We asked 6 of our motor contributors to pick their favourite 2020 compact SUV, plus offer a couple worthy competitors. The results are in, so if you’re shopping for something in this segment (don’t confuse it with subcompact or mid-size SUV), keep these 5 models on the shortlist. And if you’re shopping for any size 2021 or 2022 SUV, check out our full guide here.
Here’s a summary of what to expect:
|Writer||Top Pick||2 Close Contenders|
|Graham Heeps||2020 Toyota Rav4 Hybrid||Subaru Forester, VW Tiguan|
|Chris Chase||2020 Mazda CX-5||Toyota Rav4 Hybrid, Subaru Forester|
|Doug Firby||2020 Mazda CX-5||Honda CR-V, Ford Escape|
|Russell Purcell||2020 Hyundai Santa Fe||Mazda CX-5, Chevrolet Blazer|
|Amee Reehal||2020 Subaru Forester||Ford Escape, VW Tiguan|
|Travis Persaud||2020 Volvo XC60||Lexus RX350, Infiniti QX50|
2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid
“With only a small price premium over a regular RAV4, it’s no surprise that many buyers opt for the Hybrid model, which was joined in the 2020 lineup by the RAV4 Prime plug-in version.” – Graham Heeps
The previous-generation RAV4 sold strongly on traditional Toyota strengths such as reliability, value and economy – especially from the Hybrid model, which arrived in 2016. It was poor to drive, however, with a shaky ride and feel-free steering that didn’t inspire confidence. When the current model appeared in 2019, Toyota took the best of the older car and fixed the problems, creating an all-round performer that’s deserved its sales success.
The changes began with an image makeover, moving away from car-like styling to a more rugged look. While not everyone will be a fan of the switch, the RAV4 is distinctive in an SUV market plagued by bland, me-too designs. The angular shape delivers great passenger space, visibility and cargo capacity. Under the skin is Toyota’s excellent GA-K platform, which transforms the ride comfort, handling and steering behavior to among the best in the segment.
The well-sorted hybrid powertrain is the icing on the cake, delivering real-world economy in a family vehicle that doesn’t need high performance trappings, but without sacrificing everyday drivability. With only a small price premium over a regular RAV4, it’s no surprise that many buyers opt for the Hybrid model, which was joined in the 2020 lineup by the RAV4 Prime plug-in version.
2 close contenders:
Subaru Forester: the Forester is spacious, good to drive (despite the CVT) and is probably the off-road king of this class – at least until the Ford Bronco Sport arrives.
Volkswagen Tiguan: the Tiguan appeals with its European-influenced driving dynamics and optional third-row seating. It’ll get an extensive refresh for the 2022 model year.
2020 Hyundai Santa Fe
“The level of fit-and-finish puts many pure-luxury vehicles to shame, and the feature list is long and robust.” – Russell Purcell
Compact utility vehicles represent the bread-and-butter for most brands these days, as consumers are looking for one vehicle to do many things. The perfect choice has to offer a mix of versatility when it comes to accommodating both passengers and cargo, be outfitted with all the latest comfort and safety gadgets, and offer maximum bang for the buck.
My choice in this segment is the Hyundai Santa Fe. Hyundai has been surging in popularity because the company’s products are stylish, reliable, and safe. I can attest to the latter as I was involved in a rear-end collision (at 80km/h) in a current generation Tucson this summer. The vehicle did its job and sacrificed itself to protect all four occupants. The Tucson was a write off, but no one was harmed in what proved to be a substantial impact.
When I tested a Santa Fe last year it had such an impression on me that I found myself using it as my benchmark for the segment, and after test driving it again while car shopping, I was smitten. In Ultimate trim the Santa Fe offers a full suite of safety equipment, including a full-complement of cameras, active lane correction, a heads-up display, and autonomous braking.
The level of fit-and-finish puts many pure-luxury vehicles to shame, and the feature list is long and robust. As a taller individual with long legs and a wide back, I find the seats in all positions to offer sufficient room, comfort, and support.
The heart of the vehicle is a turbo-charged 2.0-litre engine (235-hp; 260 lb.-ft) mated to an 8-speed transmission. This power plant delivers a spirited ride when operated in Sport mode, but will help you avoid the pump when operated in its clever efficiency minded Smart mode.
Besides the ride quality and dynamic handling, my favourite feature is probably how serene the cabin is. The level of insulation is astonishing and outside mechanical, wind and road noises have been muted to the point that you can converse between rows at regular speaking volumes. Now that’s a feat!
If you’re considering a 2021 model, read 5 Big Changes Inside the Redesigned Hyundai Santa Fe.
2 close contenders:
Mazda CX-5: Another North American favourite that offers a great value and commendable driving experience.
Chevrolet Blazer: Modern style and sporty aspirations for a utility vehicle. (Editor’s Note: Blazer is more mid-size than compact)
2020 Mazda CX-5
Editor’s Note: We had two writers choose the CX-5.
“In a field full of fine choices, the Mazda CX-5 gains the edge over the competition by never forgetting that getting there should be fun.” – Doug Firby
If you love the driving experience, chances are you’re already a fan of Mazda. The company that gave the world the incomparable Miata roadster finds a way to put a little excitement into everything they build. That is never truer than with the modern, sleek, sexy and zippy CX-5, which somehow finds the perfect middle ground between practicality and driving excitement.
Lower trim levels come with a sturdy 2.5-litre gasoline engine with SKYACTIV-G technology, producing 187 horsepower. But things get even more interesting with the upgraded 2.5-litre turbo four, which delivers that 63 more horses and fully 310 lb.ft. of torque, transmitted through a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic. This truly compact compact responsively outmanoeuvres the competition with its low centre of gravity, nimble suspension and tight turning radius. Yet the engineers have also achieved a comfortable and compliant ride. The popular crossover SUV also got a unique diesel power option in 2019.
The interior finish is a step above the competition – with soft-touch surfaces, detail stitching and just enough chrome to add a touch of class. The high-tech i-Active safety sense suite includes blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert. In a field full of fine choices, the Mazda CX-5 gains the edge over the competition by never forgetting that getting there should be fun.
2 close contenders:
Honda CR- V: The big and roomy Honda CR-V has 23 years of evolution that has established it as a reliable go-to SUV that puts the emphasis on reliability, practicality and enduring value.
Ford Escape: Another long-standing compact SUV, the Escape also bears little resemblance to its earlier iterations, but has achieved a laudable predicted reliability rating, a roomy spacious interior, and performance that will keep you from nodding off.
2020 Mazda CX-5
“The less-potent mid-level GS is still satisfying to pilot with its sharp chassis tuning and smooth power delivery while offering plenty of usable cabin space for a small family.” – Chris Chase
When the Mazda CX-5 arrived in 2013 as the replacement for the aged Tribute (built as part of an expired partnership with Ford), it planted the seed for the brand’s ambition to take its products upmarket without abandoning the company’s entry-level roots.
The second-generation CX-5 arriving in 2017 is the fruit of that seed. In look and feel, this compact crossover gives the impression of one that’s posher than its sub-$30,000 starting price suggests. The range-topping Signature trim level and its gutsy turbocharged engine put the CX-5 into a class above, with interior finishes and driving feel that turn it into a legitimate alternative to crossovers wearing luxury nameplates.
But you don’t need to choose the pricey Signature model to feel good about driving a CX-5. The less-potent mid-level GS is still satisfying to pilot with its sharp chassis tuning and smooth power delivery while offering plenty of usable cabin space for a small family.
Mazda has done a great job focusing its limited resources on turning the CX-5 into a compact crossover for driving enthusiasts while keeping in mind the value and practicality that all buyers seek in this vehicle category.
2 close contenders:
Toyota RAV4 Hybrid: Toyota should make its hybrid drive system standard in the RAV4, because its smooth, efficient power makes so much sense in this segment.
Subaru Forester: Off-road prowess is not a major selling point in the compact crossover class, but for the minority who want it, the Forester delivers big time with one of the industry’s most sophisticated AWD systems.
2020 Volvo XC60
“The large infotainment screen is one of the best you can find in the luxe category. It spans the length of the dash, with intuitive tablet-like gestures.” – Travis Persaud
It’s a difficult task to find any fault with Volvo’s XC60 SUV.
Inside, they’ve created a seamless experience. Jump in the driver’s seat and you’re greeted with zero distractions. The gear shifter, ignition knob and drive selector are to your right in the centre. In typical Volvo fashion they’ve incorporated only the bare minimum HVAC controls. It’s all you need.
The large infotainment screen is one of the best you can find in the luxe category. It spans the length of the dash, with intuitive tablet-like gestures. It makes navigating simple, and it beautifully projects your smartphone controls via Apple Carplay or Android Auto.
Of course, that same beauty extends to its exterior design. Clean lines, distinctive LED headlights and Volvo’s signature grille work together in harmony.
The drive experience combines power with grace. Whether you want the straight gas-powered option or the plug-in hybrid, opt for the top trims. This is where the XC60 bridges its design, layout and performance into one perfect package. The top-end T6 gas-powered engine gives you 310 horses, while the top tier T8 plug-in hybrid ups you to 407 horsepower. Either gives you a wallop of power, delivered with ultra smooth acceleration.
2 close contenders:
Lexus RX350: The RX350 has its own distinctive styling that turns heads, with a lively drive and quiet cabin to match. An easy “must try” pick with a reliable track record.
Infiniti QX50: Infiniti connects incredible technology, and an incredibly sporty ride, with fashionable design cues in the QX50. It’s their standout vehicle that has to be experienced.
2020 Subaru Forester
“The Forester has gone from niche, off-road-focused compact SUV with all-wheel drive to bonafide family hauler offering increased cabin space, loads of new tech, and stylish looks.” – Amee Reehal
As far as compact SUVs go, the Forester is a veteran in the field, taking families and adventure seekers off the beaten path for over 20 years. And the best part: the off-road wagon-style SUV is only getting bigger and better with each redesign, the last one in 2019 carrying over to 2020.
The current fifth-generation Forester (reviewed here) gains a completely new design, more performance and off-road capability, a more spacious cabin with added and much needed refinement, all available with two-mode X-Mode to conquer demanding conditions. For 2020, the Forester adds more safety enhancements as standard, including EyeSight with Lane Centring Assist and rear seat reminder. As well as SUBARU STARLINK.
Subaru’s best-selling model looks much more rugged now, sitting higher with exterior shoulder lines that follow around the pillars. Under the hood is an updated 2.5L engine producing 182-hp and 176 lb.-ft. of torque paired to a CVT transmission, making it a great everyday vehicle with a long list of safety features.
Overall, the Forester has gone from niche, off-road-focused compact SUV with all-wheel drive to a bonafide family hauler offering increased cabin space, loads of new tech, and stylish looks. Paul Hogan would be proud.
2 close contenders:
Ford Escape: Completely redesigned – inside and out – the new Escape is unlike its past iterations, now better suited for modern compact utility customers’ day-to-day needs.
VW Tiguan: Sporting a more streamlined yet beefy look with a wider and lower stance, an available 3rd-row in a compact SUV, and updated 2.0L turbo engine makes this German option a compelling choice.