There was a time when SUVs were all but supplied with a public health warning advising of the dangers of taking the “sports” aspect of these “utility vehicles” in any way literally. In other words, driving them safely necessitated consideration for their relatively high centre of gravity, which, if ignored, could cause them to topple during over-enthusiastic cornering.
Indeed, such was the reputation of the average SUV for instability that I recall being taken to a race circuit near Athens a dozen or so years ago by a shock-absorber company intent on demonstrating it had developed some suspension components so advanced that they would make it possible to drive around at speed in a battered Daihatsu Fourtrak without fear. They didn’t.
But things have come on a bit since then, which is why I’ve just made it back from doing the school run in an SUV in what may well have been a record time, despite the narrow and twisting nature of the local moorland roads. The car in question is the somewhat preposterous Range Rover Sport SVR (pictured above centre), a shameless thug of a machine that has been souped up by Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations department through the fitment of the same five-litre, 542-horsepower V8 engine used in the searingly rapid Jaguar F-Type R.
The SVO engineers have also reduced the weight by more than 30kg compared with the V8 supercharged Sport, dramatically increased cornering ability with the use of a “hydraulic active roll” control system, improved stopping power with a set of huge Brembo brakes and fitted a specially tuned exhaust system that makes sheep quite nervous with its outrageous roar.
Even when you know all this, the concept of being able to drive the SVR like a sports car seems improbable. Until you get behind the wheel and discover that it is blisteringly, absurdly, disconcertingly and not a little bit frighteningly quick, with 60mph arriving from standstill in just 4.5 seconds. That’s the same as a Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale and faster than an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, from a car that can still be driven across a field.
It’s easy to question the point of such a machine, but the reason for its existence is quite simple: there are enough people in the world who are more than happy to spend the £93,450 asking price of an SVR in order to be able to say that they own one of the ultimate vehicles of its type currently on the market – because the luxury-car business is no longer about the basic designations of “sports”, “saloon”, “coupé” and “SUV”, but about separate, more extreme niches in each sector.
And the one that is predicted to grow most rapidly is that for pointlessly fast, luxuriously equipped SUVs, the available selection of which is burgeoning. Currently looming on the horizon are future models from Lamborghini, due out in 2018 and potentially a 200mph petrol-electric hybrid; the much-anticipated Bentley Bentayga (from £160,200, pictured overleaf), available next year and with 600 horsepower on tap from a twin-turbocharged W12 engine; Rolls-Royce’s Cullinan, which is expected to go on sale in 2017 with an entry price of £250,000; Jaguar’s F-Pace, the marque’s first attempt at an SUV; and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Aston Martin’s recently confirmed DBX (price as yet to be confirmed, pictured top), which will be more of a “crossover” model than a true SUV.
While you’re waiting, however, there are still plenty of other options if the Range Rover Sport SVR doesn’t appeal – such as the car that really started it all, the Porsche Cayenne (pictured above right). In its latest and most extreme Turbo S guise, the Cayenne becomes a £118,455 all-wheel-drive, 176mph rocket ship boasting 570 horsepower and brimming with sports-car features such as ceramic composite brakes, Porsche’s Dynamic Chassis Control and active suspension management.
Inside you get the carbon-fibre finishes common to many contemporary sports cars, the sort of Alcantara trim once reserved for racing applications and the now de rigueur paddle gear shift to ensure suitably sporting use of the Cayenne’s eight-speed, Tiptronic gearbox.
Among the raft of other German contenders in the high-performance SUV sector are BMW’s X5M (pictured on previous pages) and X6M models (the latter being essentially the same as the former but with acquired-taste coupé styling). The “M” badges worn by both signify engine and suspension improvements carried out by BMW’s in-house tuning facility, which has managed to extract 567 horsepower from the same 4.4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 engine that is used in its high-performance offerings.
Despite being heavier than both the Range Rover and the Porsche, the BMW (from £90,180) surprises with its exceptional handling, steering and dynamics on the road – although, like the Porsche, it loses out in off-road capability by dint of its lower wading depth and more Tarmac-orientated nature.
Last month, meanwhile, saw the arrival of the AMG GLE 63S (pictured on previous pages), Mercedes-Benz’s latest contender in the extreme SUV sector, which combines the 5.4-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 engine of its C63 supercar with the body of its M-Class model to create a (theoretical) on/off-roader offering 585 horsepower, high-performance brakes and suspension and a sporting interior for a basic price of £94,405.
As with the BMW, the car is also available in the same specification with coupé styling from £96,555 – although those who prefer the rather more old-school look of the once-utilitarian G-Wagen can have one of those in an AMG state of tune, again with the V8, bi-turbo engine and a top speed limited to 155mph. Despite being less luxurious than the GLE, it actually costs considerably more, starting at £131,675.
But, with America being the spiritual home of the SUV, no line-up of high-performance models would be complete without the inclusion of the decidedly macho Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT (from £65,615, pictured overleaf), which uses a 6.4-litre, 475 horsepower version of the famous “hemi” V8 engine to provide a sub-five second zero to 60mph time. There’s even a “launch control” system for those all-important rapid take-offs, plus a “track” driving mode in which 70 per cent of the engine’s torque is transmitted to the rear wheels.
It goes without saying that all of the above are among the least environmentally friendly road-going cars on the planet, thanks to their ability to consume a gallon of petrol well before covering 20 miles when their available performance is exploited to any significant extent.
If that worries you, but you still like the idea of a swifter-than-usual off-roader, Audi might have the answer with its not entirely new, but still impressive, SQ5 (pictured left) “super SUV” that also promises a nought to 62mph time of 5.1 seconds and a top speed of 155mph – but with the benefit of returning more than 41mpg, thanks to its efficient diesel engine. Lowered ride height, sports suspension, 20in alloy wheels and quadruple exhaust tail pipes complete the picture. And, at a base price of £44,780, the car is a relative bargain compared with its brasher, petrol-engined rivals.
The question is, however, does anyone really need a high-performance SUV – especially when the very act of adapting a standard SUV into a fast road car diminishes (and in some cases completely cancels out), the off-road versatility once key to the design of the vehicle on which it is based. “There’s an appealing absurdity about these super-fast SUVs, so much so that it’s hard not to laugh out loud at their sheer pace,” says Nick Trott, editor of the leading performance-car magazine EVO. “And there is certainly status in having the quickest version of any particular model. But, in my opinion, if you really enjoy driving and find the need to carry people and luggage on a regular basis, then a fast estate such as a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG or a Jaguar XFR-S Sportbrake is probably a better option.
“It’s in China and on America’s West Coast that high‑performance SUVs are really popular; in wealthier markets; some people buy these simply because they are the top-of-the-range models. In that respect, I’m not sure performance comes into it. As an example, Range Rover’s SVAutobiography is not a ‘sports’ SUV but an ultra-luxury SUV. It starts at around £150,000 and from what I can understand Land Rover cannot build them quickly enough.
“But the Bentley Bentayga [pictured top] is the really interesting one. It will probably have close to 600bhp, and offer immense luxury, so will cover both bases,” says Trott. “And even if it’s priced close to £200,000, Bentley won’t have any trouble selling it.”
But will it be as good at scaring sheep as the SVR?