Best cars & vans

Top 10 best SUVs to buy 2021

We name the top 10 best SUVs and 4x4s you can buy on the new car market today

If you’re among the many buyers considering an SUV you’re spoilt for choice these days. Almost every manufacturer makes at least one SUV, many make a whole range of them and the variety of models on offer is huge. The different options are growing all the time to accommodate demand, making choosing the best SUV for your needs all the more difficult.

They all follow a similar formula when it comes to style, with higher ground clearance than a normal car and rugged-looking plastic body trim. But it’s not just a case of picking which carmaker or dealership you like, as some SUVs are designed for different purposes so you might end up with something that isn’t quite suitable.

Even if we limit the search to SUVs that are big enough to serve as family cars, with space for at least four adults and large boots for luggage or dogs, you’ve still got to consider whether to choose mainstream or premium SUV, decide if you need 5 or 7 seats and make your selection between petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric powertrains. That's before all the different SUV manufacturers, models and trim levels even come into it. 

Thanks to the growing popularity of this class of car, the SUV segment can be hugely lucrative if manufacturers get it right. Many SUVs come in standard or ‘coupe SUV’ body styles, in economy-focused, luxury or sporty guises and you’ll need to think about what level of off-road ability you want. Are you looking for a hardcore mud-plugging 4x4 vehicle or do you just want to traverse the occasional speed bump or park by a raised kerb without scraping your alloy wheels?

All things considered, finding the new SUV that perfectly suits your family’s needs, and getting a great deal on it, has never been more complicated but we’re here to help. The Auto Express team has tested every SUV model on the market exhaustively, to save you from getting lost in a labyrinth of boot and towing capacities, legroom measurements and infotainment specs. We’ve focused on family-sized models here but if you’re after something smaller, our top 10 best small SUVs list has those more compact models covered. We also have specific guides to the best large SUVs, best luxury SUVs, the most economical SUVs and many more.

Top 10 best SUVs on sale

  1. Land Rover Defender
  2. SEAT Tarraco
  3. BMW X5
  4. Renault Captur
  5. Mercedes GLA
  6. Jaguar I-Pace
  7. Hyundai Tucson
  8. Skoda Karoq
  9. Land Rover Discovery
  10. Kia e-Niro

Scroll down to find out more about the 10 best SUVs on sale at the moment...

1. Land Rover Defender

Land Rover has really aced the task of reinventing the iconic Defender for the modern age. It's every bit as capable off-road, while introducing a level of luxury that underlines the brand’s premium credentials. Crucially, for 99% of customers, the Defender now great to drive on-road, delivering a surprising amount of fun and dynamic ability on smoother tarmac. We’ve named it our Mid-size Premium SUV of the Year for 2021.

The Defender is as versatile as ever, and in 110 specification you can choose from five, six or seven-seat options, while the engine options are equally flexible with mild-hybrid petrol and diesel units, a plug-in hybrid variant and a storming 5.0-litre V8 model with 518bhp.

Practicality is still a priority for the Defender, with lots of cubbies and storage areas located around the cabin, as well as useful tech features like a standard 3D surround camera. The air suspension can raise and lower to make hitching-up a trailer much easier, while the ClearSight Ground View gives you a virtual view of the ground beneath and just in front of the vehicle - a boon for keen off-roaders.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Land Rover Defender...

2. SEAT Tarraco

The SUV segment is fiercely-fought as it’s such a popular class. Over a third of SEAT’s sales are now SUVs, highlighting the importance of getting the formula right for cars like the Tarraco.

Practicality is the most important factor and this is where the Tarraco impresses. With seven seats, the Tarraco will happily ferry kids around (just make sure it will be kids in the third row as legroom is tight) and the boot comes in at 700 litres with the third row folded.

We found the Tarraco to be the best equipped when compared with the similarly-priced Skoda Kodiaq and Peugeot 5008. The interior is of a simple design, but it’s a clean look and the infotainment will be familiar to those coming from other VW-group models.

Utilising a widely-used VW-group MQB platform, the Tarraco has a surprising amount of composure in the bends, keeping body roll to a minimum. The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine is the one to go for as it returned an impressive 44.7mpg on our test run, not bad for a car of this size. It’s a punchy motor and although it’s the same unit found in the Kodiaq the Tarraco is marginally quicker. 

The Tarraco’s ride comfort is among the best in its class, coping with bumps and holes in the road with ease. Engine, road and wind noise is also well suppressed within the cabin. 

All the factors combined make the SEAT Tarraco a worthy winner of our 2021 Large SUV of the Year. It’s the third time that SEAT’s family hauler has scooped this prize.

Click here for our in-depth review of the SEAT Tarraco...

3. BMW X5

BMW launched the first X5 model in 1999, when its blend of style, practicality, and quality engineering immediately set it apart from the SUV competition. Originally, BMW marketed the X5 as a Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV), but it has evolved to deliver luxury levels of comfort and refinement.

The X5 won our Large Premium SUV of the Year in 2020 and 2021, and while it has always demonstrated great flexibility in both five and seven-seat form, it was the introduction of the supremely capable xDrive45e plug-in hybrid version which helped the X5 take the gong.

Capable of covering around 50 miles on battery power alone, the xDrive45e is able to reduce the usual running costs of a typical large SUV, while CO2 emissions starting from 27g/km mean the X5 will be more attractive to business users.

Once inside, you'll benefit from BMW's Live Cockpit Professional infotainment set-up which includes a 12.3-inch digital instrument display and a further touchscreen of the same size for controlling the media functions and sat nav - it's a brilliantly intuitive system.

Click here for our in-depth review of the BMW X5...

4. Renault Captur

To be a competitor in the small SUV class means offering plenty of style and versatility, as well as being good value for money. There so many different models available, so a car of this size has to stand out to be in with a chance of winning our Small SUV of the Year award.

The Renault Captur, based on the underpinnings of the best-selling Clio, delivers handsome good looks and a practical high-set driving position, along with generous levels of standard equipment and attractive pricing - what's not to like?

At the core of the Captur's appeal is its practicality, and with increased dimensions over the previous model, it offers improved passenger space along with clever touches such as a sliding rear bench which allows you to prioritise room for extra occupants or luggage.

With a host of on-board driver assistance systems and a full five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, the Captur is a fantastically appealing small SUV.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Renault Captur... 

5. Mercedes GLA

Mercedes has really moved the game on with its latest GLA model. The manufacturer has improved the small premium SUV in all the right areas with extra interior space, enhanced practicality and, crucially in this mini-luxury class, high levels of comfort and refinement.

With smart good looks and a real air of quality to the cabin, the second-generation GLA has lots of kerb appeal. It benefits from a decent range of powerful, frugal and refined engines, while the 250 e plug-in hybrid version offers up to 37 miles of all-electric drive which helps to cut running costs.

Useful standard features such as an electrically-operated tailgate, a reversing camera and child-friendly Artico man-made leather just add to to the overall appeal, and the GLA deservedly took our Small Premium SUV of the Year title in 2020. The GLA bolstered its trophy cabinet by winning our award in 2021, too.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Mercedes GLA... 

6. Jaguar I-Pace

The Jaguar I-Pace is an all-electric premium SUV that arrived to define a new segment in the market, claiming the Auto Express 2018 Car of the Year award in the process. The I-Pace is a hugely important car for Jaguar, showcasing new technology, both in terms of the pure-electric powertrain itself and the new platform that houses it.

The I-Pace uses a 90kWh battery with an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty, which drives an electric motor on each axle to give four-wheel drive. This is a 2.2-tonne car but the 396bhp and 696Nm of torque are enough for 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds and you get a range of around 280 miles on the WLTP tests.

Impressive though they are, the numbers don’t do the Jaguar I-Pace justice because this is a big SUV with a real sense of occasion. From the bold exterior styling to the leather-lined cabin with its dual-screen Pivi Pro infotainment system, it feels special. With plenty of rear legroom and a 656-litre boot, its ticks the practicality boxes too. If your lifestyle can fit with an electric SUV, the I-Pace is still a great buy.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Jaguar I-Pace... 

7. Hyundai Tucson

Visually, the latest Tucson is a huge departure from the tame looks of the previous generations and the bold design is like nothing else on the road. Whether you like the looks or not, Hyundai should at least be commended for not playing it safe and by trying to make its family SUV stand out. 

To really succeed in the family car market, a focus on practicality is a must and the Tucson’s 620-litre boot dwarfs the Nissan Qashqai’s load area and comfortably beats the SEAT Ateca’s 510 litres. The amount of legroom on offer will be a blessing for those sat in the back and there’s plenty of headroom. Up front there’s a curved dash to give a premium feel for the driver and front-seat passenger.

Hyundai has chosen a screen instead of traditional dials behind the wheel - allowing you to change the layout of dials and sat nav. The infotainment is one of the best systems in its class, being sharp and easy to use and having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Hyundai Tucson...

8. Skoda Karoq

Skoda’s Karoq is identical to the SEAT Ateca underneath, but it’s the Czech car that is slightly better balanced as a medium-size SUV.

20 years ago the small SUV sector was a relatively niche market, but the success of cars like the Skoda Karoq shows us how tastes have changed. The Nissan Qashqai usually gets a customary mention as to why family SUVs are now so popular, yet the Skoda Karoq is our current favourite within this competitive crop. 

In standard guise the Karoq offers a 521-litre boot or 1,810 litres when the rear seats are folded. This should provide more than enough space for most families and headroom in the rear seats is even slightly better than the larger Skoda Kodiaq

The Karoq’s interior is a nice place to spend an extended period of time if a long journey is on the cards. The cabin space is cleverly packaged with lots of cubby-holes and pockets and there’s an air of quality you’d associate with more expensive VW-group products. The infotainment is among the best in the business and there’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, too. 

To really stand out in the small SUV sector, performance and general driving dynamics are also important. The Karoq’s ride is more compliant and refined than you’ll find in the SEAT Ateca, but there's responsiveness to the steering and body roll is kept at bay. Avoid speccing the 19-inch alloys however as these can upset the ride quality and add unwanted road noise. 

Click here for our in-depth review of the Skoda Karoq... 

9. Land Rover Discovery

The Land Rover Discovery has made a name for itself as one of the best family cars you can buy, and it's even better in its latest guise. With a smoother look and just as much upmarket appeal as its more expensive Range Rover cousins, the Discovery delivers the kind of upmarket motoring that you'd expect from an executive saloon, combined with the seven-seat practicality of an MPV and the off-road ability of a dedicated 4x4.

There's plenty of space inside, and the rearmost seats are roomy enough for adults to use, while the quality and fit and finish of the cabin gives it a classy feel. There's plenty of tech on board, from the latest infotainment to advanced electronics that keep the Discovery on the straight and narrow, whether on tarmac or in the rough.

Aluminium construction means that while the Discovery is big, it's not as heavy as you would expect, so running costs are reasonable, helped by mild-hybrid technology for both petrol and diesel-engined versions.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Land Rover Discovery... 

10. Kia e-Niro

The rise of the electric vehicle is accelerating and the e-Niro shows how far car manufacturers have come. The e-Niro’s range of 282 miles is good enough to suit most lifestyles, while the 201bhp 64kWh single electric motor helps the e-Niro accelerate from 0-60mph in 7.3 seconds. This is fast for a family car, and the e-Niro gets up to speed in a typically quiet and undramatic EV style.

The e-Niro excels as a family car, with a 451-litre boot and plenty of headroom thanks to the SUV-style body. It’s also comfortable on the move with wind and road noise kept at bay. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are available as standard and the eight-inch screen is simple to use. The interior is also of a better quality than what you’ll find in a Leaf. 

Efficiency is also a strong point of the e-Niro. We recorded a figure of 4.6 miles/kWh at a range of 294 miles on our test, which is better than the WLTP-claimed figure from Kia.

A new model for 2021 has brought a smaller battery with a shorter range, but this e-Niro version will still provide enough miles between charges for the average buyer. Crucially, the entry-level Niro qualifies for the plug-in car grant, which is now only eligible for vehicles costing less than £35,000.

Click here for our in-depth review of the Kia e-Niro...

How to choose the best SUV for you

The good news for SUV buyers is that because there are so many options, irrespective of whether you want to buy or lease your SUV, you need not settle for anything less than ideal. The growth in this sector has largely been fuelled by motorists desiring a commanding driving position, chunky looks and extra grip from 4x4 systems. But there’s more to the SUV package.

The large body of a 4x4 means there's potential for great practicality, so much so that some SUVs can rival MPVs for family-friendly space and versatility. If you're looking for a 7-seater car then a large SUV could be a perfect fit, they tend to be more desirable than MPVs as well as matching them for space. With their huge boot space, roof racks and towing capacity they make great cars for going on holiday, too.

Towing a caravan or trailer is a common use for these cars – and if that's your plan, the high torque of a large diesel engine is the best choice for load-lugging. Check out our top 10 best tow cars to find out more.

As more and more people are opting for an SUV, carmakers have become embroiled in a fierce competition to offer the best ride, refinement, and comfort. What is perhaps most impressive, is that a select few of these new SUVs even exceed the performance and driving dynamics of the more conventional family cars with a genuinely engaging experience.

Some will have concerns about the ethics of driving a big and potentially inefficient SUV of course, but even those concerns can often be put to rest as many of the models on offer are not much thirstier or more polluting than similarly-sized saloons or family hatchbacks. Efficient hybrid models are becoming increasingly popular too, with great mpg figures from their high-tech drivetrains. Just be warned that you may struggle to replicate official figures in the real world.

Despite being known as 4x4s, many SUV cars are only two-wheel-drive. So, while in the past choosing an SUV probably meant you needed an off-road capable workhorse or wanted to go trail bashing for fun, the picture is very different now.

Four-wheel drive boosts their capability when the weather turns, too, although models with 2WD will deliver the kind of running costs you'd get with a conventional car if you're looking at the financial bottom line. At the other end of the spectrum, the latest range of powerful performance models mean you can get an SUV that can put a smile on your face on twisty roads.

Style is an important factor with many new SUVs and 4x4s, and plenty of models are available with a range of personalisation options to make the car you choose stand out. And at the top end of the SUV spectrum, the most luxurious SUVs have the quality and refinement to match the best limousines for comfort.

Tell us your favourite current SUV in the comments section below...

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