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Gentle Giants

Compact utility vehicles: More style. Less consumption.



“Small SUV” is no longer an oxmoron. In fact, it’s a whole new auto segment—the compact utility vehicle, or CUV—and drivers are snapping them up. Sure, behemoths still roam the roads: the Escalade, Navigator, QX80, GL 550, and Volvo’s new XC90. But CUVs combine the versatility of their SUV siblings with the virtues of the car platforms on which most are based—great fuel economy and handling. Plus, parking’s a snap when you’re not docking a yacht.

Is it time to trade in your XL for a small or medium? We sampled some of the latest offerings:

Nissan recently introduced all-new versions of their compact Rogue and mid-sized Murano. Along with attractive exteriors and stylish interiors, they’re roomier and ergonomically friendlier than earlier models. The Murano’s design and materials seemingly belong to a more upscale model. The best part, though, is how these two US-built Nissans drive: like comparably sized sedans, with smooth power delivery and good handling on all surfaces. Priced from $23,000 for the Rogue and $29,500 for the Murano.

Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln MKC TV commercials were hilariously bad. But the vehicle itself is nothing to laugh at. Based on the best-selling, and great driving, Ford Escape, this luxury CUV is as handsome as its spokesman. The interior, with its top-shelf fit and finish, is worthy of the Lincoln brand. Options abound, but the hands-free rear lift gate is a must-have. Hands full? Just swipe your foot under the rear bumper and—voilá. The Lincoln MKC starts at $33,100.

With the compact Q3 and mid-size Q5, Audi has two hits on its hands. The quattro drivetrain and perfect interior layout are everything you expect in an Audi. Both drive like Audi cars, which is to say, darn near perfect. Crave a bit more “sport” in your CUV? The SQ5 is your answer. As with all Audi “S” models, its interior is designed for the spirited driver. A flat-bottom, thick-rimmed steering wheel, well-bolstered seats and paddle shifters (controlling Audi’s sweet DSG dual clutch automatic transmission) invite you to use all 354 hp of the supercharged V6 engine. Think of it as a high-performance German sports sedan with a supersized trunk. Prices start at $32,500 for the Q3, $39,300 for the Q5 and $52,700 for the SQ5.

In 2002, Porsche rocked the enthusiast world when it introduced the Cayenne SUV. Now they’ve done it again, with the new, smaller Macan CUV. Available in S and Turbo variants (actually, both engines are turbocharged), the Macan feels every bit a Porsche. The sculpted exterior improves on the Cayenne’s proportions. And with 600 fewer pounds to haul around, the Macan feels incredibly nimble. How nimble? I took the 400 hp Turbo to NY’s Monticello Motor Club to see how it would stack up against true sports cars. Let’s just say there were a few drivers on the track who were shocked to be passed by a CUV. Macan prices start at $52,600

Land Rover is best known for its luxurious, full-sized Range Rover SUVs, offering the ultimate go-anywhere capability. In 2011 they boldly introduced the smaller, aggressively styled Evoque CUV. The Evoque, available with two or four doors, is still among my favorites in the category—and is in my opinion the best looking. It’s fun on the road, yet retains the off-road prowess of its big brothers. Land Rover has now expanded the line with the surprisingly affordable and infinitely capable new Discovery Sport. The “Disco” is less visually extroverted than the Evoque, but offers more room inside and equal off-road skills. Both smaller Land Rovers come with a strong, fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbo engine, along with paddle shifters for, well, drivers like me. Opt for the ginormous panoramic roof and your passengers can spend evening drives star-gazing. Evoque from $41,100 and Discovery Sport from $37,000

With more than 20 versions of what they call Sport Activity Vehicles, BMW is trying to fill every SUV niche. Some efforts are more successful than others. My two favorites: The X3 xDrive35i is the 3-series sedan of CUVs, with excellent handling, performance, and comfort and a spacious interior. If you have a crazy streak, here’s your ride: the X5M. This M version of the mid-size X5 packs a ferocious 567-hp TwinPower Turbo V8, good for 0-60 in just 4 seconds. With monster brakes and sticky tires, you’ll have no excuse for getting little Johnny to the ballgame late. The X3 starts at $38,600, X5 from $53,900 and the X5M from $98,700.

The new Lexus NX is smaller than the best-selling RX but is arguably the better vehicle—and with its aggressive styling is definitely better-looking. It’s available in 200t, 200t F Sport (performance) and 300h (hybrid) versions. The F Sport is the best looking, especially in lighter colors, with a mean, blacked-out front grill that complements the sharp creases and squinty headlights. Inside, you’ll find all the luxury and features that have made Lexus so successful against the Euro competition. Power delivery is smooth, and the driving experience is more engaging than the softer RX. NX prices start at $34,500. 

Jeep is best known for the go-anywhere Wrangler. The Cherokee is a new take on a revered Jeep model. Its bold, attractive exterior is wrapped around a great chassis. The little Renegade is bulldog cute, yet can go places most bigger CUVs can’t. And if you get in over your head, the TrailHawk model has tow hooks built in. The Cherokee starts at $23,100 while the Renegade has a base of only $18,000. 

Buick’s Encore CUV is like a tall hatchback. It’s small, fun to drive, fits four comfortably and features a gorgeous interior with available 4G WiFi. The best part? It starts at just $24,000. 

If you need more space, consider Infiniti’s curvaceous QX60. The beautiful interior is well-equipped with seating for seven and the smooth ride of a luxury sedan. With a lower ride height than most large SUVs, getting in and out is a snap. Starting at $42,400.

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