2016 Toyota RAV4 Limited Hybrid exterior profile ・ Photo by Toyota
If you want to drive an SUV, you have no shortage of choices—but if you have a $30,000 budget, that does limit things a bit. Fortunately, there are several great SUVs that can be had for less than $30k—and we’re not talking stripped-out models, but SUVs and crossovers that can be nicely equipped for under $30,000. Here are 10 of our favorites.
The Jeep name has a lot of cachet—witness the strong sales of Jeep's least-expensive and most dated vehicles, the Compass and the Patriot. Thanks to the new Renegade, buying a budget Jeep no longer means putting up with outdated technology: The Renegade is fresh and modern and brimming with character. Small as it is, the Renegade still has plenty of room for a family of four and their luggage, and it's good fun to drive—in fact, it's one of the few SUVs you can buy with 4-wheel drive and a manual transmission. Base models can be had for well under $20,000, and a $30K budget will get you the off-road-ready Trailhawk model and still leave you enough change to pay for a few months' worth of gas.
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Don't let the HR-V's small size fool you: This is one of the most commodious small SUVs on the market. Thanks to some smart packaging of the greasy bits, the HR-V offers up a surprisingly spacious cargo bay and lots of room for backseat passengers. And if you don't have backseat passengers, the rear row flips and folds in several different directions, making the Honda HR-V a great choice for carrying bulky cargo. Though the cabin is a bit sparse compared to the competition, the HR-V is good to drive, with that light-on-its-feet feel for which Honda is known, and it's very, very affordable: Even a top-of-the-line EX-L model, priced at just over $26,000, comes nowhere close to our $30,000 budget.
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The CX-3 is the newest and smallest of Mazda's SUVs, and it shows off a lot of what this company has learned about design and style in the last few years: It's cute on the outside and really stylish on the inside. We're especially fond of the 2- and 3-tone color options. Mazda worked hard to cut weight from the CX-3, which gives a boost to both fuel economy and driving dynamics. In terms of interior space, the CX-3 trails some of its subcompact rivals, but in terms of the fun-to-drive factor it's hard to beat—Mazda works hard to make sure every vehicle they sell is worthy of the “Zoom-Zoom” tagline.
Photo by Mazda
If the Mazda CX-3 is a little too tight for you, we recommend another Mazda: The slightly larger CX-5. Like the CX-3, the CX-5 is light, agile, and great fun to drive, and unlike the CX-3, it has more interior space for a growing family. Its starting price is well below our budget, though bear in mind that price is with a manual transmission; automatics start at $24,495. The good news is that you can get a top-of-the-line Grand Touring model with all-wheel drive for just under $30k. Our one complaint about the CX-5 is that the interior isn’t as ornate as other Mazda SUVs; that will change with the upcoming 2017 model, and if you can live with the CX-5 as it is, you should be able to negotiate a great deal on the current “2016.5” version.
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Subaru is famous for their all-weather all-wheel drive vehicles, which explains why they are inordinately popular in New England and the Pacific Northwest—in other words, places where the weather doesn’t always cooperate with travel plans. The Forester is their 5-seat family-friendly SUV, and while a $30,000 budget will only cover the base and Premium models (the leather-lined Limited model goes slightly over), keep in mind that the Forester comes with all-wheel drive as standard; many SUVs come with front-wheel drive and charge extra for AWD. If the Forester isn’t quite to your taste, Subaru’s smaller Crosstrek and larger Outback can also be had for less than $30,000.
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Hyundai just redesigned the Tucson last year, and we’re smitten with this new version. The exterior is handsome and the interior is appointed like a luxury vehicle. Driving dynamics have long been a Hyundai weak point, but they are improving by leaps and bounds, and while the new Tucson is no Mazda, it’s certainly much more satisfying to drive than the previous version, and better that many of its competitors. If you have $30,000 to spend, you can buy nearly any model save the top-of-the-line Limited; we’re rather fond of the Tucson Sport, and the fuel-sipping Tucson Eco is also worth a test drive.
Photo by Hyundai
The Buick Encore is easily one of the most under-appreciated SUVs on the market. The Encore was one of the first subcompact SUVs to go on sale in the US, and it’s been given a styling refresh for 2017. The Encore is really a rebadged version of GM’s European-market Opel Mokka, and its German roots show, particularly in the well-organized dashboard and space-efficient interior. The cabin is more upscale than most small suvs, and yet the Encore fits neatly into our $30,000 budget provided you avoid the tippy-top-of-the-line models.
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SUVs hold the promise of all-terrain adventure, but few deliver on that promise like the Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler is first and foremost an off-road machine, and as such is incredibly popular with hobbyists who like to drive over terrain where even walking is difficult. The base and one-up-from-the-bottom Sport models fit well into our $30,000 budget, even with a few options; keep in mind that all Wranglers have 4-wheel drive and prodigious off-road abilities as standard, so even the most basic versions will take you pretty far off the beaten path. Jeep offers several special editions, most priced above $30k, but the Willys Wheeler lists for $29,270. If you need a more family-friendly Wrangler, you’ll want the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited: With a starting price of $28,890, it fits neatly into our $30k budget.
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What if you have a big family to haul, but only 30 grand to spend on an SUV? Then you’ll want to head over to your local Chevy dealer and check out the Traverse. While most 3-row SUVs seat seven, the base model Traverse will actually seat eight—and in reasonable comfort and with room left over for luggage. Matter of fact, the Traverse’s capacity is on par with jumbo-sized SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition, but it gets better fuel economy and is easier to park than these budget-busting behemoths, and that makes the Traverse one of the most capable family haulers this side of a minivan. Only the LS Base model fits into our $30,000 budget; the LS model lists for $32,195, and if you can negotiate hard and stretch your budget a bit, it's still a better bargain than other big SUVs.
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There are lots of hybrid cars on the market, but so far few hybrid SUVs. Leave it to Toyota to lead the charge with a new hybrid version of their RAV4. The RAV4 Hybrid uses their proven Hybrid Synergy Drive system to power the front axle, while an electric motor drives the rear wheels. The result: Good all-weather traction and impressive fuel economy—33 MPG combined, according to the EPA. We don’t expect new technology to come cheap, and while Toyota does offer several variants of the RAV4 Hybrid priced above $30k, the base model lists for just a shade under $29,000.
Photo by Toyota