The Beginner’s SUV Buying Guide

Making sense of the biggest vehicle segment in America

If you read a Lincoln Navigator review, you’ll see that it is classified as a large or full-size SUV. In fact, the long-body Navigator L is the largest type of SUV you can buy in the USA, along with like-minded vehicles such as the Cadillac Escalade ESV, Chevrolet Suburban, GMC Yukon XL, and Ford Expedition Max. These cars sit at the one end of the size scale, but there is an enormous range of SUV body types, with tiny subcompact crossover models such as the Kia Seltos, which is the size of a small city hatchback, at the other end of the scale.

Lincoln, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, Genesis, and many other premium brands manufacture SUVs, but there are also many mainstream models available. One class, in particular, the compact crossover, is the most popular type of vehicle in the US after trucks. In fact, out of the 15 top-selling vehicles in America, compact and mid-size crossovers and SUVs sold 1,914,097 units, more than double the 792,751 sedans that made the top 15. So, how do you go about choosing an SUV from among this intimidating throng of choices?

All The Classes Of SUVs

To make the SUV landscape easier to understand, let’s divide them up into a few classes:

  • Subcompact: Also called the X-small class, these are the smallest types of crossovers and in terms of their footprint, they are hardly any larger than a small city car. However, they have an increased ride height and better ground clearance than a small car and better interior and cargo space, because their increased stance enables them to make the best use of the space available. They are usually front-wheel drive, but some models offer AWD derivatives. In reality, some are little more than high-riding hatchbacks. Examples include the Kia Soul and Seltos, the Buick Encore GX, the Mazda CX-30, and the Hyundai Kona. However, some are very off-road capable, such as the Trailhawk versions of the Jeep Renegade. This class furthermore contains the luxury subcompact crossover niche as well, with premium models such as the Volvo XC40, Audi Q3, BMW X1, and Mercedes-Benz GLA.
  • Compact: The compact crossover is the top-selling type of vehicle in the US and these are now bought in great numbers in the place of mid-size family cars such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. They are bigger and feel more SUV-like than the subcompact class and they typically provide spacious seating for five, a large choice of drivetrains, and good cargo capacity. Mainstream models dominating this class are the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Cherokee, and Ford Bronco Sport. Some seriously off-road capable models can also be found in this size class, such as the Ford Bronco and Jeep Wrangler. Furthermore, this class contains more niches, the first obviously being the premium segment with similarly sized models with premium badges including the Volvo XC60, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Acura RDX, and Mercedes-Benz GLC. Lastly, this is also the first size class that gives access to a (cramped) third-row back seat in models such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, Mitsubishi Outlander, and Tesla Model Y.
  • Mid-size: In this class, all models offer plenty of space and there are powerful engine options available. Most are AWD, but some also offer 2WD models. Plenty of hardcore 4WD models are also available. Typical players include the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Volkswagen Atlas, and Honda Passport. Seven seats are common in this class and such three-row mid-size SUVs include the Subaru Ascent, Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9, Kia Telluride, Tesla Model X, and Hyundai Palisade. Plenty of premium-brand mid-size SUVs in both two-row and three-row derivatives are found here too, such as the Mercedes-Benz GLE, BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, Acura MDX, and Lincoln Aviator. Among the extremely off-road-capable mid-size models are the Land Rover Defender and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Extremely expensive, super-luxury options such as the Bentley Bentayga, Aston Martin DBX, and Lamborghini Urus are also usually of this size.
  • Large: The large or full-size class is mostly dominated by American automakers and most of these American models are based on tough truck platforms that give them excellent hauling and towing capabilities. Mainstream cars include the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, while premium brands are represented by the Lincoln Navigator and Cadillac Escalade. Up to nine seats are available in these models in various seating configurations. European full-size SUVs have another approach and are mostly based on car platforms, seat only seven, and have better handling than their American counterparts. The Mercedes-Benz GLS and BMW X7 come to mind.

Buying Criteria And Important Considerations

Before you go for a test drive or three, and taking into account the above summary, you need to make a final decision on each of the following criteria:

  • How much you can spend
  • Whether you are buying a more basic model new or a better one used for the same price
  • The size of SUV that will suit you best
  • Whether you need a third row or not
  • Whether you require AWD or 4WD ability
  • What your requirements are in terms of performance and fuel economy
  • Which luxury and safety features you want
  • Whether you will consider one of the growing number of electric SUVs now available
  • What warranty cover you get and how well the vehicle fares in reliability surveys

Conclusion

Do your research online and read all the reviews you can find to weed out the candidates until you have only a few left that you want to test drive. Keep in mind that first-hand experience of things such as ride comfort and the user-friendliness of the infotainment system can make or break a certain model for you, so it’s critical to drive all the models you’re considering. Large gas-powered SUVs are also very heavy on fuel and the biggest ones will struggle to return 20 MPG on the highway. For this reason, you might want to consider one of the few diesel models or even an EV such as the Tesla Model X or the forthcoming GMC Hummer SUV.

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