractive, with the Enyaq coming in cheaper than its cousins from the Volkswagen and Audi, despite its ability to rapid-charge at rates of up to 125kW and a sense of style and a high quality finish that actually make it feel more expensive than its costlier siblings.
10. Kia Sportage
Given the Sportage has been such a big sales hit for Kia in what is normally a corner of the market with more conservative taste, it’s a bit of a shock to see that it has gone for bold with the all-new, fifth-generation machine. Yet given the numbers already being seen on the road, it’s clear that buyers aren’t being put off by the new car’s, ahem, distinctive looks.
The truth is that behind the challenging exterior is a car offering much the same as before but in a more refined, grown-up and tech-laden package. It’s not quite as spacious as the best, but there’s enough room for most family needs, plus there’s a wide range of engines, from mild-hybrid petrols and diesel through to a benefit-in-Kind busting plug-in hybrid.
It also comes loaded with standard kit, can be easily connected to your smartphone and, of course, is backed by Kia’s market-leading seven-year warranty.
To drive, the Sportage is something of a mixed bag. The handling is safe and predictable, but the Kia is fairly inert when pressing on, while poorly surfaced roads quickly upset its composure. It’s reasonably refined but doesn’t ride as well as many rivals, jostling occupants over even smaller bumps. Experience suggests that opting for the smaller 17in wheels improves matters, but only a little.
Overall, the Sportage is a smart, well-equipped and hassle-free family SUV, but those wanting a little emotional uplift should look elsewhere.