Although the SUV is the mainstream media's favorite poster-boy for wasteful fuel consumption, the current crop of compact SUVs have fuel efficiency roughly equivalent to many midsize sedans, along with the commanding and reassuring driving position and visibility that many drivers prefer.
Unsurprisingly, most of the models on our top 10 list are in the compact class, and all except two are powered by four-cylinder engines. Direct-injection and turbocharging are employed by many manufacturers to meet increasing demanding fuel economy standards, while providing a level of performance consumers expect. Some luxury models have hybrid powertrains, but the big potential game-changer could be the wave of diesel models coming in 2014 and beyond.
New models from Audi, BMW, Mazda, and Mercedes-Benz promise to reset the bar in terms of balancing fuel economy and performance. And although perhaps not quite thrifty enough to make this list, the announced figures for the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee equipped with the turbodiesel V-6 of 20/28 for the 4x4 and 21/30 for the 4x4 model are very impressive for a vehicle also capable of towing more than 7000 pounds.
For now, here are the SUV mileage champs you can go into a showroom and buy today. But if you're willing to wait for another 6-12 months, your patience may be rewarded.
12. Nissan Juke AWD, 6A - 27 mpg combined, 25/30 mpg
The Juke is long on sport, and a little short on utility, but if your regular routine doesn't require large cargo capacity, it's not the worst choice. Its 1.6-liter turbocharged engine manages to strike a reasonable balance between power and efficiency, serving up 188 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. With AWD and automatic transmission, it delivers a respectable 25 city/30 highway, for a combined 27 mpg.
11. Mitsubishi Outlander Sport FWD, CVT - 27 mpg combined, 24/31 mpg city/highway
It may have "sport" in its name, but the Outlander Sport wouldn't exactly be the driving enthusiasts' first choice for a small SUV. The power and responsiveness delivered by its naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine and CVT automatic can best be described as adequate. The upside is a frugal fuel economy rating of 24 city/31 highway, for a 27-mpg combined rating.
10. Nissan Juke FWD, 6M - 27 mpg combined, 25/31 mpg
The Juke makes an encore appearance on this list, this time in FWD, manual guise. The tradeoff with DIY shifter is that it's available only with FWD, but if snow and inclement weather are a rarity where you live, it's a fun-to-drive choice. It surpasses its AWD, automatic sibling by 1 mpg on the highway, but dividing and rounding the numbers gives it the same 27-mpg combined rating.
9. Mazda CX-5 AWD, 6A - 28 mpg combined, 25/31 mpg
Once Ford and Mazda parted ways, the boutique Japanese carmaker developed its own new small SUV, and we think the CX-5 is one of the best all-around compact SUVs available. With its current 2.0-liter engine, it's a little underpowered, but its responsive suspension tuning and engaging driving character make up for the shortfall in ultimate power.
8. Subaru XV Crosstrek AWD, CVT - 28 mpg combined, 25/33 mpg
It's debatable whether the XV Crosstrek is truly an SUV or merely a tall wagon, but its characteristic generous Subaru ground clearance tips the needle toward SUV. We can't say we're thrilled at the sudden proliferation of CVTs across Subaru's lineup, but the one in the Crosstrek is one of the better examples we've driven, and gives the added bonus of a combined 28-mpg rating.
7. Buick Encore FWD, 6A - 28 mpg combined, 25/33 mpg
Buick's newest SUV offering makes a big jump in size downward from its full-size Enclave stablemate. But it still packs plenty of style and features into its compact packaging. The 1.4-liter turbocharged EcoTec engine delivers decent, if not stirring performance, but rewards drivers with an economical 25- city/33-mpg higway rating, for a combined total of 28 mpg.
6. BMW X1 sDrive28 RWD, 8A - 28 mpg combined, 24/34 mpg
We thoroughly enjoyed driving BMW's new X1, but cautioned buyers looking for utility to consider the larger X3 or the forthcoming 328i wagon. So massive cargo volume isn't one of the X1's strengths. But fuel economy is, returning a very good 24 city/34 highway in rear-drive sDrive trim. And the X1 is far from a sluggish penalty box. It's turbocharged 2.0-liter engine kicks out a robust 240 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, for a 0-60 time of less than 7 seconds.
5. Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD, CVT, - 28 mpg combined, 28/28 mpg
The first hybrid on our list, the Highlander is solidly in the midsize category, as well as being the first V-6 model on our list. As such, it need make no apologies for its performance or economy. But those two attributes come at a price. The hybrid starts at a stiff $41,015, and requires the mandatory purchase of all-wheel drive. However, it's the first and only model on our list that can accommodate up to seven passengers.
4: Mazda CX-5 FWD, 6A - 29 mpg combined, 26/32 mpg
The Mazda CX-5 makes another appearance on our list, this time with the FWD model. By passing on AWD, you gain 1 mpg in both the city and highway figures, for a 29-mpg combined rating. If the current CX-5's 155-hp, 2.0-liter engine leaves you craving more power, in just a month or two, a 2.5-liter engine will be offered on Touring and Grand Touring models, that makes only a minimal sacrifice in economy for 30 more horsepower and 35 more lb-ft of torque.
3. Nissan Juke FWD, CVT - 29 mpg combined, 27/32 mpg
Just when you thought we were done with Nissan's unconventionally styled compact crossover, it pops back up in the form of the front-drive model with the CVT automatic. That powertrain combination returns an impressive 27 mpg city/32 mpg highway, for a combined 29-mpg rating.
2. Mazda CX-5 FWD, 6M - 29 mpg combined, 26/35 mpg
The Mazda CX-5 is pretty frugal in all its forms, but the thriftiest model of all is the hard-to-find FWD model equipped with the six-speed manual. The row-your-own box gives the CX-5 a decisive edge over its slushbox brethren in highway economy with an almost-unprecedented 35-mpg rating.
1. Lexus RX 450h - CVT, 30 mpg combined, 32/28 mpg
Topping our list is the Lexus RX 450h, which shares its basic drivetrain with the Highlander Hybrid. Unlike the Highlander, however, the Lexus gives buyers the choice of front or all-wheel drive. By forsaking the added weight and friction of the AWD system, the RX 450h gains 4 mpg in city driving, bringing it up to 32 mpg. Combined with its 28-mpg highway rating, it brings this leather-lined cruiser up to an impressive 30-mpg combined rating. But what you save at the pump will be more than offset by your monthly payments. The RX hybrid starts at $47,205, making it the most expensive vehicle on this list.