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How To Find The Best Small SUV To Fit Your Needs

By Tim Esterdahl

While your heart might lead you to want a gigantic SUVs—with the power, space, and high profile to make you feel like you rule the road—your head and your wallet may well lead you to consider something smaller.

The small SUV is one of the most competitive segments within the automotive market. Pretty much every manufacture offers a small SUV, and there are plenty of differences between the varying models, both new and used. It can be hard to keep track of all the differences when you are researching what to buy. While design tastes vary, there are some quick ways to separate the bunch and find the one that suits your needs. Here’s five tips that can help make your buying decision easier.

Reliability: Clues in Reviews

Searching forums on an ipad. Image by Official GDC
Searching forums on an ipad. Image by Official GDC

There’s a saying that you can buy a lemon in any brand. To help you figure out if a certain brand or model is more susceptible to problems, fire up the Internet and get ready to do some research.

Researching common car problems online is actually pretty easy these days thanks to car complaint websites and forums. While reading these sites, you do need to be careful to take the comments with a grain of salt. In many cases you’ll end up reading a whole bunch of negative comments or extremely positive ones. The trick is to see if there’s some common themes or trends among these threads, rather than just a few people kvetching and feeding off the previous comment. Do people in various forums seem to have a similar issue with a particular model?

Keep in mind too, that you’re dealing with just a small sample size. For example, let’s say a forum has a thread with 20 posts having a problem with a specific year/make/model’s water pump. You may think this is a huge deal. However, you need to put things in perspective since manufactures sell a lot more than 20 vehicles a month.

A big part of reliability is keeping up on general maintenance and if, for example, the previous owner skipped oil changes, you could have engine problems in the future. This is where Carfax can help. Every used car listed on Carfax.com comes with a free Carfax Report. Plus, the myCarfax app helps keeps track of car maintenance, including what was done by previous owners.

Fuel Economy: Real World Reality

Most small SUVs have similar fuel economy these days. Still, even a few miles per gallon difference can mean saving a few hundred dollars a year at the pump.

MPG combined city/highway 23 MPG 26 MPG
Annual Fuel Cost* $2,217 $1,962
Cost per 25 miles* $3.70 $3.27
1 Year Savings $255
 5 Year Savings $1,275
* Based on 15,000 annual miles driven and average fuel price of $3.40

When looking up fuel economy, don’t just rely on EPA estimated numbers.  Your best bet is to find real-world information through websites like Fuelly.com or on forums. Together, you’ll have a much better idea on what to expect.

Lastly, look up what engine sizes were offered during that model year. Quite often, there is a 4-cylinder and a 6-cylinder option. Usually the smaller engine will have better fuel economy but won’t have quite the same performance as the larger engine.

Cargo Room: It Varies

2012 Mini Cooperman’s cargo space. Image by Michael Sheehan.

Another big factor should be the amount of cargo room in a small SUV. While it seems logical that each small SUV would have a similar amount of room, this is not the case. Designers can add space by recessing the structural pillars and/or recessing interior panels.

A good idea when shopping is to bring a common item you plan on transporting. For example, if you like golf, bring your clubs. Or if you have kids, bring a stroller. Check how easy/hard it is going to be to get items in and out of the trunk. The usability of this space should be a big part of your buying decision. Simply put, if the clubs don’t fit in one car, you should find another model that does.

Also, you will want to fold the back seats down to see how much room you have for larger trips. The big picture here is that you are buying a smaller SUV and not a mammoth full-size version. This means you will need to be smarter about utilizing the space. Folding down the seats will be a big part of your ownership experience. Make sure you can do it easily and quickly.

Features: Technology, Storage, Bells and Whistles

kia-interiorSUVs these days have a lot more to offer than four seats and a small trunk. Depending on your tastes and needs, some late-model used small SUVs can come with a lot of technology offerings.

In the end, buying a used small SUV is great for people who want the SUV look and feel without having to sacrifice things like cargo space and gas mileage.

For example, new technology systems like Bluetooth, in-dash information displays, touch-screen infotainment systems with navigation and USB charging/syncing outlets have become the norm. Quite often the amount of technology in the small SUV can vary widely between manufactures. Technology is one of the areas where manufactures try to distinguish themselves by offering these features as standard versus optional upgrades.

Along with technology features, you will need somewhere to store all the cell phones, tablets, headphones we carry with us these days. Make sure you thoroughly check the storage options and consider how you would use them. Sometimes having a place to put your iPod can be the deciding buying factor.

Safety: For Sure

crash test dummies
Crash test dummies doing their job. Image by Jimmyyyy.

Just like technology and storage offerings vary between manufactures, vehicle safety features and ratings vary as well. Many manufactures take pride in their safety ratings and proudly post this information because they know it is important to car buyers.

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and other vehicle safety-dedicated organizations conduct crash tests to help consumers make educated buying decisions. This information is free to consumers on the Institute’s website. Factor this information into your buying decision and you will be better for it.

Also, check with your insurance company. Your agent can do a quick search between a few vehicles to tell you which ones cost less to insure than others. In some cases, if it costs less to insure, it may be safer.

In the end, buying a used small SUV is great for people who want the SUV look and feel without having to sacrifice things like cargo space and gas mileage.  Using these tips can help make your buying experience faster and more enjoyable. Find the right one for you and get out and drive!

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