Editor’s Note: Originally published in late 2015, this story highlights the imminent arrival of sporty SUVs across all segments. With the continued growth of the utility segment, we’re seeing more fun-to-drive SUVs appear on the market. As a result, we’ve updated this story by adding new models, removing entries that are no longer in production, and revising those that have been refreshed or redesigned.
With crossovers and SUVs dominating the automotive landscape when it comes to sales, some vehicles in the category are evolving into ultra-capable performance machines that can devour winding roads and race tracks with ease. While there are still some crossovers/SUVs based on truck platforms, the majority share their underpinnings with their car siblings, meaning they can easily be tuned to possess sports car-rivaling road capabilities. In today’s brave new world where tall, jacked-up vehicles are en vogue, a select subset offers levels of performance that can make your jaw drop. They may not look like vehicles you’d take on a winding road or throw into tight corners, but when you get them there, they’ll surprise you with the way they drive.
Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe
Aimed directly at the BMW X4, the Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe distinguishes itself from the standard GLC-Class with a sport-tuned suspension for better handling. Two AMG variants are also available, the 362-hp GLC 43 and the fire breathing GLC 63, which delivers up to 503 hp in GLC 63 S guise. Unlike its more practical sibling, the GLC Coupe comes standard with all-wheel drive.
The compact Jaguar crossover is perfect for the city because of its agile handling and small dimensions. Although it weighs around 4,000 pounds, the Jaguar E-Pace has the moves befitting of the badge adorning its hood. Its standard all-wheel-drive system gives it all-weather traction and the punchy 2.0-liter turbo-four is available with up to 296 hp in R-Dynamic guise.
Alfa Romeo Stevio
Think of the Alfa Romeo Stelvio as the sports car of the SUV world. Underpinned by the same Giorgio platform as the stunningly engaging Giulia sedan, the Stelvio happily eats up your favorite winding roads even in its standard iteration. Opt for the 503-hp Quadrifoglio model for a crossover with soul-stirring performance, style, and practicality all in one package.
The Urus isn’t Lamborghini’s first rodeo when it comes to SUVs because it made the LM002 from 1986 to 1993; however, that was a different animal because of its off-road focus. This time around, Lamborghini crafted one with serious on-road performance chops thanks to its supercar-like handling and 641-hp 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8. Spaceship-like looks aside, the Lamborghini Urus is the definition of a super SUV.
The Acura RDX marks a return to form for Honda’s luxury brand. With its 272- hp 2.0-liter turbo-four (essentially a detuned Honda Civic Type R engine) and 10-speed automatic transmission, the RDX has solid straight line acceleration. A well-tuned chassis gives the RDX moves that belie its height and size, and the available SH-AWD system further enhances its sporting credentials.
Italian sports cars are well known for their electrifying aural drama and it’s nice to see their performance SUVs sound just as good. The Maserati Levante gives you flair, performance, and just the right sound emitting from its exhaust pipes. Go for the 590-hp Levante Trofeo for the sportiest driving experience and a full-on sonic opera every time you put your foot down.
Jaguar’s first crossover perfectly marries style and substance. The F-Pace drives like you’d expect a Jaguar should and turns heads wherever it goes thanks to its seductive exterior. Want some more fire? There’s an F-Pace SVR specifically just for that, sporting a 550-hp 5.0-liter supercharged V-8 and an active exhaust system so loud that you might wake up the whole neighborhood.
Great handling is one of the hallmarks of Mazda vehicles even on its SUVs. Among three-row crossovers, the Mazda CX-9 is one of the best to drive thanks to its balanced chassis and communicative steering. The standard 250-hp 2.5-liter turbo-four makes 310 lb-ft of torque at just 2,000 rpm, moving the two-ton family hauler with minimal effort.
When we drove the BMW X2, we proclaimed that it drove more like a hot hatch instead of a crossover. Its sporty handling and turbocharged engine makes it a talented driving partner on a winding road. For those looking for more, the X2 M35i with its 302-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four and standard all-wheel-drive system will be happy to oblige provided you’re fine with the stiffer ride.
With its sharp looks, the Chevrolet Blazer promises to pleases behind the wheel. Packing a punchy V-6 engine and nine-speed automatic, it definitely has acceleration covered. However, if you want sportier handling, opt for the Blazer RS, which has a different suspension calibration and quicker steering compared to the rest of the lineup.
Dodge Durango SRT
Currently one of the most powerful three-row SUVs available, the Dodge Durango SRT has a 475-hp 6.4-liter V-8, an eight-speed automatic, and all-wheel drive for punchy straight line performance. With six seats, you can easily get the kids to school or soccer practice in no time, provided there’s no traffic that is.
As the brand’s first crossover, the Mini Countryman is one of the largest models in its lineup. At the top of the Countryman range is the John Cooper Works model, which uses a 2.0-liter turbo-four good for 301 hp and 331 lb-ft of torque paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. With all-wheel drive standard, expect lots of grip and stable handling, especially considering how low the Countryman is to the ground for an SUV.
Hyundai Kona 1.6T
The Hyundai Kona is currently one of the quickest subcompact crossovers available. With its optional 175-hp 1.6-liter turbo-four paired to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, it sprints to 60 mph in under 7.0 seconds. All-wheel-drive models also get an independent rear suspension, giving the already agile crossover even better handling on the twisty bits without causing ride comfort to deteriorate too much.
Think of the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 as an all-wheel-drive hot hatch on stilts with a massive nuke under the hood. While its engine only has 2.0 liters of displacement, technologies such as direct fuel injection and a turbocharger enable it to generate a mind-blowing 375 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Pair that with the available AMG Dynamic Plus package, which adds adaptive suspension, a limited slip differential, and Race mode, and you’ve got a fire-breather that can easily devour highways and winding roads.
Ford Escape 2.0T EcoBoost
Sharing platforms with the Ford Focus has its benefits, and nowhere is this clearer than in the Escape, easily one of the best-handling mainstream compact crossovers today. When equipped with the optional 240-hp 2.0-liter EcoBoost turbo-four, the Escape has plenty of power to complement its agile handling. Add all-wheel drive to the mix and you’ll be able to have fun in any weather without sacrificing practicality in the name of handling. An all-new 2020 Ford Escape arrives late this year with a new base three-cylinder, a powerful 2.0-liter turbo-four, and two hybrid options including a plug-in variant.
The Mazda CX-5 will wow you with its agile handling and engaging character. It’s one of the best-handling vehicles in its class, and when equipped with the 187-hp 2.5-liter I-4, you’ll have a good bit of power to work with on your daily commute and impromptu detours through twisty roads. Need more power? For 2019, the CX-5 gets Mazda’s 250-hp 2.5-liter turbo-four on the Grand Touring Reserve and Signature trim, and both come standard with all-wheel drive to help route power as effectively as possible.
No, the second generation BMW X1 isn’t as driver-oriented as the car it replaces but it remains one of the better-handling cars in its segment. The X1 offers front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive, giving you all-weather capability to help you tackle whatever Mother Nature throws your way. A 2.0-liter turbo-four generating 228 hp and 258 lb-ft is the only engine available and has a good bit of grunt if you need to make a quick getaway.
Lexus NX 300
Lexus’ smallest SUV, the NX, is also one of the best-handling vehicles in its class thanks to its well-balanced ride and punchy 235-hp turbo-four. Sure, the NX’s design is polarizing, but once you’re behind the wheel, you’ll be treated to a great driving experience. Want the sportiest NX available? Consider the NX 300 F Sport with all-wheel drive, which comes with 18-inch alloy wheels and a more aggressive suspension setup. Should you want something more environmentally friendly, Lexus also offers the NX as a hybrid called the NX 300h.
Ford Edge ST
Thanks to a potent EcoBoost 2.7-liter twin-turbo V-6 that makes 335 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque, the Ford Edge ST comes standard with impressive acceleration. The car’s handling also belies its size because it has a suspension setup tuned specifically for tackling winding roads. For maximum handling potential, don’t forget to opt for the ST Performance Brake package that adds upgraded brake pads and 21-inch alloy wheels wrapped in summer tires so you can extract the most out of your SUV’s capabilities in good conditions.
Almost no other compact luxury SUV puts as much focus on the driver as the BMW X3 thanks to its sports sedan-like handling. Performance junkies now have two options, the 365-hp X3 M40i and the bonkers X3 M, which can be had with up to 503 hp. The X3 M marks the first time the X3 gets a full-fledged M variant including a track ready Competition model packing all the right moves for a fun time.
Slotting under the Cayenne, the Porsche Macan offers a driving experience that’s closer to a sports car than an SUV. Powered by a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 in three states of tune, the Macan blends straight-line acceleration with handling that can shame some performance cars. For maximum potency, consider the 400-hp Macan Turbo and add performance goodies such as the optional air suspension with Porsche Active Suspension Management, Performance package, and the Porsche Torque Vectoring Plus system.
Since it barely looks any different than your run-of-the-mill Q5, the Audi SQ5 is the perfect stealth performance vehicle. Powered by a 349-hp turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6, the SQ5 possesses instant acceleration the moment you step on the gas. The standard Quattro all-wheel-drive system, a lowered ride height, and a performance-tuned suspension make the SQ5 handle exceptionally well. The high amount of grip generated by the vehicle enables it to stick to the road like glue, making it feel unflappable even at high speeds.
Do you need a sporty compact luxury SUV but find offerings like the BMW X3 too boring because of their conservative exteriors? Consider the X4, which is essentially a less practical version of the X3. In addition to styling differences, a lower center of gravity and a higher price tag differentiates the low-roof X4 from its X3 sibling. For those looking for the most powerful version of BMW’s compact attack turtle, you’ve got two choices now: the 365-hp X4 M40i and the muscular X4 M, which has up to 503 hp just like the more practical X3 M.
The XC60 is one of Volvo’s best-selling vehicles and it drives just as good as it looks. In the R-Design guise, the crossover gets standard all-wheel drive, and a sport-tuned suspension. For powertrains, you’ve got a choice ranging from 250 hp in the base T5 to the 400-hp T8 plug-in hybrid, which features a turbo- and supercharged 2.0-liter I-4 coupled to an electric motor. Polestar, Volvo’s tuning arm, also has warranty friendly power upgrades that include transmission reprogramming so that you get a quicker shifting gearbox in addition to a little more power.
When it first came into the market, the Porsche Cayenne was frowned upon by enthusiasts everywhere because it was an SUV. Years later, it has proved its mettle by showing that an SUV can be a performance machine on- and off-road. Now available with a range of engines including a hybrid and a Turbo model with a 541-hp 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8, there’s a Cayenne for everyone, and all of them offer excellent handling and performance. A swoopy “coupe” variant recently joined the lineup to do battle against the BMW X6 and Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe.
Is the Ford Edge not luxurious or quick enough for you? Well, the Lincoln Nautilus, a crossover with Edge underpinnings, should solve all that with a bit more boost and opulence. While both share the 2.7-liter EcoBoost twin-turbo V-6, the Nautilus comes with even more power at 335 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. The base engine is a 250-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four. A nice ride and balanced handling make the crossover a great dance partner when the road gets twisty. Plus, it’s quiet on the road, so you can enjoy the available 22-way adjustable, heated, and ventilated front seats with massage.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT
Powered by a 6.4-liter V-8 rated at 475 hp and 470 lb-ft mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT proves that SUVs can tackle everything from a trail to a race track. Get behind the wheel of one and you’ll surely be scratching your head at how such a massive SUV can go from carving up a race track to crawling up rocks without even breaking a sweat. Need power? Jeep also offers the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, a 707-hp supercharged beast capable of outrunning many so-called performance cars in a drag strip.
Ford Explorer ST
With a 400-hp, 415-lb-ft, 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 under the hood, the Ford Explorer ST is the most potent model in the new generation model’s lineup. For its size, the Explorer handles well and has strong brakes to keep up with enthusiastic drivers. For more grip, the Explorer ST is available with summer performance tires wrapped around 21-inch alloy wheels.
BMW essentially created a new niche segment when it introduced the X6. Dubbed a “Sports Activity Coupe,” the X6 is a two-row midsize crossover with a low, swooping roofline that cuts into your rear visibility and cargo space, all for the sake of catering to niche consumers who want a crossover that (vaguely) looks like a coupe. The second-generation X6 offers mind-boggling on-road performance and handling that makes your head spin because it can easily shame some sports cars. The most potent variant, the X6 M, is quite possibly one of the most insane crossovers out there.
Check out the Head 2 Head episode that pitted the BMW X6 M against the Mercedes-AMG GLE63 here.
Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe
After BMW found a surprising amount of success in the oddball X6, Mercedes-Benz followed suit a few years later with the GLE Coupe, a doppelganger of the Bavarian automaker’s crossover with a coupe-like roofline. Just like the X6, the GLE Coupe’s performance and handling will make your head spin and the noises that both models—the GLE450 and GLE63 AMG—make is exactly how you want your attack armadillo to sound like so it can wake the dead and start a zombie apocalypse.
Currently one of the best-selling three-row luxury crossovers available, the Acura MDX is better known for its ability to haul a family than its performance. However, drive the car hard and you’ll realize that the MDX’s acceleration and handling belie its size, offering excellent body control and strong straight-line performance that makes you question the 3.5-liter V-6’s 290-hp output. When equipped with Acura’s excellent SH-AWD system, the MDX is an all-weather family SUV that offers excellent handling for its size.
Our 2016 SUV of the Year, the Volvo XC90, can haul your family and haul on the road. Featuring a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 with 316 hp and 295 lb-ft, the XC90 comes standard with plenty of grunt. Go for the optional air suspension for improved handling without sacrificing ride comfort. If the base T6 model isn’t enough for you, there’s the T8, which takes the base engine and pairs it to an electric motor for a combined output of 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque. Like the smaller XC60, you can opt for Polestar’s optimization program for a power boost and reprogrammed transmission shift schedules.
Land Rover Range Rover Sport SVR
Tuned in the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife race track, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport SVR is the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle. Equipped with a 550-hp supercharged V-8 and a quick-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox, the Range Rover Sport SVR has all the go-fast goodies expected out of a vehicle built by Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations division. Like its American counterpart, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, the Range Rover Sport SVR will make your head spin with its on- and off-road capabilities because vehicles this massive shouldn’t drive like they don’t weigh anything nor should they like to power oversteer on dry pavement.
Click here to watch the Ignition episode on the Land Rover Range Rover Sport.
The Bentley Bentayga is proof that SUVs are trendy. As one of the first breeds of ultra-luxurious sport utes, the Bentayga promises to be the go-anywhere vehicle for members of the one percent with active lifestyles. Under the hood is a new 600-hp twin-turbo W-12 engine that hauls the massive SUV with ease and puts its power down through all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Should you decide to go crazy and customize your Bentayga to your heart’s content, you can even add a $160,000-dollar Breitling clock with a mechanically wound Tourbillion movement, a diamond-studded mother-of-pearl face, and a rose or white gold case.
With crossovers and SUVs being all the rage these days, would you consider one of their performance-minded variants or would you rather stick with hot hatches, wagons, sports sedans, and coupes? Tell us on Facebook.
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