As one of the auto industry’s most popular categories, the compact SUV segment has little room to grow, with nearly every automaker fielding at least one entry this size.
But brands continue to find ways to make their designs stand out in this crowded and competitive field. Now add the sheer number of vehicles to consider, and choosing the one that’s right for you can be an intimidating process.
As always, we’re here to help with the annual AutoTrader Awards. Our jury of 20 auto industry experts has voted for the compact SUVs they think best meet the needs of Canadian consumers to come up with a list of five finalists in the 2023 Best Compact SUV category. The panel of experts considered every vehicle in this segment before voting on the best ones.
There’s one new model among this year’s finalists, one familiar name with newfound appeal, and three models that ran for the top prize in last year’s awards program – a testament to how good they were then and still are today.
2023 Mazda CX-50
Mazda is a repeat finalist in voting for this year’s compact SUV category, but with the new-for-2023 CX-50 appearing in place of last year’s CX-5. Despite their similar names, the CX-50 is not a replacement for the CX-5, but is positioned a step up from it in the brand’s lineup, priced to start at $38,250 in GS-L trim where the CX-5 comes in at a more affordable $31,250 starting point. (All prices exclude freight and taxes.) Fittingly, the CX-50 looks and drives like a more expensive vehicle than the CX-5, whose second generation is now in its seventh year on the market.
All CX-50 configurations are powered by 2.5L engines – a naturally-aspirated 187-hp version in GS-L and GT trims, and a 227-hp turbocharged option in GT Turbo form, Both come mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and feature standard all-wheel drive (AWD).
AutoTrader contributor Jil McIntosh wrote that the CX-50 is “an absolute pleasure to drive,” with a turbo engine that “does everything right,” providing effortless highway passing power and smooth, calm performance in traffic. Meanwhile, contributor Jeff Wilson described the CX-50’s six-speed transmission as well-suited to that turbo engine despite being at least two gears short of what most of its competitors offer.
In a direct comparison with the Toyota RAV4, Wilson noted with some surprise that the CX-50 has more front-seat headroom than the Toyota despite the Mazda’s lower roof, and boasts more legroom all around than that boxy segment-leader.
While the CX-50 is no off-roader, it’s one of Mazda’s most capable vehicles in low-traction situations, thanks to an off-road setting that adjusts how the engine’s torque is split between the front and rear wheels.
GS-L trim comes nicely equipped with a power tailgate, panoramic roof, passive keyless entry, leatherette upholstery, and a suite of driver safety assistants. For about $5,000 more, the GT trim ventures into upscale territory with bigger wheels, power-folding and auto-dimming side mirrors, ventilated seats done in real leather, a head-up display, surround-view cameras, and even more safety kit.
2023 Nissan Rogue
The third-generation Nissan Rogue makes its first appearance as a compact SUV finalist in AutoTrader Awards voting since rolling into showrooms as a 2021 model. In a comparison matchup with the Toyota RAV4, contributor Sami Haj-Assaad rated the Rogue higher in most categories, with its “refined driving style, improved interior, and high-tech features,” helping it leapfrog the popular RAV4.
A turbocharged three-cylinder engine is standard in the SV trim and higher, with its 201 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque a nice upgrade from the 181-hp four-cylinder that still powers the base S trim level. Reviewer Jeff Wilson said the new turbo motor “makes a good SUV even better,” lending the Rogue snappy standing-start acceleration and “ample passing power at highway speeds.” Wilson also called out the refinements Nissan has made to the Rogue’s continuously-variable transmission (CVT), about which he said “you’ll be hard pressed to notice (it’s) not a traditional automatic.”
Wilson also praised the Rogue’s “easy smartphone integration … and touchscreen menu navigation,” but was also pleased to find “old-fashioned knobs for volume and tuning, plus temperature controls.” Wilson’s test vehicle had the top-of-the-line Platinum package, whose $43,748 price includes niceties like quilted leather seating, digital gauges, a head-up display, wireless phone charging, and ambient lighting. But if you’re not picky about what powers your Rogue, the less-powerful S trim comes in at $30,898 with LED headlights, heated seats and steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, and the expected set of driver safety assists.
2023 Subaru Outback
Last year, our jury named the Subaru Outback Canada’s Best 2-Row SUV, a title it also won in 2020. This time, the Outback is taking another run at a category win (in the renamed Best Compact SUV group) after being edged out in 2021 by the Toyota RAV4.
The 2023 Subaru Outback is an updated version of the sixth-generation model that debuted and bested all comers in 2020. Among the changes are styling tweaks, a revised infotainment system, and an improved driver-assist suite that promises to be better at spotting pedestrians and cyclists.
The Outback’s fundamentals are unchanged: base power is from a 2.5L four-cylinder that makes 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque, which you can option to a 2.4L turbo with 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. Either way, a CVT and AWD are standard.
Unsurprisingly, AutoTrader reviewers Matthew Guy and Jeff Wilson both preferred the Outback’s 2.4L turbo engine. Guy wrote that the base 2.5L “led to some longing for the added punch” of the turbo’s performance, while Wilson said that even the turbo exhibits “a fleeting moment of hesitation … before finding its stride.”
Both Guy and Wilson praised the Outback’s comfortable ride, establishing that regardless of which engine you choose this Subaru’s aim is to provide all-weather confidence rather than sporty performance.
Most Outback models – save for the entry-grade Convenience trim – come with an 11.6-inch touchscreen that handles most of the secondary controls. In many vehicles, that would be cause for gripes, but both of our reviewers appreciated the permanent HVAC touch controls at the bottom of the display for easy adjustment of cabin temperature and seat heaters.
The 2023 Subaru Outback’s pricing starts at $32,695 in Convenience trim, but the $36,995 Touring configuration is a worthwhile upgrade for its more sophisticated infotainment system, wireless phone charging, dual-zone climate, and passive keyless entry. The Touring also adds blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and lane-change assist to the Outback’s standard safety suite.
A $43,195 Wilderness trim is the cheapest way to get the turbocharged engine, and it boasts better off-road capability and a stronger roof that can support a tent. Atop the range is the $46,395 Premier package, which gets power-folding side mirrors, a digital rearview mirror, Nappa leather, and ventilated front seats.
2023 Ford Bronco Sport
Despite entering its third model year for 2023, the shine has yet to wear off the Ford Bronco Sport, another repeat finalist in the Best Compact SUV category.
New to the Bronco Sport this year are Heritage and Heritage Limited trim levels, which call back to the original Bronco of the 1960s with trendy retro wheels and white grille and roof treatments. Not for nothing, the Heritage Limited is a $10,000 option on the Outer Banks package, which was the Bronco Sport’s former top configuration. This year, Bronco Sport prices start at $35,999 and top out at the Heritage Limited’s $56,649.
The rest of the Bronco Sport is carried forward from its first two years on the market, with power from either a 181-hp turbo three-cylinder or a 250-hp turbo four-cylinder. Though based on the more car-like Escape, the Bronco Sport can be optioned with legitimate off-road tricks that make it one of the compact SUV category’s most versatile vehicles.
Most of our reviewers’ criticisms of the Bronco Sport revolve around the entry-grade three-cylinder’s performance. Matthew Guy noted excessive vibrations when first started on a cold winter morning, while Editor-in-Chief Jodi Lai noted in her first drive review that regardless of engine choice, “the Bronco Sport doesn’t feel as robust as the numbers might suggest.”
But Matthew Guy praised the three-cylinder’s fuel economy, noting an average of 8.2 L/100 km in real-world driving, which looks good next to the truck’s 8.4 L/100 km highway rating. Meanwhile, Road Test Editor Dan Ilika got a 9.9 L/100 km average from the more potent four-cylinder powertrain.
Ilika also liked the Bronco Sport’s ride, which he attributed to “good suspension damping and a tremendous smoothness” that make this little SUV “mild mannered” in most driving situations. In his test, Guy found plenty of headroom up front for his tall frame and called out the stepped roof that ensures good rear-seat clearance as well.
In the end, Ilika concluded the Bronco Sport has the capability it needs to serve weekend warriors “while remaining civilized enough to drive to work every day.” Guy put it a different way: with the Bronco Sport, Ford “created a better Escape.”
2023 Toyota RAV4
The Toyota RAV4 is the fifth finalist in this year’s Best Compact SUV category. It was also a finalist in the 2022 Two-Row SUV category, which it won outright in 2021. All of those kudos speak to the RAV4’s inherent goodness, which continues to impress as this fifth-generation model enters its fifth year on the market.
Changes for 2023 are minimal, limited to minor infotainment and safety revisions, plus two new trim levels for the RAV4’s thrifty hybrid powertrain.
In her test drive of a 2022 RAV4 Limited, reviewer Jil McIntosh concluded that the RAV4 “comes by its bestseller title honestly,” and that “it should be in your consideration” if you’re shopping for a compact SUV. She especially appreciated her tester’s full complement of safety kit, liked the “strong and quick” acceleration offered by the standard 2.5L, 203-hp four-cylinder engine, and praised a suspension that “soaks up all but the very nastiest of potholes.”
Contributor Jeff Wilson pitted the RAV4 Limited against the Mazda CX-50 in a head-to-head comparison, in which he found the Toyota’s “sensible and practical” cabin design was a good fit with the RAV4’s mission as “an everyday utilitarian machine.” He came to the same conclusion regarding the RAV4’s driving feel, praising ride comfort that’s great for daily driving.
Notably, the RAV4’s hybrid models won last year’s AutoTrader.ca Best Green Vehicle Under $50,000 award, beating out 35 other hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electric vehicles. In his article about the RAV4’s victory, contributor Simon Hill praised both the regular RAV4 Hybrid and plug-in RAV4 Prime for being “effortlessly usable … on a day-to-day basis.”
We’d argue the RAV4 Hybrid is the best version of this SUV for its combination of fuel economy, performance, and a powertrain that helps mitigate the noisy acceleration McIntosh called out as one of the gas RAV4’s few notable drawbacks. And about fuel economy: the RAV4 Hybrid last year placed third on our list of Canada’s thriftiest SUVs with its combined fuel consumption estimate of 6.0 L/100 km.
Rounding out the RAV4’s something-for-everyone lineup is the Trail package, which boasts extra ground clearance for better off-road capability and trailering upgrades that allow it to tow 1,588 kg (3,500 lb) – well above the class average for trailer capacity.
For 2023, Toyota RAV4 pricing starts at $32,590 in gas LE trim, while the RAV4 LE Hybrid comes in at $34,850 with a few extra features to go with its impressive thrift. The plug-in RAV4 Prime starts at a shade under $50,000 with its promise of 68 km of all-electric driving.
For a full overview of the finalists and winners, as well as a jury overview and full breakdown of what we’re looking for in an award-winning vehicle, check out the 2023 AutoTrader Awards section of the site.