Downsizing Your SUV

Even if gas prices are crimping your budget, you don't have to give up the type of vehicle you love, though you may have to choose one that's smaller than what you had before. Fortunately, today's small SUVs and crossovers can be both big on comfort and utility and less taxing on your wallet. All models mentioned below are worth a look if you're thinking about downsizing to a smaller SUV.

Even Small SUVs Are Larger

One of the main reasons today's small SUVs and crossovers are more amenable to a family's needs is that they — like a lot of vehicle types — have gotten larger with successive generations. Small SUVs used to be really small — you remember the Suzuki Samurai, right? — but today, Toyota's smallest SUV, the RAV4, is quite roomy inside and can have an optional third-row seat for kids. The RAV4 used to be smaller — a lot smaller.

Through the Years: Dimensions of the Toyota RAV4
Length WidthHeight
Third-generation (2006-present) 181.171.566.3
Second-generation (2001-2005)167.1 68.365.7
First-generation four-door (1996-2000)16266.765.4

Source: Manufacturer; dimensions based on first-year models of each generation

Gas Mileage is a Small SUV Benefit

Good gas mileage is an important factor in a car-buying decision these days, and small SUVs and crossovers have an advantage over their larger siblings in this area for a few reasons. Whereas full-size SUVs are often powered by thirsty V-8 engines, smaller models typically use four-cylinder and V-6 engines.

Even though the RAV4 has grown in size over the years, it gets better gas mileage now than it used to. If you're used to the low-end power of a V-8 engine in your SUV, the RAV4 and many of its competitors aren't going to be able to match that experience, but the all-wheel-drive RAV4's V-6 engine is plenty strong and gets an EPA-estimated 19/26 mpg city/highway. It's not alone in offering good V-6 gas mileage, either.

V-6 Small SUV Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)*
2009 Ford Escape w/3.0-liter V-618/2617/24
2009 Hyundai Santa Fe w/2.7-liter V-618/2417/23
2009 Saturn Vue w/3.6-liter V-6 17/24 16/23
2009 Toyota RAV4 w/3.5-liter V-619/2719/26

*All gas mileage estimates are for automatic transmission models.

If power is not tops on your priority list, there are a number of four-cylinder-powered SUVs and crossovers that offer adequate performance and thrifty fuel use. All of these crossovers are spacious enough to hold two adults and two children in comfort and carry luggage for a family, as long as you don't go overboard when packing.

Four-Cylinder Small SUV Gas Mileage*
2009 Ford Escape w/2.5-liter 4-cyl.20/28 19/25
2009 Honda CR-V w/2.4-liter 4-cyl.20/27 20/26
2009 Nissan Rogue w/2.5-liter 4-cyl.22/27 21/26
2009 Saturn Vue w/2.4-liter 4-cyl.19/26 21/26
2009 Subaru Forester w/2.5-liter 4-cyl.20/26**
2009 Toyota RAV4 w/2.5-liter 4-cyl.22/2821/27

*All gas mileage estimates are for automatic transmission models.
**Normally aspirated engine.

Unibody Design Means Less Weight, Improved Ride

Many small SUVs and crossovers use unibody construction as opposed to the body-on-frame design still employed by many full-size SUVs. In a unibody SUV, the passenger compartment is integral in the vehicle's structure. This typically results in a vehicle that weighs less than those that use a heavy frame attached to a separate body during assembly. Naturally, the smaller footprint of a compact SUV helps with weight savings, too.

Besides weight savings, one of the other benefits of unibody construction is a more carlike driving experience that tends to have less of the pitching and wallowing normally associated with body-on-frame SUVs.

Not All Things to All People

While a number of SUV shoppers could step down from something larger to a smaller SUV or crossover, these types of vehicles aren't going to meet all buyers' needs. SUV owners who use all the capability a full-size SUV has to offer — pulling a large boat or camper, for instance — aren't going to find that kind of capability in a small SUV. If you need room for six people or more and luggage for a week-long trip, a small SUV probably won't be right for you. Unibody SUVs usually aren't as capable off-road, either.

In the end, every family has to evaluate what they need and want in an SUV, but you might be surprised at how many needs one of today's small SUVs or crossovers is able to meet.

Posted on 10/2/08