Small SUVs: A fun, flexible, affordable way to get around

Car key in door lock

One of the keys to being happy is finding the right fit, and that goes for sport-utility vehicles just like everything else.

Small SUVs, sometimes called "cute utes," are a perfect fit for those who want flexibility and fun in a package that is tidy and more affordable than a mid-size SUV.

At least two dozen of these compact sport-utility vehicles are currently on the market. They are increasingly popular and more are coming. Through August of this year sales of these vehicles are up 1.1%, while sales of all vehicles are down 2.8%, according to J.D. Power and Associates, the market-research firm.

Small SUVs are available with front-wheel drive for those who are not worried about the snow or all-wheel drive for those who are. In addition, fold-down back seats and tall roofs mean they can carry a stunning amount of cargo for their size.

Their smaller engines and size mean a huge improvement in fuel economy -- typically five or six more miles per gallon -- compared to a mid-size SUV with a six-cylinder engine.

Our picks meet all these criteria. And the good news is that their base models come so well-equipped that we can recommend the least expensive versions.

They all carry at least five passengers -- if the three in back are children.

The three 2008 models we like best are the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4 and the Subaru Forester. Here's why.

Honda CR-V

The CR-V is just a great all-around choice. Since it was redesigned for the 2007 model year the CR-V has been the nation's best-selling SUV. And not just the best-selling small SUV. The best-selling SUV, period. Buyers love its sleek, stylish look, responsive handling and firm, but never hurtful, ride.

The only transmission is a great, five-speed automatic that helps the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine to feel much stronger than its 166 horsepower rating.

The interior looks a bit cheap compared to the others but there is room for four, six-foot adults. Its almost 36 cubic feet of cargo space is comparable to the others, which is about twice the size of the trunk of most full-size sedans.

All CR-Vs come with vital safety equipment as standard equipment. One of those technologies is electronic stability control, which tries to stop a skid. Another is air curtains which cover the side windows to provide head protection in a side-impact crash. The CR-V has a "Top Safety Pick" rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Unless you live in an area where you need all-wheel drive, we'd stick with front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive adds $1,200 regardless of the trim level.

We would get the entry-level LX model, which is nicely equipped for $21,335. Moving up a notch to the EX will cost you an extra $2,250.

For that, the most significant things you get are a sunroof and compact-disc player that puts six discs in the dash instead of one.

Toyota RAV4

Despite the hopes and encouragement of others, not all of us mature as nicely as the Toyota RAV4.

Redesigned as a 2006 model it became a far more polished package.

It is also the most flexible of our trio. If there is the slightest chance that you might need to carry more than five people the RAV4 is the only one of our group with an optional third row seat. However, it is a $950 option for tiny, somewhat desperate accommodations.

The RAV4's interior is lovely and quiet. It matches the Honda for the best front and rear legroom, which means four adults can travel in comfort. Its ample cargo capacity behind the second row is comparable to the CR-V and Forester.

On the standard model (there is a sport suspension) the handling and ride are a fine blend of comfort and poise. Even the 166 h.p. 2.4-liter four-cylinder with the four-speed automatic provides good acceleration. For the speed crazed there's a holy-smokes 269-h.p. 3.5-liter V6 with a five-speed automatic.

Standard safety equipment includes electronic stability control and a side-impact protection package that includes air curtains and seat-mounted bags for chest protection. In the insurance institute's frontal and side-impact crash tests the 2007 RAV4 equaled the CR-V and Forester.

The RAV4 missed joining them as a "Top Safety Pick" because its head restraints did not do as good a job in a rear-impact test.

We recommend the $21,785 "base" front-wheel drive with the four-cylinder engine. All-wheel drive costs an additional $1,400. The V6 is great fun but will cost you another $2,035.

Subaru Forester

If you want a unique style and spunkier performance, consider the Forester. It looks more like a station wagon, and drives more like a sports sedan, than an SUV.

One reason is that the Forester weighs less than the Honda or Toyota while its 173 h.p. 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine gives it a small power advantage over the other two.

For the power crazed there is a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 224 h.p. If shifting gears makes driving more fun, the Forester is the only of our picks that offers a five-speed manual transmission, as an alternative to a four-speed automatic.

You won't be able to choose between front-wheel and all-wheel drive, however. All Subarus come with all-wheel drive.

One downside on the inside: While the Forester's cargo capacity is comparable to the CR-V and RAV-4, it has the least legroom in the second row and a six-foot adult will be cramped.

Only one Forester model, the 224 h.p. "Sports 2.5 XT" with a price of almost $28,000 has a "Top Safety Pick" label from the insurance institute. That's because it is the only Forester available with electronic stability control, which is standard on all CR-V and RAV4 models.

But all the Forester models got top scores in the institute's frontal, side and rear crash tests.

We recommend the Forester 2.5X, an entry level version, with plenty of standard equipment that will set you back $21,840 with a manual transmission or $22,640 with the four-speed automatic.