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SUVs sell like hot cakes. Only these hot cakes are immensely practical, offering a high-up driving position and excellent views of the road ahead, plus you can carry a whole family and their stuff, all with solid fuel economy. To fill the need, essentially every car manufacturer builds an SUV model. That means things can get a little confusing, with so many choices. This guide will help you pick an SUV that meets your requirements.
What's in this guide?
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What is an SUV?
The term SUV is an abbreviation of sport utility vehicle. You can think of an SUV as a mix between a wagon car and an off-road vehicle. The resulting vehicle is tall like an off-roader, often having a 4x4 transmission option, but can also carry cargo like a wagon.
Some SUVs are based on a ute chassis, like the Toyota LandCruiser 200. Others are built using a more car-like construction method, known as a unibody.
Unibody SUVs generally will feel more car-like to drive, thanks to independent suspension. They may also sacrifice some off-roading abilities due to the inherent characteristics of the design. Traditional SUVs, where the body rides on top of a separate chassis, are ideally suited to towing thanks to the robust design and are easily modified to add accessories like bull bars, underbody protection and chunky all-terrain tyres. But these are only generalisations.
Benefits and drawbacks
To weigh up whether you'd like to purchase an SUV, you need to think about the pros and cons.
|Size. SUVs are large vehicles with seats for at least 5 adults and/or lots of luggage.||Cost. Typically, comparable SUVs cost more than smaller cars.|
|Commanding driving position. Sitting higher can help you see over the top of normal cars in traffic, improving your vision of the road ahead.||Physical size. The extra tall roofline of an SUV can become an issue in multistorey car parks with height restrictions.|
|Potentially safer. All new cars are tested by ANCAP and a 5-star rating is the top score. With an SUV riding higher, the strongest part of the vehicle is often above that of a normal car.||Ride and handling. Often, especially on more off-road-oriented models with traditional construction, the ride will be quite spongy and the body can lean into corners. Because SUVs weigh a lot too, they can be quite cumbersome to manoeuvre. However, newer models are getting more refined to drive and premium-end models will feel almost like a modern car.|
|Towing capacity. SUVs weigh more than smaller cars and can safely pull a heavier trailer or caravan.||Less environmentally friendly. SUVs routinely output more CO2 emissions per km than vehicles with smaller engines.|
|Versatile. You can take your 4x4 SUV into the outback at the weekend and then drive it to work in the city during the week.||Increased maintenance costs. Because SUVs are more technically complex, with larger engines, they require increased servicing, ordinarily at a higher cost. Big chunky tyres or wide profile performance tyres can cost more to buy too.|
|Off-road. Thanks to taller tyres, 4x4 transmissions, high ground clearance and short overhangs, SUVs can crawl over rocks, power through mud and wade through rivers.||Fuel efficiency. Although fuel usage isn't as high as previous generations, some models still use more fuel than smaller cars.|
|Great family car. With many models having seven seats, you'll have room for your brood, plus a dog and camping equipment.||Third-row seating. With third rows in place, some models have very little space left for luggage.|
|All-weather performance. Having all 4 wheels driven gives excellent grip in even the worst road conditions, like heavy rain or floods.|
|High demand. SUVs are selling really well at the moment and that could translate to lower depreciation. Depreciation is calculated by the RACQ to be roughly around the average depreciation of a medium to large passenger car.|
|Fuel efficiency. Surprisingly, for their size, modern SUVs don't use as much fuel as you'd think. For example, a diesel Toyota Prado uses 7.9l/100km while a petrol Toyota Camry sedan will consume 7.8l/100km.|
|Easier to get into. Because an SUV sits higher than a typical car, you can swing into the seats. People with back problems may prefer this as you don't have to bend over to get in like a normal car.|
|Comfortable interiors. Car buyers are becoming increasingly demanding, so gone are the days of 4x4 SUVs having a spartan interior. You can get all the latest tech and infotainment features that you can get in any class of car.|
What to look for in an SUV?
First, you'll need to determine your intended use for the SUV. Do you want a large family car that'll happily run around the suburbs? In that case, you could skip on a 4x4 gearbox and save money and fuel in the process. Do you want something that really stands out, with a loads of premium luxuries? Then you should look to the higher-end SUVs made by Range Rover, BMW and Audi. If you want something that leans towards the sporty side of the SUV moniker, go for something like the Porsche Cayenne or an Audi Q7/Q8.
Or, perhaps you're in the market for something understated and thoroughly capable off the tarmac, then the Toyota LandCruiser 200 or Nissan Patrol are good models to check out. If you would like to travel over the rough stuff in more comfort, Land Rover's Discovery or the ever-versatile Range Rover are probably your best bet.
Once you've decided upon your intended use, you can narrow down which features or characteristics matter the most to you.
Just because SUVs are big doesn't mean all of them have seven seats. In fact, some models like the Range Rover don't even give you the option. If you do need seven seats, your choice becomes slightly more restricted. Seven-seater SUVs include:
- Toyota LandCruiser Prado
- Land Rover Discovery
- Holden Trailblazer
- Hyundai Santa Fe
- Mitsubishi Pajero Sport
- Range Rover Sport
- Volvo XC90
- Audi A7
- Toyota Kluger
- Toyota LandCruiser 200
- Nissan Patrol
- Kia Sorento
- Mazda CX-9
- BMW X5
- Isuzu MU-X
- Mitsubishi Pajero
- Ford Everest
- Mercedes GLS
If you need to do a lot of towing, you'll want an SUV with a high towing capacity. This figure is given in kilograms. Look for models with a factory-fitted tow ball and you may also be best going for a diesel model (these have more low down torque available across a larger range, allowing you to get the trailer moving with less effort). If you'll do a lot of heavy towing, look for models with a separate chassis, as this is traditionally a more robust construction. The option of low range is great for getting the trailer moving in thick mud or for climbing up a slippery boat launch ramp.
The highest towing capacity for class leaders is 3,500kg braked and 750kg unbraked. You should check the amount you can actually tow by deducting your payload, tow ball download and trailer mass from the gross combination mass specified by the manufacturer.
Look for models with trailer sway control to minimise trailer fishtailing incidents.
If you want to take your SUV on some serious trails and rough tracks then you'll want one that has some serious off-roading chops. Most SUVs, thanks to increased ground clearance, will handle gravel roads and mud, but if you're thinking of doing more serious off-roading you'll need to keep an eye out for:
- All-terrain tyres. All-terrain tyres have a chunky tread optimised to grab into soft ground to improve traction. Heavily off-road-biased tyres will wear quicker on-road and will have worse braking performance and handling on asphalt, so you need to weigh up the pros and cons.
- High ground clearance. The higher the ground clearance your SUV has (the measurement from the lowest point of the vehicle to the ground), the easier your vehicle will clamber over rocks and steep slopes without bottoming out.
- 4x4 transmission. Not all SUVs have 4WD. Some may be front- or rear-wheel drive, which can help to save fuel, but off-road you need as much traction as possible. So go for a model with selectable 4WD and a locking centre diff. There are models that have locking diffs too. A low range transfer case can further improve off-road grip and performance.
- Terrain response. Many car manufacturers now integrate a terrain control system into their vehicles that alters the throttle response, traction control settings and engages hill descent control automatically to help you traverse over uneven terrain. You'll be surprised how effectively this system works, even when your SUV has road tyres. Vehicles with air suspension may automatically raise up to increase the available suspension articulation.
- Wading depth. Rivers can often intersect tracks and you'll want at least 700mm of wading depth. Some vehicles like the Discovery can handle water up to 900mm thanks to the position of the engine air intake and watertight door seals. If you plan on going deeper, look at factory snorkel options.
- Short overhangs. A front bumper that extends a long way from the wheels can ground out when climbing up slopes and the same is true for the rear. Look for an SUV with a high front and rear bumper with minimal overhang.
- Factory accessories. Bull bars allow you to add additional spot lamps for driving in total darkness in the bush and many include a winch mounting point for self-recovery should you get stuck. Underbody protection is always a good upgrade as it will deflect stones and rocks from piercing vulnerable mechanical components.
- Spare wheel mount. If possible, you'll want to carry a spare wheel on a tailgate-mounted carrier. These are accessible if you get stuck and provide an excellent place to store a hi-lift jack.
When buying any new car, smart technologies should be way up there on your shopping list. These advanced driving assists can make driving safer and less stressful. Some come as standalone features, while others are part of larger, optional technology packs.
The best ones to look out for are:
- Adaptive cruise control (ACC). Using radar or lasers, the vehicle can adjust not only its cruising speed but also the distance to the vehicle in front. This is good on long journeys and some systems will even work around town, helping you keep a safe margin to traffic ahead. ACC may be given a manufacturer-specific name and there are already over 20 different titles.
- Lane keep assist (LKA). Lane keep assist will prevent you from drifting across lanes if you get distracted. It may do this by providing an alert, while other systems actually steer the car back into line.
- Autonomous emergency braking (AEB). AEB works like a fail-safe, if you unintentionally overlook a pedestrian or obstacle in your path, the car will alert you, then brake for you. This helps reduce the severity of accidents or can completely avert a smash altogether.
- Blind spot monitoring (BSM). Because SUVs have high body waistlines and often thick door pillars, you may have large blind spots. Blind spot monitoring alerts the driver if a vehicle or object is in this region.
- Parking sensors and rear-view cameras. With such a high vehicle, parking sensors and rear-view cameras (some models have all-around cameras) help you get a clear picture of what's around you. This will make parking a lot easier and protects shorter people while you're reversing. They may also prove useful when navigating confined carparks.
- Other things to keep an eye out for include automatic headlights, rain sensing wipers, traffic sign recognition, driver alertness monitoring and tyre pressure monitoring.
Practical, comfortable interior
Practicality depends on how you'll be using your SUV. If you need to pick up the kids from practice after school, you'll want an easy-to-clean interior (or seat covers). If you regularly need to carry five or more adults, it's a wise idea to make sure there's sufficient leg room, headroom and elbow room for everyone. If you plan on taking your family on long trips, then a rear entertainment system won't go amiss. Some models have wireless headphones built in for passengers, aiding the driver's concentration and putting an end to the age-old question: "are we nearly there yet?".
When looking at an SUV, check around the cabin to see where the designers have included storage bins and bottle holders. Some manufacturers do an excellent job, with ample places to put all your belongings.
A sunroof is a nice addition to any SUV, casting natural light throughout the interior. Don't forget too that rear occupants can get stifled if they don't have their own dedicated AC vents: a few manufacturers omit third-row blowers.
Many modern SUVs have large touchscreen infotainment systems and the option to install premium speakers. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are a big plus for smartphone owners, as you can use mapping applications to navigate and stream your favourite music or podcasts.
Family buyers and those who plan on using their SUV part-time for business will enjoy having as much storage as possible. The measurement of boot capacity is given in litres, typically to a German standard. The figure quoted in the brochures is usually up to the lower edge of the windows. Remember, third-row seats drastically eat into boot space when in use.
Once you've filled the interior, it's nice to have the option to fit a stout set of roof bars or a roof rack. Look out for the weight limit manufacturers place on roof loadings and make sure you're within road regs for your state.
SUVs have come on leaps and bounds in fuel economy terms over the last decade or so, thanks to constantly improving technology and the consumer's demand for fuel efficiency. Look for models that offer the best fuel efficiency possible: this is often in the shape of diesel engines, because they have high power and torque outputs.
There are hybrid-engine SUVs for sale too, further helping to lessen your impact on the environment and making servo visits less costly. Stop/start functionality cuts off your engine when idle, further cutting down on fuel use.
Spend time researching if any models on your SUV shortlist have common points of failure, a bad reputation for breaking down or any recalls issued on them. You can find this info on forums, social media and independent product review sites.
A good sign of reliability is if a car manufacturer is happy to place an unlimited kilometre and five-year warranty (or longer) on the car.
Larger vehicles will tend to use more fuel than smaller ones and with 4x4 transmissions/off-road use, you should expect to pay more for servicing. You may also have to have your SUV serviced more frequently depending on the conditions you drive in.
At the end of the day, buying a car is a big decision and you'll need to balance all of the above with your finances. If you have a budget of over $90k then there are many models to choose from. If you plan on spending under that amount, you may have to start to sacrifice some comforts and features to get an SUV that will meet your needs or look at used vehicles.
It's easy to say let styling be the first reason you pick a car, but ultimately your heart will almost always overrule your head. If you don't like the design of a car, then don't buy it. Though, if it's on offer and it ticks every other box, remember you sit inside your car for a good percentage of the time you own it, so you don't have to look at it.
Estimated on-road costs of a large SUV
Here are the average costs for some of the most popular SUV models, covering 15,000km annually.
|Model||Toyota LandCruiser 200||Nissan Pathfinder||Toyota LandCruiser Prado 4x4|
|Depreciation ($ per week)||$131.30||$107.60||$128.40|
|Loan interest ($ per week)||$60.63||$31.28||$43.06|
|Other costs (rego, insurance, licensing and RACQ membership)||$64.64||$47.07||$49.31|
|Average cost per week||$337.52||$254.33||$283.58|
Statistics provided by RACQ for 2018 models
Why are SUVs so popular?
SUVs are large, practical and versatile cars that can adapt to the needs of a growing family. They can tow heavy trailers, lug around lots of cargo and 4x4 models will help you journey away from the road. People also feel safer in them, thanks to the larger interiors, higher seating position and chunky bodywork.
Some manufacturers build models that are viewed as prestige vehicles, which can appeal to buyers within particular demographics.
Bestselling SUVs in Australia
For the first quarter of 2019, the most popular SUV model was the Toyota LandCruiser Prado (4,854 units sold). Next, the Toyota LandCruiser (3,359), after that the Toyota Kluger (2,799). In 4th place was the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport (2,220) and the BMW X5/6 rounded out the top 5 (901).
Mistakes you could make buying an SUV
Buying a road/performance-focused SUV
If you spend a lot of time off-road, buying a road-orientated SUV model could be a mistake and vice versa.
Purchasing a trim spec that's too low
There's nothing worse than buying a lower-grade model, only to later wish you had some of the equipment and elements that higher-end (and pricier) models have.
Forgetting to compare finance deals
Always check the available financing deals on a new or used SUV. This way, you're sure to grab a great deal and avoid shelling out hand over fist.
Compare SUV finance
Image source: Getty Images
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