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Best performance SUVs: Utility meets speed

Somewhere along the road, SUVs became the most boring cars in existence. In the 1990s, their off-road ability and vaguely militaristic style made them infinitely cooler than the lookalike sedans of the era.

Now, the tables have turned. Tough SUVs have been replaced amorphous crossovers with another inch of ground clearance, while regular cars have become sleek and stylish. With the near-extinction of minivans, SUVs have become the school bus of choice for soccer moms everywhere.

But the SUV still has one more trick up its sleeve: performance. Over the past decade, carmakers have been cramming big engines into their utility vehicles, and hunkering them down on lowered – or adjustable – suspensions. These high-performance SUVs may not be as well-suited for driving off-road as a more pure strain of the species, but they make driving on most any road a blast.

Here are some of our favorite high-powered battle wagons:

BMW X6 M action shotBMW X6 M: $92,000

BMW’s M performance division once swore it would never follow rival Mercedes-Benz AMG in building a performance SUV. Looking at the X6 M, it’s hard to blame them for changing their minds.

The X6 M boasts a 4.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V8, similar to the one used in the M5. It produces 555 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque, routed through a six-speed automatic transmission and performance-tuned all-wheel drive system.

That’s enough to get this 5,324 pound SUV-sport coupe hybrid to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, and to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. That kind of performance almost makes the X6’s unusual styling (BMW calls it a “Sports Activity Coupe”) make sense. At least now it can go as fast as it looks.

All of that is yours for $92,200. If you don’t like the X6’s unique looks, or want your SUV to be utilitarian, BMW also offers the X5 M, with the same chassis and engine, but in a conventional wagon body style.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT front three quarter redJeep Grand Cherokee SRT: $64,190

This one is sacrilegious no matter how you look at it: many car enthusiasts aren’t too enthused about a Jeep performance vehicle, while Jeep enthusiasts don’t like a Jeep that can’t go off-road.

Badge baggage aside, the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is quite a machine, coming close to the prestige European brands in performance, while undercutting them in price.

The heart of the 2014 SRT is a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 shared with the Chrysler 300 SRT8, Dodge Charger SRT8, and Dodge Challenger SRT8. It delivers 470 hp and 465 lb-ft, channeled through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Jeep also tuned its Selec-Track vehicle dynamics control system for the street, and even added launch control for showing off from stoplights.

The result is a full-size Jeep that can accelerate to 60 mph in around 4.8 seconds and reach an estimated top speed of 160 mph. Befitting its working class origins, the Grand Cherokee SRT is available for a (relatively) cheap $64,190, making it just about the least expensive super-SUV of them all.

Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG front three quarterMercedes-Benz ML63 AMG: $103,800

Mercedes’ AMG performance division launched its first hot rod M-Class, the ML55 AMG, in 1999, and has been steadily improving it since.

The current ML63 AMG has a 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V8 with 518 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, or 550 hp and 560 lb-ft with the optional AMG Performance Package. AMG’s seven-speed Speedshift automatic handles gear changing duties, while all-wheel drive puts the power to the ground.

That V8 turns the Pope’s car into a monster. Performance Package-equipped ML63s will claw their way to 60 mph in around 4.2 seconds, and reach an electronically limited top speed of 174 mph. Base models hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, and are limited to just 155 mph.

The performance SUV wearing the three-pointed star starts at $97,250; the AMG Performance Package adds $6,550 to the total. If you want more seats in your hot rod Mercedes, consider the GL63 AMG, which comes with the same engine along with seating for seven.

2014 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S front three quarter parkedPorsche Cayenne Turbo S: $146,000

A Porsche SUV was a shoo-in for this list, but which one? As with the seminal 911, there are many Cayenne variants, even diesel and hybrid versions. However, the point of a performance SUV is speed, so why not go with the fastest one?

That would be the Cayenne Turbo S. Under the hood is a 4.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8, producing 550 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. Coupled to an eight-speed Tiptronic S automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, the Turbo S does a pretty good imitation of a 911, accelerating to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds and on to a top speed of 175.

In the corners, no one will mistake this 4,883-pound SUV for a sports car, although Porsche Traction Management, Porsche Active Suspension Management, and Porsche Stability Management electronic driver aids put up a spirited fight against the laws of physics.

The Turbo S tops the Cayenne range in price as well, starting at $146,000. If you can swing that, it might be the perfect vehicle for towing a vintage 356 to the track.

2014 Land Rover Range Rover Sport motion on trackLand Rover Range Rover Sport: $80,000

In most people’s minds, Land Rover is more closely associated with preserving the British Empire than building performance cars. The original Range Rover Sport changed that, and Land Rover is rolling out an all-new model for 2014.

Although the badge says “Range Rover,” the Sport is not a performance version of an existing vehicle. Like the Cayenne, it’s a bespoke model. For 2014, it’s being offered with two engines: a 3.0-liter V6 and a 5.0-liter V8, both supercharged.

If you really want your Range Rover Sport to be sporty, go for the V8. It generates 510 hp and 461 lb-ft, and comes with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Land Rover also equipped the Sport with a vehicle dynamics control system and and all-wheel drive system with an electronic center differential and two-speed transfer case.

That means that not only can the V8 Range Rover Sport sprint to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds and reach a top speed of 155 mph, it can also perform well off-road. This is a Land Rover, after all.

All of that capability will sell for $79,995 (the V6 Sport starts at $63,495) when the Range Rover Sport lands in dealerships later this year.

Got a favorite heavy-hitting SUV? Let us know about it in comments!

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