Most SUVs are marketed on the promise of off-road adventure but not all of them are up to the task, especially if you’re looking for an SUV that is smaller in size, has more fuel efficiency, and is lower in price. Fortunately, there are a few small suvs that are genuinely off-road capable. Here is our list of 10 Best Small SUVs for Off-Road Use.
10 Best Small SUVs for Off-Road Use
Photo Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
2018 Jeep Compass
Spoiler alert: You’re going to see a few Jeeps in this list. Jeep insists that all of its new models are “Trail Rated,” meaning that they can perform off-road in a way that won’t embarrass the brand’s heritage. Thanks to some fantastic engineering, they really deliver.
A great example is the freshly-redesigned 2018 Jeep Compass. Packaged with grown-up styling that resembles the big Grand Cherokee, the Compass is a better off-roader than most SUVs of its size, particularly when purchased in Trailhawk trim, which has higher ground clearance and an all-wheel-drive system with a low “crawl” range and lockable differentials. We’ve been to the famous Hollister Hills off-road area in a Compass Trailhawk and seen it for ourselves. It really will tackle off-road obstacles that would rip the undersides from lesser SUVs. Best yet, the Compass’ off-road abilities don’t compromise its upscale interior and comfortable ride.
Photo Credit: Jeep
2018 Jeep Renegade
One could understand if Jeep gave its smallest model a pass on the whole Trail Rated thing, but they didn’t. The "baby" 2018 Jeep Renegade is just as good off-road as its larger siblings, and in fact, its small size gives it an advantage over larger off-road SUVs and pickup trucks. The Renegade Trailhawk gets the same setup as other Trailhawk models, including increased ground clearance, low-range gearing, and lockable center and rear differentials. Off-roading in the Renegade is a little different than doing it in a traditional truck, as it will often hang a wheel in the air, but the sophisticated all-wheel-drive system will apply the brake on wheels that don’t have traction and send power to those that do, allowing the Renegade to crawl ever onward. It’s an impressive performance, especially when you consider that many subcompact SUVs would struggle with a grassy field.
Photo Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
2018 Jeep Wrangler
A direct descendant of the World War II-era Jeep, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is one of the most formidable off-roaders sold on the American market. Few SUVs can venture as far off the beaten path as a Wrangler can, and those that do (we’re talking Range Rovers, Land Rovers, and Land Cruisers) have to rely on sophisticated electronics, while the Wrangler works its magic using a time-tested mechanical setup. What’s it doing on a list of small suvs? Because the Wrangler, particularly in two-door form, really is pretty small. In fact, that’s one of its chief advantages - its small size lets it squeeze through narrow spaces and crawl right over the top of uneven terrain, while axles pushed to the corners of the vehicle help it climb and conquer all sorts of obstacles. A base model Wrangler, straight from the showroom floor, will go farther off-road than most SUVs, and modified versions are almost unstoppable. Driving a Wrangler daily is not always the most pleasant endeavor, they are noisy and jittery, though the freshly-redesigned 2018 model has soft tops that are much easier to raise and lower. But if it’s off-road adventure you want, few vehicles can best the Jeep Wrangler.
Photo Credit: Land Rover
2018 Land Rover Discovery Sport
Like Jeep, Land Rover made their name by building some of the world's most capable jungle-crossing off-road machines. Today, this British brand has morphed into a luxury marque, but they haven’t forgotten their roots as evidenced in the 2018 Land Rover Discovery Sport. Unlike Jeep, which does offer front-drive versions of some of its crossovers, all vehicles wearing the Land Rover badge (including this, their smallest) have an all-wheel-drive ride platform specifically designed for off-road prowess. Though larger than some of the vehicles on this list (as a matter of fact, it’s one of the few here that offers seating for seven,) the Disco Sport is small by Land Rover standards, and its sub-$40k starting price is a good deal for a vehicle this posh and capable.
Photo Credit: Mitsubishi
2018 Mitsubishi Outlander
Set the 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander side-by-side next to some of the other vehicles on this list, and you might say “Off-road? No way!” While the Outlander doesn’t have the high ground clearance of other SUVs, it does have one of the most sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems on the market. Called Super All Wheel Control (S-AWC,) it does an excellent job of quickly figuring out which wheels have traction and sending the power there. That makes the Outlander especially sure-footed on soft, uneven terrain, and it works pretty well on snow, too. The Outlander may not be able to tackle terrain as severe as the Jeeps can take on, but having off-roaded the S-AWC Outlander on steep, loose-dirt-covered hills, we can tell you from experience that it’ll take you farther than you expect. It's also a nice SUV to live with on a daily basis, with a comfortable interior and good on-road driving dynamics.
Photo Credit: Land Rover
2018 Range Rover Evoque
Range Rover is the luxury arm of Land Rover, and the Evoque is its smallest offering, smaller even than Land Rover’s own Discovery Sport (mentioned earlier.) The 2018 Range Rover Evoque is designed for form as well as function, and though the design is around eight years old, it still looks fresh and modern. Though you might not guess from a quick glance, the Evoque is a capable off-roader. While it can’t tackle the really rough stuff as well as larger Range Rover models, the Evoque will still out-climb and out-maneuver most similarly-sized SUVs. It doesn’t come cheap (it is a Range Rover after all,) but the Evoque justifies its price with both style and talent.
Photo Credit: Toyota
2018 Toyota 4Runner
Admittedly, we’re pushing the definition of “small” a bit by including the 2018 Toyota 4Runner in this list. Still, the 4Runner deserves your consideration, as this is the last of the old-school body-on-frame SUVs, designed specifically for serious off-road adventure. Four-wheel-drive 4Runners are exceptionally capable, particularly the TRD models. We like the TRD Pro, which features Crawl Control, essentially a low speed off-road cruise control system that allows the 4Runner to tip-toe over difficult off-road obstacles with little intervention from the driver (and therefore less opportunity for the driver to make a mistake that could get the vehicle stuck.) The 4Runner isn’t exactly small, but nor is it a monster, it will still fit into car-sized parking spots with plenty of room to spare.
Photo Credit: Subaru
2018 Subaru Crosstrek
The 2018 Subaru Crosstrek may not look like much of an off-roader, and while it can’t quite climb rocks like a Jeep Wrangler, it’s far more capable than one might think. With standard-fit all-wheel-drive, and lots of ground clearance, the Crosstrek can easily tackle roads where normal cars dare not tread, and its hill descent control system allows it to descend steep slopes with loose surfaces such as dirt or rocks. The Crosstrek also has several advantages on-road. It’s good to drive and more fuel efficient than most SUVs, and it’s affordably priced as well. Small? Yep, the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek checks that box, it’s based on Subaru’s compact Impreza hatchback, and it’s just as easy to drive and park.
Photo Credit: Volkswagen
2018 Volkswagen Alltrak
The 2018 Golf Alltrak is Volkswagen’s take on cars like the Subaru Crosstrek, listed previously. Based on the Golf wagon, a worldwide favorite, the Alltrak features 4Motion all-wheel-drive, increased ground clearance, and a hill descent control system, making it a great choice for getting to places on dirt roads and uneven trails. The Alltrak is more station wagon than SUV, and that has lots of advantages, including a generously-sized and easy-to-pack cargo bay, great handling, easy parking, and good fuel economy. Build quality has been a concern with Volkswagen models, but a new fully-transferrable warranty that covers the entire car for 6 years or 72,000 miles should bring peace of mind.