Affordable price tags, fuel-efficient engines, roomy interiors, high seating positions, nimble driving characteristics, and weather-beating all-wheel-drive systems – small crossover SUVs seem to have everything going for them. No wonder they are exploding in popularity, not just in the United States but all around the world.
Live with one of these so-called “mini-utes,” and it is easy to understand why they possess universal appeal. They are more rugged looking and more practical than a sedan, more comfortable and efficient than bigger SUVs. Even the smallest of crossovers can fit into a variety of lifestyles: young or old, single or married, a parent or not.
With a slew of new models arriving on the market — we thought it would be a good idea to provide a quick flyover of the mini-ute landscape. Pull up a comfortable chair and check out all 14 models, each accompanied by our expert commentary and recommendations.
Smaller than an Audi Q5, and priced about $7,000 less, the new Audi Q3 is built on the same modular platform that forms the basis for the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. Component sharing helps to keep the Q3’s price in check, but this little luxury crossover still includes leather seats, automatic climate control, and a panoramic glass sunroof as standard equipment.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 200 horsepower and 207 lb. ft. of torque over the majority of its rev range. As a result (and like other Audi and Volkswagen models with similar powertrain characteristics), the Q3 is remarkably responsive – more so than engine specifications and a claimed run of 7.8 seconds from 0 to 60 mph might suggest).
Available in Premium Plus and Prestige trim, the Q3 is equipped with standard front-wheel drive and an EPA fuel economy rating of 29 mpg in combined driving. Audi’s Quattro all-wheel-drive system is optional.
In terms of utility, flop down the Q3’s back seat to create maximum cargo space of 48.2 cu. ft. As far as safety is concerned, the Q3 is new and had not been crash-tested when this article was written. However, the models that share the Q3’s modular structure are safety rock stars. Both the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf have earned “Top Safety Pick” ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Photo by Ryan ZumMallen
An older design, the BMW X1 debuted in other parts of the world before it arrived in the U.S. for the 2013 model year as one of the pioneers of the mini-ute segment.
Like most BMW models, the X1 comes standard with rear-wheel drive (sDrive) and is available with all-wheel drive (xDrive). A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine generates 240 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, which starts at 1250 rpm and lasts nearly to where peak horsepower kicks in at 5000 rpm. As a result, the X1 zooms to 60 mph in a claimed 6.2 seconds. Up to 27 mpg can be returned in combined driving, says the EPA.
If that’s not quick enough for you, try the more powerful turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six. Thanks to its 300 horsepower and 300 lb.-ft. of torque it shaves nearly a second off the zero-to-60 acceleration time, yet fuel economy estimates are not greatly affected.
Prices start at just over $32,000, and that includes free scheduled maintenance for the first four years or 50,000 miles of driving. However, almost everything you want on a luxury suv is optional. In addition to M Sport, xLine, and Sport Line trim packages, BMW structures optional equipment in such a way that the sticker price skyrockets when adding features such as leather, a navigation system, a premium sound system, and more. Heck, even metallic paint costs extra.
Every BMW X1 does, however, come standard with 47.7 cu. ft. of maximum cargo space — no additional charge. Unfortunately, the BMW is tarnished in terms of crash protection: The X1 received only a “Marginal” rating in the IIHS’s small overlap frontal-impact test, but otherwise earned “Good” ratings.
Photo by BMW
A surprise hit for Buick, the Encore is one of the smaller members of the mini-ute family in terms of exterior dimensions, but it packs 48.4 cu.-ft. of maximum cargo space when you need it.
Though the Encore is small, its turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine works overtime to motivate a base curb weight of 3,237 pounds. With just 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque responding to the driver’s right foot, an Encore feels every pound of passenger or cargo, even if the power curve’s peak stretches from 1850 rpm all the way to 6000 rpm.
The front-drive version of the Encore records a combined fuel economy rating of 28 mpg. An all-wheel-drive system is optional, and as is true of most of this mini-ute’s competitors, it takes a slight toll on fuel efficiency.
A base price of just under $25,000 is appealing, and Encore buyers can upgrade with option packages named Convenience, Leather, and Premium. All Encores include a touchscreen infotainment system with a reversing camera and 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity. The Encore also features OnStar services with Automatic Collision Notification, numerous QuietTuning efforts to silence unwanted cabin noise, and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Crash-test ratings reflect impressive protection levels in a collision. And now that the IIHS has subjected the Encore to its tough new small overlap frontal-impact test (a crucial measurement of overall safety), this little SUV earns a “Top Safety Pick” accolade.
Photo by Buick
General Motors has been selling the Chevy Trax in other parts of the world, including Canada and Mexico, for a couple of years. The unexpected success in America of GM’s Buick Encore convinced the automaker’s executives that the Trax would find an eager American audience, and the diminutive little Chevrolet is now on sale for the 2015 model year.
The Chevy Trax is the same vehicle as the Buick Encore, but it wears a unique skin. In exchange for a starting price of one Abraham Lincoln less than $21,000, the Trax is not as quiet inside as the Buick or as fancy in terms of trim, materials, and equipment. Buyers can upgrade the Chevy to LT or LTZ trim, and with all the extras a Trax costs almost as much as an Encore. What’s the main difference? Leatherette is as upscale as it gets for the Chevy, forcing seekers of real leather to head to the Buick showroom.
Mechanically, the Trax mirrors the Encore, but the lighter Bow-Tie version of this mini-ute gets up to 29 mpg in combined driving due to a 200-pound weight loss compared to the Buick. That should also make the Chevrolet’s turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine feel livelier getting away from stoplights.
Additionally, like the Encore the Trax offers up to 48.4 cu.-ft. of maximum cargo space and gets both a 5-star overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the IIHS.
Photo by Chevrolet
Don’t let this Fiat’s name fool you. The 500X is an all-new model, totally unrelated to other 500 models aside from its standard turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual gearbox. It is roomier inside than most other FIAT 500 models, too, providing up to 50.8 cu.-ft. of cargo space.
If you can’t use a clutch pedal, Fiat’s got your back. An optional 180-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission. Regardless of engine and transmission selection, front-wheel drive is standard; all-wheel drive is optional and also includes a rear-axle disconnect design to incrementally boost fuel economy.
Sharing a platform with the new Jeep Renegade, the FIAT 500X exudes Italian style and sophistication. It’s available in 12 different paint colors, and optional equipment includes leather seats, a heated steering wheel, and a touchscreen infotainment system with navigation and a premium Beats Audio sound system. Fiat also will offer numerous safety technologies, including a blind spot warning system, a lane departure warning system, and a forward collision warning system with autonomous braking capability. The new FIAT 500X comes in Pop, Easy, Trekking, Trekking Plus, and Lounge trim levels. [We are not making those up. – Ed.]
Photo by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
Based on the small but sophisticated Fit platform, the new 2016 Honda HR-V crossover slots into the automaker’s lineup beneath the CR-V. Also like the Fit, and in consideration of its diminutive exterior size, the new HR-V is positively huge inside.
Credit Honda’s Magic Seat design and thoughtful engineering for how well the new HR-V swallows people and cargo. Flip the rear seat cushion up to use four feet of vertical cargo clearance. Fold the rear seat down to create a whopping 58.8 cu.-ft. of cube-shaped cargo space. You can even fold the front passenger’s seat in order to slide something eight feet long into the HR-V and still be able to slam shut the rear liftgate.
Light and lively, the HR-V has a larger and more powerful engine than the Fit — a 1.8-liter four-cylinder good for 138 horsepower. A manual gearbox is standard for the front-drive model; Honda also offers a continuously variable transmission (CVT) equipped with shift logic intended to make it feel more natural and responsive. With the CVT, Honda predicts a combined fuel economy rating of 31 mpg. That number falls a bit with the optional all-wheel-drive system.
When the Honda HR-V goes on sale in the spring of 2015, it will come in LX, EX, and leather-lined EX-L trim levels. Aluminum wheels and a multi-angle reversing camera are standard for all, while a navigation system is reserved for the tongue-twisting HR-V EX-L version of Honda’s nifty new sport-ute.
Now eight years old, the Infiniti QX50 is one of the mini-ute segment’s oldest models. Originally called the EX35 when it debuted for the 2008 model year, this Infiniti suv may have arrived a decade before its time.
Based on the same platform as the Q40 sports sedan (previously the G37), the QX50 is equipped with a 325-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 engine, a seven-speed automatic transmission, and rear-wheel drive. An all-wheel-drive system is optional, and the QX50 is expected to get no better than 20 mpg in combined driving.
Prices start at about $36,000, and buyers upgrade from standard equipment by choosing the Journey trim level, a requirement to further enhance this SUV with many of the QX50’s available upgrades.
Despite this model’s age, it is offered with such modern safety technologies as adaptive headlights, a blind spot warning system, a lane departure warning system, and a forward collision warning system with autonomous braking capability. The QX50 receives “Good” ratings in all IIHS crashworthiness assessments except for the small overlap frontal-impact test, which as yet has not been performed on this model.
Maximum cargo capacity measures a reported 47.4 cu.-ft.* A small cargo area is one reason the QX50 hasn’t sold in significant numbers, but now that this Infiniti is just as accommodating as newer small crossovers, perhaps buyers will give it a closer look.
* Sourced from a third-party. Infiniti does not publish an official maximum cargo volume for the QX50.
Sharing a platform and powertrains with the FIAT 500X, but available in dude-approved Trailhawk trim with a more robust Jeep Active Drive Low 4-wheel-drive system and greater off-road capability, the boxy Jeep Renegade is a huge improvement over Jeep’s previous small SUV efforts.
Engine choices include a turbocharged 160-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed manual gearbox, and a 180-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder with a nine-speed automatic transmission. All Renegades except for the Trailhawk model come with front-wheel drive, and their optional all-wheel-drive system features a fuel-saving rear-axle disconnect system. Any Renegade rocking AWD gets Selec-Terrain control with Auto, Snow, Sand, Mud, and Rock driving modes. Jeep is predicting that the most efficient version of this SUV will get 30 mpg on the highway.
In addition to the rugged Trailhawk model, the Renegade is available in Sport, Latitude, and Limited trim levels. One of the roomiest cute-utes in the class, the Renegade holds up to 50.8 cu.-ft. of cargo.
Photo by Jeep
Blending the style and fittings of a luxury crossover with the price and availability of a mainstream model, the new Mazda CX-3 is available in Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring trim levels. Depending on the version selected, this mini-ute is available with leather seats, a sophisticated Mazda Connect infotainment system, several high-tech safety features, and great looking 18-inch aluminum wheels.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is standard for all CX-3 models. Mazda pairs the engine to a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive; an all-wheel-drive system is available as an option and comes with a rear-axle disconnect feature to maximize fuel economy.
Photo by Mazda
Style, practicality, and performance come together in the new Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, a compact crossover built on the same platform as the CLA-Classcoupe/sedan thingamabob. Value, however, is not a part of this equation.
Prices start at just over $34,000 for a GLA250 4Matic, but that doesn’t include much aside from a 3-pointed star on the grille, standard all-wheel drive, and 43.6 cu.-ft. of maximum cargo capacity. Plus, just like BMW does for the X1, Mercedes packages additional features in such a manner that forces buyers to spend about $7,000 extra just to get leather, dual-zone automatic climate control, a reversing camera, and metallic paint.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine supplies the GLA250 4Matic with 208 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque, the latter starting at just 1250 rpm. The engine’s broad power curve is good for acceleration to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, and the EPA says this version of the SUV will get 27 mpg in combined driving. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) is standard, featuring Eco, Sport and Manual driving modes and a pair of paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
For an extra 15 grand, the performance-tuned Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG variant makes a flabbergasting 355 horsepower and 332 lb.-ft. of torque from a hand-built, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. A seven-speed AMG SpeedShift DCT feeds the power to all four wheels, and 60 mph comes up in just 4.8 seconds; 25 mpg is estimated for combined driving.
Does the GLA-Class represent the best or nothing, as its maker asserts? That’s up to you to decide.