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  • Ross Ballot

This is the Golden Age for SUVs

It’s no secret that vehicles have improved drastically over the years. They’re safer, more economical, and more capable. And yet, people tend to look back especially favorably on certain points in time. This usually corresponds with the era during which their favorite type of car had its moment in the spotlight, its “glory days.” Example abound: Muscle cars, though better in effectively every way today than ever before, stake their claim-to-fame in the 1960s. Exotics and supercars are looked most fondly upon in the drama of what came out of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Tuner cars had their moment in the spotlight in the 1990s and early 2000s. But these are all cars. They only occupy a portion of the automotive market. What about SUVs? Surely they are to have their moment. And they do: It’s now.

Over the years, sport-utility-vehicles have become increasingly popular. Sales numbers have clearly reflected such. Once a purposeful tool, the SUV has acclimated to normal life and is now a staple of the American household. On the surface the SUV leaves a lot for us enthusiasts to desire. But that’s a fallacy: Though perhaps not to the extreme available within the sporty car world, there’s plenty to like in the SUV world. And not just this past few years, but the past fifteen or so. It’s not a golden decade, but a golden decade-and-a-half, and it’s still going. This is, unquestionably, the golden age of SUVs.

Decades ago, back when the station wagon ruled family life, SUVs were birthed to fill a void for those who needed wagon-like space and true off-road capability. As the world came to accept the SUV as its choice for general transportation, there have been some true gems along the way. Never before have we had times as fantastic as these when it comes to SUVs. Regardless of your intended purpose, be it speed or scaling an obstacle, there’s an incredible SUV for you.

Keep in mind that SUVs were originally built for those who needed wagons but with the ability to bring them places a wagon simply couldn’t. The Willys Jeep Station Wagon was one of the first, and Jeep continued on with the Grand Wagoneer. Toyota has built the FJ and Land Cruiser models for an eon. Land Rover built its brand on the Range Rover nameplate, promising luxury while traversing the terrain of your choosing.

Today that off-road capability has been taken to the extreme. Jeep’s JL Wrangler Rubicon offers technology and off-road competence that is truly outstanding. Stock vehicles are now capable of what required a highly-modified rig. Even the standard Wrangler is sincerely trail-capable. And this is all while maintaining on-road manners that would shock those driving TJs and JKs, let alone YJs and CJs. Meanwhile, Toyota is cranking out as many 4Runner TRD Pros as they can build. It’s a truly strong vehicle off-road that still drives like a normal 4Runner on tarmac. And, like “lowly” Wranglers, even the base 4Runner will hold its own; don’t count them out despite their lack of aggressive grilles and badging. Like sports cars, modern Jeep and Toyota SUVs will handily outperform those of yore thanks in part to technology, thanks in part to stronger and more capable equipment in tandem with platforms that are, too, stronger and more capable.

Run the price up quite a bit and there’s even more opulence to be had. Case in point: Ranger Rover’s slew of offerings. They do the fancy Beverly Hills thing but can still traverse a fairly serious section of dirt. Need more of the capability and less of the swagger and you can walk into the same dealer to purchase a brand-new Defender, available on our shores for only the second time in its thirty-seven year run. It’ll hold its own in the desert and still coddle you en route to Trader Joe’s. How far it has come from its predecessor, a utilitarian, agricultural SUV with few creature comforts, is a testament to how far the off-road SUV has come over the last few decades.

But where it really gets interesting is in the world of on-road performance SUVs. No longer demanding a body-on-frame platform, SUVs today simply needed taller-than-a-car ride height. This meant that they benefit from much of what makes a car a car. It allows for different packaging, easier production, and, ultimately, better on-road dynamics. With this came automakers building faster, more performance-oriented examples for people who want the high seating position and roominess of their SUV and the performance of the sports car they sold when they started a family and moved to the suburbs. As such, high-po SUVs were born.

The first slew of them, going back to Jeep’s 5.9L Grand Cherokee, emulated the typical muscle car formula: Big engine, not much else changed to cope with it. The followup to that once-fastest-SUV-in-the-world was the first SRT-branded Grand Cherokee. It stuffed a 420-hp 6.1L Hemi V8 into the 2007 WK-generation GC. Thankfully Jeep did their research and added Brembo brakes, Bilstein shocks, a Dana 44 rear end, and the elimination of all off-road toys. It was, for the first time, an SUV engineered for performance, rather than an SUV that happened to be able to perform. That truck’s mid-4 second 0-60 run shocked the world.

In twenty years, we’ve gone from Jeep, the unlikely source in that their credibility was based solely on off-road performance, building the world’s fastest SUV, to Lamborghini, once known solely for their extreme performance and street cars, bringing an SUV to market not just out of necessity, but because that’s where the money is and the market is leaning. Whereas the SRT Grand Cherokee was an extreme display of power, a statement that Jeep has more tricks up its sleeve than anyone expected, the Urus is a response, a way for Lambo to stay relevant in an SUV-driven world. The times most certainly are changing.

But the Urus isn’t the final say. Jeep couldn’t be one-upped and developed the Trackhawk, a Hellcat-powered variant of the WK2 Grand Cherokee. Do most people realize that a Jeep has 66 horsepower more than a Lamborghini? Probably not. But nobody is cross-shopping them, anyways. The point is such: Fifteen years ago if you wanted something fast and fun, you had more than your fair share of options. They were, of course, all cars. Today you can basically pick a brand and there’s something for you. And as Todd said on Episode 537, "[...] they do that thing that's so great in SUVs when they do all the SUV sides but don't they drive like a big lumbering thing."

Since Jeep launched the SRT Grand Cherokee, an onslaught of fast SUVs have landed on the streets. BMW’s X5M and X6M redefined how SUVs could handle. Mercedes’ AMG-branded offerings (can you even name them all?) changed what we thought of how an SUV can accelerate and sound. Porsche’s Macan and Cayenne fill the void between boring people-mover and Cayman or 911. And as of late we’ve gotten the X3M and X4M, Urus, Stelvio Quadrifoglio, and so on. Even Dodge is selling a Hellcat-equipped Durango, and we can go so far as to mention the SQ5/RSQ5, long-defunct Trailblazer SS (and Saab 9-7X), and so on.

But it gets better yet: There’s some that manage to do it all. Those that sit in the Venn diagram overlap drive better than one would expect but still have SUV cred and some off-road clout. Porsche’s first-gen Cayenne had dedicated, honest off-road cache. Land Rover’s SVR models kept the trail tools but brought huge power, shocking handling, and an earth-shattering exhaust note to the party. And, though it can’t corner, the AMG-ified G63 and G65 were laughably quick despite their equally-laughably un-aerodynamic shapes.

Frankly, I’m not mad about it. We can talk up and down about “Built Not Bought,” but the reality is that most people simply want something they can buy at a dealer, use in everyday life and occasionally seek out the vehicle’s potential, and have the confidence and safety net of a warranty backing them. Someday down the line if I ever have a family, or physical limitations that don’t allow me to act as a contortionist getting in and out of my Miata, I’ll happily own a comfortable, spacious, incriminatingly-fast SUV. I’m very much looking forward to being third (or fourth...or fifth) owner of a Trackhawk. 707 horsepower in something that can haul a family? Yes, please. Even a lowly 475-hp SRT Grand Cherokee would be fun. Buying tires, brakes, and gas wouldn’t be. Not that it’s much better in Rubicon land, where a set of 35”s will easily run $1500+. The saying is true: You gotta pay to play...

Will it last? High gas prices and rising environmental awareness will likely be the decline in SUV sales. If nothing else, the developments in electric vehicles has shown us that there’s a silent future in speed. It’s coming, but for now we revel in the beauty that is family haulers that have a knack for enthusiast hobbies. Much to the chagrin of good gas mileage and environmentally-friendliness, we live in a world in which a buyer can visit their nearest Jeep dealership and, for $40k, buy a Rubicon that will tackle all but the most difficult trails in the country, or, if speed tickles the buyer’s fancy, walk across the showroom and buy a quarter-mile-crushing Trackhawk.

It’s remarkable how far the SUV market has come. If your goal is to “do it all,” there’s a performance SUV for you. Going skiing with friends and only have one vehicle, but want to crush a canyon road in the process? A sporty SUV fits the bill. Want to drive to work in comfort but attack a trail on Saturday? There’s something on sale today that will satisfy those wants and needs. More so, I might regrettably and begrudgingly add, than any car can. Thirty years into the SUV boom, we have the Golden Age of the SUV: A widespread choice of offerings that are more trail-capable than trail-outfitted wheelers were twenty years ago, and faster than dedicated sports cars were just ten years back. Cars absolutely still have their place and always will, but this isn’t their time to shine: It’s that of the SUV.

Hi, my name is Ross. I write primarily for and co-host the Off the Road Again Podcast. As you can guess, I’m an off-road enthusiast/self-proclaimed expert and an ever-improving amateur autocrosser. My current car is an NC3 Miata Club PRHT but the joke goes that I’m perpetually looking for the next vehicle I will regret...



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