The showdown: 2018’S TOP SUVs

We reviews cars that let you lead an active and healthy lifestyle. These are our picks this year.

As 2018 STARTS TO WIND DOWN, the SUV (sports utility vehicle) has pretty much taken over the roads. SUVs dominated our motoring reviews in 2018 because they’re ideal for a fitness lifestyle: you can pack them with sports or camping equipment and get out of the city, even if you’re not exactly going to the outback.

BMW X3

PERFECTION
If we have to pick an SUV that does it all deliciously well, one that isn’t too big or too small, which looks good and comes with serious brand cachet and is premium, but not crazy expensive (starting at $68,900 plus on-road costs), then we can’t go past the BMW X3 (above). We found it to be fantastic all-rounder. What the X3 does brilliantly is transfer the ride and sporting feel of its Series 3 sedans to a four-wheel drive format. The essence of what BMWs does better than any other car maker is that it’s able to combine the automotive opposites of a luxurious ride with sporty handling, so you feel beautifully insulated from the ruts in the road, but don’t keel over when you take a corner at speed. Despite its comfortable yet dynamic ride and BMW’s driver assist aids and safety features, the X3 also comes with an impressive amount of storage for the size. Most appropriate of all, its poised, muscular exterior was designed by Australian Calvin Luk, one of BMW’s hottest young designers, whose latest creation (the Z4 Roadster) has enthralled car enthusiasts around the world. We spoke to Calvin about the X3 and he told us the Australian landscape – yes, the landscape – inspired him when he was designing what’s now BMW’s biggest-selling model.

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Hyundai Santa Fe

ALL-ROUNDER
It was inevitable that the Santa Fe would one day become a very good, big, fuel-efficient well-priced family SUV. That’s because Hyundai is relentless. With each new version of this seven-seater (and cars such as the i30), Hyundai has improved the design, performance, drivability and usability. Every car maker these days does, but few as consistently and with as big improvements each time as Hyundai. The design of the Gen 1 of the Santa Fe was bulbous and soft in looks and drivability. Fast-forward to the new Gen 4 version and not only does it look sharp with its aggressive grille, but it’s probably the most complete SUV on the market that starts at a family friendly price in the low $40Ks. It has all the driver aids and safety technology you expect in a top-line SUV – from adaptive cruise control to forward collision avoidance and lane-keeping assistance – but makes it available in the entry-level $43K 2.4L petrol Active model, not just the-top-of-the line $60K Highlander powered by the 2.2 L diesel engine. It has heaps of space and we love the push buttons that instantly move the back seats backward and forward, and fold them down. That’s taking convenience to the nth degree.

Ford Escape ST-Line

GETAWAY VEHICLE

Ford is emphasising the Sport in sports utility vehicle with the Escape ST-Line. We couldn’t test the ST-Line in time to make the issue, but based on its specs and our familiarity with the standard Escape, we can say with certainty that the ST-Line is unique in the market: it’s like an SUV version of an affordable hot hatch (it starts at $39,990). We’re fans of how Ford turned the common Focus into a serious performance car with the ST and RS models. This is a similar albeit milder application of the principle, using a powerful 2L Eco-Boost 4 engine supported by tweaked suspension, retuned steering and a mean blacking out of the 18” alloy wheels, grille, bumpers and roof rails.

Range Rover Velar

SOCIAL CLIMBER
While some SUVs are great at climbing steep dirt tracks, the Velar is the one you want for climbing the social ladder. No SUV spells nobility and old money like the Range Rover, aka the Toorak Tractor. But this is a rethinking of the tractor for a younger audience. With its raked silhouette, rising beltline and rearward-sloping roof, it’s one of the most visually stunning SUVs on the market. Its avant garde design and sophisticated engineering give a real insight into how the marque is evolving for a young, affluent, urban audience that it captured in spades with the compact Range Rover Evoque. The effect isn’t just external, with the interior of this Rangie just as stunning as the exterior. The key functions of the display and control system are housed in two large, glass screens, eliminating the need for most of the dials and buttons, making the Velar more Tesla than SUV. But despite its sleek city looks and urban smoothness, the Velar lives up to its Range Rover name when it comes to handling serious off-road terrain. Coming in a bewildering array of models and options, it starts with the D180 2L turbo diesel for $71,550, going up to around $190K for its specced-up turbocharged 3L versions. Our P380 First Edition is listed at $168,250.

MG ZS

AFFORDABLE

The MG ZS is reminiscent of what Hyundai did many years ago when it shocked the market with the $9999 Excel: a runaway success because you got a lot of car for the money. Except when it comes to pound-for-pound value, the new MG ZS – produced by the Chinese SAIC Motor Corporation – is light years ahead of where the cheap and cheerful Excel was. For $22,990 you get an SUV that looks as good as its $30K-$40K rivals, handles surprising well and with the Essence model’s 1.0L engine at least, has more than enough grunt. It looks the part and is easier on your wallet.

Tesla Model X

FUTURE
We’ve tested plenty of cars, but none have come close to having the impact of the Tesla Model X, a fully electric crossover that’s sometimes described as an SUV. We tested the $300K P100D version, which is the most powerful in the range, and we’re happy to tell you that motoring is about to be changed forever. Cars like the Model X are silent, non-polluting and beaten off the line only by the very fastest Ferraris. They’re also shockingly easier to maintain – they update their operating software over-the-air, just like an iPhone, and need a fraction of the maintenance of an ordinary car. That’s not surprising, given that a Tesla has only 17 moving parts (including the engine) compared to about 3700 for an average car. Don’t worry, the world’s top automakers have worked out the writing is on the wall – they’re now frantically announcing electric models for release in a year or two while at the same time getting the final generations of internal combustion models out the door.

Volvo XC90

SAFEST

If money was no object and you had to buy the most important person in your life a car, what would it be? Easy, it should be the Volvo XC90. Quite simply, this is the safest car in the world – it won’t let you have an accident if you tried. Computers manage everything from ensuring it stays in its lane to preventing you from turning against incoming traffic at intersections. And it’s a delight to drive, as we discovered with the hybrid petrol/electric version. Chinese motor company Geely bought Volvo and improved it! Models start at $96K.

Porsche Cayenne Turbo

THE DREAM
The faster version of an already very fast Cayenne, the Cayenne Turbo (starting at $239,000) is the most gloriously insane conventional car we’ve ever driven, which is why it’s our dream SUV. Perfectly domesticated for the school run, it can reach 330km/h on the race track, thanks to its monster 4.0L V8 twin-turbo engine. Its ride is comfortable, yet it will go around bends glued to the road like a 911, thanks to the wizardry of Porsche suspensions. Even crazier, it has genuine off-road ability, which will get you up a steep bush track effortlessly. What Porsche does better than anyone is so completely over-engineer cars so they’ll storm around a race track for lap after lap, then get you home as if nothing happened. Ultimately, the Cayenne Turbo’s role might simply be to showcase the zenith of automotive art before electric cars consign internal combustion to history.

Ford Everest

CLASSIC
When most SUVs now handle, perform and sound like family sedans, the Everest is gloriously old school. It’s more truck than car – a throwback to when SUVs were SUVs, but one that’s updated to today’s standards. What we love is that you get those fundamentals that initially made SUVs so popular before they were diluted in today’s gentrified SUVs. One was the high ride height. In the Ford Everest you need a step to climb into the cabin. People wanted enough power to tow boats and trailers, and the Everest’s diesel engines can do that easily, all while making it sound like you’re driving a truck. And although it has great off-road ability, on the freeway the Everest keeps up with anyone. From $49K.

Škoda Karoq

VALUE
This was our big surprise of 2018. If you want practicality and convenience in your SUV, you have to consider Škoda, a brand that tends to fly under the radar. From $32,990 drive away, the Škoda sits in the smaller end of the mid-sized SUV category and is full of clever touches big and small, which add up to give it huge value for money and a premium feel. When we drove it recently, it was fun discovering all of its tricks. One was its Rubik’s cube-style seating in the back that lets you reconfigure the Karoq into several configurations, including one in which the back seats are completely removed. The clever little things include Velcro straps that stop your shopping from sliding around in the boot. And we loved the floor mats that can be flipped between carpet and hard rubber when you don’t want muddy soccer boots making a mess. And not to mention the fact that it’s packed with
a huge list of standard safety equipment, such as autonomous emergency braking, plus it performs well and looks good. And there’s five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.