SUVs have a reputation for being cumbersome to drive. In some cases, that’s deserved: SUVs that ride on truck platforms drive like trucks (surprise, surprise). But, with the increasing popularity of crossover SUVs that ride on car platforms, more and more SUVs are driving like cars -- which is good news if you‘re bummed about giving up the performance of your sport sedan for the utility of an SUV.
While even the most performance-oriented SUV won’t be able to take on sports cars at the track, today’s SUVs feature powerful engines and performance-enhancing technology that make them more rewarding to drive. When shopping for performance, look for SUVs with turbocharged engines, which add power without taking much of a toll on fuel economy. Luxury performance SUVS will often have adaptive suspensions that tailor the SUV’s responses to the type of driving you’re doing. Just know that performance comes at a price: the best performing SUVs in a class also tend to be the most expensive. Plus, while a taut suspension makes for great handling, it can also mean a ride that’s rougher than your passengers may like.
For the right buyer, sacrificing budget and some ride comfort at the altar of performance is worth it, but performance SUVs aren’t for everyone. If your right foot is itching to drop the hammer, but you need an SUV, here are some of the best performing ones you can buy.
Affordable Compact SUVs -- Your Pocket Rockets
Car and Driver calls the Volkswagen Tiguan “a GTI on stilts.” Given that the GTI has a perennial spot on Car and Driver’s 10Best list, that’s high praise. Reviews state that the Tiguan handles quite well, with a driving experience more like a car than an SUV. Its 2.0-liter turbocharged engine puts down 200 horsepower, enough to propel the Tiguan from zero to 60 in just 7.8 seconds.
MSRP: $21,700 - $33,035
The Mazda CX-7 has excellent handling, though sporty performance comes at the price of a suspension that’s a bit stiff over less-than-perfect roads. Equipped with the optional 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the CX-7 puts out 244 horsepower and gets up to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds while still offering plenty of passenger and cargo space.
Luxury Compact SUVs -- The Sport Sedan Alternative
MSRP: $35,200 - $42,500
The Audi Q5 lives up to the brand’s reputation for surefooted performance. The standard 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, or optional 3.2-liter V6, launch the Q5 from zero to 60 in 7.1 and 6.7 seconds, respectively. Then there’s the optional Audi Drive Select, which allows you to tune the suspension for a comfortable ride on your drive to work -- you can also put it in sport mode for a weekend drive on a country road.
MSRP: $34,600 - $36,600
With a smooth, car-like ride and impressive performance, the Mercedes GLK is more than just a pretty face. Its 3.5-liter V6 puts out 268 horsepower and is mated to a seven-speed transmission that is well-liked by test drivers. Factory estimates put the zero-to-60 time around 6.5 seconds -- that’s sport sedan quick, especially when compared to the comparably priced Mercedes C-Class.
Affordable Midsize SUVs -- Grocery Get-Up and Go
MSRP: $30,215 - $41,910
The days of the Jeep moniker being nothing more than a rugged, trail-worthy off-roader are long gone -- the Jeep Grand Cherokee proves it can do all that and offer impressive on-road performance to boot. A new suspension system has greatly improved the Grand Cherokee’s road manners while power comes from either a new 3.6-liter V6 making 290 horsepower or an optional 5.7-liter V8 making 360 horsepower. According to the Wall Street Journal, a V8-equipped Grand Cherokee can do zero to 60 in about eight seconds -- good luck finding another SUV that can do that and tackle the Rubicon trail.
MSRP: $29,075 - $45,185
What do you get when you add an optional twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 to the Ford Flex? According to Edmunds, a zero-to-60 time of 6.4 seconds -- and if you’re on the lookout for an affordable midsize SUV, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that’s quicker. Checking the box for the 355 horsepower mill also adds sporty features like a six-speed SelectShift transmission, paddle shifters and a modified suspension that reviewers claim make it one of the best handling crossover SUVs on the market -- an impressive feat for a midsize SUV that can seat up to seven.
Luxury Midsize & Large SUVs – Fast Opulance
MSRP: $46,700 - $104,800
From the base Cayenne’s 300 horsepower mill and zero-to-60 time of 7.4 seconds, all the way up to the Cayenne Turbo’s 500 horsepower engine that rockets to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, there’s a luxury midsize SUV from Porsche with enough spice for consumers at multiple price points. There’s even a hybrid model. The Cayenne recently dropped about 400 pounds, which reviewers say makes it nimbler than ever.
MSRP: $60,495 - $75,395
With luxury large SUVs like the Range Rover Sport, it’s clear that you don’t need a jar of Grey Poupon in your glove compartment to experience the best in British motoring. Car-like handling and competent off-road abilities make the Sport great regardless of terrain, while either a 375 horsepower 5.0-liter V8 or a 510 horsepower supercharged version provide the thrust -- enough to get the Range Rover Sport from zero to 60 in 7.2 and 5.9 seconds, respectively. A six-speed automatic transmission with an adaptive shift pattern responds to driving style and conditions to provide optimum performance.