TG’s big test: which is the best SUV in the world?
Many SUVs, a track, a runway, a quarry, a shopping centre and a dog. Let the testing begin
Where does a crossover end and an SUV or an off-roader begin? Damned if we know. What we do know is that “SUV” has become the adopted label for a rash of high-riding, ruggedised cars that span mildly jacked-up superminis to seven-seaters capable of fording the Amazon. This presents a problem. So, to find the very best of this diverse bunch, we need stern rules and a multifaceted test that levels the playing field.
There could be only one car from any one maker, and each of our eight contenders had to be our current favourite from a distinct category. That gives us, in no particular order: Land Rover Discovery (muddy), Alfa Romeo Stelvio (dynamic), Audi SQ7 (quick), Bentley Bentayga (luxury), Skoda Kodiaq (family), Jaguar F-Pace (stylish), Dacia Duster (bargain) and Peugeot three thousand eight (sensible).
The test itself has been cautiously crafted to make it possible for a Dacia to contest with a Bentley, and a Peugeot to look an Audi square in the eye. For example, what excels in our off-road test will surely stumble in the haul race, and whatever is the most practical can’t also be the most desirable, can it? Points will be awarded for each test, and the winner has the highest score when we’re done and dusted. Elementary.
We at TopGear are not imbeciles. Well, not all the time. We realise that the average SUV possessor is more likely to love cheese-grating their own fingers than they are to take their sports utility vehicle to a racetrack and give it a good thrashing. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to drive it up to and beyond the limit like our friend here, The Stig. But there is a purpose to setting banzai lap times, other than marvelling at how quickly Stig can flambé the brakes on a Two.2-tonne Discovery.
Speed around a track points towards grip (something you’ll appreciate on a moist Tuesday when you’re late to pick the kids up), predictable steering, a punchy engine in tune with its gearbox and brakes you can rely on when some dozy twit more interested in WhatsApp than the road pulls out in front of you. Oh, and beasting cars that weren’t necessarily designed for such a thing is an inordinate amount of joy.
Let’s begin with the Dacia Duster, which comes out fighting with the most hi-po engine at its disposition and four-wheel drive. Unluckily, this is a 1.2-litre turbo producing just 123bhp, but it ups the sporting ante with a six-speed manual. Porsche 911R, eat your heart out. Turns out there’s not a bad chassis under there, just not enough power for it to shine. Stig squashes the Duster dry, but still posts the slowest time of the day.
Would you be astonished if I told you that the Skoda Kodiaq is a dynamic revelation? Good, because it isn’t, it’s as sensible as its sensible-pants styling suggests. Issues include a DSG gearbox that, without paddles behind the wheel, is irritatingly slow to react to prods of the gearlever in manual mode, a chassis that understeers like a cruise ship and a distinct lack of lift-off oversteer. These are words I never thought I’d be required to type.
Where the Duster is merely underpowered, and the Kodiaq is incapable to keep its mass in check, the front-wheel-drive Peugeot three thousand eight is just a big, fat killjoy. The 129bhp three-cylinder turbo engine is actually rather perky, but its best efforts to bring some sparkle to proceedings are crushed by the over-intrusive safety systems that shut you down just as things commence to get interesting. A quicker lap time than the Duster and Kodiaq, but a moral victory for the Dacia at the Haas/Sauber end of the grid.
If there’s one car that isn’t remotely interested in such childish pursuits, it’s the Discovery. The equivalent of a porky St Bernard digging its paws in to avoid being dragged off to rear end WeightWatchers, it does everything to avoid its Stig-based workout – including setting fire to its own brakes after a single lap. To be fair, it’s a whale out of water, listing alarmingly in quick corners, understeering heroically at any chance and refusing to dangle onto your chosen gear at high revs, even in Manual and Sport mode. Sorry, Disco, you’ll have your moment in a few moments time.
And then the Stelvio trundles up to the line and proves that it is possible for an SUV to have a sense of humour. The engine, a 207bhp Two.2-litre 4cyl turbodiesel, isn’t exactly Italian exotica, but it’s enough to expose the best chassis here, and earns it a bonus point. The brakes are strong, and while the steering doesn’t chatter with feedback, it’s Ferrari-quick and the front end is pointy enough to keep up. In fact, the front tyres dig in so hard it boners a rear tyre in the tighter stuff and lets the rear end rotate around you when you lift off. You can’t turn the traction off fully, which is a haul, but the fact that it didn’t spoil things is a compliment of the highest order.
“The Bentayga diesel is about as subtle as Boris Johnson”
The F-Pace was quicker thanks to its two-cylinder and 89bhp advantage, but didn’t feel as at home on the track as the Alfa. There are flickers of finesse: a satisfying RWD feel past the apex, and you can tighten your line with a well-timed lift, but its brakes were toast after two laps.
Speaking of finesse, the Bentayga diesel is about as subtle as Boris Johnson, but hellions its way around the track to devastating effect. Front and centre is the engine – a 429bhp, Four.0-litre V8 turbodiesel – but even that sort of brute force can’t disguise that it, too, wasn’t built for this sort of undignified penalty.
Whereas the Audi SQ7 – a car with the same triple-charged diesel engine as the Bentayga (with an electrically driven compressor that builds boost before the main turbos pack their lungs) – soaks it up and begs for more. In places where the Bentayga understeers, the Audi stays locked to the road and feels swifter everywhere – a 176kg weight advantage tends to do that. The steering, brakes, throttle, everything is on espresso-fuelled alert, and the way the 48v active roll control keeps such a lump so plane in the corners is beyond comprehension. It’s the only car here that can build and carry the sort of speeds that make your eyes widen and your palms moisten. A speed machine with space for seven – very first blood to the SQ7.