Known as uninspiring people-movers, some SUVs provide more than their fair share of thrills. Here’s our list of the best driving SUVs of 2021.
SUVs and crossovers aren’t known for their agility or speed. Common wisdom tells us that in exchange for all that cargo capacity and passenger room we have to sacrifice some driving enjoyment in the bargain, we must be at peace with body lean, we must admit that all that size comes at the price of speed. But all is not lost. In fact, there are a few SUV and crossovers that are not just capable vehicles but are actually fun to drive. Here’s our list of the best driving SUVs of 2021.
The Mazda CX-5 accrues superlatives like your windshield accrues mosquitoes on a midsummer evening’s drive through northern Minnesota. It has the nicest interior, the sharpest looks, the peppiest engine, and the nimblest handling. The CX-5 takes all that you detest in the SUV and tosses it out the window. The turbocharged four-cylinder puts up 250 horsepower (with premium gas, 227hp with regular) which is enough to motivate the CX-5 from the stoplight with aplomb and make highway passing a joy. That it does so without a hint of lag is all the most impressive, the mostest of crossovers.
Honda had been on a bit of a roll lately, with the Accord and Civic winning accolades for their balance between practicality and performance. Acura, Honda’s luxury arm, is no less capable of threading that needles, exhibit A, the RDX. It’s easy to see why the RDX is Acura’s most popular model. The typical compromises on comfort and driving excitement aren’t necessary; the RDX proves some SUVs can indeed be the all-around vehicle they claim to be. It’s turbo-4 puts up good numbers with 272 horsepower, but it’s the handling that puts the RDX on our list. While the FWD version is already sharp in the corners, it’s the AWD equipped RDX that really lets its hair down. Where many crossovers lean so badly they make you turn green, the RDX squats down and shifts it’s weight like a running back, composed and powerful.
The Mini Cooper Countryman is another best driving SUV with chops to spare. The largest Mini is still small enough to emulate the agility of its punier stablemates. For the better output you’ll want to look for the S or the JCW (John Cooper Works) with their turbo four cylinders producing 189 and 301 horsepower respectively. There’s also a plug-in hybrid option with 221 horsepower and solid low-end torque. Which ever of the above you choose, the Countryman’s low center of gravity amplifies its sporty handling. That it comes with a stylish and quirky interior is what makes the Countryman a distinctive choice.
While we like the exhaust notes of other entries on our list, like the RS Q8 and the Macan, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio amplifies its prodigious power and scalpel sharp handling with a soundtrack that elevates the Italian SUV to something truly special. The Ferrari-derived 2.9L twin-turbo V6 put out 505 horsepower and provides the kinds of snaps, crackles, and pops to satisfy the little kid racecar driver in all of us (and seriously annoy your neighbors). The Stelvio rounds out the package with characterful colors, stunning exterior lines, and loads of optional carbon fiber.
Two words: instant torque. Tesla doesn’t tune their cars for BMW or Porsche-like handling, but what they do prioritize, however, is straight line acceleration. And thanks to the immediacy of electric motors, Tesla’s Model X rockets from 0-60 like no other “people movers” out there. The initial “non-performance” trim level of Long Range boast numbers than often outsize the top ranges of most combustion engine SUVs. The Long Range Model X offers 670 horsepower from it’s three electric motors and a 0-60 time of 3.8 seconds. But that’s kid stuff compared to the Plaid trim’s 1,070 horsepower and a 0-60 time of 2.5 seconds. That’s Porsche 911 speed in a vehicle weighing an extra ton. Oh, and the Models X has gullwing rear doors and you can program the horn to sound like flatulence.
The Stelvio isn’t the only FCA/Stellantis product that brings the party. The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk would be laughable is it wasn’t so darn scary. That’s because it stuffs a supercharged Hemi V8 Hellcat into the engine bay of an otherwise nondescript SUV and dares you to pull its 707-horsepower trigger. And for those of you who find the Trackhawk too tame (seriously, who are these folks?!), FCA/Stellantis decided to go full hypno-toad crazy with the Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat and it’s 710 horsepower. And Tesla says they’re Ludacris.
Porsche provided the proof of concept for the idea of a “sporty SUV” with Cayenne in the way, way back of 2003. The Porsche Cayenne’s smaller offspring, the Macan, makes up for a loss of cargo space by offering a stiffer, sportier suspension out of the box, even sharper steering, a lower center of gravity, and lighter weigh by some 500lbs. The base Macan starts with 248 horsepower from a turbo V6, but things really get cooking once the GTS and Turbo enter the mix, with a twin-turbo V6 making 375 horsepower and a full 434 horsepower, respectively. The latter, the Macan Turbo, is truly a marvel. The sports sedan’s days may be numbered, but with Macan around, you’ll hardly miss them.
Though the Audi RS Q8 is a bit behind its big bro the Lamborghini Urus when it comes to 0-60 and ¼ mile times, it holds the Nürburgring record for the fastest SUV. Why compare it with the gaudy Urus? Because the VW group siblings share the same twin-turbo 4.0L V8. The RS Q8 is slightly powered down from the 642 horsepower of the Urus at 590 horsepower. What you lose in raw horsepower you make up for in aesthetic restraint. The RS Q8 doesn’t knock you over the head visually, it leaves that for when you punch the throttle.
BMW offers plenty of sporty SUVs, but perhaps the most satisfying is the X5 M Competition. The X5 M features a twin-turbo 4.4L V8 putting out a thundering 617 horsepower and warping to 60 mph in just 3.6 seconds. Sports car-like cornering comes thanks to adaptive dampers and anti-roll bars along with rear-biased AWD. The X5 M is so fun to drive it almost makes you forget that you’re in an SUV and not a proper sports car. Mission accomplished BMW.
Like the X5, the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S is representative of an entire cadre of excellently driving SUVs from the German auto maker. Mercedes’s AMG wing has a deserved reputation for taking already great cars and SUVs and making them extraordinary. The GLC’s AMG tuned version, the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63 S, is perhaps the best balance of power and handling among Mercedes’ prodigious SUV lineup. The S version of the GLC 63 gets a bi-turbo 4.0L V8 good for 503 horsepower and a 0-60 sprint of 3.6 seconds. The ride is on the stiff side, but that tight suspension tuning coupled with the 4Matic+ all-wheel drive makes for crisp cornering, exceptional handling, and a spot on this list of best driving SUVs.