You will notice a distinct lack of small SUVs in this list and there’s good reason for that.
See, small SUVs are the most impractical over-compromise in terms of what an SUV is supposed to do. Small SUVs are always heavier (and slower) than their sedan or hatch counterparts, but they lose critical boot space and sometimes even legroom, and their back seats are typically cramped. Then you’re left with a space-saver spare wheel as well, and they cost more than a sedan/hatch. This is generally speaking; your personal preferences may vary.
Long journeys, which we do lots of in Australia, are always better in a sedan or hatch, or a medium or large SUV because they’re emphatically better designed for that task, whilst also being able to do suburban work.
Even a base model medium SUV will do a noticeably better job hauling you and your family’s endless piles of stuff around without having to play Tetris with limited boot space. They don’t usually get the towing capability of a large SUV, which is why four very good options made this list.
It’s important to find the right SUV to suit 90 per cent of what you need it to do, so you have to be completely honest when assessing the kind of driving you’re going to do. Think 2-3 years from now, think about school-age kids, think about your commute, where you park, your local shopping centre, what hobbies you do and how much you take away on holiday.
Also, are you actually going to tow anything - this is important, especially if it’s something bigger than a light 6x4 trailer. Many large SUVs can pull two tonnes, but you need to watch carefully your payload, the towball download and the Gross Vehicle Mass. Do your homework.
Also, remember that these are Sports Utility Vehicles, not heavy workhorse platforms. They’re not designed for going off-road adventuring. They’re designed for passive dirt roads, moderate towing on occasions, and they should be driven conservatively. Take the kids camping or visit grandparents in the country; don’t head off the beaten track with the 4WD crowd. Stay at a Big4; don’t try to pull an Airbus.
Lastly, if your budget is tight and you need the biggest amount of space for kids and/or stuff, consider a large SUV but in a lower trim level, rather than a medium SUV in a higher grade with more luxury features. Buy with your head, not your heart. SUVs are inherently compromised, so find the one that is just right for you.
Much like its predecessor, the Sportage is a very well balanced SUV with strength when it comes to performance, practicality, versatility, size and weight, and comfort.
The boot is a decent size without being too big or impractically small (like most small SUVs), you get a full-size spare wheel under the boot floor, and there’s a respectable level of equipment for the price.
Inside, rear legroom has increased slightly thanks to an increased wheelbase, despite being already quite good from the previous model. The boot space has also increased marginally, at least in dimensions, by 77 cubic litres. There’s two outboard ISOFIX and three top tether child restraint anchor points, good cabin storage for all your stuff, and if you’re tech-minded, the widespread adoption of digital screens instead of olde worlde analogue gauges will be a welcome sight.
Good luck choosing between Sportage, Tucson and Mazda CX-5; they’re all safe bets, to which you can add Subaru Forester.
|A brief summary||Diesel range|
‘S’ (FWD petrol auto) $35,700
‘SX’ (FWD petrol auto) $38,500
‘SX+’ (1.6T petrol DCT) $47,000
‘GT-Line’ (1.6 T petrol DCT) $52,000
Like Sportage, Tucson might be an entirely new model, but it’s a pretty safe bet for reliability because all drivetrains are known and have had no issues, nor did their previous generation.
It gets the same wheelbase as its Kia sibling, so interior space is gonna be roughly the same, and its length is also the same. What you need to to decide on is your features and layout preferences versus price.
You might like the Sportage’s rotary transmission selector, but find the dirt/scratch prone piano black interior is of greater concern. In Tucson, you might love or dislike the push-button transmission, and also like/hate the same glossy piano black.
There’s also aesthetic differences you need to figure out for yourself, because styling might mean nothing to you, or it might be crucial.
While you still have the complexity of figuring out which engine-transmission combo you want in Tucson (like Sportage), there are fewer model grades in the Hyundai, which tends to package more equipment into each tier, and it’s going to be the difference of a few grand more or less, depending on which grades you’re choosing from. The common baseline is, of course, your budget, and what features you absolutely need versus what you can live without.
The new Tucson also gets a sporty N-Line styling package which you can have on any grade, from base model ‘Tucson Tucson’, to the ‘Elite’ or ‘Highlander’, which adds $1000-$2000-$3600 each grade up you go.
Like Sportage, Tucson is an excellent mid-size SUV option, with every feature you could possibly want, in a cabin with plenty of room for a moderate size family, including a generous boot space, good performance, decent ergonomics generally, reliability a done-deal, and renowned customer service.
|Model and Price|
Base model $38,000
N-Line pack +$3600
N-Line pack +$2000
N-Line pack +$1000
Does your family enjoy packing the boot and heading away for long weekends and school holidays, and does this happen at every available opportunity? If this is broadly accurate to your situation, the Outback is ideal for several reasons, many of which require some casual mythbusting.
Uninformed people criticise the 2.5L Boxer petrol engine, despite being more powerful than its previous version, and the CVT gearbox, which is excellent for freeway cruising or overtaking on rural back roads, gets undue flack because it sounds a bit different than the ‘normal’ transmission they’re used to. In fact, this combo, once you learn to live with its nuance, fits like a glove. Most regular drivers are subdued and relaxed about their driving; which is why it's important to have a test drive of Outback, because normal people who do regular long journeys will appreciate how it performs. It’s calm when you are, and ready to rock when you tell it to.
Outback gets a 2000kg towing capacity, with a rather long boot, essentially like a raised wagon, but it gets a full-size spare wheel and built-in roof racks to make it much more suited for regional driving than most SUVs.
Subaru’s permanent AWD is ideal for anybody who lives in sloped areas, or who endure very steep driveways. There’s an ‘X-Mode’ program for when you come across mud, gravel and snow - and Subaru offers exceptional customer care, even when driving on dirt roads etc.
The radar cruise control and emergency braking systems (incl. lane-keeping etc) are very natural to use and being a five-seater, you don’t carry around a heavy unused third-row seat, so it feels much lighter to drive than bigger seven-seaters. You get two ISOFIX and three top tether anchor points for child seats, plus a knee airbag, and fantastic directional LED headlights which cut through the night.
|Model and Price|
Outback base model $45,000
Outback ‘Sport’ $47,000
‘Touring’ $52,800 (driveaway)
Undoubtedly the Forester has the ideal boot for any family with particularly wide items. Think double prams, big eskis you might like to pack width-ways for accessibility, toys and bikes, shopping, packing boxes - it goes on.
Having driven several versions of the current generation Forester, with a child restraint fitted and the boot filled with miscellaneous kid-related paraphernalia, it's quite an impressive all-round car. It's particularly glowing when you venture onto sketchy backroads for camping or even accessing paddocks on rural property, not least because it has 235mm of ground clearance, which is comparable to a LandCruiser.
With a slightly shorter wheelbase (2.67m) than its Outback sister (2.75m), Forester has a taller, more upright cabin position, particularly for the driver, so it’s still comfortable, but not quite as ideal for frequent long distance touring - occasional big kays will still be no problem.
The update for 2022 means a lot of upgrades over the 2019 version, including lane centring and departure prevention, autonomous emergency steering, adaptive driving headlights, and an 8-inch touchscreen is now standard.
Forester is a great option if regular trips to camping grounds, off-the-map beach parking and dirt or gravel driveways are a regular part of your driving, where accelerating on traction-limited surfaces are common.
You don’t get seven seats in Forester, but you do get two ISOFIX and three top tether anchor points in this strictly five-seat only mid-size SUV.
|Model and Price|
Hybrid L $46,000
Hybrid S $52,300
The newest SUV from Mitsubishi’s alliance with Nissan and Renault, it’s yet to be proven how it will compare to the old Outlander apart from the usual ‘Better’ verdict.
The Outlander has been, for many years, an awesome budget option for mainstream car buyers who have a very limited budget and need the maximum amount of child and gear haulage possible.
Mitsubishi knows how to make a practical, multi-purpose family vehicle that is full of options and built to be as affordable as possible. Just look at the Pajero Sport; brilliant.
Outlander has a longer wheelbase than the previous model, which means more legroom and a comfier ride for rows one and two. The optional row three seats remain over the axle, so they won’t be as comfy as the middle row, but will be better than the old version thanks to the extra 30mm in wheelbase and a slightly wider rear track that means the seat is more between the rear wheels than on top of them.
The base Outlander LS (which you can have FWD or AWD) weighs 60kg less than the Exceed - which gives it that much more payload, so think carefully about what you need your Outlander to do. If it's big long holidays your mob takes, full of luggage, tents, the dog, bikes and boogie boards, an LS is going to offer you a greater margin of safety when packing. Or an ‘Aspire’ is in the middle, offering kit like
Happily, from the base LS to Exceed, all lights on Outlander are LED, mirrors are all powered, auto folding and heated, and you get a smart key with push-button ignition, and they all get a powered tailgate.
Happily, row three in an LS means kids (and the dog) get air conditioning vents right up the back. And standard collision avoidance tech includes: rear cross-traffic alert, predictive forward collision mitigation (AKA auto emergency braking; incl. pedestrian detection), driver attention alert, rear auto emergency braking, lane change assist and auto high beam.
Make sure you test row three thoroughly before deciding if Outlander is right for you, because even though it’s a few millimetres longer than its predecessor, it’s not quite as big as a Sorento or CX-9 with more room.
Learn about your Mitsubishi finance options.
|Model and Price|
‘ES’ (2WD, 5 Seats) $40,000
‘LS’ (2WD, 7 seat) $41,500
‘Aspire’ (AWD, 7 seats) $47,500
‘Exceed’ (AWD, 7 seats) $51,500
‘Exceed Touring’ (AWD, 7 seats) $53,500
One of the most impressive, supposedly ‘family’ focussed SUVs that is closer to being a high-end prestige vehicle than a daggy kid-hauling school bus.
You get the versatility of seven seats, which includes an ISOFIX point in row three in addition to the two in row two, and you can enjoy the premium stereo from Bose at a slightly cheaper price than the equivalent CX-9.
Sorento’s party piece is the 2.2L turbo-diesel with eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive pairing which is reliable, grunty, while also being frugal on fuel. This combination gives you all kinds of soft-roading access stopping short of hardcore off-roading tracks with big rocks and steep climbs.
Row three is a particular asset to any parents prone to transporting their kids’ school friends to and from. When it’s folded away, the floor is flat and will hold plenty of holiday gear with minimal arranging.
Towing is ample at 2000kg, and with 200kg of towball download limit, there’s plenty of additional utility designed into Sorento without it becoming some loping, heavy, cumbersome hauling machine; it remains civilised and unburdened by some over-exaggerated need to tow more than that.
Sorento is a very respectable place to start if you need a seven-seater that can do just about everything. Try looking at the Sport+ to save a heap of money over the GT-Line, and you’ll still get plenty of tech and comforts.
|Model and Price|
Sorento ‘S’ $49,000 (petrol)
‘Sport’ $55,300 (diesel DCT)
‘Sport Plus’ $59,700
‘GT-Line’ $67,000 (diesel DCT) (driveaway)
It’s quite impressive how Hyundai can offer such a high level of luxury, comfort, safety and practicality at sub-Luxury Car Tax levels. The Highlander feels like you’re sitting in a BMW, it really does. The way Hyundai’s ultra-refined 2.2L turbo-diesel, the eight-speed dual-clutch and the all-wheel drive system work together in the real world is seriously impressive. You’re never frustrated when it’s time to overtake, or hit the brakes, or circumnavigate some freeway or climb a steep gravel road. The powertrain is efficient, reliable, full of power and the next gear, up or down, is always ready to go.
I managed to fill Santa Fe with three adults, two kids, fishing gear and weekend luggage with good legroom remaining. However, if this is going to be a regular thing (filling the car with everyone and everything), you might want to have a look at the Hyundai Palisade, which is more LandCruiser without the hardcore 4WD running gear, but more boot space and legroom - and it’s bloody comfy on top.
If the budget isn’t quite able to stretch as high as the Highlander, the Elite is still quite well equipped and will save you a few grand and gives you more payload limit to work with.
Towing can also be a strong point with 2500kg (braked, 250kg towball download) available if you get Hyundai’s ‘Load Assist Kit’.
|Model and Price|
Base ‘Santa Fe’ (diesel) $50,000
‘Active’ (diesel) $56,600
‘Elite’ (diesel) $62,800
‘Highlander’ (diesel) $70,500
The way CX-5 drives is almost perfect. Just the right amount of steering weight, a punchy, light efficient engine, and the cabin is such a wonderful space to sit in.
Mazda’s 2.5 turbo petrol engine gives great performance even for an SUV, with loads of mid-range power ready and willing to punch you down the road, with your generously loaded boot space suitably packed for holiday. However Base model ‘Maxx’ looks as good as the Akera top-spec and still gets adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring and auto-braking, as well as tyre pressure monitoring.
There’s a very broad price range with plenty of variants to suit your budget and there are plenty of options on lower-spec models. But if you can find a way to afford something north of the GT, you’re going to really see Mazda’s handiwork. Whatever you do, don’t test drive a grade of CX-5 above what you can strictly afford; you’ll start dipping into the kids’ inheritance, and that’s only going into the dealer’s pockets.
I think the Touring is the best balance between budget and luxury - because you can’t have both, but you want the most for your money.
Keep in mind you cannot have a CX-5 above ‘Maxx Sport’ in front-wheel drive, which is a bit annoying when you’re statistically unlikely to ever really need it. Touring is AWD-only for $46K, you get front and rear sensors, standard stereo and satnav, traffic sign recognition, but not the turbo engine (GT or above), 17-inch wheels only, no Bose stereo, no 360-degree camera, no LED headlights and only the small 8-inch screen. The difference: $6000-$8000.
|Model and Price|
‘Maxx Sport’ $44,000
‘GT SP’ $52,500
If money is not the impediment to getting into a luxurious family SUV, and only the quality of the finished product is, then Mazda CX-9 should be in the top two on your shortlist.
The only reason I put it at #9 is because it is expensive, so the majority of SUV buyers who are more likely to afford one of the previous eight will probably stop there.
CX-9 plays a really interesting game against not only its primary competition in the segment (Sorento, Santa Fe, Kluger etc), but also to the bottom end of the notionally premium brands like BMW X5, Lexus RX, Mercedes GLE and Audi Q7 - all of which are profoundly and unnecessarily expensive compared directly to what the Mazda can offer for half the price or more.
The level of comfort is impossible to ignore, particularly in the Akera - the seats cradle you, the interior smells devine and the way it moves its bulk around is seriously impressive, and the boot is immeasurably practical.
Lower grades still get good levels of equipment, but strip back the unimportant features to give you one of the great all-round, large-family touring and school extraction/reconnaissance vehicles.
‘GT SP’ $69,000
‘GT SP’ $74,000
‘Azami LE’ $81,700
Toyota’s claimed combined fuel economy figure, based on static lab bench testing, is 4.8L per 100km - roughly half of equivalent petrol engines in Hyundai Tuscon/Kia Sportage, Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-5 and Mitsubishi Outlander - all between 7.5-8.5L. Usually, I don’t talk about fuel economy because it’s mostly irrelevant to the vast majority of consumers who buy unnecessarily large vehicles like SUVs, then drive them far too aggressively to even think about saving fuel or even their own money.
But when it comes to RAV4, the hybrid system does make a difference, but only in certain conditions - namely, stop-start commuter traffic - where you’re constantly accelerating and then braking. Meaning: High fuel consumption to get going, all kinetic energy gained is wasted due to stopping. Check out the Top Gear episode where they visit Chernobyl; well, Hammond doesn’t because he runs out of fuel, fortunately.
Not only is RAV4 good at city traffic fuel consumption, it’s a pretty well packaged all-rounder with multiple trades it’s a jack of - but certainly no master of. I, for one, think it’s ugly. There are lots of angles and grouchy looking lines, but it still looks bland, somehow. You’re fully entitled to disagree.
The RAV gets a very generous boot, plenty of legroom thanks to a wheelbase the same size as everyone else, essentially, and it doesn’t put a foot wrong on ergonomics and cabin layout.
The pricing of RAV4 is something of an issue if you want to take advantage of the fuel economy by getting the hybrid, because it’s $2500 more for the hybrid, versus the internal combustion-only equivalent. And the difference between them in standardised combined-cycle testing, is 1.8L/100km. So, you’ll need to save over 1600 litres of fuel (at $1.50/L), which is roughly 100,000km worth of driving - very roughly - in order to break even.
You’ll wanna hang onto your RAV for a while.
Happily, it’s a pretty sure thing it’ll last for 200 thou, and you get a good level of equipment - but not great. If you want premium, see #8.
Be careful when considering RAV4 because Toyota dealers will happily take your deposit but may not know when you’ll actually take delivery - there are reports you’ll wait almost 12 months at the moment.
If you’re happy to wait, and your budget has limits, the GXL is decently equipped at around $45K for the two-wheel drive, which gets you guidelines in the reversing camera, smart key and remote start, premium cloth seats, LED headlights, 18-inch alloys, dual-zone climate control, wireless phone charging, but only the standard 6-speaker stereo (not the premium JBL system in the Cruiser). Safety gear includes adaptive cruise, lane-keeping, blind-spot monitoring & cross-traffic alert, auto emergency braking, front & rear sensors, and a driver’s knee airbag plus two outboard ISOFIX points.
|Model and Price|
‘GX’ (hybrid AWD) $44,600
‘GXL’ (hybrid AWD) $48,540
‘XSE’ (hybrid AWD) $51,372
‘Cruiser’ (hybrid AWD) $53,800
‘Edge’ (hybrid AWD) $58,500