Dr. Strangecar, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the High-Performance SUV
A wave of SUVs as potent and fast as sports cars has broken upon us. Stop fighting the tide—it’s time to surf.
Nostalgia, to paraphrase the late Rick James, is a hell of a drug. Like a great hallucinogen, it bends the way we see the world; like the best narcotics, it subtly extends its influence over every choice we make. Its lens bends perspective in a way that makes us obsess over The Way Things Were—which often causes us to miss the great things right in front of us that don't fit into our rosy retrospective way of seeing things. And the automotive industry, for so much of its embrace of the power of the future, is hardly immune. In the case of the car world, for one thing, nostalgia leads many of us to devalue the miraculous high-performance crossovers being churned out these days—simply because they don't fit in with our "traditional values" of fast vehicles always being low-slung and wedge-shaped.
Every car nerd has stumbled upon the arguments somewhere in recent years, whether heard in person over cups of joe at Cars & Coffee or read off a screen while scrolling through forums: SUVs are too big, too bulky, more vehicle than most buyers really need. But it's the arrival of true high-performance crossovers that seems most heretical to many of us in the car world. After all, the qualities that traditionally define an SUV are antithetical to that idealized form of fast personal transport, the sports car. SUVs stand tall, to climb over obstacles, while sports cars sit low, to keep their mass close to the ground and make the more agile. SUVs need craggy tires to clamber over bad terrain, while sports cars need thin, sticky rubber to cling to impeccably-maintained pavement. Mass is a non-issue for SUVs, which can leverage that weight for better grip in low-traction situations—but it's a sports car's arch-nemesis, blunting every performance metric by which it's measured.
But this idea is rooted in a bygone era. For while the tide of technological advancement that's boosted performance in the last couple decades has risen every boat in the automotive bay, it's lifted the good ship SUV further than almost any other. When Barack Obama won the presidency, the idea of a high-riding, two-ton-plus sport-ute cracking off a sub-four second 0-60 dash or pulling close to 1.0 g on the skidpad was about as batty as the idea of Donald Trump succeeding him in the Oval Office. Smash cut to 2018, however, and carmakers are churning out high-stepping two-boxes that can turn in performance figures that would humble many supercars of the not-too-distant past.
Aided by computer-controlled transmissions, high-pressure turbochargers, engines assembled with nanometric precision, high-tech tires with advanced rubber compounds, and all-wheel-drive systems capable of reapportioning power by the millisecond, there are now enough flying bricks capable of cheating physics off the line that you'd need extra fingers to count them all. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk's 707-horsepower Hellcat Hemi, for example, sends it
launching from a stop to a mile per minute in 3.3 seconds; one size down, the 505-hp Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S Coupe does the same sprint in the same amount of time.
Adding power, though, is easy. Making a massive vehicle with a lofty center of gravity handle well—or, even more impressively, making it fun to drive—is a far more difficult task. Yet carmakers are learning to pull this off, as well. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio may look like it's wearing high-waisted Urkel jeans compared to the Giulia it shares a platform with—but it serves up enough driving joie de vivre to prove itself more of a Stefan Urquelle. The Bentley Bentayga weighs in at nearly three tons with a driver aboard, but not only can it run neck and neck with a Ferrari F40 off the line, it can carve up a back road like the world's comfiest WRX. And while I've yet to climb aboard it, you merely have to say the words "Porsche Macan" in the presence of The Drive's chief auto critic Lawrence Ulrich to hear him sing praises to its handling.
And as the automotive world embraces electrification, that line between super-sedan and speedy SUV seems almost sure to blur even further, as many of the features incumbent to current EV designs—many of which are crossovers, because that's what the market demands—lend themselves to aiding performance. The small electric motors and belly-mounted battery packs help lower and centralize the vehicle's center of gravity, improving handling; the instant torque of those electric motors provides better real-world acceleration, helping even weighty vehicles spring ahead quickly. (That Tesla Model S that ran a 2.27-second 0-60 time? Yeah, it weighed 5,000 pounds.)
Those traits are already paying performance dividends for crossovers, as editor-in-chief Mike Guy discovered during his first drive of the Jaguar I-Pace earlier this year—and the trend is only liable to continue as more and more carmakers climb aboard the electrification train. Audi's new e-tron isn't even officially out yet, but the preview site mentions "quick acceleration" and "enhance[d] driving dynamics" near the top of the page. Porsche's Mission E Cross Turismo blurs the line between station wagon and SUV with its Outbackian ride height and cladding, but it'll likely straddle the gap between sports car and supercar performance when it finally arrives in Taycan form. And that's just the first generation of sporty EV crossovers; once SVR sets about tweaking the forthcoming Road Rover or BMW M lays its mitts on the iNext, we're bound to see electric two-boxes that redefine what we think heavy tall-riders are capable of.
Now, the obvious argument against these performance crossovers, the one that inevitable gets trotted out in some way, usually boils down to this: They're compromised propositions. Here's the thing most people seem to forget, though: Every car you or I have ever driven is a compromised proposition.
Any sports car less than the unrestrained, Nurburgring-conquering Porsche 919 Evo is a compromise, as is every off-roader short of one of those wall-crawling tube-frame monsters from King of the Hammers. Even supercars we view as stripped-down, lightweight track specials—your Lamborghini Huracan Performante, your Porsche 911 GT2 RS, your Ferrari 488 Pista—still make massive accommodations in the name of creature comforts. After all, at the end of the day, any production car—even one that's been made to crack one-quarter Mach and rip through turns fast enough to double your body weight for a split second—still needs to be capable of keeping its occupants safe in a crash, accomodating folks of myriad shapes and sizes, and soaking up bumps without passing them straight into the spine of the person who forked over big bucks to bring it home.
It's not like the super-sedan or speedy station wagon, those modern marvels of transportation, aren't compromises themselves. A Cadillac CTS-V will always be slower than a Corvette Z06, a Mercedes-AMG E63 S will always be pokier than an AMG GT R. Yet many of the same enthusiasts who celebrate these vehicles for their versatility will, with the next breath, condemn the likes of fast SUVs that are now effectively capable of keeping up with all four of them on the streets—and in the best cases, giving up almost nothing in the way of driving fun. How can that be seen as anything but a form of hypocrisy?
Sure, SUVs fast and slow alike suffer from negative traits brought about by their packaging. But they also bring with them ease of entrance and exit, all-weather usability, and relative immunity to potholes. For some, those advantages may not be worth trading away a modicum of steering feel or a few newtons of adhesive force...but for the vast majority of us, it's a sacrifice well worth considering, especially as we grapple with the wants and needs of the real world, where roads and weather alike are bad and getting worse and none of us are getting any younger.
So to those of us—and yeah, I say us, because this writer can be as guilty of it as anyone—who have trouble pulling off the nostalgia goggles need to stop seeing these fast crossovers as heresy. Instead, let's put them in a brighter perspective: They're simply the next, beautiful step in the evolution of the automobile—the same process that has done right by us for nearly 150 years and brought us to this remarkable place we're at today.
And don't try and convince me a 700-horsepower Jeep is anything but awesome.