Best performance SUVs 2021 – the best evo-approved off-roaders
Want to combine performance and practicality? Here are our favourite performance SUVs on the market today
You’ll either love or loathe the performance SUV, but even diehard opponents should be able to appreciate the engineering behind them. Manufacturers have proved very adept at defying the laws of physics to produce entertaining examples, and there’s something that appeals to the inner schoolboy in a two-ton-plus machine that can concern yesterday’s supercars in a 0-62mph sprint.
With the SUV sector growing at an astonishing rate it’s hardly surprising that most manufacturers are chasing a slice of the cake, but should you be considering an SUV at all? Though innovative systems aim to minimise the effects of a high centre of gravity, being both taller and heavier than a fast estate means an SUV is never going to be quite as sharp.
Purchase price and fuel consumption also tend to be higher than for lower-slung alternatives, and low-profile tyres seriously diminish any off-road potential their styling might imply. If you must have a performance SUV, though, these are the ones that provide the best driving experience…
Aston Martin DBX
It was only a matter of time before Aston Martin joined the SUV bandwagon, following in the footsteps of Jaguar with the F-Pace, and more recently Lamborghini and its highly successful Urus. Despite the firm’s rocky path in recent years, its boffins managed to develop perhaps the very first performance SUV that delivered on its promise...
Falling directly in line with the likes of the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the DBX is powered by Mercedes-AMG’s 4-litre hot-V twin-turbocharged V8, sending 542bhp and 516lb ft of torque to all four wheels through a nine-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox – that’s enough for a 4.5sec 0-62mph time and a 181mph top speed.
As striking as straight-line performance figures can be, though, this isn’t where Aston focussed its attention. Instead, the DBX offers dynamic ability unlike that of any of its rivals, with the platform developed from the ground up in order to extract as much performance as possible.
Double-wishbone front suspension and a multi-link rear set-up underpin the DBX, with Bilstein tasked with the development of unique adjustable dampers. A 48V electrical system is what powers the highly effective active anti-roll bars, allowing the SUV to generate less roll than the two-seat Vantage…
Tipping the scales at 2245kg, it sits firmly alongside its rivals when it comes to weight. Nonetheless, it’s the best performance SUV money can buy in 2021.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio
Led by the outstanding Giulia Quadrifoglio, Alfa Romeo’s rejuvenation has been remarkable, but it’s perhaps the hot Stelvio that’s most impressive. Alfa has produced plenty of outstanding performance machines in its time, but to bring its first SUV to market as the class leader is a major coup.
The Stelvio Quadrifoglio packs the same muscular 503bhp 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 as its saloon namesake and is capable of a sub-four-second 0-62mph time, helping it bag the fastest time around the Nürburgring for an SUV. The V6 is mated to the familiar eight-speed auto, recalibrated for its SUV application and teamed with Alfa’s Q4 all-wheel-drive system.
Left in its automatic mode it’s well mannered and rapid above 3000rpm, but you’ll need to engage Dynamic or Race mode to feel the full force of the V6 with a sharpened throttle response and shift times reduced.
Powertrain aside, the Stelvio QV has a highly entertaining chassis with the same quick-witted steering feel you get in the Giulia – combine this with strong brakes and decent body control, it’s surprisingly engaging to punt along at speed. The standard tyres do let go a little earlier than expected which can lead to more understeer than you might expect, but as an all-rounder it’s a great first effort at a sporting SUV.
A good performance SUV seems to defy the laws of physics, and the Porsche Macan is certainly no exception. Despite an increase in weight and ride height, it offers thrills akin to those you’d find in a hot saloon in a more spacious, practical package.
As is to be expected, the range-topping Macan Turbo is the most capable of the bunch, boasting more performance than the GTS, S and entry-level four-cylinder model. Some 434bhp and 406lb ft of torque come from its 2.9-litre twin-turbocharged V6, a similar unit to that found in Audi’s RS4 and RS5.
Although the GTS features a healthy dose of additional kit, a range of chassis tweaks help set the Turbo apart from the rest. Suspension is lowered, adaptive dampers tweaked and the brakes upgraded to help bring all 1945kg to a halt. Zero to 62mph comes in an impressive 4.3sec, with top speed at 167mph when the optional Sport Chrono package is fitted.
Most impressive of all is the way the Macan handles. Grip is mind-boggling, while the body control will shame many a hot hatchback. The electronic aids may be beating the laws of physics with a bat rather than subtly dancing around them, but, oh boy does it work. It even manages to maintain acceptable road manners when you’re not hooning about.
We’ll leave the debate as to whether companies such as Lamborghini and Ferrari should be offering SUVs to another day, but with the sector growing at seemingly exponential levels it’s almost inevitable that they should want to get in on the action.
While it might be an expensive offering at £165k (before perusing the extensive options list), its staggering performance is its trump card. Packing a Lamborghini-fettled version of the VW Group 4-litre twin-turbo V8, it develops a potent 641bhp and 627lb ft of torque thanks to new cylinder heads, cams and turbos. Zero to 62mph takes a frankly ridiculous 3.6sec, while the 2.2-ton SUV tops out at 189mph.
As with virtually all performance SUVs there are a plethora of different driving modes to choose from, but it doesn’t take too long to settle on a setting that suits most driving situations. On smooth surfaces the Urus’s chassis can deliver physics-defying agility, but rougher roads upset its composure, especially with ludicrously large 22- or 23-inch rims.
Inside it’s roomy, well appointed and nicely finished. It’s party piece though is definitely its performance, and no matter how many times you experience its rabid acceleration it never fails to bring a smile to your face.
Porsche Cayenne Turbo
The sporty SUV that started it all? When Porsche first announced it was putting its iconic badge onto something that wasn’t a low-slung sports car, there was outrage. Porscheophiles were out for blood, incensed that such an abomination should be allowed to occur.
Then the first-generation Cayenne arrived, and once the outrage over the dilution of the brand (and the heinously ugly looks) died down, it became evident that Porsche’s chassis engineers had worked some magic on the Cayenne. It became a sales hit, and can be credited with the rise of premium SUVs in general, let alone the sporty sub-section of the market.
The current-model Cayenne is still great to drive, especially in Turbo form, which is our pick of the range. More powerful but less thirsty than its 4.8-litre predecessor, it’s powered by a 4-litre V8 producing 542bhp and 468lb ft of torque. Should this not be enough, there’s always the range-topping Turbo S e-hybrid, combining this V8 with an electric motor for a 671bhp total output and a 3.2sec 0-62mph time.
It corners at ridiculous speeds, with real involvement and finesse, while remaining practical and well built, if expensive. When we reviewed it in 2014 we described it as ‘the ultimate all-rounder’. What more is there to say?
BMW X5 M
Mechanically identical to its coupe-style X6 M sibling, BMW’s range-topping performance SUV sports the same S63 4.4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 you’ll find in the M5 Competition, offering 616bhp and 553lb ft of torque for some predictably impressive performance.
Thanks in large part to BMW’s xDrive all-wheel-drive system, the 0-62mph sprint happens in a rather ridiculous 3.8sec, with top speed coming at 180mph should you opt for the M Driver’s Package. Lesser 592bhp non-Competition models bring performance down a notch, but the range-topping Competition is all that’s on offer in the UK.
Though size and weight is most certainly not on its side, Munich’s boffins worked their magic on the X5 M’s kinematics to produce an impressive level of agility for a machine of its size.
What is there to say about Bentley’s SUV that hasn’t already been said? Biblically fast (190mph), massively heavy (2500kg-ish) and insanely priced (£185,000 for the Speed model).
The Bentayga is a triumph of engineering. A 6-litre W12 engine lies behind the handcrafted chrome grille, giving the Bentayga a ridiculous turn of speed thanks to 626bhp and 664lb ft of torque in Speed form – 3.9sec to 62mph is impressive for a sports car, let alone an SUV weighing as much as a planet and carrying several sideboards-worth of wood veneer.
Alternatively, you can have the hybrid model, which can’t match the Speed’s pace but will at least go for about twice the distance without requiring a fuel stop. Not that the money will be a problem for most owners – Bentayga orders can run beyond £200k without much difficulty – but fuel stops really are dirty, grubby things for aristocratic hands to be doing.
Admittedly the Bentayga isn’t exactly handsome, even by SUV standards, and some will be put off by the odd hint of Audi Q7 about the switchgear. Despite this, there’s no denying the Bentayga is a monster of an SUV, and one that’s bound to find favour with many millionaires all over the world.
Jaguar F-Pace SVR
When Jaguar announced it was going to build an SUV it was a worrying prospect – even with the expertise garnered from sister company Land Rover. But when the F-Pace arrived we were amazed at the competence, character and involving drive on offer.
The F-Pace doesn’t actually share all that much with any Land Rover model, instead taking its platform from the XE and XF saloons. That endows it with brilliant road manners matched to poise and composure that belie its size. We’d even go so far as to call it fun.
A range of engines provide generally good economy and performance, but the range-topping SVR is where the performance lies. JLR’s ubiquitous 5-litre supercharged V8 produces 542bhp and 516lb ft of torque, good for a 4.0sec 0-62mph time and a 178mph top speed.
The F-Pace is an impressive handler for such a big car – helped by its lightweight aluminium construction it stays flat and level in the corners, and the rear-biased four-wheel-drive system even allows a modicum of fun.
Add in good looks, a great interior made even better with the recent facelift, and the space on offer from its practical, boxy body and the F-Pace is a real winner.
Range Rover Sport
The original Range Rover Sport was a strange beast. Based on the same platform as the Land Rover Discovery 4, it lived up to the Range Rover name – but couldn’t truly do ‘sporty’ if its life depended on it due to a monstrous kerb weight.
Aluminium construction has improved the model since, and made it the ideal platform for Land Rover’s SVO division to work its magic on. Rocking the same 567bhp supercharged V8 engine as the Jaguar XJR575, the Sport SVR belies its 2335kg bulk, sending it from standstill to 62mph in only 4.3sec and on to a 162mph top speed.
What sets the SVR apart from other performance SUVs is its ability on the rough stuff. Put simply, it’s near enough unstoppable, and will easily shake off terrain that a BMW X5 M would cower at. It’s a brilliant party trick.