After putting in dozens of hours of research, test-driving all 11 available models, and consulting with other automotive experts, we can say that the Kia Soul + (Soul Plus) for around $20,0001 is the best subcompact crossover SUV for most people. You might be wondering: The Kia Soul? It’s funky-looking—is it even a crossover SUV? It’s also one of the older models we looked at in this quickly growing collection of tiny crossovers. Well, we have our reasons, and plenty of them. Not only does the Soul have the lowest starting price of any model we looked at (around $16,5002), but its midlevel trim, the + (or Plus), also costs $3,000 to $6,000 less than similarly equipped competitors. If you can spend a few thousand more (about $24,5003), a nearly loaded Soul + comes with more premium features than any of the others, including some items found only in far costlier luxury cars. The Soul’s award-winning interior is also surprisingly roomy for a vehicle this small, as its tall, horizontal roofline makes getting in and out easy, and its squarish cargo area lets you stuff in bigger and bulkier things than do most of the other subcompact crossovers we looked at. The Soul even comes with the longest warranty and ranks among the best in crash tests. And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, one of us actually owns one: Wirecutter senior autos editor John Neff bought a 2014 Kia Soul two years ago and still loves it. We’ll tell you more about the good and bad of owning a Soul over the long term later on. (Hint: The good far outweighs the bad.)
Subcompacts are the smallest crossover SUVs available, and they’ve become especially popular for several reasons. In general they provide more room and versatility than subcompact sedans and hatchbacks but offer qualities similar to those of larger compact crossover SUVs in nominally smaller and less-expensive packages. Their somewhat tall rooflines also give you generous headroom and the ability to carry big and tall objects with the rear seats folded flat. Subcompact crossover SUVs are among the easiest vehicles to park, too. And being somewhat lighter in weight than most compact cars and crossovers, they tend to feel more nimble to drive.
Their base versions range in price from around $16,500 to about $24,000, with fully loaded top models approaching the $30,000 mark. This pricing makes them about $3,000 to $4,000 more affordable than larger compact crossover SUVs. What’s more, many of them mimic the style of traditional SUVs with a more rugged look and feel, a taller ride height that gives you a better view of the road, and easier entry and exiting than most passenger cars offer. And while many people may not need all-wheel drive, nearly all subcompact crossover SUVs (with the exception of the Soul and the Fiat 500L) give you the option to fit them with AWD for additional traction over wet or snowy pavement, a feature that you won’t usually find among small cars.
The Honda HR-V gave our top pick, the Kia Soul, stiff competition with its overall value and affordability, as well as its roomy and practical interior. The HR-V EX model we focused on costs about $23,0004 and comes generously equipped with features such as heated front seats, automatic climate control, and a LaneWatch side-view camera that displays a live video view of what’s alongside the right side of the vehicle. And unlike our top pick, the HR-V does offer all-wheel drive for an additional $1,300, making it the best choice for people who want that feature.
The HR-V has a lot of interior room, including the most rear-seat legroom among all the models we considered and one of the most generous amounts of rear cargo space. The latter benefits from second-row Magic Seats that can fold flat into the floor on a split-fold basis as well as tumble up and back to create a flat load floor that accommodates taller items.
Its 141-horsepower four-cylinder engine provides sufficient power, though Honda pairs it with a continuously variable transmission, which we usually don’t like as much as we do traditional automatic transmissions. On the plus side, the engine is rated at a combined 31 miles per gallon, which is the best fuel-economy rating among all the subcompact crossover SUVs we looked at.
We ultimately chose the Kia Soul + as our top pick due to its having a lower cost while still being nicely equipped, as well as its relatively lengthy warranty and its ability to take on a boatload of luxury features for around $24,500.5 That said, if you must have all-wheel drive, the HR-V is your best option.
While the Buick Encore’s starting price of around $25,0006 makes it second only to the MINI Countryman as the costliest base-model subcompact crossover SUV we considered, this vehicle is also the most luxurious of the bunch and isn’t particularly overpriced in that regard. It has expensive looks, a richly trimmed interior, and an ultraquiet interior that’s as serene as a luxury sedan’s thanks to extra acoustic materials and a sophisticated noise-cancellation system that suppresses road, wind, and engine noise.
Overall, the Encore performs well, with surprisingly peppy acceleration and a smoother ride than we got from any of the other models we compared, which contributes to its more upscale feel. It also ranks among the best in crash tests and comes with longer-than-average warranty coverage, including two free scheduled maintenance visits.
For most buyers, however, the Kia Soul + is a better value, given its lower price as we equipped it, as well as the ability to order it with additional luxury features (a few of which the Buick doesn’t even offer at any price, like cooled front seats and heated rear seats) via two option packages for around $24,500.7 That’s still cheaper than the Encore in its base version at about $25,000.8 What’s more, the Encore’s smaller dimensions and swoopier shape result in less rear passenger room and a smaller, more oddly shaped cargo space than the Soul provides. Lastly, while Buick’s warranty is still generous, it falls far short of Kia’s industry-leading coverage.
Starting around $21,0009 and costing about $24,50010 as we equipped it, the Mazda CX-3 is the most nimble-handling little crossover SUV we considered, and that group includes two that people often view as being the “sportiest” in this expanding group, the Nissan Juke and the MINI Countryman. The CX-3 drives more like a sports coupe than an SUV, though its occupants suffer a harsher (but not necessarily punishing) ride as a trade-off for its added cornering prowess. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is adequately lively with 141 horsepower, and with a rating of an estimated 31 mpg in combined city and highway driving, it ties with the Honda HR-V as the fuel-economy leader among all the crossovers we considered.
Nicely proportioned on the outside, the CX-3 boasts a handsome and well-finished interior with a slick dial-operated entertainment and information system that looks and feels like it belongs in a luxury car. The CX-3 Touring model we considered also includes many other nice features such as a blind-spot monitor, a moonroof, heated seats, and a premium Bose audio system.
Unfortunately the CX-3 overemphasizes the “sport” in SUV over any degree of “utility.” The passenger compartment is tight quarters, even up front, with painfully little rear legroom and a cramped cargo hold that’s not very usable with the rear seatbacks upright. It also offers fewer features for more money, and Mazda provides buyers with far shorter warranty coverage than Kia does for our top pick, the Kia Soul. As we mentioned above, it also rides stiffer than many drivers would prefer, and driver and passengers alike might get annoyed at higher speeds given the CX-3’s intrusive wind, road, and tire noise.
In the past two years, the number of subcompact crossover SUVs for sale in the United States exploded from just a few to 11. We considered them all for this guide: the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500L, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Kia Soul, Mazda CX-3, MINI Countryman, Nissan Juke, and Subaru XV Crosstrek. Just click on the name of the one you’re interested in; we have something to say about them all.
I have 30 years of experience covering autos exclusively from a consumer’s perspective. I spent 17 years as automotive editor for Consumers Digest magazine, where I remain a contributing editor, primarily writing buying-guide reviews and selecting the publication’s annual Best Buys, those models deemed as offering the best value in each vehicle segment. Currently a freelancer, I write consumer-oriented car features and reviews for Forbes.com as a regular contributor, and I have weekly articles syndicated to around 50 newspapers by CTW Features, among other print and Web-based publications. I drive at least one new automaker-supplied car per week, and I have driven new cars on highways, back roads, and racetracks across the US, in addition to attending a high-performance driving school.
I am the go-to person among my relatives, my circle of friends, and others for car-buying advice. Outside the auto arena I am a passionate and informed shopper who refuses to pay full price or get anything less than the best value when shopping for anything. To that end, I frequently write about which cars are available with the deepest discounts or rebates and how to purchase a model for the lowest attainable price.
In addition to consulting myriad published reports and reviews of subcompact crossover SUVs, we interviewed automotive media and business experts for a wider perspective on the segment, including Patrick Olsen, editor-in-chief of Cars.com in Chicago, Illinois, and author of a recent comparison report on subcompact crossover SUVs, and Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis for the market research company AutoPacific in Tustin, California.
With the popularity of crossover SUVs of all sizes continuing to swell, subcompact models tend to fill a niche for both price- and size-conscious buyers for whom most other crossovers are too large or costly. Like compact and midsize crossover SUVs, subcompacts are more versatile and practical than similar-size passenger cars, with extra interior room and cargo space. They also give you a higher driving position and easier entry and exiting than small cars, with most also offering the added foul-weather security of all-wheel drive as an option.
Essentially tall, high-riding wagons, subcompact crossover SUVs provide more headroom than same-size cars (particularly for rear-seat riders), given their largely horizontal rooflines, and they provide far more cargo space—especially with their rear seats folded flat. Their more horizontally situated rooflines also allow larger and taller door openings that further make getting into and out of them less contorting, and their large rear hatchback doors allow you to load taller and wider objects than a trunk could handle.
Take, for example, our pick, the Kia Soul, in comparison with its passenger-car equivalent, the subcompact Kia Rio sedan. While the two vehicles share the same 101.2-inch wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles), the Soul has 8 more inches of rear-seat legroom, 2 inches of extra rear headroom, and 11.5 cubic feet of added cargo space with its rear seats upright.
The higher seats in subcompact crossover SUVs also make getting into and out of them easier, and just sitting in them is more comfortable than in your average car. “[Our] research has shown through the years that many, many drivers prefer sitting up a bit higher than in your typical passenger car,” Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis for the consumer-research firm AutoPacific, told us. “Crossover models typically have a higher H-point (where your hips sit) and higher ‘can height,’ meaning that occupants sit in a more natural chair-like seating position. Because occupants’ legs ‘hang down’ below the knees in these vehicles rather than splay out as in a car with a lower H-point, there is a much greater impression of space, and often, a lot more usable room.”
Their taller ride height affords even more benefits. Foremost is that it gives drivers—particularly shorter ones—a more commanding view of the road ahead. A taller ride height makes loading and unloading cargo less of a back-cracking chore than with subcompact cars that sit lower to the ground.
Subcompact crossover SUVs are also typically smaller than more popular compact crossovers, taking up about as much curb space as a subcompact sedan or hatchback. For example, the Honda HR-V is 10.3 inches shorter in length, 1.8 inches narrower, and 1.5 inches shorter in height than its larger sibling, the compact-size Honda CR-V. The smaller size makes them easier to park, especially for space-starved urbanites who have to squeeze into challenging parallel spots. What’s more, being somewhat lighter in weight, these vehicles can feel more nimble to drive through curves than their bigger brethren.
However, you should be aware that cargo room with the rear seatbacks upright is usually lacking in subcompact crossover SUVs. This limitation tends to make them tough choices for growing families, as they have insufficient space to transport two kids and any accoutrements, especially strollers. The Honda HR-V is the most bountiful model in this regard, with 24.3 cubic feet of cargo room with its rear seatbacks upright; the worst is the spatially challenged Nissan Juke, with only 10.5 cubic feet of room behind the seats. Regardless of what the numbers say, even the largest subcompact crossover SUVs may have trouble fitting your family’s gear because of how their cargo holds are shaped: With many of them being narrow in width but tall in height, something like a stroller may not fit flat in the back and would then require flipping forward one or both sides of the rear seat.
And although most of these crossovers remain sufficiently roomy for the driver and the front passenger, the rear-seat legroom can get tight, especially when the front seats are adjusted all the way rearward. The spread here isn’t as wide as it is with cargo space, but it’s still measurable. The best performers in this regard are the Honda HR-V, with 39.3 inches of rear legroom, and our top pick, the Kia Soul, with 39.1 inches; that’s a ton of leg space for this size vehicle, and it matches what you get in the much larger Volkswagen Passat midsize sedan (plus they have more rear headroom). Compare that with the most knee-cramping model we looked at, the Nissan Juke, which has just 32.1 inches of rear legroom, or about the same as what you get in the backseat of a four-door MINI Cooper.
Generally around $3,000 to $4,000 more affordable than larger compact crossover SUVs, subcompacts appeal to both budget-minded buyers and those with deeper pockets who want a small vehicle that’s loaded with options but won’t break the bank. Starting prices range from around $16,50011 for the base Kia Soul to about $25,00012 for the Buick Encore and MINI Countryman (among models equipped with an automatic transmission). As we’ve equipped them with a few of today’s modern necessities, out-the-door prices range from around $20,00013 for the Soul to nearly $26,00014 for the Jeep Renegade, still far below today’s average price for a new car (around $33,500) and roughly as much as a compact sedan like the Toyota Corolla. Of note, the Subaru XV Crosstrek subcompact crossover SUV, which costs around $24,50015 as we equipped it, comes to about the same total as the base version of the larger and more practical Subaru Forester compact crossover SUV, which likewise sits at about $24,500.16
Buyers with bigger budgets and a desire for added brand status can also choose a costlier option among a small but growing selection of luxury subcompact crossover SUVs, including the Audi Q3, BMW X1, Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class, and Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, the last of which is uniquely available in two- and four-door models along with a two-door convertible version. As you might expect, they deliver added performance and sophistication and a quieter and more luxurious interior in comparison with most of the small SUVs we’re considering here. But they are no more practical, and they command what we consider to be prohibitively steep prices that start at around $35,00017 for the Q3 and run as high as about $42,50018 for the Evoque—and that’s for base models without options.
Overall, however, even with their cheaper prices, are subcompact crossover SUVs good values? “Someone cross-shopping, say, a Honda HR-V against a Civic may find that the HR-V feels as or more roomy inside, has a more flexible interior due to the ‘Magic Seats,’ has comparable fuel economy, and has a much more modern look than the typical old-fashioned three-box sedan … all for about the same money,” explained AutoPacific’s Ed Kim. “So to put it succinctly, yes, these subcompact crossovers can represent real value.”
Some shoppers—especially growing families who could use added passenger and cargo space, not to mention a larger engine for quicker acceleration—might want to consider instead a compact sedan or hatchback at about the same price. Or better yet, if you can dig deeper into your budget or forgo a few features, you might ultimately prefer an even roomier compact crossover SUV for a few thousand more. On the other hand, as our top pick, the Kia Soul +, illustrates, buyers with modest needs can equip some subcompact crossover SUVs like little luxury vehicles, yet they remain reasonably affordable.
If you want that “SUV” look, subcompact crossovers represent the cheapest way to get it. Their extra ride height, combined with their tall and largely horizontal roofline, upright front grille, and rear tailgate, help them project the traditional sport-utility-like appearance that everyone seems to favor these days, though some automakers in this segment take more liberties with the basic “two box” SUV design than others. Our top pick, the Kia Soul, is the boxiest of the bunch, while a few of them, like the Fiat 500L, the MINI Countryman, and especially the bulbous Nissan Juke, are downright eccentric looking. The Jeep Renegade is arguably the most conventional-looking SUV in the group; to us it resembles a contemporary interpretation of the iconic Jeep Wrangler.
Another defining feature of crossovers is the ability to equip them with all-wheel drive for added traction on wet or snowy roads. Essentially starting out as front-drive vehicles, most of those we considered offer optional AWD for an added $1,500 to $2,000. The Subaru XV Crosstrek is the only one that comes with AWD as standard equipment, while the Fiat 500L and our top pick, the Kia Soul, are the only models in the group not to offer AWD. While we generally don’t recommend AWD for most drivers (see the following section), anyone living deep in the Snow Belt might find the feature essential to traverse unpaved roads and steep inclines in bad weather. “The ability to get AWD at a low price is a significant draw for many of these shoppers,” Cars.com’s Patrick Olsen told us. AWD won’t, however, help you with traction while you’re stopping or turning; a good set of snow tires will probably keep you safer in those conditions.
While most subcompact crossover SUVs offer all-wheel drive for added traction, especially on wet or snowy roads, the feature isn’t usually necessary for most buyers. And while an AWD system can come in handy under certain circumstances, it doesn’t allow a driver to violate the laws of physics—and it’s no substitute for driving cautiously in the first place.
All of the subcompact crossover SUVs we looked at are essentially front-drive vehicles, with most offering all-wheel drive as a stand-alone option at costs ranging from $1,250 to about $2,000. Typically AWD isn’t available on the base model, meaning you’ll have to spend more for a trim level that offers it even before you add its optional cost. On the Fiat 500L and our top pick, the Kia Soul, it isn’t available at all. The Subaru XV Crosstrek, meanwhile, is the only one in this segment that comes with AWD as standard equipment.
We usually conclude that AWD is an unnecessary expense for most buyers, and tests show that even people living within the Snow Belt can serve themselves almost as well for less money by having a good set of snow tires installed on their front-drive cars for the winter months. Unfortunately, having to store and swap tires twice yearly is an inconvenience, and that could leave procrastinators unprepared for the first major snowfall of the year.
What’s more, AWD makes a vehicle costlier and heavier, and adds mechanical complexity (with the latter potentially leading to higher repair bills down the road). It also lowers a car’s fuel economy by about one or two miles per gallon.
Still, AWD is popular for the added security it gives in maintaining traction under adverse weather conditions, and it can be a necessity if you have to traverse steep, loose-surface inclines or stretches of unpaved road, or if you live in one of the snowiest areas.
Small cars almost never offer AWD, so subcompact crossover SUVs are virtually the only choice for buyers seeking this feature in a relatively small and inexpensive vehicle.
“All-wheel drive is a regional thing—whether or not it’s worth the cost to a consumer is totally subjective,” AutoPacific analyst Ed Kim explained to us. “I know how to drive in the snow just fine, and there have been very few situations where all-wheel drive could have helped me. But others put a dollar value on peace of mind, which is totally worth it to some.” And Cars.com’s Patrick Olsen, given his home base of Chicago, prefers to err on the side of caution: “If you live in Colorado, Chicago, Vermont, etc., then AWD is worth the money. I’ve driven with and without AWD in Chicago, and I prefer to have it in the snow and ice.”
Keep in mind, however, that AWD creates added traction only when you’re driving straight ahead (or in reverse). It doesn’t help when you’re braking or cornering, so you still need to be careful when negotiating icy or snowy roads. Your best aids for those situations are an antilock braking system and electronic stability control, which are standard on all new vehicles.
While AWD also gives you an extra margin of error when you’re driving off-pavement—such as on backwoods dirt roads and packed-sand beaches, or through modest muddy conditions—most AWD vehicles are not intended for serious off-roading. The most noteworthy exception in our crossover SUVs test group is the Jeep Renegade, at least in its top Trailhawk version, where tall ground clearance, off-road tires, and a sophisticated AWD terrain-management system combine to enable some moderate trailblazing abilities. Still, none of these systems are nearly as rugged as a bona fide truck-based SUV’s four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing.
We selected the Kia Soul as our top pick among 11 subcompact crossover SUVs based on extensive research that included comparing each model’s price, features, specifications, projected ownership costs, safety ratings, fuel-economy estimates, and warranty coverage. In addition to conducting our own weeklong test drives of all of the models to see how they fared in real-world driving situations, we consulted the opinions and published reviews of other automotive experts.
In determining which models to evaluate, we broadened our scope a bit to include two models that some people might not consider to be crossover SUVs due to their lack of available AWD: the Fiat 500L and the Kia Soul. We believed that they deserved consideration because we don’t recommend AWD for most people and because they were two similarly sized and priced alternatives that we would definitely consider if we were shopping for a subcompact crossover SUV ourselves. The other subcompact crossover SUVs we compared were the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax, Fiat 500X, Honda HR-V, Jeep Renegade, Mazda CX-3, MINI Countryman, Nissan Juke, and Subaru XV Crosstrek. Most of the vehicles in the group are of similar length, width, and height, and they range in price from about $16,50019 for the Kia Soul to about $25,00020 for the Buick Encore (one of our alternative picks). With the vehicles configured to include features that we think most people would want, the spread remains pronounced, with the least expensive again being the Kia Soul at around $20,00021 and the costliest being the Jeep Renegade at about $26,000.22
We began our search by running the numbers, so to speak, assessing each model’s prices and standard and optional features for each available trim level, as well as the exterior measurements, the available passenger room and cargo space, the engine horsepower and torque ratings, and a whole lot more. We checked each model’s projected fuel-economy ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency and compared crash-test ratings conducted by the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the insurance-industry-sponsored Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. We also considered the length and types of warranty coverage that each vehicle’s manufacturer offered, and we checked (where available) the estimated five-year ownership costs according to Kelley Blue Book.
We also examined what other experts had to say about each vehicle on both car-shopping websites and enthusiast publications. We studied stand-alone reviews and multi-vehicle comparisons from Consumer Reports, U.S. News & World Report’s Best Cars, Automobile, Autos.ca, Cars.com, Car and Driver, Consumer Guide, Edmunds.com, and Motor Trend. We found Automobile magazine’s five-vehicle subcompact crossover SUV test to be particularly valuable, if for no other reason than it was the only recent side-by-side review we found that included our pick, the Kia Soul. The Soul won, by the way, with the article’s author Joseph Capparella concluding that the Soul “has matured into a refined, attractive, pleasant-to-drive box that does just about everything well while asking for fewer compromises than any of its competitors.” In addition, we consulted a few industry experts, including Patrick Olsen, editor-in-chief of Cars.com, and Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis for AutoPacific.
Most important, we took each of the 11 subcompact crossover SUVs we considered out for our own real-world test drives— typically for a week at a time—thanks to press-fleet vehicles that their respective manufacturers loaned to us. We tested each model’s mettle by driving it under a wide range of conditions. We took each one on errands around town and out on the highway to see how quickly it accelerated and how secure it felt at higher speeds. We traversed unpaved alleys and bumpy rail crossings to gauge the smoothness of the ride, and we careened through sharp turns to judge the cornering abilities. We settled into each seating position to assess cushion comfort, to grade the quality of the materials used throughout the cabin, and to get a feel for how well (or how poorly) each model’s controls operated. We also loaded up each vehicle’s cargo hold with the rear seatbacks in their upright position as well as folded flat, to see how much gear each would contain and how easily we could load it.
After studying all the data, reading all the reviews, consulting outside experts, and conducting our own test drives of 11 available models, we realized that the Kia Soul stood apart from the pack as the best choice among subcompact crossover SUVs for most buyers.
Though you can equip most subcompact crossover SUVs with a full range of convenience features, luxury items, and some of the latest high-tech safety systems, with the price in some cases exceeding $30,000 when the vehicle is fully loaded, these remain entry-level models for the most part. So for comparison purposes, we configured each model with what we considered to be the features that most people want and are willing to pay for.
Given the budget-oriented nature of subcompact crossover SUVs, we stayed close to what many car buyers would consider to be basic modern conveniences, but some of those features may still seem advanced to car shoppers who are buying their first new car or who haven’t bought one in years. Most come standard with power locks, windows, and mirrors, plus air conditioning (though that last item is curiously optional with the base Jeep Renegade). We also looked at each of them with an automatic transmission or CVT (continuously variable transmission), and then we added keyless entry, a touchscreen infotainment system with satellite radio and a Bluetooth interface for both phone calls and music streaming from mobile devices, a rearview camera for easier and safer parking, a 60/40 split-fold rear seat for the requisite cargo-carrying flexibility, and alloy wheels for exterior adornment. That isn’t too much extra equipment, but it is enough to make these vehicles feel like they’re better than the base models.
For the most part we had to select a midgrade trim level to obtain all of those features, as such items are often unavailable on base models, and top trim levels tend to include more frills than most buyers would be willing to pay for. The exception in this regard is the Buick Encore, which includes all of our essential features in its base version for around $25,000.23 That isn’t surprising, considering that the Encore is a near-luxury vehicle, and its base price is comparable with the out-the-door cost of most of the other subcompact crossover SUVs as we configured them.
We deemed conveniences such as a sunroof/moonroof, reverse-parking-aid sensors, leather seating or trim, heated front seats or a heated steering wheel, a garage-door opener remote, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and a navigation system to be in the “nice to have but not essential” range of available features. Shoppers with deeper pockets can fit most of the models we looked at with many higher-end luxury items, including a power driver’s seat, proximity keys or push-button start, dual-zone climate control, heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals, fog lights, leatherette seating or trim, heated seats and a heated steering wheel, and automatic headlamps.
One glass-half-empty/half-full situation: Most of the subcompact crossover SUVs we compared offer one or more of the latest high-tech accident-avoidance systems, but only a few (the Buick Encore, Jeep Renegade, and Subaru XV Crosstrek) offer a full range of them, and usually they’re bundled in costly options packages or limited to the most expensive trim levels in a given line. The most common offering in this class is a blind-zone detection system, which warns the driver about other vehicles to the side or rear that might not otherwise be visible in the vehicle’s mirrors; in our test group, the Jeep Renegade is the only model to have this system as a stand-alone option, priced at an affordable $595. Available but less common among the models and trims we compared are forward-collision mitigation systems, which alert the driver when the vehicle is closing in too quickly on another car or an obstruction and can apply the brakes automatically if the driver isn’t reacting quickly enough, and lane-departure warning systems, which notify the driver if the vehicle is inadvertently veering beyond highway lane markers. Again, these systems are typically available only in packages on higher-cost models, though the Renegade bundles forward-collision and lane-departure systems with a rear-park-assist alert feature for just $995.
While many of the models we considered offer more than one engine choice, circumstances tended to limit our options. Generally, we found that where a smaller engine is available, it’s often limited to an unadorned base model that few buyers will likely ever see in a dealer’s stock, and it comes mated with a manual transmission. In a few instances, including with our top pick, the Kia Soul, this situation had us automatically choosing the larger or quicker engine in a given line. In the case of the Buick Encore and the MINI Countryman, where an engine more powerful than the one we chose is available, we determined that upgrading to the higher trim level necessary to obtain that engine wasn’t worth the added cost (which was usually thousands).
Eight of the 11 models we looked at (including our pick, the Kia Soul) offer conventional automatic transmissions that feature six to nine forward gears; the other three have continuously variable transmissions, which use a metal serpentine belt and two variable-width pulleys instead of conventional gears. Some automakers—most notably Honda, Nissan, and Subaru—favor CVTs for their peppy acceleration and nominally improved fuel economy. While we wouldn’t necessarily consider the presence of a CVT to be a dealbreaker, we tend to find CVTs harsher-performing and louder than traditional automatics, as they typically amp up the throttle to full drone under even moderate acceleration. The Fiat 500L is the only model in this group to offer a “dual-clutch automated manual” automatic transmission of the sort that European automakers prefer for quicker shifting and sportier performance. Unfortunately, that transmission is available only on the base 500L trim level; the version we chose comes with a conventional six-speed automatic.
All but two of the models we compared—the Fiat 500L and our pick, the Kia Soul—offer optional all-wheel drive (it’s standard on the Subaru XV Crosstrek) for added traction on wet or snowy roads. Again, we don’t recommend AWD for most people, especially since the standard front-drive configurations give you sufficient traction even in snowy weather over paved roads. (See the You may not need AWD section for more details.) We had little trouble negotiating the after-effects of a major snowfall while testing a Kia Soul in suburban Chicago during a particularly nasty Midwest winter, though some drivers living where the climate can be tumultuous might find that AWD affords some peace of mind that justifies the added cost of around $1,250 to $2,000 when available.
As we noted above, you can equip most models in the subcompact crossover SUV segment with an array of opulent amenities and advanced safety gear. Many models further offer items that are not only exclusive to the segment but also remain rare among vehicles of any kind. For example, the Honda HR-V (along with a few of the automaker’s other 2016 models) has a LaneWatch feature that displays a video image taken along the passenger side of the vehicle when the right turn signal is activated, essentially to help the driver spot pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicles alongside it. The HR-V also has a second-row split-fold Magic Seat (a feature it shares with the Fit subcompact hatchback) that can both fold flat and tumble forward one section at a time for maximum cargo flexibility (it’s especially handy for carrying tall objects like houseplants).
Meanwhile, the Buick Encore comes with a high-tech “active noise cancellation” system by Bose that functions much like a set of noise-cancelling headphones to electronically reduce road, wind, and engine noise within the cabin. It works as advertised: In our tests, the Encore was the quietest model we looked at. The Buick also comes standard with a built-in Wi-Fi system for connecting passengers’ portable devices to the Internet, though this feature is subject to a subscription-based data plan.
The Jeep Renegade offers a multi-mode AWD system that optimizes the vehicle’s traction via selectable modes to suit various on- and off-road situations. The Mazda CX-3 offers a low-speed collision-avoidance system that works in stop-and-go traffic to help prevent the driver from running into other cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. And our top pick, the Kia Soul, is the only model among those we considered to offer among its many available features a so-called stop/start system (as part of a $500 Eco Package) that automatically powers down the engine at idle to bolster its fuel economy, though this savings amounts to a single mile per gallon in city driving according to the EPA.
The 2016 Kia Soul + (Soul Plus) is the best subcompact crossover for most people because it’s especially affordable, with a sticker price of just $20,000.24 That’s about $3,000 to $6,000 less than the cost of the other subcompact crossover SUVs we looked at. Even when fully loaded with a long list of luxury features, the Soul is still less expensive than most of its less-equipped rivals. The Soul also has a roomy and well-finished interior with expansive cargo space, and it comes with some of the best crash-test ratings as well as the longest warranty.
The Soul is ideal for buyers who need a small vehicle that’s easy to drive but far more practical than a tiny sedan. Wirecutter senior autos editor John Neff, owner of a 2014 model, told me that the combination of a tiny footprint and big utility is what drew him and his wife to the Soul. It’s also a good choice for empty-nesters looking to downsize their main vehicle yet retain some elements of style and luxury that they’ve become accustomed to.
The Soul comes in three trim levels. They start with the bargain-priced Base for around $18,00025 with an automatic transmission; in addition to basics like power windows/mirrors and air conditioning, this version also comes equipped with heated outside mirrors, a telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker sound system with a Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone interface and satellite radio. Powering this entry-level model is a weakish 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with just 130 horsepower. The others in the line, in contrast, run on a quicker 2.0-liter four that produces a peppier 165 horsepower. Those other two trim levels are named after punctuation marks (for what we can only figure is hipster appeal): the nicely equipped “+” (Plus) and the more-extravagant “!” (Exclaim).
We chose to consider the midlevel Kia Soul + (Soul Plus), which goes for around $20,000,26 to get all of the features that we think most shoppers want in such a vehicle. That list includes a rearview camera, keyless entry, and a touchscreen information and entertainment system, all of which the Soul + comes with standard. Twenty large is a bargain price, and that makes the Soul the least expensive model among the 11 subcompact crossover SUVs we considered by some $3,000 to $6,000. The Honda HR-V EX is closest at about $23,00027 and also comes standard with a few features that the Soul + lacks, whereas the Jeep Renegade is the costliest model in the group at about $26,000.28
Even when the Soul + is loaded up with options—including some that are typically available only in luxury cars—it remains remarkably affordable. You have four option packages to choose from, the least expensive being the Designer Package and Eco Package for $500 each. The former adds the larger wheels from the top ! (Exclaim) trim level and a two-tone paint job, while the latter gives you both a start/stop system that saves a little gas by turning the engine off at stop lights and specially designed wheels and tires that help improve fuel economy.
Frankly, we’d pass on those and order the $2,800 Primo Package and $1,800 Audio Package. You can get the Audio Package alone, but choosing the Primo Package requires taking the other one as well, which ups your add-ons bill to $4,600. That sounds like a lot, but the Soul’s price still stays under $25,00029 with them included, and you get a host of goodies: heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, leather upholstery, a passive-entry system with push-button start, a truly panoramic sunroof, a power driver’s seat, a premium Infinity audio system with navigation and an 8-inch touchscreen, automatic climate control, and upgraded interior trim.
While you can fit any of the subcompact crossover SUVs we looked at with heated seats, few models in this group offer a heated steering wheel, and none allow you to have either cooled front seats or heated rear seats. And truly high-end options—such as a navigation system, leather seating, and a big moonroof—push their prices much higher than that of the Soul + with the Primo and Audio option packages. John Neff and his wife ordered their Soul fully loaded like this, and while John’s wife initially thought that some of the added features were frivolous, she now says she can’t live without things like the heated steering wheel, passive-entry system, and roomy 8-inch touchscreen.
Meanwhile, you can configure the top Soul ! (Soul Exclaim) model with all that and more, including forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems for added safety, for around $26,50030 fully loaded. This is still quite a good deal compared with most subcompact crossover SUVs, which can top $30,000 at their highest trim levels with a heavy hand on the options list. All of this proves that the Soul is a fantastic value at any trim level, as it undercuts its competition by thousands of dollars while stuffing its features list with more and better equipment.
We found the Soul + to be eminently likeable during our weeklong test drive. While far from being a sports car, it handled well around the myriad curves that wind through my suburban Chicago locale, with the word “tossable” coming to mind to describe its inherent pluckiness. Pushed hard, its 164-horsepower 2.0-liter engine accelerates well, though at an estimated 27 mpg in combined city and highway driving, its fuel economy lags behind that of the leaders among subcompact crossover SUVs (the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3, each rated at 31 mpg). Also, as is the case with most subcompact crossover SUVs I’ve driven, a certain level of engine and road noise intrudes into the cabin at higher speeds. The current Soul is much better in this regard than past generations were, but just about all of the subcompact crossover SUVs in our test group suffer from it (the Buick Encore excluded).
The Soul felt stable out on the highway, and closer to home it never punished the family with an unduly harsh ride over our suburb’s rutted unpaved alleys or unforgiving railroad tracks. Given its compact dimensions, it was a breeze to park in the space-starved city, with good outward visibility and assistance from a backup-camera display (either a smallish 4.3 inches or a more generous 8 inches with the optional navigation system). The car also comes standard with selectable steering modes (Comfort, Normal, and Sport), though I didn’t feel enough difference between the settings to warrant any adjustment.
As for size, the Soul is about average for this type of vehicle. To give you some context, it’s more than a foot shorter and a couple of inches narrower than the one-size-up Kia Sportage compact crossover SUV, but it’s nearly just as tall. That tall roofline and the Soul’s boxy shape are what make it feel so big inside. In fact, even though its dimensions are smaller than those of the larger Sportage, it has more rear legroom and headroom than its bigger sibling.
The Soul feels like a larger vehicle inside, especially given its generous headroom. Four adults have plenty of space to settle in for a long-distance drive, and behind the rear seat you have enough cargo room for a weekly grocery-store shopping excursion. In our tests, even on a trip to Costco it had enough room for three riders and the usual assortment of big boxes and paper goods with the larger of the two rear seatbacks folded flat. At a portly 6 feet tall, I often find myself having to contort myself behind the wheel of even some midsize cars these days, but the Soul’s tall roofline and squarish body make getting into and out of it a pain-free exercise for most sizes and shapes. This was another reason the Soul ended up in senior autos editor John Neff’s driveway; he and his wife were looking for a vehicle that required neither climbing up nor falling down into. Most people can just open the Soul’s door and slide right onto the seat.
While the Soul is small enough to park easily in tight urban quarters and fit in a cluttered suburban garage with plenty of room to spare, its boxy exterior styling and its tall and largely horizontal roofline combine to create a surprisingly roomy interior. The Soul comes in a close second among the models we looked at in terms of rear headroom, shoulder space, and legroom, with the Jeep Renegade topping the field in the first two specs and the Honda HR-V leading in the third. Two adults can ride in the back without feeling cramped or claustrophobic at all, something we can’t say of some other models like the Nissan Juke, Mazda CX-3, and MINI Countryman. The back also has enough room for you to buckle one or two kids into their car seats without much fuss, as latch anchors—two sets in the outboard positions—are exposed and easy to reach.
What’s more, the Soul’s cabin is nicely designed and filled with lots of high-quality materials for an upscale look and feel; it received a Best Interiors award from WardsAuto when it made its introduction in the 2014 model year. Kia’s information and entertainment system (or “infotainment” system, as people often call such things) is also easy to master, whether you stick with the smaller 4.3-inch version that comes standard or go with the massive 8-inch screen that comes with the optional Audio Package. Upgrading to the bigger screen also gets you a navigation system and Kia’s UVO eServices telematics system with downloadable apps for streaming Internet music and other information from a Bluetooth-connected smartphone; it includes several features designed to help parents track teen drivers, too. The Soul’s infotainment offering is easier to master than similar systems in most other cars, and it benefits from redundant physical controls for tuning the radio and setting the temperature.
The U in SUV stands for utility, and the Soul delivers lots of it with generous cargo space behind the seats that becomes cavernous with the 60/40-split rear seatbacks folded flat. Whereas other small crossovers sacrifice substance for the sake of style, the Soul, with its unusually tall and horizontal roofline, allows owners to carry taller objects, and its largely square shape at the rear makes loading and carrying broad and bulky items (such as an upholstered chair) easier in comparison with most other models, which have smaller hatchback doors tapered inward at the top.
By the numbers, the Soul provides 18.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seatbacks upright and 49.5 cubic feet with the seats folded flat, which is reasonably generous for a subcompact crossover SUV. In our patent-pending paper-bag test, that equates to nine paper grocery bag bottoms fitting flat on the floor behind the rear seat and 19 total with the rear seats folded forward (truth be told, we could have fit even more if we had packed them in tighter). Though most owners will likely leave the floor of the rear cargo area in place and forget about it, you can lift the floor to reveal another deep and divided cargo area in which you can hide valuable gear. You can also remove the floor entirely to fit taller objects, such as houseplants, and to bring the Soul’s as-measured cargo specs up to 24.2 cubic feet with the rear seats in place and 61.3 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded flat. Not counting this additional up-for-grabs space, the only vehicles in our comparison that beat the Soul in maximum cargo space are the Jeep Renegade (50.8 cubic feet), the Honda HR-V (58.8 cubic feet), and the Fiat 500L, which affords a category-leading 68 cubic feet with the rear seatbacks folded down.
Another element of the Kia Soul’s hard-to-beat value quotient is its substantial warranty, which handily beats all comers among subcompact crossover SUVs. Most components in the Soul have coverage for five years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first, while major powertrain parts (including the engine and transmission) have coverage for 10 years or 100,000 miles. The next-closest powertrain warranty is the Buick Encore’s at six years and 70,000 miles; the rest of the group offers coverage for either four or five years and 50,000 or 60,000 miles. Although the Soul doesn’t come with a free maintenance program like the Buick, Chevrolet, or MINI models we looked at, it does include five years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance (longer than all but the Buick, Chevrolet, and Jeep models), which is equivalent to an extended auto-club membership. John Neff and his wife did have to take their 2014 Soul back to the dealership fairly soon after buying it to get a malfunctioning door lock fixed, but they report that this has been the car’s only repair in two years.
Run the numbers, and you’ll find that having the Soul’s added warranty coverage is like putting cash back in your pocket. For example, the extra two years of basic warranty coverage (compared with the three years of coverage you get with most of the others) could be worth a couple thousand dollars if you were to purchase such coverage separately from a dealership or from an online third-party vendor as an extended warranty. The added roadside assistance is worth another two or three hundred bucks in auto-club membership fees.
Finally, the Soul is among the highest-rated subcompact crossover SUVs in crash tests conducted by both the insurance-industry-supported Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.31 It received top (Good) marks in all the crash tests the IIHS conducted, earning a Top Safety Pick designation, and it received five out of five stars for occupant protection from the NHTSA. The Fiat 500X and Subaru XV Crosstrek outrank the Soul by a small margin in the IIHS ratings, receiving the organization’s Top Safety Pick + designation by virtue of offering optional auto-braking systems. However, the Subaru received only four stars for frontal-crash protection from the NHTSA, and the Fiat has yet to be tested.
The Soul saw only nominal changes for its 2016 model year, the most significant being popular safety features like forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems becoming newly optional on the top Soul ! (Soul Exclaim) model. Its last full redesign was the 2014 model year, and we don’t expect another revamp for two or three more years.
Though we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the 2016 Kia Soul to family and friends, it isn’t without its quirks. It’s one of only two models we looked at that don’t offer all-wheel drive, it lags behind the leaders in fuel economy, its oddly angular styling tends to be polarizing, its advanced safety features are limited to the top trim level, and many of its best features are hidden in costly optional packages.
Unlike most of the other subcompact crossover SUVs we considered, the Soul (along with the Fiat 500L) does not offer all-wheel drive and remains exclusively a front-drive model for now. While we don’t consider AWD to be an essential item for most people, this immensely popular feature can come in handy for people who live in snowbound areas of the country or who frequently traverse unpaved roads, especially with steep uphill grades. Though less convenient, a good set of snow tires can in some cases be just as effective for fewer dollars and less in the way of mechanical complexity. Still, some motorists who frequently encounter inclement weather may find that driving an AWD-equipped vehicle adds peace of mind. For what it’s worth, John Neff and his wife live near Cleveland, Ohio, where snow falls a good four to five months out of the year, and they told me they’ve never gotten themselves into a situation with their Soul where they wished they had AWD.
In addition, at an estimated 27 mpg in combined city and highway driving, the Soul is among the least fuel-efficient models we considered. By comparison, the Fiat 500X and Jeep Renegade suffer the worst fuel economy at an estimated 25 mpg in city and highway use, while the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 lead the pack, each with a combined 31 mpg. Keep in mind that with gasoline averaging near $2 a gallon at the beginning of 2016, poor fuel efficiency is less of an issue than it would have been back when gas was considerably more expensive. According to the EPA’s fuel-cost calculator, the difference between driving a Soul or either an HR-V or CX-3 (at an assumed 15,000 miles a year) amounts to just around $150 more per year in fuel costs at current prices—that’s a total of $750 over a five-year ownership period, which you easily recover in the Kia’s lower up-front cost.
As we mentioned earlier, the Soul’s oddly angular styling is both its calling card and its most polarizing feature. We’ve spoken with equal numbers of consumers over the years who either hate its exterior appearance with a passion or find it endearing in a nonconformist way, with few people weighing in as being neutral on the issue. My youngest son loves the Soul’s chiseled look, while my wife hates it. I find it appealing in a quirky kind of way. On the positive side, its boxy shape maximizes interior space and makes getting into and out of it easier than with curvier designs, and its distinctive rear-end appearance makes it easy to spot in a crowded parking lot. On the negative side, its brick-in-the-wind silhouette hurts fuel economy and, according to the Neffs, will massacre more bugs than the other vehicles at dusk on warm summer nights.
As for safety systems, while the Soul does offer forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems, they’re available only on the top Soul ! (Soul Exclaim) trim level. And neither a blind-spot monitor nor a forward auto-braking system is available at all. We consider both of those to be the most valuable of such systems, but about half of the vehicles we looked at, including the Soul, neglect to offer them.
And even though you can equip the Soul with an impressive list of features, most of them are bundled in costly option packages. While bundling is fast becoming the norm for new cars, the Soul takes the idea to the extreme, especially on the Soul + (Soul Plus) version we chose, which combines most of its available options into either the $2,800 Primo Package or the $1,800 Audio Package. Adding fuel to the fire, Kia ties those bundles together, so a buyer who wants the Primo Package has to take the Audio Package as well. True, together they pack a lot of value for a total of $4,600, but we wish consumers had the ability to at least choose one or the other separately to avoid having to pay for an abundance of features they didn’t otherwise want or need.
We consulted a host of outside sources throughout our subcompact crossover SUV comparison, including the opinions of both consumer- and enthusiast-oriented publications, as well as the results of both individual and competitive group reviews. Our pick, the Kia Soul, continues to stay in reviewers’ high regard, even when they hold it up to the more recently introduced competitors in this fast-growing segment.
The uncontested top source among car buyers, Consumer Reports, gave the Soul the highest road-test score of this group. In its review, Consumer Reports praises Kia’s subcompact crossover SUV for distinctive yet practical styling: “A boxy, upright design gives it abundant interior space and super-easy access. You sit up high in chairlike seats, surrounded by an ample glass area for good visibility.” The review goes on to say: “The vehicle’s low floor, tall roof line, and square door openings make getting into and out of it extremely easy. “
U.S. News & World Report, which aggregates vehicle reviews and opinions from multiple sources on its Best Cars website, gave the Soul a score of 8.5 out of a possible 10, placing the Kia among the top-scoring subcompact crossover SUVs, only slightly behind the Honda HR-V (8.3) and Mazda CX-3 (8.5). The site’s summary says: “The 2016 Kia Soul has a roomy, comfortable and nicely equipped cabin, according to critics, which helps make it a stylish and versatile hatchback.”
In his instrumented review for Car and Driver, Tony Swan writes that the Soul is “an exceptionally solid piece of automotive assembly, possessing uniformly tidy body-panel gaps and a railroad-trestle chassis.” Swan continues: “Our test vehicle was about as well equipped as it gets in Soul-dom—heated and ventilated leather front seats, a panoramic sunroof, and navigation were all present—but for just over $26,000, it’s still a compelling value story.”
In its full review of the vehicle, Edmunds.com declares: “The Kia Soul’s funky styling and fun-to-drive attitude make it great for city commutes, and its hatchback versatility makes it practical as well.” Edmunds.com goes on to say that the Soul is “a solid pick for shoppers seeking a budget-friendly runabout brimming with spaciousness, value and, perhaps most importantly, personality.”
In naming the Kia Soul one of the automotive Best Buys for 2016, the editors of Consumer Guide write that it “delivers impressive passenger room, flexible cargo space, and lots of upscale available features in a tidy, affordable package.” The conclusion notes: “It’s easy to see that the Kia Soul has a lot of personality, but it’s also one of the most comfortable and refined subcompacts around.”
And in one of the rare head-to-head subcompact crossover comparisons that include the Kia Soul, Automobile names the Kia model as the top choice, with author Joseph Capparella noting that “the fast-selling Soul has matured into a refined, attractive, pleasant-to-drive box that does just about everything well while asking for fewer compromises than any of its competitors.” Later, Capparella writes: “All in all, the Soul looks and feels like something more than just a little car, which is, we suspect, the most important point in this young segment.”
Among its many accolades, the current-generation Kia Soul is a Consumer Reports “recommended” model and a Consumer Guide Best Buy. Its assorted awards include nods for Vehicle Satisfaction from AutoPacific and Initial Quality from J.D. Power. It received an Active Lifestyle Award from Autobytel, and it ranks as one of the top family vehicles according to both Kelley Blue Book and U.S. News & World Report Best Cars. And with its 2014 redesign, it earned a Best Interiors award from WardsAuto.
If this competition were a horse race, the Honda HR-V would come in second by a nose to our pick, the Kia Soul. It comes at an affordable price, offers generous passenger and cargo space, gets good fuel economy, and allows you to equip it with an impressive list of features for the money. It’s also your best option if all-wheel drive is a must, since our top pick doesn’t offer that feature. The HR-V falls short of the Soul, however, in its base price, which is around $2,700 higher than the Soul’s. In addition, we preferred the Soul’s conventional six-speed automatic transmission to the HR-V’s gearless CVT, which tends to be harsher while accelerating. The HR-V also comes with a harder-to-use entertainment system and a shorter warranty than the Soul.
The HR-V starts at around $21,00032 and costs around $23,00033 as we equipped it in its EX version; this pricing makes it the second-most-affordable subcompact crossover SUV we evaluated, next to our top pick, the Kia Soul, which has a base price of around $16,50034 and a price of about $20,00035 as we equipped it. The other models we considered start at about $20,000 to $24,000 and go up to about $23,500 to $26,000 with our desired features.
Another big plus for the HR-V is its generous passenger room, which is tops among subcompact crossover SUVs: With 39.3 inches of rear legroom, it beats even the larger Honda CR-V compact crossover SUV, which provides 38.3 inches. And at 24.3 cubic feet of stowage, the HR-V also surpasses all the models we looked at in terms of cargo space with the rear seatbacks upright, and it swells to a second-best 58.8 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat (the Fiat 500L takes the top spot for maximum cargo-hauling space). Not only that, the HR-V is the most flexible cargo carrier by virtue of the clever rear Magic Seats it shares with the Honda Fit, our pick among subcompact hatchbacks. Here, the rear seatbacks can not only fold forward on a 60/40 split basis but can also tumble back and up to create a large and flat load floor for carrying taller objects.
Fuel efficiency may be less of a consideration with gas as affordable as it has been lately, but at 31 mpg in combined city and highway driving, the HR-V ties with the Mazda CX-3 for the best fuel-economy rating among subcompact crossover SUVs. Even with gas at around $2 a gallon, the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov website says that driving an HR-V for 15,000 miles will cost an owner around $1,000 less over a five-year period than will driving either the Fiat 500X or the Jeep Renegade, which at 25 mpg combined have the worst fuel-economy ratings among subcompact crossover SUVs.
At around $23,000,36 the EX version we chose to consider comes nicely equipped with all the basics and more, including heated front seats, automatic climate control, and Honda’s exclusive LaneWatch side-view camera, which is essentially a video version of a blind-spot monitor. When the right turn signal is engaged, LaneWatch provides a live view of the passenger side of the vehicle to help prevent the driver from inadvertently running into pedestrians, bicyclists, or other cars alongside it. Lastly, if you’re set on getting all-wheel drive, adding that feature to the HR-V EX costs $1,300.
Although the Honda HR-V made a compelling case for itself, ultimately we chose the Kia Soul as our pick by virtue of its lower sticker price and much longer warranty coverage (the HR-V comes with the standard warranty of three years or 36,000 miles for full coverage and five years or 60,000 miles for powertrain components). What’s more, our research indicates that Kia dealers are generally more willing to negotiate on price with the Soul than Honda dealers are with the HR-V; as of this writing, Kia is also offering Soul buyers a $500 cash rebate to sweeten the deal.
We also prefer the Soul’s more sophisticated and easier-to-use infotainment system (especially with the massive 8-inch screen that comes with the optional navigation hardware) over the clumsy setup in the HR-V, not to mention the Kia’s smoother conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Like a few of the other models we looked at, the HR-V comes with a gearless continuously variable transmission; while Honda’s CVT fares better than many others we’ve tested, CVTs generally have a harsher operation than conventional automatics, especially under moderate to full acceleration.
As the near-luxury entry among subcompact crossover SUVs, the Buick Encore is hands-down the most opulent model we tested, though it remains relatively affordable. It treats occupants to a handsomely trimmed cabin and the quietest interior; it delivers good overall performance with a smooth ride, sufficiently nimble handling, and peppy acceleration; it has top ratings for safety in crash tests; and it has a longer- and more-inclusive warranty than most of the vehicles we looked at. On the downside, it costs much more than our top pick, the Kia Soul, and its more rounded design affords less rear passenger room and cargo space. Though still generous, its warranty is also nominally less than the Soul’s coverage.
Starting at around $25,000,37 the Encore stands among the costliest subcompact SUVs we looked at, though it winds up being competitively priced compared with other models on a feature-by-feature basis. For example, the base Encore comes standard with items that are optional on the Jeep Renegade, such as a rearview camera and a power driver’s seat. Adding those features and a couple of others like dual-zone auto climate control and an auto-dimming rearview mirror brings the Renegade’s sticker price up to nearly $25,000.38
Wrapped in abbreviated, rounded exterior styling, the Encore pampers its passengers with a handsomely designed cabin that creates a luxurious look and feel. Added acoustic materials and a sophisticated electronic noise-cancellation system by Bose (which effectively reduces road, wind, and engine noise) help make the Encore’s interior as quiet as that of a luxury sedan, especially at higher speeds, where most subcompact crossover SUVs tend to sound raucous.
Further contributing to its upscale feel, the Encore delivers a smoother-than-average ride that soaks up bumps and pavement imperfections better than any mainstream subcompact crossover SUV we’ve driven, and it rides better than most luxury-branded models. And even though it isn’t as engaging to drive as the sportier Mazda CX-3 or the MINI Countryman, the Encore remains sufficiently agile though curves.
With just 138 horsepower on tap, the Encore’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine ties with that of its corporate cousin, the Chevrolet Trax, as the least powerful engine among the models we compared, at least on paper, with the Nissan Juke’s 1.6-liter turbo four being the strongest with 188 horses. However, with 148 pound-feet of torque, this engine nonetheless delivers acceptably lively acceleration that feels only a bit lacking when you push it hard. If you’re looking for a bit of extra pep, you can choose the new-for-2016 Sport Touring model with a 153-horsepower turbo four, though that model commands a much higher price starting at about $28,500.39
On the peace-of-mind front, the Encore ranks among the best subcompact crossover SUVs in government and insurance-industry crash tests. It received five out of five stars for occupant protection from the NHTSA, and Good scores across the board in IIHS crash tests; it also received a Basic rating for accident avoidance from the IIHS for its available forward-collision warning system (the Subaru XV Crosstrek’s optional auto-braking system earned a higher Superior ranking). In addition, the Encore protects an owner with a generous warranty that includes four years or 50,000 miles of comprehensive coverage, six years or 70,000 miles of powertrain protection, and six years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance; it also includes two free scheduled maintenance visits.
While the Encore is arguably the classiest model among subcompact crossover SUVs, we still believe that our pick, the Kia Soul, is a better bet for most buyers. For starters, the Soul costs around $5,000 less at its midgrade Soul + (Soul Plus) tier than the Encore’s base model (which does, to its credit, have a few features that the Soul lacks, including the aforementioned noise-cancellation system, a power driver’s seat, and an in-car subscription-based Wi-Fi point for connecting portable devices to the Internet). But even after you load up the Soul + with upscale amenities like heated/cooled front seats, heated rear seats, navigation, and a heated steering wheel, it’s the better deal.
Furthermore, the Encore isn’t as quick as the Soul. Its rounded design affords less rear passenger room, too, and its smaller and oddly shaped rear hatch hampers its cargo-carrying abilities. Finally, although its warranty is still generous compared with that of most subcompact crossover SUVs, the Encore comes with less coverage than the Soul.
If you’re seeking more “sport” than “utility” from a subcompact crossover SUV, you might consider the Mazda CX-3. Starting at around $21,00040 and costing about $24,50041 at the Touring level, the CX-3 is the most enjoyable to drive for the money among those we tested, delivering precise handling and peppy acceleration with good fuel economy as a bonus. The vehicle features a handsome and well-finished interior that looks and feels as if it belongs in a costlier luxury model, plus attractive exterior styling and many features included for the money. Unfortunately, it’s only modestly more practical than a sports coupe, with a cramped passenger cabin, little cargo space, and a rougher ride than most other subcompact crossover SUVs offer. It also costs more and comes with far less warranty coverage than our top pick, the Kia Soul.
The CX-3 is light and lively, with agile and enjoyable handling that encourages aggressive operation; on the road it feels more like a nimble sports coupe than a small SUV. Unfortunately, also like a sports coupe, the CX-3 rides rougher over bumps and irregular pavement than most subcompact crossover SUVs—a necessary engineering trade-off for its added cornering prowess—though it isn’t particularly brutal in that regard.
The vehicle’s cabin is nicely finished with plenty of attention spent on upscale details, and it looks and feels richer than the interiors of most of the models we considered, with the exception being our luxury-oriented alternative, the Buick Encore. The excellent Mazda Connect infotainment system comes standard with a large, 7-inch display mounted at the center of the dashboard and a control knob and related buttons on the center console. It takes a bit of a learning curve to figure out initially, and the control knob can be difficult to locate by hand at first, but it fast becomes easy to operate and looks and feels a lot like the media-control systems found in far pricier models from Audi and BMW.
The CX-3’s only available engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that is adequately energetic with 141 horsepower and comes mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. At an estimated 31 mpg in combined city and highway driving, it ties with the Honda HR-V as having the best fuel economy among subcompact crossover SUVs.
Thoughtfully packaged, the CX-3 includes more features for the money than most of the subcompact crossover SUVs we looked at. For starters, the base model comes standard with all the essentials and adds keyless entry with push-button start and a rearview camera. The Touring model we chose further includes a power moonroof, heated side mirrors, heated front seats, and a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert to help prevent both highway and parking-lot crashes.
As icing on the cake, the CX-3’s exterior styling is arguably among the most attractive among all subcompact crossover SUVs (many of which can seem ungainly looking, especially given their inherently abbreviated proportions), with gentle curves and nicely balanced proportions front to rear.
On the downside, the CX-3’s passenger compartment is tight, even up front, where the driver and passenger are likely to bang elbows. With painfully little legroom available with the front seats pushed comfortably rearward, the backseat is best left folded flat to help make the vehicle’s cramped cargo space usable (it affords a slim 12.4 cubic feet of space behind the seats with the seatbacks upright).
The CX-3 is also more than $4,000 pricier than our pick, the Kia Soul (as we’ve equipped it), and it comes with far shorter warranty coverage at three years or 36,000 miles for comprehensive coverage and five years or 60,000 miles for the powertrain. While it handles better, the CX-3 also rides rougher than the Soul does, and passengers can get fatigued at higher speeds given the vehicle’s intrusive wind, road, and tire noise. If you’re looking for the same basic package configured as a sedan with a surprisingly large trunk, you might want to consider the new-for-2016 Scion iA, which is essentially a rebadged Mazda. Available for around $17,500,42 it’s equipped similarly to the CX-3 Touring, and it’s actually a bit more practical considering its large and usable trunk.
The Subaru XV Crosstrek delivers well-mannered driving characteristics plus a spacious cargo hold, and it’s the only model we considered that comes standard with all-wheel drive. But at nearly $24,50043 as we configured it, the XV Crosstrek is also one of the costliest models we evaluated, priced around $5,000 higher than our pick, the Kia Soul. It also offers less power, comes with a harsher CVT instead of a conventional automatic transmission, and has less rear passenger room than the Soul.
According to many of the new-car reviews and comparison tests we consulted, the Subaru XV Crosstrek gets high marks for its passenger-car-like road manners. That’s because it is a passenger car: The XV Crosstrek is essentially a Subaru Impreza four-door hatchback with a higher ground clearance and specific exterior elements added to help make it look more like a burly SUV than a small station wagon. Indeed, it drives easily and predictably, and its suspension does a nice job of absorbing jolts and bumps in the road. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is buzzy, and at 148 horsepower it’s less powerful than that of our pick, the Kia Soul; the available gearless CVT, meanwhile, isn’t as quiet or smooth, especially when pushed moderately hard, as the Soul’s conventional six-speed automatic.
The largest model we considered, at 175.2 inches in length (or about a foot longer than our pick, the Kia Soul, which is 163 inches), the XV Crosstrek offers plenty of usable cargo room. It sits near the top among subcompact crossover SUVs in stowage, both behind the rear seatbacks and with them folded down. Unfortunately, even with the added length it provides less rear legroom, headroom, and shoulder room than the Soul.
As we mentioned above, the XV Crosstrek is the only subcompact crossover SUV to come standard with AWD. While the press and owners alike hold Subaru’s AWD systems in high regard, we stand by our claim that AWD is unnecessary for most buyers when compared with what would otherwise be a standard front-drive configuration. Although Subarus have many devotees in the winter-slammed northeastern and northwestern areas of the US, we’d prefer to see AWD as an optional upgrade for the sake of those living in more-temperate regions.
We had to bypass the base model in order to obtain the CVT (a six-speed manual is standard), and we settled on the midlevel 2.0i Premium version. At around $24,500,44 it’s one of the most expensive models we looked at, costing nearly $5,000 more than the Soul. In fact, it’s priced on a par with the base version of the larger and more practical Subaru Forester with an automatic transmission, which likewise sits at around $24,500.45 Upgrades are limited to a $1,000 moonroof and the $1,995 EyeSight group, which contains many of the latest accident-avoidance systems. Even when you consider the XV Crosstrek’s highest Limited trim level (priced at around $26,00046) and after you add $5,000 in available options, the Soul still offers more luxury-range features for far less money.
Starting at around $22,000,47 the Jeep Renegade has the distinction of being the only subcompact crossover SUV that you can equip for more than casual off-road duty, though that capability comes in a model that starts much higher at around $27,500.48 It looks and feels more like a “real” SUV than the others, with fun Jeep design details throughout and a notably wide stance that makes for confidence in the turns and a fairly comfortable ride. Although it’s eminently likeable, it’s way more expensive than our pick, the Kia Soul. It also ties with the Fiat 500X (with which it shares a platform and many components) as having the worst fuel economy among the models we considered, and its available nine-speed automatic transmission can be problematic.
While most subcompact crossover SUVs offer all-wheel drive for added traction over slippery roads, only the Jeep Renegade allows a configuration with a “trail ready” system that enables moderate off-road abilities. Unfortunately, the Renegade’s top trail-tackling prowess comes in the costly Trailhawk version—which can reach well into the $30,000 range when you load it up—with off-road tires and the tallest ground clearance in the line (8.7 inches versus 6.7 inches for the base Sport model). That top-tier version comes with a high-tech AWD system and a Selec-Terrain system with selectable modes for dialing in the appropriate performance over rocks and in snow, sand, and mud, but it still isn’t as off-road worthy as would be a conventional SUV with low-range 4X4 gearing such as Jeep’s iconic Wrangler (which starts at a more affordable $25,00049 or so).
With boxy styling punctuated by an exaggerated version of Jeep’s signature seven-slot grille, the Renegade looks more like a modern twist on an old-school SUV than the other models we considered. Its wide stance also contributes to a solid feel, both around town and on the highway, with confident handling and a surprisingly smooth ride.
While the Jeep Renegade starts out affordable, it winds up being the costliest model in our test group as we configured it. That has a lot to do with the way Jeep packages the features and options. For example, air conditioning is optional on the base model and only comes bundled with power heated outside mirrors and cruise control for $1,495. What’s more, if you want an automatic transmission on either the Sport or the Latitude model, you’ll have to upgrade from the standard 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine to the optional 2.4-liter turbo four with 180 horses for $1,400; in the Sport model it also requires taking the aforementioned AC package.
That’s just as well, as the 2.4-liter is the better choice here; we found the standard engine to be weak and loud by comparison. And although critics (including us) tend to slam the available nine-speed automatic transmission for its tendency to shift busily and sometimes delay downshifts for a couple of seconds after you punch the throttle, we found that the standard six-speed manual gearbox shifts stiffly and adds nothing to the driving experience.
Otherwise, our pick, the Kia Soul, is far more affordable, even when fully loaded with luxury items; it also gets slightly better fuel economy and comes with far more generous warranty coverage than the Renegade.
While it’s more of a wagon than an SUV, the Fiat 500L is an eminently likeable vehicle with a roomy interior, an eccentric exterior appearance, and panoramic outward visibility. At around $24,50050 as we configured it, though, the 500L is more expensive than it should be; it’s also slow, not particularly fun to drive, and not as well finished inside as the best models here. On top of that, it gets poor marks for overall reliability. Like our pick, the Kia Soul, the 500L is the only other model we looked at not to offer all-wheel drive, coming only as a front-drive model.
We generally liked the Fiat 500L for its quirkiness and overall utility, with a roomy interior and the largest cargo hold among the competition. Though it’s a bit odd looking with its overstyled front end and large windows, the latter gives occupants a panoramic view of the road like few vehicles of any size, with good outward visibility from virtually all angles. The interior is rather bland looking and cheap feeling, however. Worse, the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine tends to be slow and loud, and the driving dynamics are as nondescript as those of a 1980s economy car, with numb steering and lazy handling. Of note, this is the only model we evaluated to offer a European-style automated dual-clutch transmission that feels like a manual but provides the convenience of an automatic; it’s available only on the base Pop model, with all other versions using a conventional six-speed automatic that works just fine.
While costing nearly $4,500 more than our pick, the Kia Soul (as we equipped the vehicles), the Fiat 500L offers fewer features, lacks in performance, has a less nicely finished interior, and comes with a shorter warranty. We might still be able to make a case for it, except for the fact that it has a rock-bottom, last-place reliability rating from the venerable Consumer Reports.
Sharing platforms and components with the Jeep Renegade, the Fiat 500X takes a sportier approach with a curvier exterior, a more stylish interior, and tenacious handling to go along with peppy acceleration from its available 2.4-liter turbocharged engine. Unfortunately, it comes with a tight rear seat and minimal cargo room, it rides rougher than most models we considered, and its nine-speed automatic transmission operates oddly at times.
Starting at around $21,00051 and priced at nearly $24,00052 as we configured it, the Fiat 500X is stylish inside and out, having more of a rounded and tightly packed appearance than the burlier-looking Jeep Renegade, with which it shares its underpinnings. The interior is equally attractive, with large rotary knobs for the climate control, colorful trim pieces, and a touchscreen infotainment display mounted at the center of the dashboard. It’s cramped quarters inside, however, with precious little rear legroom and cargo space.
As in the Renegade, a meek 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission come standard in the 500X’s base Pop version, but you’ll find most models fitted with a 2.4-liter turbo four with a peppier 180 horses and a nine-speed automatic transmission. The latter gets low marks from reviewers (and in our own experience) for its busy shifting habits and an occasional tendency to delay shifting into a lower gear by a couple of seconds under full throttle. The 2.4-liter engine is also the worst performer in our test group in terms of fuel economy, tying with the Renegade at just 25 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
While the Fiat 500X delivers enjoyably nimble handling and quick steering, that comes at the expense of a rougher ride than many motorists will tolerate, especially over broken pavement and irregular railroad crossings, where it can get downright jarring. And on top of that, this model costs a lot more, offers fewer features, and comes with a shorter warranty than our pick, the Kia Soul.
Although it boasts an affordable starting price, gets good fuel economy, and comes with better-than-average warranty coverage, the Chevrolet Trax comes up lacking, especially next to the Buick Encore, with which it shares platforms and most components. Though it performs adequately, the Trax is plainly cast inside and out, with an interior plagued by cheap-feeling hard plastics and oddly designed controls.
Starting at just over $21,00053 and costing about $23,50054 for the LT version we chose, the Chevrolet Trax is one of the more affordable subcompact crossover SUVs available, but as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for—and sometimes even less. Though it shares its underpinnings and its basic shape with the Buick Encore, it’s less attractive on the outside, with a shabby interior that features hard seats, odd controls, and cheap-feeling hard plastics that make it look like a vehicle that should cost even less money. Like the Encore, it gives you a skimpy amount of backseat room that becomes even more precious with the front seats extended all the way rearward. It also delivers less-refined driving dynamics and offers fewer features than the Encore. In fact, when the Trax and the Encore are similarly equipped, the difference between them is only around $1,000, which is a cheap upgrade considering the Encore’s more stylish-looking exterior, its top-grade interior trimmed in upscale materials, its smoother ride, and its sophisticated interior noise-reduction system, which affords a far quieter ride.
Like the Encore, the Trax comes decently powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that puts 138 horsepower to the pavement via a six-speed automatic transmission, and it gets good fuel economy at an estimated 29 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
Compared with our pick, the Kia Soul, the Trax has a higher sticker price, fewer available features, an inferior interior, and less passenger room and cargo space. Though it comes with above-average warranty coverage that includes two years or 20,000 miles of free maintenance and five years or 100,000 miles of roadside assistance, the Soul comes with longer basic coverage (five/50,000 versus three/36,000) and powertrain protection (10/100,000 versus five/100,000).
The Nissan Juke, like the Mazda CX-3, sacrifices practicality for the sake of style and performance. This quick and nimble vehicle has a reasonable price and gets good fuel economy, though it comes wrapped in oddball exterior styling and comes with the least amount of rear-seat room and cargo space among its competitors.
One of the “elders” among subcompact crossover SUVs (it dates back to the 2011 model year), the Juke is a truly sporty sport-utility vehicle. Featuring curiously bulbous exterior styling, it’s a kick to drive with brisk acceleration (and good fuel economy at a combined 30 mpg) from its 188-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It also delivers crisp handling abilities that unfortunately contribute to a harsh ride over bumps and jolts. We’d rather see it offer a traditional automatic transmission instead of a gearless CVT that operates more harshly under moderate to full throttle. The top NISMO and NISMO RS models handle even better and accelerate quicker, with up to 215 horsepower on tap depending on the version, but they ride even rougher and top out at nearly $31,000,55 versus a more affordable sticker price of just over $21,00056 for the base model.
We chose to consider the SV version in order to obtain most of our desired features (we decided to make do without a touchscreen display, which is available only as part of a $1,400 option group with a premium audio system and navigation) at a sticker price of just over $23,000,57 about average in this group. While that price tag makes the Juke about $3,000 pricier than our pick, the Kia Soul, as we equipped it, Nissan’s vehicle adds a few features at that price that the Kia model lacks, including a power driver’s seat, push-button entry/start, dual-zone climate control, and a sunroof; the Soul, however, can have additional features the Juke can’t, including a heated steering wheel, cooled front seats, and heated rear seats.
The Juke otherwise falls short in its almost unusable rear passenger room and cargo space, with both being the most cramped among the models we considered. It also comes with a shorter warranty at three years or 36,000 miles for full coverage and five years or 60,000 miles for powertrain components, versus five/60,000 and 10/100,000, respectively, for the Soul.
The MINI Countryman, being a bigger MINI, is sort of an oxymoron, and while it retains much of the brand’s eccentric styling and go-kart-like handling abilities, it moves slower than we’d like and rides rougher than many buyers would prefer. It also ranks among the most expensive models we looked at and offers less than most in the way of backseat room or cargo space.
Taller, wider, and nearly 16 inches longer than a standard MINI Cooper Hardtop, the Countryman brings distinctive British styling, backed up with entertainingly agile handling. However, like the Nissan Juke, it tends to deliver little in the way of utility. We chose the base Cooper model, which comes powered by an underwhelming 121-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that affords below-average fuel economy at a combined 27 mpg. We also added satellite radio for another $300; unfortunately, we found neither a rearview monitor nor a power driver’s seat on the options list for 2016. As we equipped it, the Countryman costs just over $25,000,58 which makes it among the most expensive models we tested while also one of the least well equipped. All-wheel drive is available, but only with the sportier S version, with a 181-horsepower turbocharged engine, at around $30,000.59
Unless you’re dead set on driving a MINI, our pick, the Kia Soul, is a far better deal, with a sticker price that’s around $5,000 less as we equipped both models, and a much longer list of affordable upscale amenities available. In contrast to the Countryman, the Soul is quicker, and it offers a more elegant and certainly more straightforwardly designed interior, with added rear-seat room and cargo space for genuine utility. Though the MINI comes with three years or 36,000 miles of free maintenance, the Soul has a more generous warranty (five/60,000 comprehensive and 10/100,000 powertrain coverage versus four/50,000 for both with the Countryman).
Expect the ranks of subcompact crossover SUVs to swell even further over the coming years, as automakers that aren’t yet represented here begin selling so-called “cute utes” of their own.
The first of these will likely be the new Scion C-HR, which is expected in late 2016 or early 2017. If the concept model shown at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show is any indication, this vehicle will be among the most stylish-looking options you can buy. You can expect it to pack a small four-cylinder engine, offer all-wheel drive, and come well equipped in a single trim level.
And 2018 should be an especially busy year for subcompact crossover SUV introductions. Ford and Hyundai are expected to unveil entries of their own, likely based on small SUVs that those automakers currently sell in other countries, while Volkswagen is reportedly developing a new subcompact crossover SUV that’s anticipated to be about the size of its Golf hatchback.
As for updates to current models, the MINI Countryman is expected to undergo a full revision for 2017, growing in size to better distinguish it from the rest of MINI’s lineup. Also, the Buick Encore is expected to be refreshed—though not dramatically—for 2017, with the Fiat 500L following for 2018. A redesigned Nissan Juke is anticipated for 2018 or as late as 2019; early word suggests that the revamp may maintain its performance-oriented ways but give it even wilder exterior styling to further set it apart from the pack.
Though many admirable new models have joined the ranks of subcompact crossover SUVs over the past three years, making the decision for buyers so much harder, we determined that the best of them is a veteran that dates all the way back to the 2010 model year. The Kia Soul is the best subcompact crossover SUV for most people because it comes with a considerably lower price and the longest warranty, it has a more extensive list of available—and affordable—luxury features than the competition, it sweetens an already good deal with a nicely finished interior that features plenty of passenger room and cargo space, and it has earned what are among the highest scores in government and insurance-industry crash tests. It offers a combination that all of the newcomers have yet to crack.
(Photos by John Neff. Special thanks to Halleen Kia of North Olmsted, Ohio, for loaning us a 2016 Kia Soul + with no options to photograph.)