10 small SUVs that are the best to drive

21st March 2024
Russell Campbell

There's no shortage of disdain for SUVs in the motoring press, so why does everyone buy them? Easy, because their square shapes mean they're practical, and a raised ride height is ideal for the boot loading and baby-seat fitting that comes hand in hand with family life. Much of the criticism of an old-school SUV, their lofty handling and poor efficiency, isn't such a factor in modern incarnations.

We would never load this list with wheezy boxes that struggle to pull the skin off custard; all the SUVs here offer decent pace and genuine fun. This is Goodwood Road & Racing's guide to small SUVs that are fun to drive.


Ford Puma ST

The Ford Puma ST is our kind of small SUV. It has all the razmataz of the Fiesta ST given that it shares its underpinning, with a chassis that revels in being taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown down the road. Hooked up to an adjustable sports exhaust that crackles and pops like a giant's bowl of Rice Krispies, the car's rorty 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine sounds great and punches well above its weight in the performance stakes.

The Puma is a much easier car for families to get on with than the Fiesta, thanks to having significantly more rear legroom and a big boot complete with a draining bucket under the floor you can hose clean – ideal for storing muddy boots or football kit. Affordable running costs are yet another accolade of this excellent little SUV. Used prices start for well under £20,000.


Volkswagen T-Roc R

The Volkswagen T-Roc R follows a similar mould to the Puma ST – take the underpinnings of your popular hot hatch and screw them to the bottom of a more practical SUV body. In this case, the T-Roc R is based on the Golf R, meaning you get a circa 300ps (221kW) 2.0-litre turbocharged engine mated to a quick-shifting DSG twin-clutch gearbox and Haldex four-wheel drive. The result is a B-road blaster that can lay down devastating performance come rain or shine.

But the rest of the time, it's happy to provide sensible family transport. Quiet and refined, the DSG gearbox makes the T-Roc a straightforward car to operate in the drudgery of everyday driving, and the engine isn't just powerful; it's flexible, giving plenty of oomph at normal engine speeds. The practical interior and intuitive infotainment confirm this as one of the most sensible choices on this list, particularly when you can have a T-Roc R for under £25,000.


Hyundai Kona N

The Hyundai Kona N is one of the more exciting propositions here. Determined that its N badge should be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of BMW M Sport, Hyundai did the obvious thing – nicked BMW M's staff, most notably its Motorsport division's boss, Albert Bierman. Bierman's first creation was the i30 N, a hot hatch with prodigious power, an adjustable LSD and an exhaust with all the subtleness of a backfiring heavy machine gun.

The Hyundai Kona N is basically the same car but, as is fast becoming a theme of this list, with a much roomier interior that means it can slide into family life with Labrador-like ease. The Kona N only went on sale in 2023 and has already been scrapped as the company focuses on EVs. Less than £30,000 buys you a car with the balance of a five-year warranty to fall back on.


Mercedes GLA 45

Yep, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 is another SUV spinoff of a fast hatchback, this time Merc's devastatingly quick A45 hyperhatch. With more than 421PS (310kW) to call on, four-wheel drive and a quick-shifting twin-clutch gearbox, the GLA 45 can give genuine supercars a run for their money on the right road. Still, unlike the old model, it's possible to extract some playfulness from its chassis if you scroll the drive select up to the max.

Like all the cars here, the GLA 45 is as happy going quickly as it is playing the sensible family car role. Its back seats are suitable for towering teenagers, and the boot can live up to the demands of their various sporting activities. What the Merc offers above other cars here is a sense of luxury. Its big infotainment screens and its augmented sat-nav screen still look high-tech three years after the car went on sale. Demand means you'll need nearly £40,000 to get one.


Audi SQ2

Like the T-Roc R before it and the Cupra Formentor below, the Audi SQ2 makes use of the VW Group's winning formula of a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, four-wheel drive and twin-clutch gearbox to get this relatively unassuming little SUV from 0-62mph in less than five seconds and onto a limited 155mph top speed. The power feels all the more ferocious because the Q2 sits on the smaller end of the, er, small SUV scale. The Q2 feels light on its feet and is handily manoeuvrable in town.

It's not all roses, though. The Audi's dated interior has a mere slither of the company’s usual slickness, with old-school infotainment screens and a head-up display that mirrors on a cheap-looking bit of plastic. Having said that, it's roomy inside, given its relatively small footprint.


Cupra Formentor

The Cupra Formentor was the new brand's first standalone model, hitting the nail on the head on the first time of asking as a good-looking, sporty yet practical SUV. Unsurprisingly, Cupra couldn't build enough of them.

While the looks are distinct, the power and drivetrain are the same tried-and-tested formula used by the Volkswagen T-Roc and Audi SQ2. You get a four-banger turbo with Haldex four-wheel drive and a twin-clutch DSG gearbox (you can also have a plug-in hybrid or 1.5-litre petrol, but they're decidedly less fun). That combination makes it very easy for the Formentor to drive stunningly quickly, which is the perfect combination for a fast family car.


Nissan Juke Nismo RS

The Nissan Juke Nismo is the kind of head-scratcher that leaves you asking one question – why? Money, of course. In 2013, when the GT-R was busy embarrassing Porsche Turbos, Nissan needed to sprinkle some of the supercar-slayer's magic onto the rest of the range. What better candidate than a small and unexceptionable SUV?

In truth, the Juke Nismo RS  didn’t make much sense on paper. It wasn't that quick; it was front-wheel drive and had a tight back seat and a small boot. Nevertheless, we're still glad Nissan built it. Surprise and delight surely factor in because the RS drives way better than it looks. It's keen in the corners thanks to an LSD and tight body control, and while it's not got loads of traction, its ability to light up the front wheels reinjects the sense of challenge missing in Haldex cars.


Mini Paceman JCW

The Mini Paceman was an interesting concoction. Too big to be a Mini but too small to be a particularly practical SUV. It was also a pain for young families who knew three doors and a baby seat mixed like oil in water. But don't discount the Paceman just yet. You can scoop up clean examples for well under £10,000, making it one of the cheapest cars on this list.

And you know what, it's pretty good. While the Paceman is less chuckable than a proper Mini (it weighs about 200kg more), it handles maturely and has plenty of pace thanks to its turbocharged 1.6-litre engine. Standard four-wheel drive blunts the car's character but means you can mount verges and venture into muddy car parks with the reasonable expectation that it won't get stuck. And, while it's one of the least practical cars on this list, it's still much better than a three-door Mini.


Range Rover Evoque Si4

There are many reasons not to buy a Range Rover Evoque Si4. Appalling fuel economy tops our list, but, let's face it, Land Rovers are not exactly famed for their reliability. Buying a near-15-year-old example is like throwing the dice and hoping for the best.

But many do because no other SUV has Land Rover's pedigree. The Evoque embodies this, too,  even though it comes from the softer end of the Land Rover spectrum. Despite having concept car looks (influenced by Victoria Beckham, no less) that miraculously still look fresh today, it's a genuinely capable off-roader with Terrain Response modes and hill descent that make this queen of the catwalk easy to drive in challenging conditions. Naturally, three-door models aren't that practical and have appalling rearward visibility, but they handle well and are reasonably fast in a straight line.


BMW X2 M35i

The BMW X2 M35i is an SUV in name only. You'd swear it was a hatchback if you didn't know better, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Being low to the ground means the X2 is one of the best performers on this list, with tight body control, positive steering, and bucket loads of grip that give it a limpet-like ability to hold onto corners. It's also pretty blooming quick, thanks to its tractable 2.0-litre turbocharged engine.

While the first-generation X2 has been replaced, you wouldn't know it from the inside because the old car is packed with snazzy materials and feels beautifully built. Admittedly, it's not hugely roomy – there's always the X1 M35i if you need more space – but the cabin's excellent design makes it easy to make the best of the space it does have in what is arguably one of the best all-rounders here.

  • List

  • Road

  • Ford

  • Volkswagen

  • Hyundai

  • Mercedes

  • Audi

  • Nissan

  • Cupra

  • Mini

  • Range Rover

  • BMW

  • Puma ST

  • T-Roc R

  • Kona N

  • SQ2

  • Juke Nismo RS

  • Formentor

  • Paceman JCW

  • GLA 45

  • Si4

  • X2 M35i

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