Heady performance, decent dynamic ability and with a practical SUV body, sports 4x4s may not be everyone's cup of tea but here is our list of the best ten money can buy
5 February 2019

Performance SUVs are among the most divisive cars on sale.

They’re powerful, but also heavy and often shaped in ways that will make an aerodynamicist wince.

But they’re effective, mixing sports car pace with the fashionable – to some eyes anyway – image of an SUV.

As the list of 10 cars below shows, they’re all quite unique and make this class one of the most eclectic in today’s new car market.

Such a car can be widely admired, but most certainly will not be roundly loved. For some, its flagrant thirst, weight, expense and comfort-limiting excess smack too obviously of needlessness.

A diesel V8 is, after all, plenty quick enough. However, this is a question of taste, not quality. Admirers of the super-SUV niche – and they are numerous and growing in numbers – deserve an unclouded verdict that recognises the outstanding prospect among many.

No rival better mixes handling prowess, off-road talent and an SUV sense of functional hness. But more importantly, none comes close the lewd sense of fun it keeps so amply on tap. 

Our Verdict

Range Rover Sport SVR

JLR’s first ‘special vehicle’ is big on charm, pace, capability and driver engagement. Expertly judged and executed

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This is the performance SUV whose chassis was signed off by the man who brought you the handling of the celebrated Ferrari 458 Speciale. It also has a turbo V6 engine derived from a V8 from Maranello, and itself is from a maker of some of Europe’s most revered sports saloons and coupes, which is back to form after something of a hiatus.

Some promising signs, then – and the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio doesn’t squander them. Though it isn’t built with the apparent precision and integrity of some of its opponents, the Stelvio drives with fine vertical body control, rapier steering response that belies its mass and body profile, and with surprisingly forgiving handling adjustability that you just wouldn’t expect of something so tall.

It’s a big car to drive as instinctively as a small one, and eyebrow-raisingly fast with it. Having hit the super saloon nail dead centre and perfect with the Giulia Quadrifoglio, Turin has followed up to equally stirring effect here.

When Porsche recently updated its best-selling model – nearly 100,000 Macans were sold in 2017 alone – it elected to leave the exterior design largely unchanged.

Don't assume for a moment that any laurels have been rested upon, though. The Cayenne's younger sibling was already the best-handling car of its type and, while the Stelvio Quadrifoglio now pips the Porsche for sheer entertainment, a mechanical makeover has only lifted its sky-high levels of precision and composure. This is genuinely rewarding car to drive at almost any speed. 

Option air suspension and avoid the larger wheel sizes and the Macan cuts a more refined figure on motorway schleps than any hot hatch with comparable pace. That performance is strong, too, if not electrifying – the entry-level Macan makes do with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine, but the S gets a responsive 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 that develops just shy of 350bhp.

The SQ7 graduates Audi’s to new heights, with a diesel V8 better suited for the car’s trick chassis than any equivalent petrol engine might have been.

The diesel prerogative does at least keep the SQ7 at arm’s length from powerhouse SUVs such as the Range Rover Sport SVR and Porsche Cayenne Turbo, which is for the best.

Because even with the right option boxes ticked, the Audi is no dynamic rival for either. But it’s quieter, cheaper and more efficient. It’s also more easy-going and comfortable than either. It feels more usable, too.   

This is the quickest, in the real world sense, SUV money can buy. But understand first that the quickest SUV isn’t necessarily the most enjoyable to drive.

We can think of plenty of fast, desirable, practical and luxurious family cars that would conjure up more lasting affection from their owners. That being said, people like fast SUVs and non is faster than this.

That it comes with Porsche quality, including a beautifully laid out interior and a smart chassis set-up to help hide its mass, makes it all the more desirable – even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste. 

Other SUVs are more luxurious and even better to drive at speed, but the Levante offers a broad spread of talents, backed up by a certain degree of style – the latter of which few can match.

It’s not cheap, ranking ahead of even the Porsche Cayenne S, which is a mightily impressive machine. But the Italian is arguably more desirable, not least because it’ll likely remain rarer.

It’s also fractionally cheaper than a Range Rover Sport with its much less powerful 334bhp supercharged V6. If you’re sold on the exclusivity and romance of the Maserati badge, the Levante S will be hard to ignore.  

Compared to many of its rivals, BMW's take on a hot X3 flies under the radar, with only a subtle bodykit to mark it out as something a bit out of the ordinary.

By and large, that ethos of refinement and subtlty is echoed by the driving experience. The car's 355bhp straight-six never threatens to overwhelm a supple the four-wheel drive chassis, and with beefed-up brakes providing more than adeqate stopping power, the M40i rarely loses composure.

As a comfortable, quick, sure-footed family car this is a surprisingly compelling effort from BMW, though not quite the driver's car it might be – especially compared to the Macan S.

The GLC 63 Coupe’s biggest enemy is its five-door sibling, because that car offers the same performance from the same intoxicating V8 engine.

But, if you’re smitten by the swoopy, divisive, styling of the coupé, it’s desirability will be almost unmatchable. It’s packed with the quality you’d expect from Mercedes-AMG, and also beats the Porsche Macan Turbo to 62mph by half a second Although it can’t match that car’s dynamic abilities.

However, its retention of an evocative petrol V8 in a mid-sized performance SUV, when some rivals have turned to six-pots, will be enough to draw some to the GLC 63 Coupé.

The Audi SQ5 is not the greatest driver’s SUV. But Audi never wanted it to be.

What it has created is one that can do it all: climb a steep gravel path, ford a river, run with a sports car, dominate the autobahn, and then shut down its more imposing facets and be as quiet, comfortable and undemanding as a modern limousine.

But the SQ5 falls short on handling dynamism, with numb controls that make it lack the excitement factor so many of its rivals possess None can accomplish such a wide range of activities as this, but several are more fun.

The XC90 offers a fantastic blend of spaciousness, efficiency, styling and cabin ambience.

There are niggles, particularly with the car’s infotainment, but no more than you’d expect from a car developed briskly, on a budget and bulging with new technology.

It’ll take a specific set of circumstances for this XC90 T8 Twin Engine to be the one for you, especially given how good the regular D5 is.

But, as is often the way with a plug-in hybrid, it’s the electric performance and the financial advantages it offers that will help it appeal to a specific set of customers.

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