Motoring correspondent Mark Gallivan looks at high-end sports utility vehicles (SUVs) that will set the trend for 2020 and beyond.

The number of SUVs that clog up our streets is either a natural evolution of the species or a treacherous trend that is ebbing away at the true delight of driving cars. It’s not even a trend.

The new sales numbers hold real substance – of the 117,109 new cars sold in Ireland during 2019 the Jeep/SUV segment accounted for 46,090 units (39.36 per cent).

This burgeoning movement has seemingly forgotten the downsides of buying an SUV – they’re a lot heavier, less nice to drive than a comparable estate car, never as refined, often not that more practical and flatlines any desire to go for that sneaky spin. In other words your fun motoring days are well and truly over.

Not so fast: here are three exciting SUVs that offer a sufficient cannonade of power and to impress the most ardent SUV critic. There’s the oh-you-mean-I-can-own-a-Maserati, Maserati Levante. The surprisingly spicy Cupra Ateca. The Audi SQ5 that oozes understatement concealing an inner wallop that lurks under the bonnet.

Maserati Levante from £58,370 (UK price before Irish taxes)

Maserati Levante SUV in an Italian courtyard.

A quick question for you. What’s the coolest (not the best, mind) SUV you can buy? No it’s not a BMW – stop that. If you want the other parents to give you absolute daggers at football practice try turning up in a new Maserati Levante. Even the name Maserati with the veneer of unobtainable luxury and Ferrari assembled engines helps the Levante up the game of one upmanship to a different level. Only officially available from Charles Hurst Maserati in Belfast there are some surprising deals to be had new or used.

“The interior feels exclusive with a delicious veneer of Italian style throughout the cabin”

The Levante 3.0 litre diesel V6 starts from £58,370 (before VRT and taxes). But I spotted a 2017 Levante 3.0 litre Diesel on sale from £41,604 (again before Irish taxes). Looking like a tall Ghibli a Levante in the right colour still looks as sharp as it did when launched four years ago. Tweaked since then, it’s still based on the Ghibli and Quattroporte platform and aside from new bumpers and trim the only other significant update is the engines.

Because the average Levante buyer believes it should be priced far higher it’s possible to go hell for leather into the price range. You don’t need to do that. There are two reasons. The entry-level 3.0-litre V6 diesel with 275bhp offers a claimed 7.2 l/100km combined (39.2 mpg) and is one of the better sounding diesels you can buy. Go for the petrol 3.0 litre V6 with 350bhp and you’ll get from 0-100 km/h in 6.0 seconds dead. It doesn’t sound that fast but the vocal Maserati V6 engine certainly does. In a world of hissing electric cars the Levant’s V6 wail is a rare thing and stirs the hairs on the back of your neck. Right at the top of the Levante range sits is the sensational Levante GTS 3.8 litre V8 with 530bhp and for my money the best value to sound V8 engine on sale today. The £104,900 (before VRT and taxes) is vastly expensive but if you bought one I’d not only understand I’d applaud you.

Using an eight-speed ZF gearbox the Levante’s gearchanges is as sharp as rivals. There’s the action of the solid metal gearshifters behind the steering wheel that adds a driving delight. Using the Levante properly the air suspension rises to take on the roughest of terrains and copes well feeling as refined as the German SUV best in the mucky stuff. If anything surprised me about the Levante it was its dual character – a sports SUV one minute and a fully capable off-road machine the other.

The Levante’s interior is starting to age but the lack of a vast display screen and the plethora of buttons still wins many favours with me. Simple reason: Tesla-like screens are hateful things and distract the driver. They are a genuine safety issue and the idea should be weeded out. The interior feels exclusive with a delicious veneer of Italian style throughout the cabin – it’s very nice in here.

Could the Maserati Levante make a sensible new car purchase? If you’re willing to overlook the price and single official dealer on the island then, yes. As for a used Levante Petrol S then absolutely go right ahead. No SUV is cooler or looks like a better interpretation of the saloon it’s based on. Even the 3.0 litre diesel V6 gets my vote. Surely at the prices offered you deserve to take a Maserati plunge once in your life.

You’ll like: A Maserati for Land Rover money. Sensational engines. Very exciting to drive (for an SUV). Gorgeous looks. Safety equipment up with rivals.

You’ll grumble: Limited dealers. Not as practical as rivals.

Audi SQ5 from €88,820

Grey Audi SQ5 parked by the sea.

Let’s talk about an Andrew or an Amanda. You probably know people like them quite well. They shop at Avoca and wouldn’t be found dead in Aldi amongst the grey-hooded brigade. A life of marble floors and flush-fitting entertainment awaits them at home.

“The engine doesn’t so much accelerate as detonates right in front of you”

To them the €51,950 Audi Q5 2.0TDI in say a nice silver is their runabout of choice. Fact: the Q5 SUV is one of Audi’s best and gives the BMW X3 and the Volvo XC60 a bloody nose by never throwing up irritations. For Amanda or Andrew it cuts just about the right dash wherever they go. An SUV investment to ensure they always have enough folding to turn left when travelling long haul. So now then, what on earth was Audi thinking by unleashing this thing – the €88,820 SQ5? Haven’t they just gone and ruined the recipe? And they must have been dreaming if they believed anyone was seriously going to stump up the €101,622 needed for my optioned test car when the exceptional BMW X5 starts from €87,390 and has the option of seven seats.

I’ve recently spent a full week in the SQ5 and the impression it made was profound: it will take a very polished rival to unseat the SQ5 as my most desirable performance SUV when the Irish Car of the Awards creep up at the end of the year. The SQ5 steals the show with impeccable credentials of the Q5 and thunders with a thunderous engine into a different league.

The performance stats don’t lie: the new second-generation 3.0 litre diesel V6 produces 347bhp and 700Nm with a new electric compressor off a 48-volt mild hybrid that recoups lost energy mass. So the SQ5 is all about the power but how does such a big engine sit in a pleasant mid-sized SUV? Simply click the adaptive settings into Dynamic mode and the demure SQ5’s exhaust tone drops several octaves and performs a German karaoke of a Maserati V6 (oddly found in the petrol V6 Levante above) and emits enough noise to make pedestrians do a double-take wondering why that grey Audi Q5 diesel sounds so loud and raw. Granted, it’s a sound generated noise but you’re driving a diesel after all. Flex the accelerator (top tip: make sure you’re on a private road to do this) and hang on as this is like no Q5 out there.

The engine doesn’t so much accelerate as detonates right in front of you. Faced off against the Porsche Macan the SQ5 composes itself well and while the Macan ultimately has better steering feel the Audi still does well here. High speed stability and the brakes earn five stars making the SQ5 a particularly easy performance SUV to hustle with assurance. Switching back to comfort mode the ride settles nicely back down. You could drive a clueless passenger carefully in Comfort mode all day and they would swear they’re sitting in an everyday Audi Q5. That’s a neat trick by Audi. Assuming you’re still interested in practicality the rear seats offer 40/20/40 split with sliding and reclining rear seats.

If there is a downside to this closet thug it’s the diesel economy. I spent one day in city traffic and the short term memory indicated 16.4 l/100km (17.3mpg) while but that was the worst figure recorded. It is best that you consider the SQ5 as a cut-price Porsche Macan than an expensive Audi Q5. To come so close to the high levels of overall performance offered by the Porsche is much to Audi’s credit. For any Amanda or Andrew the SQ5 offers a Jekyll and Hyde SUV – one moment it’s an everyday SUV the next a ferocious thing with 700Nm ready to put manners on you. Who says you can’t have fun in a SUV?

You’ll like: All the Audi Q5 strengths. Nips at Porsche Macan’s brilliance. Towering diesel V6 engine. Easy to live with.

You’ll grumble: It’s expensive. No seven seat-option. Fuel economy.

Cupra Ateca from €51,560

Rear view of Cupra Ateca driving on a road.

Surely I mean the SEAT Ateca? Well, yes and no. SEAT does make an Ateca and like most SEAT cars they’re the Spanish entertainer in the Volkswagen Group’s mainstream collection. As rare as hen’s teeth on Irish road the Cupra is a standalone brand and in Ateca guise it was a genuine surprise when I tested it over a year ago.

“The SEAT Ateca is a fun crossover and it does what we all believed the Ateca was crying out for. A hot engine and drivetrain poached from a premier league Golf with bolted onto a capable chassis”

Apart for branded alloys and a smattering of badges you’ll never guess it’s the performance Ateca you’re looking at. If you’re struggling to place it then the Audi SQ2 would be a direct rival. But underneath the Cupra Ateca is for the underpinned by the Volkswagen Golf R. Which raises the immediate question – why not buy the Golf R? That’s because people still love their crossover SUVs and of them all the Cupra Ateca is one of my favourites.

The 2.0 TSI petrol engine offers 300hp using a DSG gearbox and permanent four-wheel-drive emitting CO2 168 g/km. So far so Golf R. It corners well too and with Cupra Mode not clicked it is refined and smooth. But this is still a performance SUV and that’s why the Cupra Ateca should be driven as intended with as much commitment as the law and speed limits allow.

Other journalists railed at the Cupra Ateca’s lack of distinctiveness and bland SEAT Ateca derived interior. They also said it could have sounded a good bit louder. Perhaps. But the SEAT Ateca is a fun crossover and it does what we all believed the Ateca was crying out for. A hot engine and drivetrain poached from a premier league Golf with bolted onto a capable chassis. If the budget and family says no to a Maserati Levante or Audi SQ5 then the Cupra Ateca is a good performance alternative.

You’ll like: A budget thriller. Golf R performance, engine and drivetrain. Excellent performance to price ratio. The SEAT Ateca positives turned up to 10.

You’ll grumble: Anonymous looks and image. Interior from the Ateca.

Written by Mark Gallivan

Published: 11 March, 2020

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