2012 Chevrolet Equinox

2012 Chevrolet Equinox Credit: TMS

Q. Which SUV has an accessible cargo area, good gas mileage, roof rack and good visibility? I am a grad student, and I am getting ready to make my first "adult" car purchase. I am interested in a (2009-2012) small SUV with really accessible cargo, good gas mileage, roof rack, good visibility and very reliable at a decent price. The "decent price" also includes the price to maintain.

A. Searching for the perfect vehicle can be a challenge, so you may have to compromise and settle for some of what you really want, whether you decide to buy new or used.

The Chevrolet Equinox would probably be a good choice. The Equinox won our $29,000 SUV Shootout, and it was the most dependable compact SUV in J.D. Power and Associates' 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study, which measured problems on 2009 model-year vehicles in the third year of ownership. The EPA estimates are 22/32 mpg city/highway for the Equinox with a four-cylinder and front-wheel drive.

The Kia Sportage also is rated for 22/32 mpg with its 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline direct-injection engine. However, we mark down the Sportage and the Equinox for poor rear visibility, so you should check that for yourself.

The Subaru Forester could be a good candidate, though the gas mileage might give you pause. We suggest the Forester because its tall design provides ample space with easy access to the cargo area and good visibility, matching two items on your wish list. All-wheel drive is standard on all Forester models, and that hurts fuel economy. The EPA estimates are 21/27 mpg, and neither figure is great by today's standards.

Now, about the roof rack that is on your shopping list: Most versions of the SUVs listed above come with standard side roof rails. Using them, however, typically requires adding crossbars, which are available as dealer-installed accessories. Prices can vary by dealer, so shop around. If you use the roof rack to carry a cargo box, bikes or a kayak, be prepared for your gas mileage to sink. Adding any appendage to the roof of a vehicle hurts fuel economy.

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