These are the best driver's SUVs on the market today.
Ultimatum time – the Mrs. tells you to sell the sports car and get a family car. An M3 won’t do because she wants an SUV. She wants the high ride height, the masses of trunk space, and she wants to know that potholes or the occasional mall pavement won’t get in the way. As a petrolhead, you might think this is the end of the run for you – but fear not. Even though SUVs aren’t generally considered to be driver’s cars, there are those that do a damn fine job of connecting with the driver, still allowing you to enjoy the drive, even when family life might suggest otherwise.
Speak to the men in white coats at Porsche and they’ll tell you that every Porsche-badged vehicle is first and foremost engineered to be a sports car. After that, the details of practicality get ironed out second. So it’s no wonder then that the Porsche Macan has been the target of choice in the sports SUV segment for the likes of Jaguar and Alfa Romeo – it’s a deserving benchmark. A range of brawny engines are available, but the top-tier Macan Turbo with Performance Package tops out with 435 hp from its 3.6-liter turbo V6. In this range-topping trim it’s good enough for a 0-62 mph time of 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 169 mph.
Paired with Porsche’s phenomenal PDK dual-clutch automatic, an intuitive rear-biased all-wheel drive system, and nimble handling, it’s not hard to see how the Porsche Macan was the vehicle to establish the Sports SUV segment. Torque vectoring, adaptive air suspension, and Porsche’s famous available Sports Chrono Package are all indicative that the Macan means business. It might be a little less practical than the rivals, but as a driver’s SUV it’s second to only one.
The latest generation BMW X3 is arguably the best yet, in all aspects. But for keen drivers it delivers superb chassis balance, excellent resistance to understeer, and a steering setup that is weighted perfectly and oozes charisma. Though BMW might have lost the performance edge on many other models, the X3 is blossoming with duality of purpose. Two model derivatives are available stateside, including a ‘semi-M’ M40i derivative. Its 355 horsepower twin-turbocharged inline-6 is punchy, sings delightfully, and provides impressive responses and eager performance.
But it’s the chassis that impresses the most, with its high levels of composure and communication. It may be a family car, but it talks to you as a driver. The rear-biased xDrive AWD system contributes to a rear-driven feeling, finishing off the ingredients to a classis driver’s car persona. An inline-6 up front + a rear-driven feeling + high levels of grip = One of the best driver’s SUVs around.
It’s the smallest SUV on this list, and also the only front-wheel drive and the only model without a performance variant, but Mazda pleasantly hasn’t forgotten about the spirit of driving. Sure, it’s no Miata, but that doesn’t mean the CX-5 isn’t a joy to drive. The naturally aspirated SKYACTIV-G 2.5-liter four cylinder might not have the most torque, but it revs keenly, builds linearly, and provides the best responses on the market – a lost art in the age of the turbocharged motor.
The electrically power assisted steering isn’t the greatest for feel and feedback, but the low mounted seating position and sublime chassis offers enough communication to overcome the deficit through the wheel. Despite being front-drive based, the CX-5 offers neutral handling, keen turn-in, and progressive responses. Sublime handling and ride comfort on any surface give this outsider a well-deserved place on our top 5 best driver’s SUV list.
It’s the first SUV from British marquee, Jaguar, but the F-Pace goes straight for the jugular against chief rival, the Porsche Macan. With its rear biased all-wheel drive system and exceptional ZF-sourced 8-speed automatic gearbox, the F-Pace provides immediacy of response, high levels of adhesion on all surfaces, and impressively for an SUV, the ability to power-oversteer. There are a range of gas and diesel engines, but every model is endowed with suspension that strikes a fine balance between performance and handling, a communicative chassis, and an ability to handle like the finest sports sedans.
The F-Pace S with its 3.0-liter supercharged V6 worth 380hp is the cream of the crop – complete with a snarling exhaust note straight out of the F-Type sports car. It’s only a matter of time until an SVR version drops, powered by a supercharged 5.0 V8 and lusting for blood.
It shares Giorgio-platform underpinnings with the stellar Alfa Romeo Giulia sports sedan, which means that at the head of the development team is an engineer who was responsible for the Ferrari 458 Speciale. But the Alfa Romeo Stelvio does more than just name drop – it backs up the style and big talk with impressive performances too. Though the base 280-hp turbo 4-cylinder might seem a little weak in this segment, the chassis that underpins the Stelvio is one of sheer magnificence. No other SUV has a steering rack this quick, giving the Stelvio pin-point accurate placement in corners and almost telepathic responses to driver inputs.
A firm suspension setup is to the detriment of class-leading ride comfort, but gives the Stelvio true sports car-like body control and resistance to body roll. The Q4 all-wheel drive system, like many others on this list, is rear-wheel biased for exceptional balance, and the ZF-sourced 8-speed automatic gearbox knows how to handle its gears. It strings together corners in a tapestry of driving joy that does its Italian heritage proud. But why the number one spot on our list? Later in 2018 we expect to see the arrival of the Stelvio Quadrifoglio – the M3-beating Giulia Quadrifoglio’s high riding big brother. Powered by a Ferrari-derived 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 with 505 hp, it’ll smash the 0-60 mph sprint in under 4 seconds.
More than that, it’s currently the holder of the record for the fastest SUV to lap the Nurburgring, doing the deed in 7 minutes 51.7 seconds. The only size-appropriate SUV to match this for outright power, at least until the BMW X3 M or Jaguar F-Pace SVR arrive, is the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 S, but the base model’s inherently uninvolving chassis precludes the Mercedes from joining this top 5 list, leaving the Alfa as the undisputed king of driver’s SUVs. You may have to sacrifice coupe-like sports cars for stroller-space and a high ride height, but you shouldn’t have to sacrifice the joy of driving just because you need a family SUV.
Any one of these top 5 driver’s SUVs lets you still enjoy your favorite twisting road when the opportunity presents itself.