The Best SUV for Your Budget

Rachel Smith
February 25, 2011
The Best SUV for Your Budget

Finding the best SUV for your lifestyle is overwhelming, especially when you’re on a budget. Decide what you can spend, then pick your price bracket and we’ll let you know what your options are.

SUVs Under $25,000: What You Get for the Money

SUVs in this range are usually compacts and crossovers, meaning they drive more like cars and usually seat five people. The Toyota RAV4 is one of few models that offers a third row. Optional third-row seats cost more and are usually uncomfortable, so it’s important to test the third row before buying– it may be worth saving some cash to skip it.

Spending $20,000 gets you the basics: air conditioning, a tilt steering wheel, a standard audio system and maybe an auxiliary input jack. If you’re lucky, you can get standard Bluetooth on models like the Volkswagen Tiguan or Kia Sportage. For extra cash you can spice up your SUV with navigation, a rearview camera, Bluetooth and steering wheel-mounted controls. If you can pick and choose these features you’ll pay less than $25,000. Unfortunately, many automakers have expensive feature packages that can push the SUV’s price over $25,000 when you start adding these features.

Top performers start around $24,000, and in this arena, the GMC Terrain and the Chevrolet Equinox are best. Like other SUVS in this range, they have 2.4-liter four-cylinder engines, but you can upgrade to a V6. Remember this doesn’t include all-wheel drive. With a V6 engine and AWD, you’ll pay more than $25,000.  There are exceptions – you can get AWD on the Kia Sportage for about $22,000.  But, more established models, like the Honda CR-V will cost over $25,000 with AWD.  

SUVs from $25,000 to $35,000: What You Get for the Money

SUVs in this range have standard seating for five to eight, and you’ll pay between $25,000 and $32,000 for most models. There are still some crossovers in this range, like the Mazda CX-9, the Toyota Venza and the Ford Edge.

If you spend on the lower end of this range, you’ll get basic features. Spending $30,000 typically gets Bluetooth connectivity, USB input jacks for your iPod, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel and steering wheel-mounted audio and phone controls. The Mazda CX-9 comes standard with these features plus a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The Toyota Highlander has the same features,  except for steering wheel-mounted controls, when you add an optional package.

The best performing midsize SUVs fall between $30,000 and $35,000. Expect a 3.6- or 3.7-liter V6 engine, and an optional V8 engine on some models. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, for example, has a standard 3.6-liter V6 and an optional 5.7-liter V8. The V8, however, pushes the Grand Cherokee to the next price range: about $36,500 without optional features. On many models, you can add all-wheel drive without exceeding $35,000. AWD on the Cherokee starts at about $33,000. The Toyota Venza offers it for about $29,000, but only seats five people. AWD on the Toyota Highlander, a seven-seater, starts around $31,000. But remember, these prices don’t include extra features. Adding packages will bump these prices up a few thousand dollars.

Compact luxury SUVs are also at the top of this price range and can easily top $35,000, but you can get some base models for about $32,000. The Volvo XC60, Cadillac SRX or Acura RDX all start below $35,000. If you want the BMW X3 or the Audi Q5’s standard leather seats, be prepared to fork over a few thousand more.

SUVs from $35,000 to $45,000: What You Get for the Money

Large SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and luxury SUVs like the Lexus RX 350 fall between $35,000 and $45,000.

Large SUVs give you seating for up to nine and more standard features. The Toyota Sequoia, for example, has a basic audio system with MP3 playback, an auxiliary input jack, a USB port with iPod connectivity, and steering wheel-mounted Bluetooth and audio controls for about $40,000. The Chevrolet Tahoe has these for $37,570. To get navigation, you’ll likely need to go above $45,000. The Sequoia jumps to nearly $50,000 and the Tahoe increases to $48,305 because you have to select a higher trim before you can add navigation. 

Most large SUVs come with V8 engines. The Sequoia has a base 4.6-liter V8 and an optional 5.7-liter. The Ford Expedition has a 5.4-liter V8. While large SUVs can be a challenge to drive, when it comes to plenty of power for towing, they can’t be beat.

If you only need to seat five and you value comfort and standard upscale features, $40,000 can get you a luxury SUV. Models like the Acura MDX, Lexus RX and Volkswagen Touareg start at less than $45,000 and feature upscale interiors. Their powertrains aren’t disappointing either. Standard engines range from 3.0-liter to 3.7-liter V6 engines, with some models, like the Infiniti FX offering optional V8 engines. 

Comparable Vehicles and Ownership Costs (Data from IntelliChoice)


2010 MSRP


Five Year Depreciation

Five Year

Maint. & Repairs

Estimated Total Ownership Costs

Toyota RAV4






Kia Sportage LX FWD







Mazda CX-9 Sport FWD






Toyota FJ Cruiser 2WD Automatic







Chevrolet Tahoe LS 2WD


9 (max.)




Toyota Sequoia







Volvo XC60 3.2 2WD






Acura RDX







Mercedes Benz GLK350






Lexus RX 350






Lexus RX 450h






*Excellent ownership costs

**Average ownership costs

***Below average ownership costs

****Poor ownership costs