Top 10 best compact crossovers 2021
Jacked-up small superminis seem to be all the rage among buyers at the moment, so which compact crossover takes the throne in our top 10?
The compact crossover hatchback segment is now one of the most strategically important in the whole car market. It has grown steadily over the past decade as other more traditional market segments have contracted, and as a great many customers have realised that a big, high-rised supermini has all of the space and versatility they really need, bound up in a compact and affordable package. Some offer a good deal more comfort, convenience and design appeal than a traditional family hatchback, too.
The relative youth of the class may help to explain why it hasn’t been populated by very many cars that a keen driver would seek out; that, and the fact that developing a high-riding car at a pretty modest price, using pretty basic technology – and making it interesting to drive – is something of a challenge. Even so, some of the very latest comers to the scene show signs that may be about to change.
These are the 10 best compact crossovers money can buy, then, should you find yourself in the market. And right now, plenty of people are.
-1. Volkswagen T-Cross-
Volkswagen has watched and waited as its rivals have rushed to cash in on the popularity of cars like this – and the firm’s first compact crossover, the T-Cross, feels very much like the sort of car that’s been judged and executed with care.
Sitting right in the middle of the class on size and price, the T-Cross rises higher than some of its rivals, and has more SUV-typical styling than others. The engine range consists of a pair of 1.0-litre turbocharged three-pot petrols and a 1.5-litre turbo four-pot with 148bhp.
We’ve driven both 94bhp and 113bhp tunes of the 1.0-litre TSI and, while the 113bhp model is a little bit faster and more drivable (thanks in no small part to having an extra cog in its manual gearbox than the 94bhp model), neither version feels slow. Refinement is good, economy likewise (both cars are well capable of 50mpg on a longer out-of-town trip) and ride and handling are nicely resolved, with a sense of pragmatic compliance and low-speed cushioning to the ride that should endear the car to owners.
Practicality is very good for such a compact car, a standard-fit sliding rear bench adding versatility when you need to carry bulkier items. So overall, while perceived cabin quality isn’t quite as good as you might expect from Volkswagen, the T-Cross is easily good enough to be our class-leading recommendation.
*Save money with new T-Cross deals from What Car?*
-2. Ford Puma-
Ford has been slow to hop into the warm and inviting water of the compact crossover class, having so far ventured only the disappointing Ecosport (which didn’t make much of a dent, for reasons that will have been apparent to anyone who drove one). The Puma certainly raises the temperature of that water now, though, since it brings plenty of the driver appeal for which its maker is known to a part of the market that badly needed some.
The Puma line-up has a trio of 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engines, with 48V hybrid technology enabling the top-level version to produce up to 125bhp. It shares its model platform with the current Fiesta supermini – and shares plenty of its vital, engaging dynamic character with that sibling model, too. Corners are taken with surprising handling accuracy and poise, while the car’s damping is particularly fluent and skilfully tuned if you avoid the sportiest trims.
Although cabin space and perceived quality are hardly class-leading, the car comes with some neat storage solutions, the cleverest of which is a hosable underfloor storage area for dirty boots and wet clothes called the Mega Box.
For those looking for both space and excitement from their small hatchback, meanwhile, Ford added a Puma ST performance version late in 2020, which borrowed the engine and much of the running gear of the highly rated Fiesta ST. It's certainly fun and engaging, but perhaps not as easy to drive and to live with as you might expect a crossover hatchback to be.
Save money with new Puma deals from What Car?
-*3. **Seat Arona*-
The Seat Arona beat the related T-Cross to the UK market by a year and was our top pick of the class for a while. Now, albeit only in comparison to the T-Cross, its interior doesn’t seem quite as accommodating as it once did, and its driving experience isn’t quite as well rounded.
The Arona’s interior is a little bit staid and its handling more bland than that of Seat’s other sportier-than-the-norm models, but it’s better than some rivals. The car has strong refinement and drivability and a fairly broad range of engines, although there's no diesel option, which you might find in other cars in this class.
In a class pitched for style, convenience and practicality, the Arona offers more than most of its rivals, with slightly higher pricing than the class average offset by top-notch infotainment and solidity of tactile feel.
*Save money with new Arona deals from What Car?*
-4. Renault Captur-
The second-generation Renault Captur edges out its Alliance partner sibling, the Nissan Juke, here for several reasons. It has a more flexible and slightly roomier interior with sliding back seats; it has a surprisingly classy level of perceived quality, with plenty of ritzy in-car tech to drive up the richness of the ambience; and it has a much broader engine range, which increases your chances of finding just the right car to suit your needs.
Fine styling and great value have been Captur strong suits since the first-gen car, of course, as they remain now. The car’s entry-level 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine has strong torque and is pretty drivable and reasonably refined, although it doesn’t raise eyebrows for outright performance. The mid-range 1.3-litre TCE petrol is smoother at low revs but a bit noisy when revving, and it's not a great deal quicker. There are a couple of diesel versions, too, and the range-topping E-Tech plug-in hybrid, which, at more than £30,000, may be only a bit-part player in the range, and which has decent drivability but doesn't ride or handle as well as other derivatives.
*Save money with new Captur deals from What Car?*
-5. Mazda MX-30 (or CX-30)-
Mazda has effectively replaced its old compact crossover, the CX-3, with what is a really different option in this class: the MX-30 crossover hatchback-cum-coupé. For now, it's available as an electric option only, although there is a plug-in hybrid alternative coming soon with a rotary engine as a back-up generator. And, because it's either electric or PHEV, that makes the MX-30 an expensive-looking car among conventionally engined crossover options.
For those ready to pay a bit extra for an interesting second car with top-level sustainability credentials, though, the MX-30 ought to really stand out. It has an eye-catching design with a long bonnet and tapering rear quarters, as well as rear-hinged 'suicide' back doors. Interior space is tighter than than class average, but there's certainly enough room for smaller adults and children to get comfortable, not unlike they might have in a slightly higher-riding BMW i3.
The MX-30 handles keenly for a crossover, doing the celebrated reputation of its maker no harm at all, and giving its driver reason to be glad they opted for a smaller, lighter EV than they might have. The downside of that, of course, is usable range: 124 miles is claimed, and our testing so far suggests the car's real-world potential won't often be much more than 100 miles.
Even so, the MX-30 is an interesting addition to the compact crossover class that will suit shorter-range users ready to switch to electric power very well, and please them with its alternative looks and dynamic charm. And for those who'd rather stick with combustion power, the petrol CX-30 is an excellent alternative, with Mazda's hallmark dynamics.
*Save money with new MX-30 deals from What Car?*
-6. Peugeot 2008 and e-2008-
Peugeot's second-generation 2008 is, without question, a better crossover class contender than its first. With smarter styling, significantly improved passenger space and an interior of comparable material appeal to the likes of the 3008 and 5008, this car is now one to consider seriously if you think a high-rised supermini might suit you better than a conventional family hatch.
Peugeot's iCockpit control regime gives the car a small, low-sprouting steering wheel, high-set instruments and a driving position that may not suit every size and shape of driver, but the cabin is otherwise roomy and quite well finished. Second-row space is now good enough for adults and taller teenagers, despite the fact that Peugeot has chosen a slightly lower-profile body design with this generation of the car.
For propulsion, you can choose between three individual 1.2-litre petrol turbo engines, a 1.5-litre diesel or a fully electric option, the last combining a price that brings it in just below £30,000 with a real-world range of about 150 miles on a charge in average UK temperatures.
*Save money with new 2008 deals from What Car?*
-7. Nissan Juke-
The original Nissan Juke was the reason we’ve got a compact crossover class at all. Its late-noughties market success proved there was a market for jumped-up superminis with SUV-themed styling, and it managed to remain an unconventional choice throughout its life, even though it had so many imitators.
The second-generation version corrected the biggest flaws of the first, and retained most of its funky, off-beat styling appeal – although it’s not quite good enough to challenge for the top ranks here. Interior space is now pretty class competitive, with room in the back seats for adults as well as kids and a good-sized boot now present and correct.
The Juke is more firmly sprung and sporty feeling to drive than the average crossover, with tidy and composed handling and a ride that can sometimes feel a little bit busy and restive, but is settled enough for the most part. The engine range is currently limited to a 115bhp 1.0-litre petrol, which feels a little bit weedy for the car at times, but other options – among them a hybrid – are coming later.
*Save money with new Juke deals from What Car?*
-8. Honda HR-V e:HEV-
For the latest incarnation, Honda has reinvented with the HR-V with an all-new exterior design and the fitment of but one powertrain: a Prius-style petrol-electric hybrid setup that uses engine power, electric-motor power, or both, depending on the circumstances.
It's a charming car by the standards of the class, and rolls along nicely, with good forward visibility, fine ride quality and easy-going driving controls. However, the new powertrain, which works slickly around town, easily becomes strained if you need to make good progress, and that somewhat ruins the ambience. The chassis also makes few concessions to what you might term 'enjoyment', though in fairness it isn't entirely devoid of character.
Inside, the cabin is much-improved, with nice materials and plenty of light and space. Honda's 'magic' seats also make an appearance for the second row, and make the HR-V one of the most adaptable cars in the class, even though it's not the most spacious outright.
*Save money with new HR-V deals from What Car?*
-9. Citroën C3 Aircross-
Refreshed in 2021, the C3 Aircross replaces the C3 Picasso in the Citroën range, as SUVs pulverise the MPV segment in Europe. It’s one of the better-value cars in this class, as well as one of the most comfortable, with a typically Citroën level of quirkiness inside, despite the lack of quality feel.
It's a pity that the handling is quite so bland, and that neither refinement nor responsive, easily drivable performance particularly recommends the car. Details like good gearshift quality and assured steering feel are dynamic details that Citroën often fails to attend to, and they’ve been a bit neglected here, too.
Practicality is, at least, on par with the best cars in the class, while the C3 Aircross’s style sets it apart from rivals.
*Save money with new C3 Aircross deals from What Car?*
-10. Dacia Duster-
Nothing more or less than the cheapest small SUV you can buy. In full, it's a pretty capable off-roader and a spacious and frugal family car, albeit with dynamic shortcomings and a crash safety rating a rung or two below its competitors'.
Sure, the diesel is more expensive than the entry-level petrol, and it's a noisy old thing at that, but for the money, only secondhand comes close. Strictly for the space and capability it affords for the money, it's in a class all of its own.
*Save money with new Duster deals from What Car?*