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The Insider: RIP Performance SUVs

By The Insider, 11 Nov 2017 Features

The Insider RIP Performance SUVs

While demand for performance SUVs looks to soar for the foreseeable future, tightening emissions as power output increases may reign in the perfect storm for this red-hot sector

FEW car engineers will have been drawn to the profession by the prospect of creating super-fast SUVs.

The idea of a performance off-roader was as oxymoronic as military intelligence.

When the Porsche Cayenne Turbo was introduced, it was a freakish outlier, the sole occupant of its segment and kept warm only by the heat of the critical flaming it was subjected to.

Now it looks demure and modest next to cars like the Bentley Bentayga and forthcoming Lamborghini Urus.


You can’t argue with the numbers. Laughter didn’t stop the Cayenne Turbo from selling in sufficient volumes to have rival automotive execs asking why they didn’t have something similar.

But the number of ballistic off-roaders coming over the next few years is also proof of the industry’s need to make hay quickly. Because the sun isn’t going to be shining on this part of the market for very long.

Indeed, the high-performance SUV could be effectively extinct within just a few years, potentially the first victim of increasingly stringent economy standards being introduced around the world.


The sheer improbability of the physics involved in giving supercar straightline performance to a two-tonne outhouse means the need for huge power and equally massive emissions.

That’s not going to be possible in most major markets for much longer. The dilemma is neatly summed up by Albert Biermann, a man who knows more about making mega-SUVs than almost anyone else.

His former role was head of engineering for BMW’s M Division, the twin-turbocharged X5M and X6M developed under his watch. Having moved to head up performance engineering for Hyundai, you’d expect something similar to be on the model play for the upmarket Genesis brand that falls into his orbit. But it’s not; categorically so.


“If you make such a car to be competitive then you probably need 500 horsepower or even 600hp (375-450kW),” Biermann said at a recent event in Korea. “How long can you sell such a car with emissions like that? What market would such a car have in seven years’ time in Europe or China? Even the US is moving on emissions. It is very hard to make a case for a car like that.”

Luxury SUVs aren’t going to die, of course; demand is projected to stay high for the foreseeable future. But these ridiculously fast performance versions look set to catch a perfect storm.

All are already fighting serious flab issues – the W12-powered Bentayga weighs more than two Mazda CX-3s – and the realistic way to meet emissions targets will be by adding the extra mass, and indeed cost, of hybrid assistance. That’s likely to make chasing benchmarks as pointless as the Nurburgring SUV record (see below).


A certain type of buyer might complain when forced to migrate into something cleaner, maybe even a pure EV like Aston Martin’s forthcoming DBX crossover, but they can always console themselves with another speedboat or helicopter.

So less choice and more big brother, yet it’s hard not to see this as being ultimately a good thing, an evolution-speeding meteorite that will save the car industry from this blind alley it seems to have been chasing.

Let engineers concentrate on making the sort of cars that should go faster, go faster.


Unringing the bell

There’s no better illustration of the determination of SUV makers to engage in pointless wang-waving than the recent attempts to claim the fastest time around the Nordschliefe.

Things kicked off last year when Land Rover sent out the Range Rover SVR and recorded what would be a benchmark-setting time of 8:14, as fast as a Porsche 911 GT3.

Yet between Land Rover setting the time and publicising it, Porsche swept in to steal its thunder, the Cayenne Turbo S posting a 7:58. It’s one record we hope stands forever.