Natural selection

The ultra-competitive SUV market is seeing a marked shift towards electric drivetrains, but the internal combustion engine isn’t dead just yet

Natural selection

As Mercedes-Benz recently unveiled its fleet of electric cars to the world, in Italy a very different reveal was happening. The Purosangue, Ferrari’s first SUV, made its debut, powered by the antithesis of an electric engine, the company’s V12 internal combustion monster. A clear message was being sent – motoring’s future is not as simple as is currently being written. Maranello’s launch was notable for symbolisms beyond electric and sustainability.

Just like Aston Martin and Lamborghini, Ferrari is adamant that the very definition of an SUV needs to broaden. The Purosangue has no off-road ability and will not play the tow car, even at the Palio di Siena. It is, in effect, a sports tourer, the update of Ferrari’s previous four-seater GTC4Lusso with slightly better ground clearance. Of this Ferrari makes no bones and has said time and again that technology and changing appetites mean that old definitions are dead. SUV can now mean fast, furious, large certainly, but not necessarily off-road capable. Other manufacturers have taken this route too. Will any of the Maranello faithful care what its descriptor is? Likely not, given that the company has stayed true to its core character – a no-compromise engine in a very sexy shell. The rest is simply semantics.

Aston Martin’s DBX charts a similar course, staying true to the marque’s core principles – luxury, driveability, performance, class – while opening up the chance for owners to explore (slightly) newer worlds. Like Purosangue, DBX is higher, wider and less sports-orientated than its racier siblings. For the hardcore fans, the latest iteration, the DBX 707, adds more bite and a less pedestrian look. Aston suggests it now has the beating of its arch-rivals, Lamborghini’s Urus, Bentley’s Bentayga Speed and Porsche’s Cayenne Turbo GT. The 0–100 km/h time of 3.1 seconds suggests it’s probably right. Inside is an executive lounge, plenty of space for four in individually crafted ‘pods’.

Porsche, meanwhile, is not sitting back on its laurels. The marque that began the move towards super-luxury, conspicuous 4x4ing has reinvigorated its champion SUV. The Cayenne Turbo GT is now faster, smarter, prettier and less polluting. It is only available with the Cayenne Coupé body; so tick, definitely better looking. And faster – the re-engineered V8 matches the DBX 0–100 km/h time of 3.1 seconds and goes on to top out at 300 km/h.

Porsche has concentrated on driveability and agility, reworking chassis, suspension and electronics to create a machine that is genuinely a track star as well as the darling of the school run. In SA the Cayenne is by far Porsche’s bestseller and the introduction of the new Turbo GT should confirm that position.

Lexus, pioneer of hybrid-drive systems in SA, has had a busy year, with its fifth-generation RX crossover hitting showrooms, as well as an updated UX (its compact crossover) and the NX (the Audi Q5 competitor). RX is the darling of the Lexus fleet, loved for its combination of size, elegance and sophistication. The former is what has set it apart, and the latest RX plays unashamedly to those strengths. Road noise, interior noise, sounds of operations are all dampened down, making the large SUV one of the quietest on the market, at any price point.

The technology improves too – new cars reduce the size of their petrol engines over the previous models and upgrade their hybrid systems. A turbocharged 2.4-litre petrol engine now does the hard work, replacing the previous 3.5-litre V6 unit. More evolution with the other tech – the RX450h+ PHEV (plug-in hybrid) can manage 60 km on pure electric alone. It’s not all green though; mists of red too with the top-of-the-range RX 500h F Sport Performance, which hustles to 100 km/h in under six seconds.

The smallest Lexus SUV, the UX, gets a mild makeover with a revised front end, tweaked headlights and rear combination lamps. There are upgrades to suspension and tyre technologies too; 18-inch run-flats are included for a quieter ride. Inside, the infotainment screen is bigger and there are improvements to access – Lexus has introduced its easy-entry system on the UX, meaning the car can be opened with a smartphone. The bigger NX has also been in hair and make-up, though the exterior changes are less noticeable than inside. The latest NX debuts Lexus’ new infotainment system, housed in a large 14-inch, glare-free touchscreen. It works along simple, icon-based smartphone lines and is far more intuitive than the previous system. The car’s cloud-based navigation system also includes Google points of interest so users can share their journey with others. As is becoming common, system updates can be done over-the-air. The NX range now includes five model derivatives, two with petrol engines and three with hybrid systems. As before, the range topper is the hybrid 350h AWD F Sport, offering a 0–100 km/h sprint time of 7.7 seconds against impressive fuel economy of 5.0 litres per 100 km.

Over at Jaguar, the F-Pace SVR Edition 1988 has been turning heads. The company’s much-loved SUV is at its most spectacular in full-claw SVR guise, and with the introduction of the limited-edition Edition 1988, it ratchets things up yet a notch. It’ll be just as purple (with gold wheels) and feature the company’s 5-litre supercharged V8 engine.

Most of the year-end noise from BMW will be around the introduction of the new X1, a substantially larger car than the previous generation. There are 1.5 and 2-litre engines, followed sometime in 2023 by a fully electric version. Altogether quicker is the company’s latest X7, which also lands in SA before year end. The marque’s flagship SUV will feature two engines: the 3.0-litre, 6-cylinder xDrive40d with 259 kW and 720 Nm and the all-conquering M60i xDrive. Its 4.4-litre turbocharged petrol mill is good for 390 kW and 750 Nm. That translates into 0–100 km/h times of sub-five seconds.

Over at Mercedes-Benz most of the buzz is around the rapidly growing electric range, but the bestselling GLC mid-sized SUV gets a new lease on life. Sharper looks, clean cut, tech-heavy interiors and a selection of drivetrains from the latest C-Class mean it will sell like hotcakes. There are a number of engine and chassis options, mostly mirroring the current range, with the addition of hybrid options towards the top end.

The key seller, as previously, will be the 220d, using the company’s spectacularly efficient diesel engine. Notable among the new technology is something Mercedes is calling ‘transparent hood’. It allows the driver to see ‘through’ the bonnet, directly in front of the car (an image is produced on the central infotainment screen).

Finally, the latest Range Rover, long delayed for SA, has arrived … looking remarkably like the previous model. Under the skin, the new car is wholly upgraded and confirms its status as imperious Brit No 1. New 6-cylinder diesel engines borrowed from the Discovery and Defender find a home, but most will choose the V8 petrol units or even the hybrid systems. Whichever, they all deliver the kind of muted, velvet-glove power that’s expected of Range Rover. And inside, the softest leather, deepest pile carpeting and cleanest Modernist design all shout Rangey. They’ve gotten hellishly expensive (from R3 million to R4.5 million), but that’s as expected – and honestly, besides the point.

Among the more affordable SUVs, new versions of Mitsubishi’s Pajero Sport, Toyota’s Fortuner and Isuzu’s D-Max-based mu-X have all broken ground in the past few years. Left behind was Ford’s Everest, which now plays catch-up. By all accounts it’s been worth the wait. The company’s Ranger, on which the Everest is based, is widely regarded as the best all-rounder double cab, if not the bestselling. That ability translates to the Everest, which engineers in new chassis dynamics, the new 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 engine and wholly new interiors. It looks the part too, with trademark squared, C-shaped daytime running lights as the hero element. Pricing will have to be keen to compete with the Toyota Fortuner, but Ford is counting on a combination of good looks and class-leading comfort to win the day.

Speaking of the US, Jeep’s Grand Cherokee has quietly slipped into SA, offering serious acreage and off-road ability. The handsome, square-jawed model of 2022 delivers: the ride and noise insulation is second to none and there’s a third row of seats, finally. There’s just one engine, a 3.6-litre V6 that isn’t going to win any economy runs and the price – touching R1.7 million for the flagship – won’t please many. Still, it stacks up well enough against the Land Rover Discovery and Toyota Land Cruiser 300.

With the electric wars well and truly under way, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and Jaguar are vying for territory in a hard-fought campaign. Toyota has decided to go the hybrid path, but other combatants have stated their full-electric claims. To date the Mercedes range offers the most choice, with SUV crossovers the EQA and EQC and luxury saloon EQS available in SA, soon to be followed by EQB. BMW has won wide acclaim for its stellar iX crossover and very capable i4 and iX3, while Audi wins the style award hands down for its magnificent e-tron GT.

And finally, something entirely different. Jeep’s Gladiator Rubicon has been causing quite the stir, a gigantic double cab apparently fused to the back of the company’s popular Wrangler. SUV or bakkie? No one can decide. It’s a little bit higher, wider, longer, heavier than a Ford Raptor, and everywhere you go it elicits an emotional response. Either ‘I love it’ or ‘it’s loathsome’. Nothing in the middle. It speaks to the caveman mostly, motoring’s 5 kg T-bone, part nostalgia, part middle-finger, half ton of unwoke. Even at R1.3 million, Jeep can’t get enough of them to meet demand.

Which neatly underlines the continued growth of the sector. High-end SUV sales continue to outperform all other categories, largely because of the perceived extra value. Bigger is better in a world that gets ever more complex and unpredictable.

By Peter Frost
Images courtesy of Aston Martin, Lexus, Jaguar, Jeep