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What makes a good SUV?
What makes a good SUV?

Start exploring the vast range of SUVs available to you and you’ll soon discover that it pays to put in a few hours of focused research about what would make an SUV ‘good’ for you and your family.

There are lots of options out there, and what’s well-suited to one driver and their typical passengers might not prove at all practical for the everyday needs of another.

So your first consideration should be how your potential SUV purchase will fit into your lifestyle.

For most of us, buying a car is one of the biggest financial decisions we’ll make – and by their nature, SUVs tend to weigh in at the more expensive end of the scale. So it shouldn’t just look good when it sits on your driveway. You need to make sure you’re investing in substance as well as style.

A ‘good’ SUV will be one that offers a winning combination of safety, capability, practicality, performance, versatility and reliability – while also delivering an enjoyable driving experience on every outing. The ‘best’ choice for you will be the one that most closely matches your specific needs.

So, what do you really want from your SUV?

A higher ride height and commanding driving position for better visibility? The ability to shrug off the challenges of tackling uneven ground or maintaining control in wintry driving conditions?

Lots of legroom as well as extra space for all the family luggage and maybe even a pet? Or a true Sports Utility Vehicle that you plan to pack to the roof rails with a full range of active outdoors gear for regular adventure-fuelled weekends away?

More often than not, SUV owners are looking for a combination of all these features and capabilities and more – plenty of practicality for everyday life plus the ability to really ‘get out there’ when you get the chance…

It’s why safety, driveability, space and reliability typically rank highly among most buyers’ needs.

Safety-first is always a sensible starting point

A great first port of call when you first begin to think about buying an SUV is the Euro NCAP website – to check out the safety credentials of the top brands.

Euro NCAP (the European New Car Assessment Programme) is an independent initiative that helps consumers understand and compare the safety performance of new vehicles. You can use the various filters on the website to quickly and easily compare the safety rating results of several models of SUV across a number of different test categories.

At the very least, you should expect the maximum 5-star safety rating. But also look for outstanding scores in all four assessment areas: Adult Occupant, Child Occupant, Vulnerable Road Users and Safety Assist.

Are comprehensive safety features and advanced driver assist technologies fitted as standard (as they are across the Subaru range), or only available as ‘safety pack’ optional extras?

If it’s the latter, be aware that making the smart move to invest in this level of essential protection for you and your passengers will be an additional cost that will inevitably push the on-the-road (OTR) price of your SUV up.

So far, so good. If the SUVs you’re interested in are some of the safest cars tested by Euro NCAP, that’s quite an achievement. But don’t stop there. Also check for any industry awards to back up the credentials of vehicles or manufacturers you’re looking at. The safety of you and your family is paramount.

On that note, be aware that the styling of many SUVs can compromise visibility – so make sure you have a good look around when you’re appraising a vehicle or taking it for a test drive.

If visibility isn’t great from the driving seat, are there additional useful features, such as sensors and cameras, to help with parking and tight manoeuvres? Again, you’ll find that some SUVs come with these systems fitted as standard, while others only offer them as expensive optional extras.

Once you’ve checked the safety ratings and visibility to help ensure optimal protection for you and your passengers when you’re out on the road, you can start to think about the driving experience – and what you need your SUV to deliver in that regard.

Would you prefer impressive or ‘numb’ handling?

Search online for ‘best SUV’ or similar, and the difference in the reported quality of handling for some of the most frequently listed models is sure to raise a few eyebrows.

When you’re in charge of two tonnes of metal and technology that you’ve paid a significant amount of money for, would you really ever feel comfortable with handling that’s described by the trade press as ‘numb’ or ‘anodyne’? Surely you (and your passengers) deserve better than that – and impressive handling is an integral aspect of what makes a good SUV.

When you’re thinking about handling requirements, you’ll once again need to consider the range of driving conditions you’re likely to encounter...

Where do you live and typically travel to? Are you just looking for a safe and solid vehicle suitable for the school run? Do you live in a rural location and know you need to be able to cope with occasional flooding, muddy tracks and crumbling, potholed roads? Or are you looking for weekend getaways to the countryside after putting in the majority of your miles around town or on the motorway?

You’ll also need to decide whether you want a two-wheel (2WD), four-wheel (4WD or 4x4) or all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle.

The best way to get to grips with the differences between these systems is to consider the ease of handling if you tried to drive a vehicle with each type of drivetrain along a rain-slick or icy road:

  • If you try to steer a 2WD SUV along this road, it will act just like a ‘regular’ car and you’ll find the front or rear of the car slipping all over the place – depending whether it’s a front or rear-wheel drive vehicle.
  • Do the same in a 4WD vehicle with no centre differential and equal amounts of power will automatically be sent to all four wheels simultaneously, making them spin at the same speed. This will give you straight line traction – but make it tricky to turn a corner (because the inside wheels have to turn more slowly into the curve in this situation).
  • An AWD vehicle propels all four wheels independently, with more power going to the wheels with grip and less to those that are struggling. This gives you more traction, more confidence and more control – with improved all-round handling and greater grip on slippery surfaces (whether wet, icy, gritty or dusty).

This is a simple scenario, but it clearly demonstrates the essential differences to be aware of.

Consider the driveability and safety advantages of AWD

It makes sense then, that if you’re looking for an SUV (or perhaps a slightly more compact crossover vehicle) that will perform consistently and reliably in all road and weather conditions, you’ll want to take a closer look at the AWD options.

It’s worth bearing in mind that some AWD systems can be switched on and off, either manually or automatically, to suit differing road conditions. Others are always on, always working, always actively ensuring optimal traction. All Subaru SUVs, for example, come with permanent Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive as standard – to further enhance the safety, capability and reliability of vehicles that are renowned for this level of performance.

If you’re planning on taking your SUV off the beaten track a bit (or testing its capabilities completely off-road, for that matter), AWD is an obvious requirement. You’ll experience tangible handling and control benefits if you need to negotiate wet or rutted verges, slippery slopes, or rough mud-covered tracks – whether occasionally or every day. Or the average UK winter driving conditions, of course.

If you’re serious about going off-road, it will be worth investigating if the SUV you have in mind has any other features or equipment that’s designed to aid your off-road driving experience. Ground clearance is an obvious consideration (whether you’re tackling small floods or 30-degree slopes), while driving aids such as Subaru’s X-MODE with Hill Descent Control can take responsibility for key vehicle functions when you’re traversing tricky terrain, so you only have to focus on steering.

Don’t forget more practical points too

After you’ve worked through considerations around safety, driveability and capability, you’ll also need to think about the practicality of the SUVs you’re looking at. Are some better suited than others to the way you live your life and what you use your car for?

Space is the obvious consideration for many of us. How many passengers are you likely to be driving around on a regular basis? And how long are their legs? (Do they have two or four legs?) Do they come with child seats, pushchairs, electronic equipment and all sorts of other paraphernalia that somehow seems to eat up space? Or do you just need to secure a couple of travel mugs and a shared weekend bag?

Perhaps it’s just you and your smartphone, plus a whole load of awkwardly shaped outdoor gear that means you still need to reach for the roof box...

Whatever life offers you, make sure you can fit it all in! Take time to consider the space, seating and cargo options you need. Is it easy to configure the SUV you’ve set your sights on to maximise luggage space? Are there accessories readily available to increase capacity should you need it? Have you got a safe way to secure your furry friend in the back seat or boot, and still squeeze in everything else – in a safe and comfortable way for everyone?

Will you need to use your SUV to tow anything? Whether it’s for work or pleasure, a load of hay, a sizeable caravan or a small trailer on a trip to the tip, you’ll need a vehicle that has a capacity that suits your specific requirements.

What are your expectations when it comes to fuel efficiency and economy? The extra weight of an SUV, including a more powerful engine, is invariably going to have a knock-on effect in this area. And if you’re purchasing a vehicle with AWD, you should expect fuel consumption and emissions to be higher than 2WD variants – the trade-off is improved safety and capability, with far greater driver confidence and control in all weather and road conditions. How about considering a hybrid option? There are plenty out there these days. You just need to decide between plug-in or self-charging models.

Finally, there’s the age-old question of reliability. When you’re spending so much money, you want to get a good return – by choosing a robust, widely trusted SUV that will effectively become a valued and much-loved member of the family, sharing great experiences with you; a vehicle that remains active and alert, at your side mile after mile, for years to come.

Real-life experiences of owners and the reviews they submit about the SUVs they drive is the best way to get a feel for the long-term reliability of a brand or specific model. Independent reviews (like those powered by Reevoo on the Subaru website) are always the most reliable.

Happy searching for your new SUV!

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