Best performance SUVs 2023 – the only evo-approved off-roaders
The best hot SUVs have started to develop entertaining dynamic characters all of their own, even if we'd rather drive an equivalent fast estate...
The high-performance SUV might not make a whole lot of sense to most driving enthusiasts, but even the most ardent critics have to acknowledge the role they play in financing the sort of cars that we’re more traditionally enamoured with. It’s cars such as the Cayenne, Urus and DBX that keep the 911, Hurácan and DB12 alive, and for that we’re grateful.
Yet underneath their lumbering bodies, manufacturers are becoming more and more determined to make them drive with real athleticism, driving development of the sort of new-age hardware such as active anti-roll bars and colossal brake packages that are now spreading across other sectors like GTs and EVs that are getting close to SUVs in terms of size and weight anyway.
The result is that some SUVs are starting to drive with real finesse, such as Jaguar's F-Pace SVR, the Aston Martin DBX707 and the ever-brilliant Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. These don’t just drive well for SUVs; they have their own unique feel and character.
Of course, high-performance SUVs are always a compromise, and we’d much prefer this level of focus be put into more agreeable genres of sports car, but the market speaks, and as it stands it would almost seem foolish for a high-performance manufacturer to be without the financial liberation SUVs so often provide.
So here are our favourite SUVs on sale right now.
Top ten best SUVs 2023:
- Aston Martin DBX
- Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio
- Porsche Cayenne
- Jaguar F-Pace SVR
- Porsche Macan
- Lamborghini Urus
- Ferrari Purosangue
- Bentley Bentayga S
- Range Rover Sport
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 engineers have managed to develop perhaps the performance SUV that best delivers on its promise.
Now split into two models, the base DBX and DBX707 both offer quite different experiences. Both are powered by Mercedes-AMG’s 4-litre hot-V twin-turbocharged V8, with the standard DBX producing 542bhp and 516lb ft of torque, driven 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.
The DBX707 builds on this with a bespoke tune of that same AMG V8 that features some significant upgrades, including new ball bearing turbos, an all-new exhaust system and a significant overhaul of the engine mapping from valvetrain to fuel system. It produces 697bhp and 663llb ft of torque, which are driven through AMG’s nine-speed auto with a wet clutch, which also has a shorter final drive. The 707’s 0-62 time has been knocked right back to 3.3sec, while top speed is now rated at 193mph – good thing it’s on standard carbon-ceramic brakes.
As striking as straight-line performance figures can be, though, this isn’t where Aston focused its attention. Instead, both DBX models offer dynamic ability unlike that of any of their rivals, with the platform developed from the ground up in order to extract as much performance as possible. The DBX has a fluid, delicate GT-like feel, but when the right buttons are pressed, it tightens up brilliantly.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio
We adore the Giulia Quadrifoglio, but alongside the brilliant saloon there’s always been its Stelvio cousin, which is almost as good. Unlike almost all of the other options on this list, the Stelvio is relatively lightweight, its edges raw and its character dominant in a class usually defined by the lack of it.
The recently-facelifted Stelvio Quadrifoglio packs the same muscular 513bhp 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 as its saloon namesake and is capable of a sub-four-second 0-62mph time. 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. It’s this all-wheel-drive system that helps the Stelvio feel distinct from the saloon, trading a little of its ultimate agility and precision for the sake of improved traction.
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 Quadrifoglio 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. We haven't driven the updated version yet, but it's likely to offer more of the same – and that's a very good thing.
It’s 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.
Even with the proliferation of fancier rivals from proper supercar manufacturers, the Cayenne is still one of the best to drive. For now, the most powerful Cayenne available is the 468bhp S version, with GTS and Turbo S E-Hybrid models tipped to join the range later. The phenomenally capable Turbo GT (as seen in these pictures) is the most engaging of all, but it's no longer on sale in Europe.
Even still, lesser Cayennes corner at surprising speeds, yet with some semblance of involvement and finesse, while not really compromising on the fundamental package that remains practical and well built. A recent facelift has brought revised suspension, tech and styling, and while we're yet to try it on UK roads, the new model is likely to build on the Cayenne's core strengths.
Jaguar F-Pace SVR
Jaguar’s F-Pace SUV is a good effort from the British brand, offering a sleek-looking family car that sits somewhere between BMW’s X3 and X5 in terms of size and price. While standard models are good, our affections lie predominantly with the SVR that is currently the only four-door Jaguar that makes use of its supercharged V8 engine and the charisma that goes with it.
Despite Jaguar being twinned with Land Rover, the F-Pace doesn’t actually share much with its more rugged cousins, with the exception of the Range Rover Velar that instead borrowed Jag’s underpinnings. Instead, the F-Pace takes 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.
JLR’s 5-litre supercharged V8 produces 542bhp and 516lb ft of torque, good for a 4.0sec 0-62mph time and a 178mph top speed, but more than just producing some impressive numbers, it’s the engine’s character that’s even more desirable. There’s a general ease and ambivalence to it, rumbling away under its vented bonnet in a calmer and more robust manner than some of its smaller turbocharged rivals.
The F-Pace is also an impressive handler for such a big car – helped by its stiff aluminium construction. It stays flat and level in the corners, and the rear-biased four-wheel-drive system will even get involved, allowing you to experience its impressive balance and composure right up to and over the limit.
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 similar to those found in a hot hatchback, only in a more spacious, practical package.
As is to be expected, the range-topping Macan GTS is the most capable of the bunch, featuring more power and a more focused chassis tune compared to the S, new T and base four-cylinder model. In GTS form, it produces 434bhp 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 it apart from the rest. Suspension is lowered, adaptive dampers tweaked and the brakes upgraded to help bring all 1960kg to a halt. Zero to 62mph comes in an impressive 4.3sec (with Sport Chrono Package fitted), with top speed at 169mph.
Most impressive of all is the way the Macan handles. Grip is tenacious, while the body control will shame many a hot hatchback. When driven to its limits, it may be beating the laws of physics with a bat rather than subtly dancing around them, but it works. 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. Lamborghini has, of course, struck first with its Urus that’s just gone through a mid-life update and expansion into two models – S and Performante.
Both are expensive, starting at over £180,000 each, which is before perusing the extensive options list. Yet its staggering performance is its trump card. Both of the new models pack a Lamborghini-fettled version of the VW Group 4-litre twin-turbo V8. They feature the same 657bhp and 627lb ft of torque, thanks to new cylinder heads, cams and turbos. Zero to 62mph takes just 3.5sec for the S, and a frankly ridiculous 3.3sec in Performante trim.
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.
The main difference between the two specs is based largely around the suspension, with the S sticking to an air-spring set-up and the Performante swapping to coil springs that are less variable, but more focused.
The Purosangue is undoubtedly the most divisive, unusual and complex SUV on sale, but somehow, Ferrari's engineers have moulded it into the most exciting of all to drive. Take one look at its technical specification and it's not hard to see why; with an astonishing 6.5-litre V12 up front generating 715bhp the Purosangue has the noise, drama and performance of a traditional Ferrari GT, even if it looks unlike anything we've seen from the brand before.
There's more under the skin. Ferrari has developed a unique suspension technology specifically for its first SUV, which uses electric motors to control the damping forces on the move to counter body roll and absorb bumps in a way that feels alien to most lead-footed, conventional SUVs.
The results are staggering on the road. Yes, the Purosangue sometimes feels synthetic and hyper agile in a way that reveals its electronic complexity, but no SUV feels as fluid, characterful or as playful at the limit.
But while the Purosangue feels more like a sports car than other car of this type, it's also deeply impractical compared to rivals like the Aston Martin DBX707. With four seats and a compromised luggage area, Ferrari has sacrificed some of the usability you'd expect from an SUV to deliver the most engaging, exotic car in the segment.
Bentley Bentayga S
What is there to say about Bentley’s SUV that hasn’t already been said? It’s fast (180mph), heavy (2500kg-ish) and insanely priced (£185,000 for the Speed model), with V8 and W12 powertrains available in two body shapes - standard and long-wheelbase.
The 6-litre W12 engine is borrowed from other Bentley models in the range and lies behind an imposing Bentley grille, although you'll need to be quick to secure one with W12 production ending next year. The most powerful Bentayga Speed has an impressive turn of, well, speed thanks to 626bhp and 664lb ft of torque – making its 3.8sec to 60mph all the more impressive for a car with so much mass.
Alternatively, you can have the V8 or hybrid models, which can’t match the Speed’s pace but will at least go longer without needing an expensive 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.
In 2021, the Bentayga picked up a significant update that only just stopped short of being a total redesign. The new model 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.
Range Rover Sport
The original Range Rover Sport was a strange beast. Based on the same platform as the Land Rover Discovery 3, 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 then went on to help improve the subsequent second-gen model, but now in its third iteration, we have to come back to the subject of mass. Being a modern Range Rover, there are a range of engines including JLR’s own straight-sixes, plug-in hybrid models and even a new twin-turbocharged V8 you might recognise from under the bonnet of a BMW.
This gives the Range Rover Sport its most widely competent powertrains ever, but they come with a price. That price is weight, as all models are now heavier than they once were, in the case of the plug-in hybrid models now tipping over 2.7 tons. This sort of weight just can’t be hidden behind massive hardware in the suspension and chassis, with compromise rippled through its entire dynamic repertoire.
The exception to this is the V8. Without hybrid elements it’s more agile, and thanks to the prodigious torque of that V8 engine makes much lighter work of its still considerable heft. The optional (and £5330) Stormer Handling Pack includes lots of hardware that help mask some of that weight, combining all-wheel steering and a torque-vectoring rear differential (by braking, mind, not clutch pack).