SUVs certainly won’t win any fuel efficiency contests even with the latest hybrid technology, but they’re still hard to beat in terms of towing capacity and off-road prowess. And with gas prices lower than they’ve been in recent memory, their market share is increasing after years of slow but steady erosion. As of writing, it’s reasonably safe to take the SUV off the list of endangered species.
With wagons all but out of the picture, crossovers are the most common alternatives to traditional SUVs regardless of which segment you’re browsing. They’re generally better to drive and a lot more efficient but they’re not as capable, especially for buyers who are planning to go off the beaten path and/or tow something excruciatingly heavy on a regular basis.
If you think a SUV is right for your family, read on to learn about the best ones on the market today. We’ve singled-out models that provide space, off-road capacity, and grunt in spades.
Why should you buy this: It’s the original go-anywhere off-roader
Who’s it for: Those who want to explore the great outdoors
How much will it cost: $38,000
Why we picked the Jeep Wrangler:
The Jeep Wrangler traces its roots back to the original Willys that was developed to fight during World War II. It’s evolved considerably over the past few years and generations, but its spirit is still the same. That means it’s simple, relatively affordable, and virtually unbeatable off-road.
The Wrangler lineup includes the standard two-door model, and a more spacious four-door version called Unlimited. All variants leave the factory with either a soft or a hard top, making the Wrangler one of the most affordable convertibles on the market. As a bonus, buyers looking to do some serious off-roading can customize the Wrangler by buying parts directly from Jeep or from a seemingly endless list of aftermarket suppliers.
Know that the Wrangler lacks a touch of refinement around town, and it’s not the most tech-savvy model in its segment. Still, unless comfort is an absolute priority the Wrangler is your best choice in the SUV segment.
The best luxury SUV
Why should you buy this: It’s a Bentley that can hit the trail
Who’s it for: The world’s most discerning off-roaders
How much will it cost: $232,000
Why we picked the Bentley Bentayga:
The Bentley Bentayga is one of the fastest, most expensive, and most powerful SUVs on the market. It stands out with an exquisitely-crafted interior, elegant Bentley styling, and a twin-turbocharged 6.0-liter W12 engine that pumps out 600 horsepower and an impressive 663 pound-feet of torque.
The Bentayga is manufactured using materials like aluminum in order to keep weight in check. The ultra-light body and the 600-horsepower 12 allow it to hit 60 mph from a stop in four seconds flat, which is about as fast as a Porsche 911. If that’s not speedy enough, we hear that a more powerful model is right around the corner.
Those who have cash to spare can personalize nearly every aspect of the Bentayga. It’s available with four, five, or seven seats, and the list of options includes a Breitling clock on the dashboard, picnic baskets with room for two bottles of champagne, and even a fly-fishing kit.
The best hybrid SUV
Why should you buy this: It can drive on electricity alone, yet range anxiety is non-existent.
Who’s it for: Those who want to keep their gas budget in check.
How much will it cost: $62,100
Why we picked the BMW X5 xDrive40e:
The BMW X5 xDrive40e is proof that fuel economy and off-road capacity aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s not as capable as a Wrangler, but the X5 is can hold its own once the going gets tough thanks in part to a generous amount of ground clearance and all-wheel drive.
The xDrive40e looks just like a standard X5 when viewed from the outside. The story is different under the skin, where it’s equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 240 horsepower and a 111-horsepower electric motor. The motor can drive the X5 on its own for relatively short distances.
As you’d expect from a Bimmer, the X5 xDrive40e is dynamic to drive and luxurious inside. There’s no shortage of tech, either; the list of standard features includes a 10.2-inch touch screen, navigation, adaptive cruise control, a power tailgate, and an air suspension on the rear axle.
The best family SUV
Why should you buy this: It’s at home climbing a mountain or taking kids to soccer
Who’s it for: Those with passengers and gear to take off-road
How much will it cost: $34,010
Why we picked the Toyota 4Runner:
The 4Runner is old-fashioned in the best way possible. While many of its rivals have adopted unibody construction, it retains a truck-derived ladder frame that gives it the ability to climb over impressive obstacles. The trade-off is that it’s not quite as refined as a car-based crossover on the pavement.
The cabin is on par with softer rivals, however. The ‘Runner boasts a modern infotainment system, supportive seats, and materials that can almost be considered premium. The 4Runner isn’t the cheapest family hauler, but you get what you pay for.
We suggest going for the brawny TRD Pro model, which rolls off the assembly line ready to get muddy. It benefits from bigger tires wrapped around 17-inch wheels, a beefed-up suspension on both axles, and a TRD-specific look that pays tribute to classic Toyota off-roaders.
The best performance SUV
Why should you buy this: It’s a muscle car on stilts
Who’s it for: Buyers who want a track-capable SUV
How much will it cost: $66,795
Why we picked the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT:
The automotive industry is gradually shifting towards forced induction, but Jeep’s Grand Cherokee SRT carries on with a naturally-aspirated 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine. It delivers 475 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque, numbers that are on par with what you’d expect from a muscle car like the Dodge Challenger. There’s no turbo lag so the throttle response is brutal and instantaneous.
Brembo brakes all around bring the 5,000-pound behemoth to a stop with no fuss, and a suspension that’s stiffer than stock makes the Grand Cherokee SRT handle better than you’d expect. Jeep has been moving upmarket in recent years, and the SRT reflects that with features such as leather upholstery, eight-way power-adjustable bucket seats, and Jeep parent company Chrysler’s excellent Uconnect infotainment system.
Premium SUVs are in hot demand right now, so there are plenty of options for buyers who want sports car-like performance and a high seating position. However, the Grand Cherokee SRT stands out because it’s significantly less expensive than many of its competitors.
How we test
The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive scrutinizing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.
Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks when applicable.
SUV terms you should know
- Approach angle: The degree of slope a vehicle can drive up without scraping the bottom of the front bumper.
- Departure angle: The degree of slope a vehicle can drive down without scraping the bottom of the rear bumper.
- Hill descent control: An electronic driving aid that automatically keeps a vehicle at a crawl when going down a hill. Like cruise control, hill descent control needs to be manually engaged.
- Limited-slip differential: A type of differential that detects when a wheel is spinning and automatically transfers the engine’s torque to the opposite wheel.
- Part-time four-wheel drive: A four-wheel drive system that needs to be manually engaged. Part-time four-wheel drive systems are often only usable on slippery terrain or in inclement weather.
- Transfer case: Mounted behind the transmission, the transfer case is a component that splits the engine’s torque between the front and the rear axles. It usually offers high and low range settings.