Best Compact SUVs to Buy in 2016

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2015 was a record year for new car sales in the United States. With 17.38 million units sold, calendar year 2015 marks the sixth consecutive year-over-year sales growth, something that hasn’t happened since the ‘20s. Of the 17,386,331-strong total, 30 percent is taken by the crossover utility vehicle segment and 7.2 percent represents the sport utility vehicle segment. The combined figure for both segments is 6,455,747 units. Is this surprising news, though?
Not quite. SUVs became popular in North America in the ‘90s. Remember how cool the Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ) was when it launched in 1992, the year Bush and Yeltsin proclaimed the end of the Cold War and Nirvana’s Nevermind rocketed to No. 1 in the US Billboard 200? But the truth of the matter is that 1990s SUVs were very different from their predecessors because manufacturers understood that buyers wanted SUVs that ride and handle like a car.

The CUV, on the other hand, flourished in the noughties. CUVs made up more than 50 percent of the utility vehicle market in 2006 and our appreciation for them hasn’t grown cold. As a more capable and stylish alternative to the station wagon, the crossover became so popular that you can hardly find an all-new longroof to buy in the United States these days. Something had to give, though, and I feel sorry that the station wagon isn’t the go-to family hauler anymore.

The utility vehicle is king, whether we like that or not, thanks to the sum of its qualities. The compact utility vehicle segment is the fastest growing in America, which begs the question, what are the best compact SUVs on sale in America in 2016? That’s an incredibly hard question to answer because there’s an old saying that goes like “to each his own.” Regardless of preferences, the following list should provide you with ten ideas in your search for the best non-premium compact SUV for you and your family. Mind you, the tenth car in the list has been in production for 10 years now and it’s appalling.

2016 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport - from $19,595

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport
Photo: Mitsubishi
The cheapest compact crossover you can buy new is the 2016 model year Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. Around since 2010, the little Mitsubishi is underpinned by a variation of the GS platform. In other words, it shares its platform with the former-gen Mitsubishi Outlander, Jeep Compass, Dodge Journey, Mitsubishi Lancer, Chrysler Sebring, and Citroen C4 Aircross. What do you get for an MSRP of $19,595?

In its most basic trim level, the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport is motivated by a 2-liter inline-4 with 148 horsepower and 145 lb-ft (196 Nm) that sends the drive to the front wheels through a 5-speed manual transmission. The range-topping Outlander Sport is the GT 2.4 AWC, which starts at $24,995 and is fully loaded, all-wheel-drive included.

2016 Mazda CX-5 - from $21,795

Mazda CX\-5
Photo: Mazda
Facelifted for the 2016 model year, the Mazda CX-5 compact crossover SUV is one of the most stylish offerings in the segment. The main traits of the CX-5, regardless of trim level, are enough room for a family of five to live large, great fuel economy thanks to SkyActiv technology, and accolades such as the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.

The least expensive CX-5 is the Sport front-wheel-drive with the 6-speed manual transmission, the most economical of the lot at 26 mpg (9 l/100) city and 35 mpg (6.7 l/100 km) highway. Standard bits and bobs include a 2-liter engine generating 155 horsepower, power windows, MP3-compatible stereo, Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, 17-inch alloys, air conditioning, and halogen headlights.

2016 Subaru Forester - from $22,395

Subaru Forester
Photo: Subaru
The Forester has always been an Impreza on stilts, but despite its origin, the compact crossover made by Subaru can hold its own when the going gets rough. The suggested retail price advertised above applies for the entry-level 2.5i, which comes as standard with Symmetrical AWD and a 2.5-liter boxer 4-cylinder engine. That’s a low price to pay for such a generously equipped family hauler.

Better still, the Starlink 6.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system with HD Radio, smartphone integration, and iPod connectivity is a no-cost option as well. For a panoramic moonroof, aluminum alloys, and more goodies, you’ll need to step up to the 2.5i Premium ($25,295). If you’re tempted to spend top dollar on the 2.0XT Premium ($29,195) or 2.0XT Touring ($33,795), be warned that the turbocharged models aren’t as frugal as those powered by the 2.5 naturally aspirated motor.

2016 Chevrolet Equinox - from $22,600

Chevrolet Equinox
Photo: Chevrolet
The golden bowtie describes the recently redesigned Equinox as the “fuel efficient SUV,” though its segment competitors can do a little better than that according to EPA ratings. If you aren’t the type to be bothered by such claims, especially now that gasoline is amazingly cheap, then you’ll be happy with the official fuel economy of 22 mpg (10.7 l/100 km) in the city and 32 mpg (7.3 l/100 km) highway.

Amenities included in the standard features list of the front-wheel-drive 2016 Chevrolet Equinox L come in the form of a parking camera, cruise control, remote keyless entry, hill-start assist, keyless entry, and a basic audio system. For those prospective buyers who really want an Equinox, please do yourself a favor and ignore the entry-level L trim because it’s too big of a compromise compared to the $25,410 LS.

2016 Hyundai Tucson - from $22,700

Hyundai Tucson
Photo: Hyundai
My, how the Tucson changed over the years. Compared to the Elantra-based first generation, the third-generation Hyundai Tucson actually deserves the compact crossover label. More mature, more beautiful, and more comfortable than ever, the 2016 Hyundai Tucson SE can be yours for $100 more than the two-bit Chevrolet Equinox L.

Goodies that are worth spending the extra hundred bucks on come in the form of 17-inch alloy wheels, 5-inch touchscreen audio system, 6-way adjustable driver seat, 3.5-inch LCD instrument cluster display, and air conditioning. The blue-painted Limited trim level in the photograph above is $29,900, and make no mistake about it, as it is all the compact crossover you’ll ever need as a daily runaround.

2016 Ford Escape - from $23,100

Ford Escape
Photo: Ford
I know there’s a 2017 model year redesign in the pipeline, but that’s not for sale at the time of writing. Better still, FoMoCo dealers will certainly offer significant discounts for the 2016 Ford Escape to move those things as fast as possible. Torque Vectoring Control for the front wheels, 17-inch steelies with covers, AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control, SYNC, and a rearview camera come as standard.

The problem with the entry-level S trim is that you’ll never get over the cheap-feeling urethane steering wheel. For better quality cabin trim, higher gas mileage, and all the things that matter in the long run, the mid-range SE trim level should be the one to go for. A quick search on Autotrader reveals that most 2016 Ford Escape models currently in dealership stock are SEs, so happy hunting.

2016 Nissan Rogue - from $23,290

Nissan Rogue
Photo: Nissan
Why would we recommend the Rogue? Its best-in-class cargo capacity of 39.3 cuFT (1,112 l) is the reason. Another feature that’s worthy of a thumbs up is the EPA-rated fuel economy. With 26 mpg (9 l/100 km) city and 33 mpg (7.1 l/100 km) highway, the 2016 Nissan Rogue is frugal compared to the bulk of the compact crossover genre.

Even the base trim level prides itself with 170 horsepower, LED daytime running lights, 5-inch color display audio system with Sirius XM Satellite Radio, and an Xtronic CVT with active engine braking. That’s a lot of useful features for an entry-level compact crossover.

2016 Honda CR-V - from $23,745

Honda CR\-V
Photo: Honda
The CR-V is one of the sweethearts of the segment and it’s easy to understand why. Take the CR-V 2WD LX as a case in point. Other than similar gas mileage to the 2016 Nissan Rogue S 2WD 2.5 CVT, the compact SUV made by Honda churns out 185 horsepower from a tried and true 2.4-liter VTEC 4-cylinder engine with direct injection.

Standard equipment is not exactly good yet not bad either. The SMS text message function via Bluetooth HandsFreeLink is the icing on the cake, though. An infuriating detail that spoils the aspect of the CR-V comes in the form of black plastic door handles. Dear Honda, the 1990s have called and asked for you to stop being a cheapskate.

2016 Toyota RAV4 - from $24,350

Toyota RAV4
Photo: Toyota
Is it that surprising that the recently facelifted Toyota RAV4 is the most expensive compact SUV that made it on this list? Toyota is known for charging more than its competitors for a similar product, but boy, does Toyota deliver? Though expensive, the 2016 Toyota RAV4 LE FWD is a perfectly balanced combination of features, utility, and design cues.

The tech interface and ride comfort are the RAV4’s plus points. On the downside, there’s no other engine available except for a 176 horsepower 2.5-liter 4-banger. Furthermore, the 2016 Toyota RAV4 trails some of its competitors in terms of fuel economy. The greatest selling point, however, is the promise of better-than-average reliability.

2016 Jeep Compass - from $19,595 (please don't buy this one)

Jeep Compass
Photo: Jeep
There is no way of sugarcoating this, so I’ll cut straight to the point - the Jeep Compass is long overdue a replacement. As a 10-year-old design, the Compass has already paid for its development and the tooling required to manufacture the darn thing. Every single one that Fiat Chrysler sells is money in the bank for the Italo-American outfit.

The Compass was born during a time when Daimler controlled Chrysler and it shows. The awful interior full of unpleasant plastic is arguably the biggest problem. Compared to older models with CVTs, the 2016 Jeep Compass makes do with a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic that’s more sluggish than a snail on sleeping pills.

As if these details weren’t enough to put you off from making the mistake of buying a Compass, the fuel economy is considerably woeful. If, however, you really want a compact-sized Jeep, just wait for the C-SUV to debut in the second half of the year. It will be a much more capable, interesting, and reliable compact SUV than the Compass.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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