Seven SUVs and crossovers, on one track. A combined power output of 2065kW and 4004 Nm of torque. Three professional drivers on a closed circuit. One mission: decide which one of these machines really is the ultimate driver’s SUV or crossover…
Two words that have not traditionally fared brilliantly when used together in the same sentence to describe one vehicle.
Fast in a straight line, the hefty performance SUVs of a decade ago easily became flustered in a succession of tight corners, or if repeated emergency stops were required. Essentially, gravity and behemoth SUVs weighing the wrong side of two tons just don’t gel when you start pushing the performance envelope.
More recently, though, as new technologies came to the fore and lighter materials became more readily available in the construction process, performance SUVs became much more than just straight-line bullies.
Nowadays some SUVs come with “track mode” and “race start launch control” and special performance settings for the engine and suspension. Some manufacturers even claim that their SUVs not only feature a gimmicky “race” button but that they are fully track ready.
So you can, according to them, enter a bit of a race, and actually compete in it without scraping your elbows on the tar in the corners and ploughing through a wall when the brakes fail.
And the power. Oh boy, the power.
Some perspective: in 2000, Ferrari launched its 360 Modena, powered by a 3,6-litre V8 engine that produced 300 kW. Lamborghini introduced its Gallardo V10 in 2003, and the original model had 368 kW on tap. The latest BMW M3 produces 317 kW, and a 2015 Ferrari 458 Italia has 419 kW.
But as impressive as these numbers are, they are less than some of the latest top performance SUVs.
Enter the BMW X5 M – one of the entries in this competition. It has 423 kW of power. The Mercedes G63 AMG’s twin-turbo V8 produces 400 kW. The small Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG crossover is driven by the most powerful four-cylinder production two-litre engine in the world, boasting 265 kW.
And there’s 344 kW in the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, all naturally aspirated.
The numbers are staggering, as are the price tags.
But are the modern performance SUVs really any good? Are they still just straight-line bullies or can they actually deliver in the driver’s department, too?
To find out we devised a cunning, two-pronged plan: first we’d settle the traffic light to traffic light argument by racing our seven performance SUVs and crossovers over the quarter-mile drag at Tarlton Raceway, west of Johannesburg. We also included a legendary four-door performance sedan for interest’s sake, as well as a highly modified SUV with a mind-blowing 520 kW of power.
And secondly, we asked three professional drivers (including some real racing legends) to drive each SUV and crossover on a 3km “circuit” at Tarlton Raceway where we included a high-speed “moose test” (emergency lane-change), a braking test (from about 160km/h) and a tour-de-traffic cone (or gymkhana) section where handling and grip and electronics could be put to the proper test. The drivers drove the vehicles for at least three laps, during which they could play with the electronics and disable traction and stability and what-not controls at will.
For once we didn’t bother with comfort, the effectiveness of the climate control, value for money and other such novelties. Instead, we simply asked our drivers to rate the vehicles from a pure driver’s perspective.
We used a Formula One-style points system – 25 points for a “victory”, all the way to six points for finishing in position number seven on the list.
This is… the 2015 Performance Shoot-out!