The SUV is taking on a plethora of personalities as car manufacturers let tradition take a back seat


‘If you’re not getting better, you’re getting left behind,’ suggested American essayist Alan Armstrong. True words in the motoring industry; the global squeeze has left traditional model segments in tatters as customers demand multiple abilities from a single model.

Once an identifiable segment in itself, the SUV market continues to splinter into a plethora of sub-categories – sports SUVs, compact SUVs, subcompact SUVs, mid-sized, executive, MPV SUVs, crossovers and coupés. It is obvious what is happening – the SUV has invaded every other segment. Companies that have held on to traditional models – sedans, estates – have seen their market share eviscerated, while manu-facturers that have been brave have reaped the rewards. Mostly.

Disruption takes guts and there are always going to be casualties – ask BMW, their GT (it was never a GT, never a crossover, never a station wagon) slipped quietly out the back door after receiving a rather cold reception.

Audi Q5
Arguably the most adept at the SUV evolution is VW AG, whose empire has embraced the trend with gusto. Across its brands (Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Seat, Skoda) the splicing of SUV genes has been smart and considered. The latest Tiguan is anything but a workhorse, the new Audi Q2 demonstrably more than an A1 on steroids, the Bentley Bentayga missile-fast as well as Wellington-boots capable, and the new Q5, released recently, arguably the best of the lot. It is in essence a shrunken Q7, a wholly sophisticated executive carriage, equipped with the marque’s excellent virtual cockpit and myriad other electronica. Its raison d’être is to be more mink than manure, acceptable at the clubhouse even as it seconds as an AfrikaBurn wagon.

Despite being wider and longer than the previous model, it is lighter and more responsive, with a reworked Quattro system and a lighter chassis the stars (it is also available in two-wheel drive). The go-to engine is the tweaked 2.0-litre TDI, good for 140 kW, a fine balance between economy and urge. The good news is that the iconic SQ5, fire-breather extraordinaire, will become available (if you are quick), sporting a turbocharger this time rather than a supercharger, clamped on to a 3.0-litre V6 petrol unit good for 260 kW and a 0–100 km/hr time of 5.4 seconds.

Mazda CX-5
Flush from the success of the smaller CX-3 crossover, Madza has put its larger brethren under the knife to take advantage of the exploding mid-sized SUV market. The CX-5, which competes directly with the sophisticated Hyundai Tuscon and ageing, though popular Toyota RAV4, is now a sleeker beast with most of the work being done inside – the interior is a premium place to be with new dashboard, instrumentation, seats and importantly, sound-deadening materials. The engines remain the same, and so does the price, important in a cutthroat market where a few thousand rand can make all the difference. 

Maserati Levante
Fiat’s takeover of the iconic Italian brand a few years ago meant an injection of capital, but also a degree of Americanisation, care of the Chrysler arm of the business. That plays out in the Levante – a higher, portly Ghibli – available only in diesel in SA. Whatever you think of a Maserati SUV, turns out the diesel decision was a smart one. The trademark Maserati howl has been engineered into the 3.0-litre V6, a wholly entertaining noise.

Other aspects are trademark Maserati too: the borderline excessive 1970s interior is there – over-stuffed, comfortable, opulent – and the straight-line speed is impressive for an oversized SUV. And unlike the petrol Ghibli, running costs will be manageable, the diesel mill efficient as well as sonorous.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Fiat Chrysler also owns Alfa Romeo and it follows that the parent company would demand an SUV from Turin as well. But where Levante is all about high-end sumptuousness, Stelvio plays the dynamism card, accenting Alfa’s race history and stealing credibility from the successful Giulia sedan, recently released. In its crosshairs is the much-coveted Jaguar F-Pace, which tells you all you need to know about its feel and attitude. Under the bonnet, the 208 kW 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine will do a decent job, but all eyes are on the (possible) local release of the all singing twin-turbo 2.9-litre V6 Quadrifoglio, a 375 kW brute channelling the M3-beating Giulia Quadrifoglio with the same engine. Inside, the accent stitching, sports seats and huge dual instrument pods all shout Alfa, and behind the wheel there is no sense that you are driving an SUV.

Happily the Alfisti alchemy has been recreated – the immediacy of steering, throttle and gearshift has found its way into the Stelvio from the Giulia – this is a seriously fun car to drive.

Volvo V90 Cross Country and  Volvo XC60 Cross Country
Volvo are a brave lot. Before the world went crossover mad, they were pioneers in combining segments – the 40 and 60 sedans fused elements of the hatch, estate and sedan all rolled into one. Now the sizeable S90 sedan gets the rugged Cross Country treatment and the important new XC60 breaks cover.

The V90 CC first. It’s a higher, beefier, station wagon version of the S90, quintessentially European and massively capable with its always-on BorgWarner all-wheel drive system, air suspension at the back and increased ride height. South Africans don’t love station wagons, even handsome ones like this (heaven knows why), but the sense in a load carrier (913 litres) that is also efficient (that 2.0-litre turbo-diesel and significantly superior aerodynamics) is indisputable.

The XC60, which arrives next year, will be Volvo’s most important model since the XC90 and hopes to steal sales from the popular Audi Q5, Mercedes GLC, BMW X3 and Mini Countryman. It will channel the XC90 by offering executive levels of comfort in a sophisticated, tech-heavy environment. Volvo sees the future for in-cabin functionality as focused on touch screens and the massive unit from the XC90 finds its way into the smaller car, as well as a full digital instrumentation binnacle. Under the skin, the XC60 is certainly off-road capable, the same BorgWarner all-wheel drive system found in the V90 CC and XC90 standard across the range.

Mini Countryman
It’s no secret that the next-generation Mini Countryman will be a proper all-wheel drive SUV, just as the current BMW X1 (on which it is based) will grow up. In the meantime the latest model plays a crossover role, limited by its front-wheel-drive set-up and low-profile tyres. That hasn’t hurt it in the least – it has found favour among buyers who believe the current crop of downsized SUV crossovers are still too bulky, still too agricultural.

The Country-man takes a leaf out of the latest Mini Clubman’s book, with a markedly improved, grown-up interior and levels of sophistication unseen in a Mini to date. In truth the Countryman is a size-able beast, longer than a Jeep Renegade and wider than a Nissan Qashqai and offers the kind of space the standard Mini should always have had. It’s enter-taining to drive too – Mini’s wheel-at-every-corner ethos paying dividends in the cornering and stability departments.

Hyundai Tucson Sport
The Korean marques, to hear them talk, have paid their dues and are now playing with the big boys, offering a degree of sophistication previously unseen. With the move upmarket comes a price hike, which brings its own issues. Competing, as they now do, in the executive crossover market, there is an expec-tation of dynamism, not just sophistication.

Cue the Tuscon Sport, Hyundai South Africa’s inceptive attempt at driver involvement. It’s a small start, fingers having been burned by the Veloster Turbo, which showed that the Koreans have a way to go in the clout department. The Tuscon Sport adds 20 kW to the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine and a radical body kit. Happily it works – the ix35 suc—cessor is arguably the best-looking of the mid- sized crossover SUVs and the skirts, black alloys and quad-pipes add drama without too much Parow. More important is the declaration it makes: Hyundai is preparing to do sexy, not just everyday. Good news.

Mercedes GLE 43AMG
Second only to Volkswagen AG in the SUV disruption stakes, Mercedes-Benz has splintered their line-up to such a degree that even die-hard fans get confused. Add a nomenclature change across the range as well as new engines and the choice seems dizzying. One of those new engines has been getting a lot of positive press – deservedly so – and now slots into an old favourite, the latest version of the humble ML, recently reborn as the GLE.

The 3.0-litre V6 ‘43’ engine is the marque’s attempt at balancing fuel efficiency with passion – twin turbos keep things interesting despite the car’s weight, and a raft of electronic wizardry keeps it acceptably frugal, at least on the open road. Best of all is the sound – the 43 is a raspy unit, guttural and conspicuous, fully in keeping with the overall hairy-chested AMG ethos. Inside, it’s more Stuttgart than Stinkwater, Mercedes’ move towards unasha-med opulence evident in the plush ventilated leather, jewelled touch gear and standout accent stitching.

The future
Industry commentators expect SUV sales to increase by 20% into 2018, remarkable in a generally flat global market, and while small or subcompact SUVs are responsible for much of the growth, sports SUVs, executive crossovers and large SUVs are becoming ever more popular – the Cayenne is Porsche’s best-selling car, the Nissan Qashqai continues to prop up an entire company and the next Subaru XV will make or break the marque.

Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini and Aston Martin are all close to revealing their finished SUVs. The psychology is well documented (hard times call for hard cars) and manufacturers are listening. 

By Peter Frost
Images: Audi, Maserati, Mini Cooper, Mercedes-benz, Volvo