What's the Best Subcompact SUV?

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The subcompact SUV category is nearly a brand-new car segment. More than half of the entries have been on sale for less than a year. We discovered while testing this group that it's really a collection of compromises. While they offer more space than subcompact cars and better fuel economy than compact SUVs, there are other tradeoffs as well, as you'll read below. Still, all of these automakers have high hopes for this segment, and several of them have the sales to back up those hopes.

The Subcompact SUV Challenge
Results | What to ExpectMileage Test

The contenders:

  • 2016 Chevrolet Trax (new for 2015)
  • 2016 Fiat 500X (all-new)
  • 2016 Honda HR-V (all-new)
  • 2015 Jeep Renegade (all-new)
  • 2016 Mazda CX-3 (all-new)
  • 2015 Nissan Juke
  • 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

To compete, the automakers needed to provide us with an SUV that has all-wheel drive as an option (whether they wanted the competitor to have that was up to them); it could not be more than $27,000, including the destination fee. The automakers provided all the SUVs except for the CX-3; Mazda did not have one available, so we secured one through a broker.

We put the SUVs through a week's worth of testing in and around Boulder, Colo.:

  • We drove them on a 204-mile real-world mileage course that started in Boulder, headed into the Rocky Mountains and Estes Park, Colo., and down through Loveland, before driving south to Denver and then returning to Boulder.
  • We had our judges drive them back-to-back-to-back on the same pavement to evaluate ride, handling, comfort, acceleration and more.
  • We brought in an in-market couple to test the SUVs for their utility, ride and more.
From all of that testing, we found our winner. Our judges were:
  • Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief for Cars.com
  • Joe Bruzek, road test editor for Cars.com
  • Jennifer Geiger, assistant managing editor for Cars.com
  • Brian Robinson, producer for PBS' "MotorWeek"
  • Chris Woodyard, auto writer for USA Today
  • Joel and Christine Kruppa, our in-market shoppers. Joel, 31, is a mechanic and his wife, Christine, 30, is looking to replace her Honda Civic with one of these subcompact SUVs. She's an office manager, and they live in Lakewood, Colo.
The scoring broke down this way:
  • 75 percent from the judges' scoring
  • 15 percent from our family shoppers
  • 10 percent from the mileage drive

What You Get

What the Judges Said

72016 Chevrolet Trax, 566 points

The Verdict: "The Trax seems unrefined compared to the rest of the group," Woodyard said, "not quite ready for prime time. Still, the storage was the best in the group."

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What They Liked

The vroom-vroom: "The turbocharged engine was one of the gutsiest in the group," Bruzek said, in a comment that was echoed by several judges. "I felt powerwise, it accelerated pretty well," Joel said.

The room, room: "Chevrolet wasted no space in the Trax's cabin," Geiger said. "Despite its tiny dimensions, it's loaded with handy nooks and crannies for stashing small items." Robinson liked the "nice, big, flat load floor," and Bragman said, "it doesn't feel cramped at all."

The tech: Several judges applauded the built-in Wi-Fi hot spot, "a big bonus for families with tablet-addicted kids," Geiger said. "I like that I can unlock my car from my phone," Joel said.

Its soft ride: "It isolates the cabin from rough roads," Bruzek said, and Bragman agreed: "It's quiet and smooth on just about any surface."

 

What They Didn't

Poor interior quality: "I would say it feels quite cheap," Joel said. "It feels like a rental car, and this is the LTZ [top trim]." "The interior has unconvincing imitation leather, cheap-looking fake metal trim and so much hard plastic that the cabin practically echoes," Geiger said. "The interior looks and feels 10 years behind every other vehicle here," Robinson said.

Rough power: "The Trax's powertrain polish is a problem," Geiger said. "It shakes at idle, groans up to speed and clunks into gear." The "engine felt coarse," Woodyard said. "Engine noise is especially egregious," Robinson said.

Missing features: "The only USB port is in a dash cubby," Bragman said, "with no external gap for a cord." "There's no navigation or sunroof," Woodyard added. "It lacks advanced safety features," Bruzek said.

Research the Chevrolet Trax | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

62015 Nissan Juke, 632 points

The Verdict: "Love it or hate it, and I've always done more of the latter, you have to give the Juke its props," Robinson said. "It was way ahead of the game, basically starting this whole fun-sized crossover craze."

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What They Liked

Moves like dagger: "It's got sports-car moves, and the steering feel is outstanding," Bragman said. "Once that turbo spools up, hang on: Acceleration is fierce." It has "plenty of zip," Geiger said, and Bruzek liked its "hot-rod acceleration for this class," and "sports-car handling with its all-wheel drive." "It's a CVT [continuously variable transmission] that feels like it has gears," Joel said. "It legitimately feels like a traditional transmission. Even in Normal mode, there isn't that buzzing that the Honda has. So much better."

Visibility: "The surround-view camera system is one of the most useful safety features I've ever used, taking the anxiety out of parking maneuvers," Geiger said.

Unique styling: "The Juke looks like nothing else on the road, and I celebrate its weirdness," Geiger said. "Its animated, frog-face styling turns heads." "Still fun, still quirky," Robinson said. "Even with all of the competitors that have entered the segment, the Juke still stands out."

 

What They Didn't

Unique styling: "It's so, so ugly. Not even like 'pug-dog' ugly, it's just hideous," Bragman shuddered. "Do we need to say it?" Woodyard asked. "It hurts the eyes."

It's tiny: "There should be a sign on the Juke's cargo area that says, 'Warning: Just for show,' " Geiger said. There's "so little interior space that it's hard to really consider it an SUV," Robinson said. "This should be a two-seat roadster, not a four-door hatchback," Bragman said. "If you need to carry anything other than two small kittens in the backseat, look elsewhere," Geiger added.

Sound and fury: "NOISY," Robinson yelled. "Whether it's the engine, wind noise or tire noise, there is a full-on aural assault upon your ears happening at all times." Bruzek was troubled by its "rough ride."

Interior quality: "The materials are mixed bag of nice and weird," Bragman said, and others agreed. "The Juke's designers were probably aiming for sporty with the cabin, but it's far from it," Geiger said. "The honeycomb-pattern sport seats hit the mark, but the glossy-red plastic paneling is garishly off-base."

Research the Nissan Juke | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

52015 Jeep Renegade, 651 points

The Verdict: "The Renegade charms with its rugged good looks, high-quality cabin and seamless multimedia system," Geiger said, "but its unrefined powertrain and trucklike handling are disappointing."

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What They Liked

SUV, baby! "The Renegade has fantastic styling," Bragman said. "It's the only vehicle here that looks and feels like a proper SUV." Bruzek liked the "distinctly Jeep styling and design Easter eggs" hidden both in the SUV's cabin and exterior. "It's more rugged than luxurious," Joel said. "It's very Jeep."

Riding high: "The tall ride height and squared-off roofline provide class-beating headroom and a commanding view of the road," Geiger said. Bruzek also liked that it has "power seating at this price range," which most of the competitors didn't.

Four-wheel-drive: The higher step-in means the Renegade has "legit off-road potential," Robinson said, while Woodyard noted that it comes with "Mud, Sand and Snow settings," very helpful on the Colorado roads that we tested on.

 

What They Didn't

Poor powertrain: "It feels much slower than the mechanically similar Fiat," Bragman said, "and acceleration is a struggle." "The nine-speed automatic: Sigh," Geiger added. "Fiat's Sport mode seems to get through the gears quicker," Joel said. "The Jeep lags and doesn't want to downshift, so I have to give it more throttle. That's worrisome because we have steep hills in our neighborhood." And despite that performance, "fuel economy is poor," Bruzek pointed out.

Hard to stop: "The brake pedal should work when you press it," Geiger said. "Not in the case of the Jeep, where the pedal has an unsettling dead zone when first depressed."

Heavy cheese: "All the gimmicky Jeep brand reminders throughout the interior are definitely trying too hard to convince you that this is a real Jeep," Robinson said. Woodyard agreed, saying the Renegade "tries too hard with the 'Since 1941' emblems and other Jeep logos everywhere."

Research the Jeep Renegade | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

42016 Mazda CX-3, 677 points

The Verdict: "The CX-3 kind of plays out exactly how you'd expect here," Robinson said. "It's very fun to drive and has a very nice interior, but it has so little space inside that if you're looking for a useful crossover to do practical things — and not a fun toy — it's not the best choice."

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What They Liked

Stunning, inside and out: The CX-3 has "the most stylish exterior," Woodyard said, and several judges agreed. "The interior clearly outclasses the others," Bruzek said, and Geiger added, "Mazda nailed the sporty vibe with a curvy, chiseled exterior and an understated, smartly designed interior."

Zoom-Zoom, indeed: "Amazing to drive," Bruzek enthused, and Robinson agreed: "Far and away the most fun to drive here." "The CX-3 was at home in the Colorado mountains, taking corners crisply and confidently," Geiger said. "It has plenty of power and an excellent transmission," Bragman added.

Clear views: "For how small it is on the outside," Christine said, "I'm surprised by how good the visibility is." Bruzek liked the "big-ticket features, including a blind spot warning system, for the money."

Tech: "I liked the option of using the touch-screen, the central controller or the steering-wheel controls for most inputs," Robinson said. "The multimedia system is just right," Geiger said, "with a decent-sized screen, easy menu structure and clear placement high on the dash."

 

What They Didn't

No room-room: "The lack of interior space is borderline offensive to anyone who actually believes that an SUV should have some modicum of practicality," Robinson said. "It's very cramped in back, almost unusable for adults," Bragman said. "The center console intrudes into my legroom," Joel said. "I feel trapped by it." There's "not as much storage" as in its competitors, Woodyard said, and several judges agreed.

The battle for the center: "The central controller and volume knob are virtually impossible to get to unless you have the armrest out of the way," Robinson said, and Woodyard noted that the same armrest makes getting to the cupholder difficult as well.

Child-seat problems: "Families who need to install a rear-facing car seat should take the CX-3 off their list," Geiger said. "A lack of legroom made installation very difficult."

Value proposition: "I don't like constantly being reminded every time I drive it that I could have paid much less for a Mazda3 hatchback," Robinson said, "and gotten more space inside, a better ride and had enough money leftover to buy multiple sets of snow tires for the winter."

Research the Mazda CX-3 | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

32016 Honda HR-V, 687 points

The Verdict: "The Honda HR-V is one of the most well-rounded of the bunch," Bruzek said, "but it has a few big nit-picking issues keeping it from being the easy winner."

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What They Liked

Space, the final frontier: "Cavernous cargo area," Bragman noted, and "by far the most practical when it comes to doing actual crossoverlike tasks, such as being able to haul things," Robinson added. "The HR-V has a low cargo load-in height," Bruzek said, "with a wide cargo opening." "The easy-to-fold flat backseat opens up a lot more room in a snap," Geiger said.

Drives well: "It feels responsive in Sport mode," Bragman said. "It handles well, feels light and tossable."

Family help: "The easy-to-access Latch anchors and ample legroom ease car-seat installation," Geiger said.

And ...: Geiger called out its "class-leading fuel economy," while Robinson noted that "visibility is excellent all-around."

 

What They Didn't

No knobs, no likey: "Bring back the knobs, Honda," Geiger warned. "The multimedia system is a pain to use," Bruzek agreed, and Joel said, "I already think it's weird that there's nothing to grab for the volume. I didn't think it would be awkward just looking at the car, but in use, it's awkward."

Noisy, gutless engine: "The overtaxed four-cylinder/CVT combination complained loudly and constantly during each of my drives," Geiger said. "The noise is excessive," Robinson said, "and it fails to deliver much power while it's making all of that racket." Bruzek found the HR-V to be "pokey and unresponsive," and Christine said "my Civic has better pickup."

Interior quirks: "The USB and power plugs are awkwardly located under the center console," Bragman pointed out, while Woodyard objected to the "hard plastic on the dash."

Research the Honda HR-V | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

22016 Fiat 500X, 701 points

The Verdict: "The 500X is a total surprise," Bragman said. "It's fun to drive, fun to look at, and aside from a few quirks like weird automatic window stitches, it's just plain fun to be in. Here's hoping that Fiat's historically poor reliability doesn't sink this fresh, funky newcomer."

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What They Liked

Appearance, inside and out: "Style, style, style," Bruzek raved. It "brings a smile to my face when I see it," Robinson said. "I'm pleasantly surprised," Christine said. "You think of Fiat as a little wacky from their commercials, but this is very nice."

It's fun to drive: "Handling, braking, acceleration, ride: All are top-notch," Bragman said. "Pop the 500X into Sport mode for a much-needed kick in the pants," Geiger added. "It feels planted on the road," Woodyard added. "It's very carlike, while still having a hint of practical SUV-ish cargo space," Robinson said.

Multimedia system: "It's high on the dash for great visibility," Geiger said, "and it features a responsive touch-screen with a simple menu structure and clear knobs for tuning and volume." Bruzek declared the system the "most intuitive" of the group.

 

What They Didn't

The transmission: "FCA's [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] beleaguered nine-speed automatic strikes again" Geiger said. "Its shifts often feel unpredictable and awkward." Robinson called it a "noisy, fumbling powertrain," and Bruzek bemoaned a "cheap switch gear that feels like it's going to fall off."

Lack of storage: "The lack of true SUV space inside turns that smile upside down," Robinson said. Several other judges agreed.

Poor seat quality: "The seats fell flat, literally," Geiger said. "Their excessive hardness and flatness got old fast." Woodyard missed getting a powered driver's seat, and Joel added, "The backseat feels hard, like I'm sitting on a wooden bench."

Poor ride quality: "It's a rough ride for unrewarding handling," Bruzek noted, while Geiger added, "It feels like you're driving over a washboard on even the smallest of bumps."

Two-wheel drive? "No all-wheel drive at this price seems to be a competitive disadvantage," Bragman said.

Research the Fiat 500X | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12015 Subaru XV Crosstrek, 731 points

The Verdict: The XV Crosstrek was the Kruppas' favorite SUV as well as the overall winner. The multimedia system "is simple," Christine said. "Some of the others have too many buttons, and I can't deal with that while driving." "It's pretty nice to drive," Joel added. "It feels bigger, softer and a little more plush than the others."

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What They Liked

Value proposition: "The XV Crosstrek is the value leader of the group, including both impressive safety features and ample creature comforts for a low price," Geiger said. Bruzek liked all the "high-tech safety features for the money," including the EyeSight crash-avoidance system, and Christine liked "that you can get heated seats with cloth upholstery."

Big brother: "It's limolike compared with the others," Bruzek said, and Woodyard said it "feels like the grownup in the group." "The cargo area is among the most useful in the group," Geiger said. "It's a large space featuring a handful of cargo hooks and an easy-clean rubber mat lining the cargo floor." Bragman said simply: "It's roomy, in front and back."

Visibility: "It has excellent visibility, thanks to the low beltline," Bragman said, and several judges agreed. Bruzek liked the "tall windows and ride height."

Ride quality: "One of the quietest rides here," Robinson said, and Bragman noted that "it soaks up bumps with ease."

 

What They Didn't

Slow powertrain: "It's painfully slow," Bragman said, "especially on hills." "The transmission has a lag in it," Woodyard observed, and Joel said "it's definitely not one of the faster cars, but it's also not ungodly slow." And once you hit highway speeds, it can become "uneasy," Bruzek noted.

Noisy CVT: "Quiet, it is not," Geiger said. "The CVT drone is a problem, and the high levels of road and wind noise are intrusive." Robinson disagreed, sort of. "The level of CVT-induced engine noise has been tamed, but the amount of it is still bothersome."

Tech quirks: Both Bragman and Joel found the EyeSight system intrusive while driving. For Geiger, while the multimedia system is better than it used to be, "it still trails many in the class with its sometimes finicky touch-sensitive panels." Robinson said that it's "not as intuitive as most."

Dullsville: Bruzek bemoaned the XV Crosstrek's "uninteresting interior," and Geiger said that while "it may have a ground clearance and all-wheel-drive system that's ready to go anywhere, its exterior styling is ready for the shopping mall. Snore."

Research the Subaru XV Crosstrek | Search Inventory Near You | Car Seat Check

 

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

Judges' Average Score for Interior Quality

  1. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    8.2
  2. 2016 Fiat 500X

    7.3
  3. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    7.2
  4. 2016 Honda HR-V

    7.0
  5. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.7
  6. 2015 Nissan Juke

    5.7
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    4.2

Judges' Average Score for Comfort

  1. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    8.2
  2. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.8
  3. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.7
  4. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.5
  5. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    5.8
  6. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.7
  7. 2015 Nissan Juke

    4.2

Judges' Average Score for Child-Safety Seats

  1. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    8.0
  2. 2016 Fiat 500X

    7.0
  3. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    7.0
  4. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    7.0
  5. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.0
  6. 2015 Nissan Juke

    5.0
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    4.0

Judges' Average Score for Cargo & In-Cabin Storage

  1. 2016 Honda HR-V

    8.7
  2. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    8.3
  3. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    7.2
  4. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.7
  5. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.5
  6. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    4.2
  7. 2015 Nissan Juke

    3.3

Judges' Average Score for Tech & Entertainment

  1. 2016 Fiat 500X

    8.2
  2. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    7.5
  3. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    7.2
  4. 2015 Nissan Juke

    7.0
  5. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.5
  6. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.2
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.5

Judges' Average Score for Handling

  1. 2015 Nissan Juke

    8.5
  2. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    8.0
  3. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.3
  4. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.2
  5. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    5.7
  6. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    5.5
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.3

Judges' Average Score for Acceleration

  1. 2015 NissanJuke

    8.7
  2. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.3
  3. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    6.3
  4. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    5.7
  5. 2016 Honda HR-V

    5.2
  6. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.0
  7. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    4.7

Judges' Average Score for Ride

  1. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    8.0
  2. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.8
  3. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.7
  4. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    6.7
  5. 2015 Nissan Juke

    6.3
  6. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.2
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.8

Judges' Average Score for Noise

  1. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.7
  2. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.2
  3. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    6.2
  4. 2016 Honda HR-V

    5.8
  5. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    5.8
  6. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.5
  7. 2015 Nissan Juke

    5.5

Judges' Average Score: Worth the Money?

  1. 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek

    7.8
  2. 2016 Fiat 500X

    6.8
  3. 2016 Honda HR-V

    6.7
  4. 2015 Jeep Renegade

    6.2
  5. 2016 Mazda CX-3

    5.5
  6. 2015 Nissan Juke

    5.3
  7. 2016 Chevrolet Trax

    5.2

 

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Former editor-in-chief Patrick Olsen was born and raised in California. He loves pickup trucks and drivers who pay attention.  Email Patrick

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