SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: The Buick Encore is representative of a car category that is growing in popularity.
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: The Buick Encore is representative of a car category that is growing in popularity.
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At the Geneva Motor Show in Switzerland a few weeks ago, Jeep pulled the wraps off of what was a pretty heavily anticipated product introduction: the Jeep Renegade, a super-small, diesel-powered, sport utility vehicle based somewhat on the diminutive Fiat 500L. It’s the latest in an arsenal of micro-sized SUVs either already on sale, or soon to be available, and there are compelling reasons to think about owning one:

Fuel Savings

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Traditional SUVs and crossovers aren’t exactly first on the list of vehicles known for being fuel efficient. They’re typically big, boxy, and powered by V-6 and V-8 engines. The new class of “sub-compact SUVs”—air quotes for lack of an official term with which to classify them—includes vehicles like the upcoming Jeep Renegade and Fiat 500X, the Kia Soul, the MINI Cooper Countryman, and the Nissan Juke, and they all place a premium on fuel economy.

The Mazda CX-5, for example, which fits in between micro-sized SUVs and the more traditional crossovers, rings up 35 mpg on the highway. The best the traditional compact SUVs like the Toyota RAV-4 and the Honda CR-V can do is 31 mpg highway.

Versatility

When vehicles that defined this segment first came online, they were decidedly car-based, and not even classified as SUVs. The Kia Soul, which competed against vehicles like the now defunct Scion xB and the Nissan Cube, is still classified as a subcompact car.

But in the years since, manufacturers have looked for ways to slice this undefined segment even further. The Buick Encore offers comfort and convenience features you’re not likely to find in anything close to this interior size. The Jeep Renegade and the Range Rover Evoque are staking their claim at various ends of the off-road price range. The Nissan Juke and the Mazda CX-5 want you to know they offer the handling characteristics of a sporty car.

Price

For a long time, $25,000 seemed like the price of entry for anything in the crossover class. But that changes with these subcompact SUVs. The Kia Soul starts at $14,900, putting it just $1,000 away from the least expensive Kia Rio subcompact available. The Buick Encore is within $500 of the price of the least expensive Buick produced today. The Range Rover Evoque is a lot more expensive at $41,995, but it’s $8,600 less than the least expensive LR4, and $21,500 less than anything carrying the Range Rover nameplate.

Wide Appeal

When the Scion xB and the Honda Element first arrived in the United States as 2003 model year vehicles, they were both squarely aimed at “active lifestyle” single people who had either just graduated from college, or were about to. The people who actually bought them were empty nesters who had just recently sent those very people to school.

The marketing focus was way off. Eleven years later, it’s spot on, depending on which sub-segment you belong to. The kind of active lifestyle people you see in granola bar commercials are interested in vehicles like the MINI Countryman and the Jeep Renegade. The recently kid-free like the Buick Encore.

More to Come

There’s a sub-compact SUV for just about every kind of lifestyle right now, but there are big holes in a lot of lineups that are sure to be filled by competitive products in the coming years.

At January’s North American International Auto Show, Ford CEO Alan Mulally hinted that they may be bringing the Fiesta-based EcoSport to the United States. It’s currently on sale in India and goes on sale in Europe this year. Honda recently showed the Honda Urban SUV Concept, which uses a platform similar to the Honda Fit, featuring a center-mounted fuel tank for larger interior volume than you’d expect in something so small. Volkswagen recently debuted the Taigun, which slots below the Tiguan (insert confusing name joke here), but hasn’t yet announced plans to sell it in the United States.

For now, though, American consumers have a wealth of choices in a category that has slowly grown over the last decade. Depending on your lifestyle, there’s a vehicle like this for you, provided you don’t have four kids and a bass boat to haul around.