Although the full-size pickups from Chevrolet, Ford and Ram are still the best-selling vehicles in the country, there have been big changes further down the leaderboard. Compact SUVs essentially have replaced midsize sedans as the go-to choice for the rest of the market. Why all this love for such relatively small rides? Compact SUVs may have smaller footprints than midsize sedans, but they can provide just as much space for people, as well as more cargo room.
There’s also another important reason for choosing a compact SUV. They hit a sweet spot for fuel economy, since their EPA ratings usually fall between those for midsize sedans and midsize SUVs.
In the used-car arena, it’s vehicles like these that lead the way:
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
The Toyota brand is known for its high-efficiency powertrains and high levels of standard driver-assistance technology. Both help the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid stand out from the crowd. With the fourth-generation RAV4, which was available for the 2013-2018 model years, the hybrid model has fuel economy grades of 34/30 mpg city/highway. That’s with electrically enabled all-wheel drive, too. The bottom line includes efficiency increases of 12/2 mpg city/highway over the non-hybrid RAV4 with all-wheel drive. Later fourth-gen models show off standard adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, lane departure alert, lane keeping assistance, pedestrian detection and a rearview camera.
Nissan Rogue Hybrid
The Nissan Rogue Hybrid doesn’t go back quite as far as the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. Nissan brought out its compact hybrid SUV when the Rogue lineup was upgraded for the “2017.5” model year. However, despite the RAV4’s head start, the Rogue Hybrid from the same time has slightly better fuel economy ratings in combined travel. Nissan’s compact hybrid SUV can post EPA marks of 33/35 mpg city/highway with front-wheel drive and 31/34 mpg city/highway with a traditional all-wheel-system. The 2017.5 updates also mean the Rogue Hybrid can match the RAV4 with its standard driver-assistance package.
Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid
The first Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid was sold new from 2014 through 2016. It offers the same kind of standard symmetrical all-wheel drive and flat four-cylinder engine as the non-hybrid model, then adds a nickel-metal hydride battery and an electric motor. The setup delivers 160 horsepower and EPA ratings of 29/32 mpg city/highway. The comparable non-hybrid model gets 12 fewer horsepower and 25 mpg in the city. Subaru also revived the Crosstrek Hybrid with a plug-in powertrain for the 2019 model year. This version has a fuel economy mark of 35 mpg combined with gasoline and a 17-mile driving range with electricity.
Ford Escape Hybrid
The Ford Escape Hybrid is sort of an old-school alternative. The last ones came off the production line for the 2012 model year. Ford rolled out an all-new Escape generation in 2013, but it didn’t have a hybrid on the roster. The good news is that the older, more affordable Escape Hybrid has fuel economy ratings that compare well to those from its newer, pricier rivals. You’ll see EPA grades of 34/30 mpg city/highway when the 2012 Escape Hybrid is equipped with front-wheel drive. With all-wheel drive, the ratings can reach 30/27 mpg city/highway.
Lexus RX Hybrid
The Lexus RX 450h is an outlier here, and not only because it’s the only model from a luxury brand. Beyond its upscale features and technologies, the RX 450h also carries a V6 engine as part of its powertrain. That allows you to enjoy a high-performance driving experience that’s backed by 306 horsepower. Go a little easier on the gas pedal, and beginning in 2016, the front-wheel-drive RX 450h can return fuel efficiency marks of 31/30 mpg city/highway. Further, even though the EPA grades of the all-wheel-drive model slip to 30/28 mpg city/highway, both powertrains provide the same 30 mpg in combined travel.
A recent non-hybrid option is the Chevrolet Equinox. We’re talking about the third generation of the Equinox, which originally went on sale for the 2018 model year with an available turbodiesel engine. This 1.6-liter four-cylinder unit makes 170 horsepower and 203 pound-feet of torque, and it lets the front-wheel-drive Equinox achieve fuel efficiency ratings of 28/39 mpg city/highway. The all-wheel-drive model loses only a single mpg in highway driving, thanks to its advanced hardware. The system reduces the load on the engine by disconnecting from the rear axle when all-wheel drive isn’t needed.
If you prefer your compact SUVs with forced-induction gasoline engines, you should test drive the fifth-generation Honda CR-V. It was introduced for the 2017 model year with the lineup’s first-ever turbocharged engine as an option. The 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine produces 190 horsepower and 179 pound-feet of torque, and it’s responsible for fuel efficiency grades of up to 28/34 mpg city/highway with the CR-V’s front-wheel drive powertrain. Opt for all-wheel drive, and the CR-V is rated at 27/33 mpg city/highway. The ratings with a standard naturally aspirated engine and front-wheel drive are 26/32 mpg city/highway.
Keep in mind that newer models don’t necessarily bring better efficiency. The Mazda CX-5 is a case in point. A brand-new entry for the 2013 model year, the first-generation CX-5 unites a standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive. That powertrain is good for 155 horsepower, 150 pound-feet of torque and EPA results of 26/34 mpg city/highway. The first-gen CX-5 supplies fuel efficiency scores of 26/32 mpg city/highway with an optional automatic. The second-generation CX-5 that debuted in 2017 has a bigger engine, but with peak EPA ratings of 25/31 mpg city/highway.
The Mitsubishi Outlander is a pioneer among compact SUVs with plug-in hybrid powertrains. It began offering that technology in 2018. But while the plug-in model features a 22-mile all-electric driving range, it trails the non-hybrid in fuel efficiency using gasoline. The hybrid gets an EPA score of 25 mpg in combined driving, with the non-hybrid rated at 27 mpg. The Mitsubishi Outlander also receives the same grades of 25/30 mpg city/highway with its standard powertrain going back to the 2014 model year. The setup relies on a four-cylinder engine with 166 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque.
The Hyundai Tucson shares a certain amount of hardware under the skin with the Kia Sportage, but only the Tucson is currently available with a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. Additionally, for 2016 and 2017, that engine is a vital component of the Tucson Eco trim. Hyundai specifically configures this model for maximum fuel economy, and the result is a compact front-wheel-drive SUV with EPA ratings of 26/32 mpg city/highway. The turbo engine can also make going green a surprisingly fun proposition, since it serves up 175 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.