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Performance SUVs: they're not half-bad

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Words: Matt Robinson - @MttRbnsn

Published on: July 3, 2019

Words: Matt Robinson - @MttRbnsn

Published on: July 3, 2019

Whenever petrolheads hear the words 'performance' and 'crossover/SUV' together, they become apoplectic with rage. But one person isn't quite feeling the same...

Confession time: I like performance crossovers and SUVs. Phew! There! I said it! What a weight off my chest!

Honestly, I feel like I'm about to be struck off the motoring journalist register for even admitting such perversity, but this is where I am right now. And yes, I totally understand that SUVs are heavy, and tall, and have huge footprints, and that - if you accept you need one for family life - then a good midrange turbodiesel model is going to be far more sensible than a thunderous V8 version with a petrol engine that'll struggle to achieve 14 litres/100km.

I know all this. I also know that if you want to go on a track day, then a performance crossover or SUV is the last thing you're going to take, given the sort of choice we all dream about in the real world - things such as a proper supercar, or a sports car, or a lightweight circuit special, or just a Lotus of some description. Heck, any of these last four are what I'd choose, if only life was like Gran Turismo and you had a garage of 600 road and race vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

But life isn't like Gran Turismo. And surely SUVs deserve their own developmental sub-niches, just as much as any other type of vehicle can have cheap models, and midrange models, and then fast ones too? Would the automotive world have been as enjoyable if everyone had reacted the same way to Volkswagen's decision to turn the original Golf into a GTI? It's pretty much the same principle, after all: Volkswagen took what was then the best-selling and most popular type of vehicle, the humdrum hatchback, and gave it an engine with some juice. Surely buyers of family run-arounds in the 1970s would have been better off with a 50hp 1.1 Golf, rather than the GTI, right? Right?

So I simply cannot abhor the idea of a performance crossover or SUV on principle alone. Love 'em or loathe 'em, crossovers and SUVs are what the buying public wants right now. They're taking them in and giving them homes hand over fist. It's therefore totally inevitable that the carmakers will do 'hot' models of their most sought-after products, and critics should approach these in the right and proper way, not a prejudicial manner that's anti-SUV from the off.

Right, I hear the denouncers cry, but surely you hate the way performance crossovers and SUVs drive? Well... no. I don't, truth be told. In fact, I think they're pretty devastating as fast-road cars. Think about it: they sit higher off the deck, so your forward visibility is improved, meaning you have better and longer lines of sight on the sort of roads where you can exploit their mighty drivetrains; they are normally all-wheel drive, meaning they have the sort of traction advantages that make them brutal on corner-exit and also as good in crap weather (tyres permitting) as they are on much-rarer sunny days; and, due to their height, even with sports suspension or adaptive dampers fitted, they have longer-travel suspension with (sometimes) more supple damping, so they breathe with the road better than some hot hatches I can think of (I'm looking at you, Cup-chassis-equipped Renault Megane RS...).

In short, I love almost all the ones I've tried. I admit that no matter how well they disguise their mass with their incredible suspension set-ups and anti-roll techniques, you will always feel their considerable bulk on the brakes, but I suppose this is all about setting your expectations accordingly. If you think something like an Audi SQ5 is going to handle with the same delicacy and grace as a Honda Integra Type R, and then you're disappointed when a near-two-tonne diesel SUV doesn't steer like a 1,140kg coupe, I'd politely suggest the problem is with you, rather than the SQ5.

What got me thinking about this recently was our first drive of the Bentley Bentayga Speed, a quite astonishing hunk of luxury that the company chose to launch at the fabled Anglesey race track in Wales. Not only did the Bentley manage to stun with its ability to get around the circuit in exhilarating fashion, but it reminded me that the regular W12 model is something that can also seemingly defy the laws of physics at will. And not only that, but I drove the 580km or so to and from Anglesey to attend the launch in the Audi SQ2, which is basically an Audi S3 on stilts. With less rear-seat legroom. And a higher price tag. So you might think I'd deplore this thing, simply for its obvious pointlessness... but even the SQ2 delighted, in its own subtle way.

There's more in the evidence locker. The Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S and the BMW X4 M40d prove that big, hefty all-wheel-drivers can be coaxed into controllable oversteer. They're also part of that much-loathed sub-breed of coupe-SUVs, which is another area where I maybe go against the grain... as in, I don't dislike the way they look. Although, perhaps undermining my whole argument via means of blatant hypocrisy, I think I will always find BMW's originator, the X6, a visual abomination that ought to be killed with fire.

But things like the BMW X2 M35i and the X3 M40i and the Cupra Ateca and the Porsche Macan and the Porsche Cayenne (hideous though it was in Mk1 guise) and the Maserati Levante and the Jaguar F-Pace SVR and the Range Rover Sport SVR... they're all brilliant fun. Not just for what they are, but in the overall world of fast personal transport of all shapes and sizes.

And then there are three performance SUVs that I adore, which I would most certainly buy with my own money once those lottery numbers finally come in. An Audi SQ7 fitted with all its 48-volt powered electronic trickery and four-wheel steering is just majestic; something so big and heavy has no right to handle and move so elegantly, and you will never, ever tire of deploying 900Nm of torque with such apocalyptic effect. The blocky magnificence of the new Mercedes-AMG G 63 will have you wondering why you'd buy an AMG GT of any description, over and above a machine that can seat five and which is blessed with the wonder of SIDE-EXIT EXHAUSTS. And as for the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio? It's the best of the type. It's an SUV, at 1,830kg, that can convince you it is a genuine sports car, not just something tall and heavy masquerading as a quick motor. It is deserving of all the praise and adulation its Giulia Quadrifoglio relation is on the receiving end of.

Of course, I realise that my arguments can be countered - not least by some of the others who also write for this website. Such as Dave Humphreys, who apparently enjoyed the Stelvio Quadrifoglio far less than I did, or Neil Briscoe, who has repeatedly made it clear that he dislikes fast SUVs and he dislikes fast coupe-SUVs even more. I trust both guys' judgment immensely. But we're clearly at odds on this one.

Never mind. I am standing firm. When I think back on the 250hp-plus crossovers and SUVs I've driven in the past five years, I find I have enjoyed and liked most of them. And, in the coming weeks, I'm positively excited about spending a week with a Skoda Kodiaq RS... AND NO, I'M NOT EVEN JOKING!

If I may, then, for reasons best known to my clearly addled mind, end with a weird Dr Pepper reference, I'll sum up like this - performance crossovers and SUVs: don't listen to all the negative hype, and instead try them for yourself. Seriously, what's the worst that could happen?