The history of the SUV as a sports car
The sport utility vehicle was originally created for high performance, but not in the way you might think. Early SUVs were rugged machines built to perform where no other car could: through mud, over rocks, or whatever else the trail threw at them. Packing four-wheel drive and knobby tires, 1950s-era SUVs like the Jeep CJ, Land Rover Series II, and Toyota Land Cruiser traded creature comforts for toughness and tenacity on dirt. They weren’t quick, but their focus on off-road performance was singular.
SUVs became more common through the 1960s and 1970s as automakers marketed them as rugged, capable alternatives to sedans, wagons, and coupes. The Jeep Grand Wagoneer was built as a spacious family hauler, while the Ford Bronco was available as a five seater or short-wheelbase convertible. Classic Range Rovers could be washed out with a hose, but over time luxury features like carpeted floors and air conditioning were added to accommodate consumers’ preferences for comfortable, high-riding cars. Still, these weren’t sporty vehicles by any definition.
Burgeoned by cheap gas and perceptions of toughness and safety, SUVs’ popularity with drivers – and profitability for automakers – boomed in the 1990s. Realizing that off-road capability was no longer a feature that city dwellers wanted, car companies shifted their focus to creating SUVs with better on-road manners. This gave way to SUVs that had higher “performance” in the traditional sense of the term: extra horsepower and sharpened handling. Perhaps the first sporty SUV was 1992’s GMC Typhoon, essentially a Jimmy with lowered suspension, sticky street tires, and a turbocharged 280 horsepower V6 under the hood.
Then, in 1997, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the ML-Class, and the automotive world was never the same. This was the first European example of a truly road-oriented SUV, and Mercedes distilled their knowledge of building performance luxury cars into the ML-Class. True, the G-Class had been around since 1979, but at that point it was more focused on farm duty than boulevard cruising. While the ML-Class had four wheel drive and could technically drive off-road, it was really about providing the spaciousness and comfort people preferred for the street. Topping the range was the ML55, which packed a 340 horsepower V8 tuned by AMG, which set a precedent the other European manufacturers had to meet.
In 1999, BMW used their sportscar know-how to create the X5, the best-driving SUV yet. It competed directly with the ML-Class, but, as is typical for BMW, prioritized driving dynamics over outright luxury. It was available with inline-six and V8 engines (and even a manual transmission), but BMW also created the one-off X5 Le Mans to showcase their new SUV’s potential. This concept packed a 700-horsepower V12 from a race car and had a top speed of over 190 mph — it’s still one of the fastest SUVs ever built.
Porsche entered the performance SUV game in 2003 with the Cayenne. The car caused much consternation among purists, but a few miles behind the wheel proved that it upheld the marque’s sporty DNA. Porsche modeled the Cayenne lineup like the 911, with S, GTS, and Turbo options available. The Cayenne Turbo S was the fastest, rocketing from zero to 60 in just over five seconds, and slamming back to a stop with massive carbon ceramic brakes. In a slight twist, Porsche created the limited-edition Cayenne S Transsyberia, a trail-focused version with knobby tires, lifted suspension, and underbody skid plates like performance SUVs of old. Regardless of trim level, the Cayenne has been Porsche’s best seller since it launched, and it’s fair to say the brand would have gone out of business without it.
Today, SUVs are only becoming more popular, and their capabilities continue to increase. Nearly every automaker has multiple SUVs in their lineup, with a speed-focused version of almost all. Maserati’s Levante combines speed, style, and utility in equal measures. The electric Tesla Model X proves you don’t need a huge engine to deliver incredible acceleration — just don’t take it off road. While Jeep still builds trail-rated vehicles, they also have the 707-horsepower Grand Cherokee Trackhawk to tear up drag strips. Even Lamborghini has entered the fray with the Urus, which, thanks to its 641-horsepower twin-turbo V8, is the world’s first truly exotic SUV.
It’s crazy to think that some SUVs now have supercar-rivaling performance figures. But when drivers demand cars that are as quick as they are comfortable and practical, automakers have to deliver. They’ve come a long way from their rock-crawling roots, but it’s exciting to consider what the future holds for performance SUVs.