SUV Buying Guide

By Matt Keegan
Last Updated 05/05/2015

Shopping for a sport utility vehicle is never an easy task, unless you know precisely what make and model you want. These SUVs come in a variety of sizes with some based on traditional truck platforms for optimum off-road capability, but with the majority now underpinned by car platforms for superior on-road handling. Our SUV buying guide offers the best of the best in seven categories, while also mentioning a few competitors for comparison purposes.

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Compact SUVs

The Honda CR-V may not have written the book on small SUVs, but it certainly has provided a blueprint that its competitors have duplicated. Nevertheless, the CR-V is the forerunner in a segment where nearly every manufacturer has at least one model to show for it.

The smallest SUVs are prized for having a compact footprint and a roomy interior. Most also offer light-duty towing. Nearly all models are powered by in-line four-cylinder engines that deliver the best fusion of performance and efficiency available. These small SUVs typically come standard with front-wheel drive, while all-wheel drive is offered as an option.

Small SUVs typically come well equipped with an automatic transmission, power accessories, air conditioning and a basic audio system. To obtain navigation, a rearview camera and an improved infotainment system, many require opting for a top-of-the-line edition or purchasing a special technology package.

Midsize SUVs

The midsize SUV segment is composed of models with two or three rows of seating. Front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is optional. The Ford Edge is a standout in this segment, offering sporty looks and room for five. Like most models in this category, both four- and six-cylinder engine choices are available, with turbocharging popular to boost power out of a smaller engine.

When shopping this segment, expect certain amenities as standard equipment, including climate control, an infotainment system, a rearview monitor and power accessories. Leather can replace standard cloth seats and many models are rated to pull at least 5,000 pounds. Additionally, a number of midsize SUVs offer numerous safety features such as adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning.

The three-row Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander might also be considered here. Top competitors include the two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee and the three-row Nissan Pathfinder.

Full-size SUVs

The Chevrolet Suburban has the distinction of being the longest running nameplate in the business, as the original model rolled out in the 1930s. This SUV has changed considerably since then, as it has grown taller, wider and longer over the years. Rear-wheel drive is standard; four-wheel drive is available.

SUVs like the Suburban have everything a buyer in this sector is looking for, including a family of robust V8 engines, room for nine and the ability to pull a large boat or a trailer. Furthermore, cabins are cavernous with the best head, shoulder, hip and leg room in the industry. Cloth or leather seats, high-end audio systems and navigation packages are widely available. Cup holders, bottle holders and numerous other storage compartments are also present in abundance.

Choose the somewhat smaller Chevrolet Tahoe if the Suburban’s girth is more than what you need. Other models to consider include the Toyota Sequoia and the Ford Expedition.

Luxury Compact SUVs

The fastest-growing SUV segment are compact luxury SUVs and here the Audi Q5 is a category influencer. These models offer seating for five, standard front-wheel drive and available all-wheel drive.

The Audi Q5 is prized for its refined looks, manageable size and finely crafted interior. Finely stitched leather, wood inlays and metal trim give this model an exquisite look with a clean and uncluttered dashboard and instrument panel to show for it. What gives the Q5 an edge is an available turbodiesel V6 engine, delivering robust power and excellent fuel efficiency. Consider this category if you want the benefits of a luxurious high profile vehicle without the heaviness of the larger models.

When considering the Audi Q5, the Volvo XC60 and Infiniti QX50 should also be cross-shopped. Indeed, every luxury brand has at least one model in this segment with a low price point offering the perfect gateway to each respective brand.

Luxury Midsize SUVs

Just like standard SUVs, the midsize luxury segment is marked by two- and three-row varieties. No vehicle, however, has defined this category as well as the Lexus RX 350, a model offering standard front- and available all-wheel drive.

The Lexus RX 350 offers comfortable seating for five and provides ample storage space behind the rear seat. It can also pull up to 3,500 pounds. Models in this segment are awash in leather, real wood trim and aluminum accents, and come with premium audio systems, navigation packages and such amenities as heated and cooled seats, roof rails and a power liftgate. A hybrid model is also available.

Besides the Lexus RX Hybrid, there are several models in this category that should also be considered. The BMW X5 is a close competitor and for those who put a premium on performance, the Porsche Cayenne should not be overlooked.

Luxury Full-Size SUVs

A high profile, three rows of seating, and every convenience available mark the full-size luxury SUV segment. One of the most notable models in this segment is the Cadillac Escalade, which is of the earliest vehicles of its kind to debut.

The largest luxury SUVs are powered by V8 engines and have robust payload and towing capabilities. Beyond the Escalade’s bling, this model’s interior is covered in leather, trimmed in wood and metal and offers numerous hi-tech features. You’ll find a sophisticated infotainment system, available rear DVD entertainment and zoned heating and cooling. Most any luxury detail you want is offered, but new models that come fully equipped in this category will cost you too, approaching $100,000 in a number of cases.

For Cadillac Escalade alternatives, keep the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and the Lexus LX in mind. The Mercedes offers something most of its competitors do not have: a diesel variant.

Off-Road SUVs

In the earlier days of SUVs, most models had off-road capabilities. These days, manufacturers have mostly transitioned to unibody models that offer a more car-like driving experience.

Fortunately for off-road purists, a few true blue models with separate bodies and frames still exist. The best-selling model in this segment is the iconic Jeep Wrangler, available in standard and stretched (Unlimited) wheelbase editions. The Wrangler is the winner here for its removable doors, folding windshield and rugged persona. It also helps that the Wrangler comes with front and rear tow hooks, an available winch-capable bumper and legendary suspension systems designed to tackle the toughest trail conditions. Indeed, you can find a Jeep Wrangler with a transfer case and a low gear ratio, an electronic locking differential and an electronic front sway bar disconnect for the ultimate in 4x4 capabilities.

In this segment you won’t want to overlook two other models. The Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Xterra, as both offer a lot of off-road fun and look terrific around town too.


People are buying utility vehicles at a faster clip than they are cars. And for a notable reason too: these multi-purpose models are roomy, offer generous storage and towing capabilities, and are powered by modern, fuel efficient engines and transmissions.