I was in a dark, cold and decidedly depressing car park at Melbourne airport, having spent the previous three days crisscrossing NSW in a group of focused, topless and worringly expensive supercars, which you’ll read about next month. Maybe it was the weather, or my sleep-deprived state, but slipping into the Volvo felt like a big, warm hug. It was easy to get into, its seating position high and commanding. As I switched on the heated steering wheel, I made the kind of noise English people make when you offer them tea and biscuits. I may have actually muttered, “Oooooh lovely.”
Self-awareness isn’t a strength of mine, so while I acknowledged this unexpected wave of affection, I parked that thought and drove home. And that would have been that, had Alpina not revealed its version of the BMW X3 the following morning. With the XD3’s hunkered stance, deep blue paint and multi-spoke alloys enlarged on my computer screen, the noise appeared again, only this time it was deeper, more animalistic.
I found myself lusting after an SUV, which felt odd, and made me ponder a deeper question: would the wider Wheels readership feel the same way? Having spent more hours that I care to admit trawling through the comments on our social media pages and fielding letters from readers after our last two COTY winners (Mazda CX-9 and Volvo XC60) I’d wager that no, the majority wouldn’t.
SUVs may now account for more than half of all Aussie sales, but to car enthusiasts, to people who actively pursue the thrill of driving, they’re still derided. They’re dismissed as inferior and compromised, bought by people who don’t know or simply don’t care that they’re heavier, thirstier, uglier, more cumbersome and often less practical than an equivalent sedan or better yet, a wagon. The past decade has seen disliking SUVs become cool; a default reflex that feels as normal, and as right, as despising the pommy cricket team.
Well, people, things have changed. Modern SUVs have improved to such a degree that this stigma no longer holds water. Rabid demand for the highriders has seen engineers rise to the challenge, with advances in drivetrain and chassis tech meaning that for the most part, SUVs now drive like cars. They’re becoming increasingly efficient, too, providing you pick the right one. My hybrid XC60 averaged 4.8L/100km on its last tank, while nailing all of the SUV hallmarks buyers crave: a high seating position, easier ingress/egress and a loftier ride height that, while unlikely to ever be used off-road, makes navigating the urban jungle, with its speed-humps, gutters, and steep driveways, that bit easier.
There are exceptions, of course. Heavy SUVs with sloppy handling and thirsty engines still exist and deserve your vilification, but the rate of progress has been such that the entire SUV segment can no longer be written off as mediocre.
Wheels dep ed Andy Enright argues that SUVs are now so good that they’re often better than the performance wagons of yore we hold so dear. A Porsche Macan Turbo, for example, would likely run rings around a V8-powered Audi RS4 Avant.
The point here isn’t to suggest you should rush out and buy an SUV, but to challenge the way you think about them.
Just like the much-maligned SUV, the automatic gearbox has long had a stigma attached to it. If given the choice, petrolheads would typically take a manual as the preferred option, maintaining its extra layers of connection make it the superior transmission. The connection part may hold true, but this is another area where rapid advances in technology and engineering know-how have challenged the motoring status-quo. Dualclutch and conventional auto ’boxes are now so fast and intuitive that they’ve become the default option for high-performance machinery.