11 Feb 2014

SUVs - How I Was Almost Seduced By The Dark Side

I've driven quite a few SUVs over the past year or so.  Just recently I've driven a glut of them as I wanted to try and work out what all the fuss was about.  And then I found myself wanting one myself...

SUVs sell in huge quantities but only a few years ago you'd have a) had to call it a 4x4 and b) you would have been able to buy a Land Rover, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Toyota and not a lot else.

Then everyone went a bit mad.  Housewives swapped their Fiestas for Jukes, leaders of industry dumped their S-Classes for Range Rovers and footballists ditched their Bentleys for X5s.

In terms of driving dynamics lower is undisputedly better than taller.  I covered that in detail here.  But most drivers don't care about driving dynamics.  People who buy SUVs want space and the ability to see over the heads of other drivers.

Before SUVs came along MPVs used to provide space and loftiness but MPVs are about as cool as dad dancing.  MPVs told the world you had the ability to procreate, but not a lot else.  People (well, some of them) think SUVs are cool, and they can accommodate lots of children and other gubbins.

SUVs don't need four wheel drive because most people don't off road in them, so many don't come with four wheel drive.  SUVs do have an advantage in the leg room department because that extra height tends to go where the legs are so passenger's legs dangle down and require less knee room than in normal cars.  This also means they can be shorter than saloons or estates but often aren't - yet strangely they do tend to have shorter boots than estate cars.

Recently I ran a Range Rover SDV8 for a week.  "Great Scott!" I thought.  This thing is amazing.  OK it costs 84 grand but it is the consummate car.  It's huge, it's fast, it returns 30mpg, it can accommodate a family of elephants, it's the comfiest car in the world and it looks mega cool.

When it went back to Land Rover I was forlorn.  I wanted to know if I could replicate that whole feeling of being in the Range Rover in some other SUV.  I'm planning to buy a new (to me) car this year so when testing SUVs I've had the thought, in the back of my mind, "Would I actually want to buy this car?"

Were SUVs in fact brilliant, and I had missed the point of the all along?

I spent a week with a Volvo XC60.  Hmmmm.  It was OK, I thought, but the V60 is better all around. OK the V60 doesn't have four wheel drive (in the UK at least) and the rear leg room is less but the estate is still the better car than the SUV.

During that time I poured over Auto Trader looking at what I might be able to afford with theoretical budget of £6,000.

I didn't want an XC60 but then I remembered the XC90.  Now that is a proper car.  It's a 4x4 in the old sense rather than an SUV in the new (poncey) sense.  But then I remembered needing to drive somewhere in a hurry in the XC90 and not really being able to do so.  Being tall and heavy means corners need to be taken much slower than in normal cars.

Hmmm.  I started looking at Mercedes and then remembered Mercedes forgot how to make cars properly in the late 90s and early 2000s, which covered all decent Mercedes in my budget.  Besides, a 2001 ML would cost millions of pounds a year just to keep on the road.

For the same reason I dismissed all Land Rovers.  The new Range Rover might be fantastic but pre Tata Land Rovers are money pits.

Then the Volvo went back and an Infiniti QX70 turned up.  Oh no.  No, no, no, no, no.  The QX70 is an SUV that's styled to look like a coupe on stilts.  Cool for some people (with chest hair and chunky gold chains) but not me.  It is the consummate dad dancing car.

But the Infiniti didn't put me off SUVs for good.  A Mitsubishi Outlander turned up.  Aha, I thought.  The mk2 Outlander was brilliant.  The mk3 isn't quite so good though.  I had forgotten how awful most Japanese cars interiors are.  It might have steered OK but the diesel engine clattered and the acres of elephant hide plastic were hideous.

The Outlander was about as close to the Range Rover experience as a Dacia Sandero is to a Bentley.

But that didn't put me off looking at SUVs and wondering if I could replicate the Range Rover experience with a £6k car.

No, two other things did that.

The first was when I had a look at BMWs.  By now I had decided the next car I would buy would be a BMW.  I've had experience of some truly shit BMWs but my brother Colin's E90 is a great car.

The second was when I tweeted an Autotrader advert for a 2005 X3.  The response was stark.  Followers united in telling me buying an X3 would result in excommunication from the church of the petrol head.

I came to my senses.  "Christ alive they're right," I thought.  What the hell was I doing even looking at X3s.  They're for loon headed crackpots who think a 3-series estate is too low to the ground.

And then a Subaru Outlander press car turned up.  An Outback is the perfect off-roader for people who can't afford a Range Rover.  The Outback demonstrates that you can have your cake and eat it.  You can have masses of legroom (it has more than a XC60) and it can off-road (it has more ground clearance than an Outlander).  But I've already owned two so don't want another.

Now I have decided to buy an E90 3-series.  Maybe an estate, maybe a coupe, even a convertible.  I'll decide nearer to the time, and when I actually have the cash.

I'm no SUV antidisestablishmentarianist because, after all, it takes all sorts to make the world turn round but I certainly won't be buying one, unless I can stump up the £84k to buy a Range Rover SDV8.

By Matt Hubbard