Bottom Line/Personal: What are the best small and midsize SUVs for 2015?

I’m Steven Kaye, Editorial Director at Bottom Line Publications, and today my guest is auto analyst Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Director. The small and midsize SUV market is crammed with dozens of choices. Bottom Line will help you figure out the best one for you.

Karl, we love our SUVs.

Karl Brauer: We really love our SUVs.

Bottom Line: And the small and compact and midsize SUV market is exploding with choices, and mileage is getting better.

Brauer: Yep.

Bottom Line: These things are taking over the roads. So how do you narrow that down and pick the one for you for 2015?

Brauer: It’s tough, because there has been a massive amount of competition in this category. People love these vehicles. Automakers know if they build it, people will buy it and they’ll make good profit off of it. You’ve got a wide range of choices, and the small and midsize both have been increasing in numbers and in volume. Everyone’s buying these vehicles. It’s actually putting pressure on the small and midsize sedan categories, which used to be the easy volume leaders; now they’re both losing sales to these vehicles.

Bottom Line: The small SUVs and the midsize SUVs killed the station wagon a few years ago, right?

Brauer: Right.

Bottom Line: Now they’re killing the sedan.

Brauer: Yeah, they’re starting to put pressure on sedans, too, because people realize they get such good mileage, they don’t have to compromise and get an economy car; they can get a midsize or small SUV and still get 30-plus MPG.

Bottom Line: What you just said is very important, because it used to be a clear tradeoff. If you wanted an SUV of any given size, you had to have a mileage penalty in order to get it. Not true anymore?

Brauer: Well, you have a penalty, but now the penalty is you only get, give or take, 30 MPG, and an economy car might get 40. I think the average American looks at the fuel economy numbers and says, “You know what? Thirty-plus, I’m good. I’ve hit my threshold of need for economy. I’ll go with the SUV.”

Bottom Line: Okay, now explain, though, SUV versus crossover. Because these different kinds of vehicles, they can look very similar on the outside; they may not be able to accomplish the same thing for the owner. So tell us about that.

Brauer: Yeah, really it’s hard to tell the distinction. Most people now consider them the same vehicle. But what it started with was SUVs came first, and they were essentially truck-based vehicles; that means body-on-frame platform. And then crossovers were car-based vehicles; that means it was essentially a car platform with an SUV-shaped body on it.

Now there are people calling SUVs crossovers and crossovers SUVs, and most people just treat them as the same thing. And most vehicles are technically crossovers in terms of them being built on a car platform with an independent rear suspension and a unibody design. So the old body-on-frame SUVs are around, but there’s fewer of them. Usually they’re the big ones like the Suburbans and the Tahoes and the Expedition.

Bottom Line: So the idea of having an SUV that can crawl over rocks and ford streams is not in most people’s minds – and in fact, most of these vehicles in this segment can’t do that anymore.

Brauer: Well, most of them aren’t used for it. But that’s one of the reasons that he winner that we’ve picked in this segment was chosen, is that it actually can still do some pretty amazing off-road things even though it’s a unibody. And that’s because it has to live up to its namesake, which of course is Jeep.

Bottom Line: It’s the Jeep…

Brauer: Cherokee.

Bottom Line: Cherokee. And that’s your #1 small SUV for 2015.

Brauer: Right.

Bottom Line: Tell us why.

Brauer: It’s because of what you just said. This vehicle drives as nicely as a CRV or a RAV4, which are great on-road crossovers. But where it gets those two is off-road. It can still do that too. It’s also good value; it’s got some great interior features. The UConnect access system, which is Chrysler’s in-car driver interface, it’s one of the best ones in the market.

So you put it all together, you’ve got the Jeep brand, you’ve got the Jeep capability off-road, you’ve got great on-road car-like behavior, which the previous Jeep that this replaced did not have, and you’ve got a great interface. Styling was a little controversial at first; most people have really grown to like it. It’s a great package.

Bottom Line: So it’s a real Jeep.

Brauer: Yeah.

Bottom Line: Not a car that says “Jeep” on it like some of the recent models.

Brauer: Technically, it is a car that says “Jeep” on it, but it’s a car that says “Jeep” on it that goes off-road really well.

Bottom Line: It also does. You also have another choice in the small SUV segment that you like a lot.

Brauer: This is the CX5. Again, you’ve got Mazda pulling their same trick that they pulled with the Mazda 3 recently. This is one of the best fuel-efficient small SUVs out there. This is the one that pulls people out of economy cars because it gets such good mileage.

And yet it’s very fun to drive, it’s got plenty of power, it’s styled well – all the trademarks that Mazda’s been doing for a couple years now. It’s just a great package and a great combination. I think if you’re looking for a vehicle that still feels like a small, compact, fun-to-drive sedan but has the space of an SUV, this is your vehicle.

Bottom Line: Okay, and that’s the Mazda CX5. Good. Let’s move up in size to midsize SUVs. Define, what is a midsize SUV? When I think of it, I think maybe that means you can actually get five people in it without this [squirming] in the backseat?

Brauer: You know what’s interesting is up until a few years ago, most midsize SUVs were still two-row SUVs. They only had room for five people. You can now get a lot of them with three rows, and the third row – you wouldn’t want to sit there as a 6-foot adult for a day, but you could still drive them around and put adults in the third row and get by for a short time.

So you get this extra flexibility of three rows, but they’re not big in terms of hard to park or feeling unwieldy. They drive like cars now, and they get pretty good gas mileage too.

Bottom Line: A car in this segment that you were telling me before you were very impressed with is a Kia Sorento.

Brauer: Yeah, this Kia Sorento –

Bottom Line: Kia!?

Brauer: Yeah. It’s got three rows of seats, but it’s priced and it’s even sized almost like the category we were just talking about. It’s not a huge vehicle. That means you can park it easily and drive it easily, even if you’re in an urban environment, and yet it’s got three rows. Lot of value. Typical Kia; lot of value packed into the price. You get a lot of features for the money. I think it looks good. You get the 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty that all Kias come with.

So this is a good combination of features. If you’re trying to get a flexible, potential three-row vehicle when you need it, but otherwise a very roomy two-row vehicle when you fold those down in the third row, it’s a great deal.

Bottom Line: And a good buy.

Brauer: Good value, too.

Bottom Line: As Kias tend to be.

Brauer: Yeah, yeah.

Bottom Line: And another midsizer that you like very much?

Brauer: This is kind of the sales king of the category, and it has been for years, which is the Ford Explorer. It continues to be a great performer in this category. Again, drives well, lots of space, functional third row seat.

You know what’s fun about the Explorer, too, is you get a lot of choice. There’s a lot of varieties of this, including a performance version that Ford is making now that’s shockingly fun to drive for a relatively large SUV. It goes around corners well, it’s got plenty of power. Still gets good mileage. The EcoBoost technology is working for it.

Some cool tricks that you can do with it in terms of door sills that light up and have “Sport” written on them, and also the seat design. So you get this kind of fun, sporty vehicle that happens to have three rows and a lot of space.

Bottom Line: The Ford Explorer just seems bigger when you look at it, obviously, than the compacts, but even than some other midsize SUVs. Does that translate into usable space inside?

Brauer: It does, and that’s what nice, is that it’s not the smallest vehicle. It’s bigger than the Sorento we were talking about; it’s not huge, still. It drives smaller than it is, which is what you want from all these kind of vehicles. And it’s very manageable, easy to park.

And of course, there’s all sorts of safety features, too. Ford’s really good about having all those things, whether it’s lane departure warnings and blind spot warnings and backup cameras – which helps maintain the manageability of the vehicle.

Bottom Line: Explorer used to be pretty much the default vehicle in this class. They were all over the place. They had problems with the exploding tires at some point. Now, that’s years in the past, and it’s been totally redesigned since then.

Brauer: Yeah.

Bottom Line: My sense is that it’s never really returned to its place as it had before. There’s a lot more competition now. But you’re saying, don’t ignore it, because this new one is really better and a good place to go.

Brauer: Yeah, it’s still a really good vehicle in this category. It did suffer – it used to be the default because there wasn’t a lot of choice, like you said, and it just had established itself as such a brand name in the U.S. There’s more to compete with it now. You’ve got more options. There’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee and there’s the Toyota 4Runner and the Nissan Pathfinder. There’s a lot of great cars in this category.

But again, if you’re looking for a real friendly, on-road vehicle, still has some off-road capability and a lot of space, good refinement, good mileage, the Explorer continues to be a great combination. And it still sells really well. It’s still one of the sales leaders in that category.

Bottom Line: Do they still make a two-door version?

Brauer: They don’t. They don’t make that.

Bottom Line: Explorer Sport.

Brauer: That was called the Explorer Sport, and it was only in two doors. Now the Explorer Sport is this four-door sporty version with a lot of cool features to it. Which is good, because that Explorer Sport was like the last remnants of that previous platform. The new one has an independent rear suspension; the other one was a live axle and all. That’s the old Explorer history, and thankfully we’re past that.

Bottom Line: All right, so Ford Explorer is back on its game.

Brauer: Yeah.

Bottom Line: Thanks very much, Karl.

Related Articles