Subcompact SUVs factor prominently among today’s entry-grade offerings in new-car showrooms as manufacturers continue to roll out replacements for slow-selling sedan and hatchback models. Small crossovers have become such a big deal so quickly that a few automakers now have multiple models that slot in below the compact SUV threshold.
Our jury of more than 20 automotive industry experts from all over the country cast a critical eye over every single vehicle in this segment to consider the characteristics that count with you, the consumer, and voted on their top five finalists to represent the best this growing category has to offer.
Three of the five subcompact SUV finalists in this year’s autoTRADER.ca Awards made the cut in their first year on the market: Two are new to the segment for 2021, while another was added too late in 2020 to be eligible last year. The group also includes one of the pioneers of this segment and a model introduced for 2019 that has proven very popular with Canadian consumers.
Read on to learn about the subcompact SUVs our jury voted as the best in this segment. But as good as all these vehicles are, only one can be the best. We’ll reveal which one in February 2021 when we announce the winners of the 2021 autoTRADER.ca Awards.
2021 Chevrolet Trailblazer
Chevrolet fans and auto industry watchers will recognize the Trailblazer name from its previous life, when it was attached to a midsize three-row SUV in the 2000s.
The new-for-2021 Trailblazer could hardly be more different. Obviously, it’s a lot smaller, but it’s also more stylish, especially wearing its up-level trims, where it’s easy to mistake it for something more expensive.
Every Trailblazer uses a three-cylinder turbocharged engine. At the lower end, you get a 1.2L with 137 hp and 162 lb-ft matched with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and front-wheel drive (FWD), while pricier versions get a 1.3L (155 hp/174 lb-ft) engine with AWD and a nine-speed automatic.
Useful tech is key to attracting this segment’s target demographic, and the Trailblazer’s aim is true with a 7.0-inch touchscreen and suite of standard driver safety assists.
Despite its tidy size, our reviewers found the Trailblazer boasts one of the segment’s largest and most practical cargo holds. Fold the front seat flat and you can fit eight-foot lengths of lumber inside with the hatch closed. And unlike most of its competitors, the Trailblazer is rated for towing, although it’s limited to a modest 454 kg.
2021 Hyundai Kona
Hyundai introduced the Kona as a 2019 model and it quickly became a common sight on Canada’s roadways despite the polarizing look of its squinty face.
Much of the Kona’s success is due to Hyundai’s penchant for building big value into its vehicles. The base trim is standard with heated seats (a no-brainer in Canada), and Android and Apple smartphone integration in a 7.0-inch touchscreen. From there, it’s a short hop to add a heated steering wheel, passive keyless entry, and a blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic and lane-change alerts.
In most trims, power is from a 2.0L four-cylinder engine making 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, which comes with a six-speed automatic transmission and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. The optional powerplant is a 1.6L turbo four-cylinder with 175 hp and 195 lb-ft with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The Kona’s main shortcomings are its small cargo area and some cheap-feeling interior materials, however, it won over our test drivers with its lively handling, long list of features, and fun personality. The Hyundai Kona won as last year’s Best Subcompact SUV, but the competition since then has intensified, so it has its work cut out for it if it wants a repeat win.
2021 Kia Seltos
The Kia Seltos is the second subcompact SUV finalist that’s new to the marketplace for 2021. The Seltos shares a lot of technology with its Kona corporate cousin, but it is larger, boasting a little more rear-seat legroom and a lot more cargo space.
Kia lifts the Seltos’ powertrain options from Hyundai’s parts bin, so it comes with the same engine and transmission combinations as the Kona, and is equally as fun to drive.
The Seltos’ base price is $1,700 more than the Kona, which is a big margin in this segment. Much of that difference must go to the Kia’s larger size, as it comes equipped similarly to the base Kona, with heated front seats, smartphone integration in an 8.0-inch touchscreen, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.
When testing the Kia Seltos, autoTRADER.ca reviewers liked its easy driving feel and nimble handling, as well as the way its CVT performs more like a traditional stepped transmission. On the downside, rear-seat passengers get hard cushions and limited legroom behind tall front-seat occupants.
2021 Mazda CX-30
Mazda added the CX-30 to its lineup as a 2020 model to fill a space between the tiny CX-3 and the compact CX-5. Based heavily on the Mazda3 Sport hatchback, the CX-30 is roomier than the CX-3 and, in our opinion, is one of the best-looking vehicles in the class.
The CX-30 is rare in this class for offering three engine options. The range starts with a 2.0L four-cylinder (155 hp/150 lb-ft) in GX trim that is replaced by a 2.5L (186 hp/186 lb-ft) in GS and GT trims. New for 2021 is the GT’s optional 2.5L turbo (227 hp/310 lb-ft) that bolsters Mazda’s driver-centric reputation in mainstream SUV segments. All three engines come with a six-speed automatic transmission; GX and GS trims come with FWD or AWD, while GT is AWD-only.
autoTRADER.ca’s test drivers liked the CX-30’s premium interior, direct steering feel, and sharp handling, but criticized its firm ride and modest cargo and rear-seat space.
The CX-30 has the highest starting price among our five finalists. For the $24,550 entry tag, you get LED headlights, rain-sensing wipers, an 8.8-inch touchscreen, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, and a part-digital gauge display, but you have to pay extra for Mazda’s other driver assists. As we write this, Mazda hadn’t set an MSRP for the CX-30 GT Turbo, but expect its punchy performance to push the price to at least $35,000.
2021 Subaru Crosstrek
Our fifth subcompact SUV finalist in the 2021 autoTRADER.ca Awards is the longest-running model of this group, having arrived in 2013 as the XV Crosstrek before Subaru simplified its name in 2016. At its introduction, the Crosstrek was the second mainstream subcompact crossover to reach the market after the Mitsubishi RVR in 2011.
The Subaru Crosstrek is notable for its standard AWD and for offering the segment’s only manual transmission. New for 2021 is an optional 2.5L engine whose 182 hp and 176 lb-ft are a welcome boost over the standard 2.0L’s 152 hp/145 lb-ft. Only the smaller engine can be had with the stick shift; a CVT is optional with that motor and standard with the new 2.5L.
At autoTRADER.ca, our experts like the Crosstrek’s capable AWD system, generous ground clearance, and overall pleasant disposition that makes it easy to live with for daily driving.
Subaru’s EyeSight driver safety assist package is standard in any trim with the automatic transmission. Aside from EyeSight, the entry Convenience trim is a fairly basic vehicle, lacking the comfort of heated seats. You get those in the next-up Touring trim along with passive keyless entry, a wiper de-icer, fog lights, and auto on/off headlights.
If you’re a money-conscious consumer, you may also like the fact that used versions of the Crosstrek command some of the segment’s strongest resale values.