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The best crossover you can buy

Our favorite crossovers blend car capability with SUV utility

More people are buying crossovers than any other type of vehicle, and that means automakers are rushing to churn out new models and snatch up a larger share of the market. What makes crossovers so irresistible? Not every buyer is looking for the same thing, but among their more attractive characteristics, crossovers provide greater visibility, utility, and styling diversity than sedans – which used to wear the sales crown. Unlike SUVs, crossovers also ride on lightweight car-based platforms, meaning fuel economy is nearly as good as sedans.

Tremendous competition makes the task of sifting through these crossover options that much harder. Fortunately, we’re here to return your sanity. This year, we’ve tested subcompact, compact, midsize, and luxury crossover models from every major brand. Several of these vehicles impressed us, but only a handful of them blew us away. Here are our top picks.

Our pick

Jaguar F-Pace

2017 Jaguar F-Pace

Why should you buy this: It drives even better than it looks

Who’s it for: Luxury buyers who are tired of the same German car options

How much will it cost: $40,990

Why we picked the Jaguar F-Pace:

It’s not difficult to find a beautiful sports car, motorcycle, or premium sedan, but asking for a gorgeous crossover is a tall order. Despite the swollen number of options, crossovers tend not to look nearly as sleek as lower riding vehicles. However, Jaguar’s head of design, Ian Callum, was apparently up to the challenge when he molded the F-Pace.

The F-Pace certainly isn’t first to market – in fact, the luxury crossover segment was fairly stacked before the UK automaker introduced their crossover in 2016. However, most will forgive the wait upon seeing the car’s curvaceous bodywork. Inspired by the F-Type’s stunning physique, the F-Pace manages to look even more upscale than its German luxury rivals. Better yet, it performs like the agile cat after which it is named.

Powering the F-Pace is a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 that comes in two flavors of tune: 340 horsepower or 380hp. There’s also a 2.0-liter diesel on offer with 180hp and 318 pound-feet of torque. All models utilize a ZF eight-speed automatic and are available with all-wheel drive. Though it sits higher off the ground than the XE upon which it’s based, the F-Pace handles nearly as well in tighter corners.

Inside, the Jag features a wonderfully comfortable cabin. Rich leather, ergonomic seats, and an intuitive 10.2-inch infotainment system are just some of the highlights. In short, the F-Pace checks every box on the crossover list, and even creates a few new ones to keep the competition at bay.

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The best midsize crossover

Mazda CX-9

2016 Mazda CX-9

Why should you buy this: It’s quick, efficient, and handsome

Who’s it for: Those who prefer the best, not the most popular

How much will it cost: $31,520

Why we picked the Mazda CX-9:

Remember how I said it’s not easy to find a sexy crossover? Well, let’s say Jaguar’s F-Pace isn’t the only exception. Mazda’s CX-9 is a midsize crossover with attraction written all over it. The seven-seater is by far Mazda’s boldest crossover yet, and its fresh Kodo styling cues will blend into smaller models to come. While competing automakers fear that daring designs could discourage some buyers, Mazda is confident that more consumers will love it than hate it.

As the world’s most fuel-efficient automaker (an honor Mazda has earned since 2013), you can be sure the brand’s SkyActiv lightweight engineering has worked its way into every part of the CX-9. It starts with a stellar modular platform and all-wheel drive system. Add to that a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (yes, four-cylinder), and the CX-9 is ready for primetime. 250hp and 310 lb-ft of torque are channeled through a six-speed automatic transmission on 93 octane gas, but those who run regular 87 octane fuel will only have 227 horses at their disposal (torque figures remain the same).

More surprising than a good looking, fun-to-drive Mazda (that’s kind of what they do best) is one that’s luxurious. An appealing interior layout with quality materials is standard on the CX-9, but a new range-topping Signature Edition adds amenities like Japanese rosewood, Nappa leather, and LED accent lighting. If you don’t want to shell out $44K for the Signature, lesser trims are still very well equipped for the money.

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The best compact crossover

Honda CR-V

2017-honda-cr-v-front-angle

Why should you buy this: Honda reliability, fresh styling, great standard features

Who’s it for: Those who need more versatility than luxury

How much will it cost: $24,045

Why we picked the Honda CR-V:

Honda’s fifth generation CR-V carries on the compact crossover’s legacy of reliability while adding an efficient turbo engine and swanky new bodywork. Like the new Civic, Honda could sell every CR-V it produced with barely any changes from last generation, but the Japanese automaker decided to go bold with the styling and features of each vehicle. Fortunately, Honda’s risky move appears to have paid off.

An all-new platform with a lower center of gravity underpins the 2017 CR-V, giving the crossover much more interior volume than its predecessor. The car’s increased size in some ways push the limits of its “compact” segment, but this may be welcome news to those caught between two vehicle classes. Honda also made tweaks to the vehicle’s braking and suspension systems to handle the larger footprint. Powering the base-spec CR-V is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but EX and above trims use the company’s new 1.5-liter turbocharged engine to dish out 190hp.

Updates to the CR-V’s infotainment, instrument cluster, connectivity, and folding seat operation help class up the interior. Ride quality is also significantly better than the outgoing model. It was difficult to find fault with Honda’s previous generation CR-V, apart from its odd exterior design, so with this list of improvements, count on the 2017 CR-V being a front-runner in the compact crossover segment for years to come.

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The best luxury crossover

Volvo XC90

Why should you buy this: Volvo’s XC90 defines the word “elegance”

Who’s it for: Long-time German luxury buyers who want an upgrade

How much will it cost: $45,750

Why we picked the Volvo XC90:

Until the new XC90 went on sale, Volvo was floating along aimlessly. On paper, the company competed with premium brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and Lexus, but in reality, its products were seriously outclassed. The redesigned XC90 crossover changed all that, and set the stage for future Volvos (the S90 and V90 most immediately) to adequately challenge their segment competitors.

From first glance, the XC90 demands attention. Its flowing body panels, sharp LED headlights, and squared shoulders instantly validate its luxury credentials. Base on the Swedish automaker’s new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), the XC90 feels far lighter than its respectably slim 4,400-pound figure would suggest. As you jockey the electrically assisted steering, the crossover contains its body motions majestically, never disturbing the plush ride quality for up to seven passengers.

Speaking of life inside the XC90, Volvo’s interior design is now at the top of its class. Porous wood grain, brushed metals, and some of the softest leather we’ve ever felt is massaged in a gorgeous layout. It’s so easy to coast along in comfort that you might forget the XC90 is available with 316hp from a supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine or 400hp (and 472 lb-ft of torque) from a plug-in hybrid powertrain. Add to all this Volvo’s celebrated safety standards (due to industry-first technologies) and the XC90 is a knockout.

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The best subcompact crossover

Jeep Renegade

2016-Jeep-Renegade

Why should you buy this: Adventure-ready looks and performance

Who’s it for: Those who like to maximize utility and time outside

How much will it cost: $17,995

Why we picked the Jeep Renegade:

If I were to tell you that a Fiat is great off-road, you’d probably laugh, but if I said the same about a Jeep, you might just say, “duh.” Therefore, what should we make of the Fiat 500L-based Jeep Renegade? With all-wheel drive instead of four-wheel drive, a cutesy design, and an economy car price tag, one could mistake this Jeep for a re-badged poser. Fortunately, however, the Renegade has what it takes to tackle the trails.

It’s possible to get a front-wheel drive-only Renegade, but the real fun starts with Jeep’s Selec-Terrain traction control and AWD system with a Power Transfer Unit. Unlike permanent AWD systems, the rear axle can be detached for better fuel economy. Even AWD models achieve up to 31 mpg on the highway. For serious off-roading, the Trailhawk edition adds reduction gears on the front and rear axles, skid plates, a 20:1 crawl ratio, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

Power is provided by either a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, mated to a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic, or a 2.4-liter turbo four-cylinder connected exclusively to the auto-box. While the Renegade can’t be called quick, its got enough grunt for moderate trails and acceptable passing power around town. Ride quality is quite good for a subcompact, and shifts via the manual gearbox are smooth.

Inside, the Renegade has ample passenger space (headroom, legroom, and shoulder width), and even the trunk has generous cargo capacity. Cabin material quality is excellent, and it’s easy to spot Jeep’s attention to detail. The Renegade is more than just the most rugged in its subcompact class; it’s the best product, period.

Our full review

How we test

The Digital Trends automotive team scrutinizes vehicles on the road through a comprehensive testing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested, as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.

Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks when applicable.

Helpful advice

Some of you may still be hung up on the ‘crossover’ versus ‘SUV’ terminology. Unfortunately, automakers tend to use both terms interchangeably, so your confusion is understandable. It’s mostly the fault of marketing departments: brands choose to describe their vehicles based on public sentiment more than accurate descriptions.

In this case, calling any of these vehicles we’ve listed “SUVs” would be incorrect. Here’s why: crossovers start with a car’s “unibody” architecture, which simply means the body of the car and its frame, or “foundation,” are a single piece. SUVs use a “body on frame” make-up that links two independent pieces together. This is really the only distinction between the two cars, but the side effects of unibody compared to body-on-frame are significant. A unibody is lighter, which leads to better fuel efficiency, agility, and a softer ride. Meanwhile, a heavier “body on frame” design is far more durable both in terms of rust and when driven on high-impact terrain.

Now that you know the basic differences (and if you want a more in-depth explanation, read this), you just need to decide how you’ll use your vehicle. Planning to do a lot of off-roading or towing? You’re looking for an SUV. Need something efficient, comfortable, and more affordable? A crossover is the right choice. With that covered, if you’ve made it to the bottom of this article and now know you need an SUV, we’d suggest reviewing our top SUV picks.