Best small 4x4s to buy 2021
Need 4x4 capability without big SUV fuel bills? Take a look our top 10 small 4x4s instead
Small 4x4s deliver a great mix of talents for drivers needing practicality, off-road ability and rugged style in a single package. These cars deliver all of these to varying degrees, and here we've listed 10 of the best that cover a range of styles, shapes and sizes.
The small 4x4 class has changed beyond recognition in recent years and, if you're after a small 4x4, there are plenty of alternatives out there. If it's off-road ability you need, then the Fiat Panda 4x4 remains a star turn - its a capable mud-plugger, but also offers decent levels of comfort and modern driving manners and technology, too.
Elsewhere, the small crossover class has its own share of 4x4 models including the Suzuki Ignis, Mazda CX-30 and Jeep Renegade. These might not be as capable as the Fiat off-road, but what they lack in off-road ability, they more than make up for with added practicality.
On the whole, you'll be looking at top-spec variants of these small crossovers if you want 4x4 grip, although some cars don't even offer it - if you're looking at a Peugeot 2008, Renault Captur or the Citroen C3 Aircross, then you'll have to make do with all-season tyres and a switchable traction control system.
The most practical small 4x4s are slightly larger again, and it's crossovers that once again take pride of place here. The Nissan Qashqai set the template for the class, with its raised ride height within hatchback dimensions, and rivals from Peugeot, Renault, SEAT, Hyundai, Kia and more have pushed the boundaries of the class even further. Again if you want AWD, it's the top-spec versions of these that are the ones to go for, as the entry-level cars offer more economical front-wheel drive as standard.
Elsewhere, the Dacia Duster sits in a class of its own, by offering rugged durability, crossover-sized space and outstanding value for money all rolled into one, while the Subaru XV has a permanent 4WD system that gives it more off-road ability than most owners are likely to ever need, although it's not quite as spacious as its rivals.
Best small 4x4s to buy now
- Skoda Karoq
- Volvo XC40
- SEAT Ateca
- MINI Countryman
- Mazda CX-30
- BMW X1
- Fiat Panda 4x4
- Jeep Renegade
- Dacia Duster
- Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4
Four-wheel drive versions of the Karoq are offered with a 187bhp 2.0-litre TSI petrol, a 148bhp 2.0-litre TDI diesel and another 2.0-litre TDI with 187bhp. None of these engines feel sluggish, offering plenty of punch for overtaking.
You can have the Skoda Karoq in two-wheel drive and the benefit of that is greater fuel economy. But the four-wheel-drive 2.0-litre diesels still offer up to 47.1mpg on the combined WLTP cycle.
Skoda has been on a roll with its SUVs lately with the larger Kodiaq gaining plaudits and the new Kamiq looking like a strong contender in the crossover class. The Karoq shouldn’t be forgotten about though and in Scout and Sportline trim, it offers plenty of equipment. Coupled with a tried and tested MQB chassis, the Karoq 4x4 should be on the list of anyone who needs a practical car with off-road capability.
We like the Volvo XC40 so much we named it our Small Premium SUV of the Year in our 2018 New Car Awards.
In such a hotly-contested segment, the XC40 won us over with it’s combination of a comfortable ride and stylish cabin making it a wonderful car to spend time in. It’s not the most entertaining to drive, but the trade-off is excellent refinement.
As the chunky looks suggest, the XC40 doesn’t fall to bits when it sees a field. You can have the petrol B4 and B5 variants with four-wheel drive, along with the 402bhp P8 pure electric version.
You’re not shackled to the top-end models if you want the largest engines either as the stronger powertrains are available across the XC40 range.
The Ateca was SEAT’s first SUV and proved to be a smash hit, winning our Crossover of the Year title in 2016. Following the Ateca’s success, SEAT now has two other SUVs in it’s arsenal - the larger Tarraco and smaller Arona.
A clean, minimalist interior might seem a bit drab but it’s all ergonomically laid out with typically decent VW Group build quality. The Ateca’s 8.0-inch Full Link infotainment system gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard and it’s simple enough to use, although the graphics aren’t as sharp as a Peugeot 3008’s and there’s no option for a digital dash - even on top-spec Xcellence models.
SEAT has worked wonders with the chassis however, giving the Ateca hatchback-levels of poise and handling. There’s a strong range of engines from the punchy and refined 1.0 TSI, to the 187bhp 2.0-litre diesel unit.
If you regularly travel off-road, the Ateca can be had (depending on powertrain) with SEAT’s four-wheel drive ‘4Drive’ system from the base-spec ‘SE’ to the range-topping ‘Xcellence Lux’.
The Countryman might be far removed from MINI’s hatchback beginnings in terms of size, but it’s still great to drive. This is because the Countryman shares a platform with the BMW X1 - one of the best handling SUVs you can buy.
The Countryman should be capable off-road thanks to MINI’s ‘ALL4’ all-wheel drive system which is available on the base-spec Cooper, Cooper S and the diesel Cooper D. The plug-in hybrid version and 306bhp John Cooper Works models come with ALL4 as standard. On the road, the Countryman is slightly firm due to the stiff suspension but the off-set of this is little body roll and engaging handling overall.
Given how the Countryman’s exterior is bold and divisive, the interior is typical MINI and is full of classy design touches. The quality is among the best in its segment with plenty of customization thanks to a long options list. If you’re looking to take your Countryman into the wilderness, it might be best unticking the ‘Sport’ package box so as not to scrape the 18” John Cooper Works ‘Thrill Spoke’ alloy wheels.
The CX-30 is a credible challenger to the more established rivals in the small 4x4 segment. The clean exterior design is striking, although some might find the 4x4-inspired plastic cladding just a little too much.
Inside is similar to that of the Mazda 3 hatch, managing to deliver a great balance between function and style - build quality is great and the materials are of a high quality.
The all-wheel-drive system is allied to the 178bhp 2.0-litre petrol SkyActiv-X unit with either a six-speed manual or auto' box. Our testers found the engine excellent in some ways, but it’s not without its drawbacks. It thrives on revs, which ensures it’s fun to drive, but the lack of a turbo means that it can feel underpowered lower in the rev range.
BMW’s smallest SUV is more expensive than most other small 4x4s, but it’s abilities extend further.
The X1 sits in the growing compact premium crossover sector, duelling with the Mercedes GLA and Volvo XC40 and it’s the BMW’s sharp handling which helps it stand out. Whether you spec a front or four-wheel drive model, the X1 is fun to drive and the range of engines deliver a good mix of fuel efficiency and performance.
A mid-life facelift for the second generation BMW X1 included mild exterior changes, although the interior now sports a larger infotainment screen in higher-spec models - at 10.25 inches.
The plug-in hybrid powertrain from the MINI Countryman Plug-in Hybrid will expand the BMW X1’s engine line-up in 2020, providing an emissions free range of over 31 miles. Otherwise, there’s the usual mix of frugal yet punchy three-cylinder turbo petrol and four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines in 18i, 20i, 18d and 20d guises, plus the 25e plug-in hybrid version
Fiat Panda 4x4
The Fiat Panda isn’t the first vehicle you think of when you’re planning to go off-road, despite the little Italian supermini having a four-wheel drive variant since 1983.
The chunky styling of the current Panda 4x4 isn’t all show like many off-road orientated small cars such as the Ford Fiesta Active X. The Panda 4x4, like the name suggests, gets a four-wheel drive system which might not be the most sophisticated, but is more than enough to provide grip in some treacherous terrain. The scuff plate is a decent addition to keep the engine protected, too.
An 84bhp 0.9-litre petrol Twinair is the only engine available - coupled with a six-speed manual. The current Panda was released way back in 2011 and the interior is showing its age. On the upside, the large, chunky buttons should be easy to navigate while you’re teetering on the edge of a cliff or on a sand dune.
The Renegade’s squared retro-looks are a nod back to it’s four-wheel drive bloodline. But if you want a 4x4 Renegade, you’re stuck with more expensive Limited, Trailhawk and 4xe versions.
You do get some interesting features for the price however, the range-topping Trialhawk has skid-plates to protect the engine, suspension and fuel tank along with ‘Selec-Terrain’ which lets you choose between ‘Rock Mode’ and ‘Active Drive Low’ with ‘Hill Descent Control’.
While front-wheel drive models have a choice of petrol and diesel, the four-wheel drive models are limited to the 168bhp diesels. This is no bad thing as they deliver decent performance and low-down torque - ideal for most steep inclines you may encounter.
The Renegade uses ‘Active Drive’ which can disengage four-wheel drive in favour of front-wheel drive for better fuel efficiency, while the 4xe versions employ trick electronics to manage its all-wheel drive capability.
The Dacia Duster is not just one of the cheapest SUVs on sale, it’s also one of the cheapest cars you can buy.
The Duster presents itself as an off-roader capable of shaming 4x4s many times its price thanks to 210mm of ground clearance and a wading depth of 350mm. On the road, the Duster is easier and more refined than the old car but still some way off its German and Japanese rivals due to excessive road and wind noise and an inert driving experience.
The interior is functional, which will be music to the ears of 4x4 enthusiasts, but it’s laden with equipment you wouldn’t expect at the Duster’s price-point. Touchscreen, sat-nav and a parking camera are available on the Comfort spec and upwards.
Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4
Although the Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4 is at the upper-end of what you might call a small 4x4, it's not much bigger than the BMW X1.
The 3008’s plug-in hybrid system uses two electric motors - each driving an axle. The front produces 108bhp, while the rear delivers 111bhp. They combine with a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine that makes 197bhp, with the overall output being 296bhp.
Drivers are able to utilise a proper four-wheel-drive setting and can also access a hill descent control system, which means that the 3008 Hybrid4 is able to take on off-road terrain with some confidence - often without the need to call on assistance from the petrol engine.
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