After a decade of relentless competition, carmakers have finally created the perfect car, it seems. Richard Webb takes a look at the phenomenon that is the SUV.

The evolution of car design has resulted in a type of vehicle so perfect that almost every manufacturer has launched its version of the same car, the sports utility vehicle (SUV) – or so it would seem if you look around and see how many SUVs are battling it out for your hard-earned income.

SUVs can trace their origins to military vehicles following the US army’s request to carmakers to create a tough vehicle for transporting soldiers over challenging terrain. The Willy’s ‘Jeep’ was the outcome, and it has had a huge influence on the car you drive – or aspire to drive – right now.

To keep the Americans on their toes, the British Land Rover emerged in April 1948, followed by the Toyota Land Cruiser in 1953. Fast-forward a few decades when the segment really took off in the ’90s, with more economical, affordable and safer models. Recently, brands like Nissan have excelled with affordable, quality products like their Qashqai, and at the top-end, even luxury carmakers like Bentley, Rolls Royce and Maserati are entering the market.

But what is it about the SUV that has captured the imagination of today’s car buyers? Size is a part of the appeal – compact models like the Renault Captur and Ford Kuga included – and there are larger alternatives like the Volkswagen Toureg and bigger still, with a larger cabin and seven seats and 4×4, all of which are a big hit with buyers. Add cargo hauling and towing abilities with high ground clearance, and the wish list of every customer type has been catered for in a single vehicle. It’s easy to see why they are such a hit in South Africa.

It could be argued SUVs are somewhat vanilla as each brand apes the other with similar looking products, but of late, car companies have been putting serious effort into differentiating themselves from other brands by emphasising their unique attributes. Consumers want to see the inherent meaning in the cars they buy and will reject ‘cookie cutter’ designs if they are not able to differentiate between the myriad of offerings. This is where branding comes in as a vital asset for manufacturers, because consumers tend to seek out the logo they have linked with desirability and build quality.

But a car is more than pretty aesthetics. It’s surely about the driving experience, quality and choosing the right one to suit your lifestyle. The market remains one of the fastest growing sectors in the car industry, and there are all kinds of SUVs on the market – from inexpensive cars to luxury models boasting limousine comfort – and there are almost no ‘bad’ SUVs out there any more.

If you’re looking for a seven-seater, then the Volvo XC90 boasts a whole new platform and a superbly efficient range of four-cylinder engines (the T8 plug-in hybrid is a technological tour de force), with the style and quality to easily hold its own against the best that Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have to offer. For me, the D5 Diesel is the clear pick of the Volvo range – it’s punchy enough to get up and go when needed, and it’s quiet and refined too.

The zenith of the range is the powerful and economical plug-in hybrid-powered T8 – arguably the most desirable – but most buyers will still be smitten with the generous safety tally and upmarket kit you get on the entry-level Momentum. There’s a load of standard goodies too, like satellite navigation (sat nav), climate control, LED headlamps and leather.

The key to the XC90’s appeal though, is its spacious, upmarket interior with the refinement and smooth progress of a limousine. It emphatically shows the Swedish brand has the innovation, panache and build quality to do battle with the very best Teutonic offerings. It’s a truly worthy winner of 2016 WesBank / SAGMJ Car of the Year.

Audi’s take on large SUVs is the Q7. Still enormous, it’s slightly smaller on the outside than its predecessor, but more spacious for passengers. It hides its bulk well and there’s plenty of space inside for seven, and like the XC90, its refinement and ride are excellent. A gutsy 3.0-litre diesel powers seven people and their luggage with consummate ease. The cabin, like all Audis, is a great place to be. Every single component has been thoughtfully designed and is made of tactile, quality materials, crammed full of more technology than just about any other Audi.

If space and comfort is a high priority, it’s hard to ignore the Mercedes-Benz GLS. It easily accommodates seven adults and their luggage in luxury surroundings, thanks to being 10cm longer than the Audi Q7. Almost no other SUV is as well-equipped as a standard GLS, which comes with everything you could wish for, and more.

The latest version of the BMW X5 is very much an evolution of what’s gone before, but it is the most luxurious and efficient X5 yet. Comfortable for five – and an option to seat up to seven – it’s classy and simple to use, and every inch the premium product. Every version gets plenty of luxuries and it’s cheaper to run than most big 4x4s.

Jaguar’s F-Pace is a radical departure for its maker and, as expected, the company has put driving experience at the fore, pitching it against the Porsche Macan and BMW X4. It’s roomier than most rivals, with loads of space for occupants and luggage but there is no seven-seat option like there is in the Land Rover Discovery Sport. The optional adaptive suspension offers superb ride quality and the 2.0-litre diesel is more frugal than any of its direct challengers. Jaguar has made a huge effort in the interior too. It’s tactile and feels classy in typical Jaguar fashion, trumping its rivals by some margin. What’s more, it’s easy to use. The Jaguar F-Pace is a great all-rounder that combines eye-catching looks with plenty of space for five, while still being an entertaining, a very satisfying SUV to drive briskly.

Maserati first revealed its intention to build its SUV in 2003 and it’s finally arrived. The Levante is set up for on-road dynamics, but is surprisingly capable off road too. The Levante is unlike any Maserati before it – bigger than it looks, but super to drive with its welcoming cabin and quality materials. Dynamically as capable as Jaguar’s new F-Pace and Porsche’s Cayenne, this is the best contemporary Maserati yet.

The much-loved family-sized, seven-seat Toyota Fortuner has been thoroughly reworked. Based on the evergreen Hilux, it’s an incredibly well-built car with genuine off-road credibility, and is ideal for towing. If you need to balance ruggedness with everyday usability, this SUV ticks all the boxes.

The latest Kia Sportage is available locally in October, but I’ve driven it already and I can tell you it’s a handsome looking SUV, packed with more useful tech than ever, with lots of room for all the family too.

Like most SUVs, you sit up high in the car, so visibility is scenic, and prices are expected to be competitive. Kia’s latest generation touch-screen is satisfyingly intuitive to use, and overall, it’s a safe and stylish choice.

In a market driven by a growing trend for recreational driving in remote and often rugged parts of the country, and a proliferation of safe, convenient and comfortable SUVs on offer, the global market for SUVs should surpass 21 million units by 2020. I reckon Napoleon’s quote, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide”, holds true for the SUV market today. Somewhere out there is your perfect car and I suspect it will be an SUV.

Need to know (ENTRY LEVEL MODELS)
Mercedes-Benz GLS
Price From R1 283 200 (2016)
Power 190kW
Torque 620Nm
0-100km/h 7.1 seconds
Top speed 222km/h
fuel consumption 5.3/100km
co2 emissions 179g/km

BMW X5
Price R947 700 (2016)
Power 170kW
Torque 500Nm
0-100km/h 7.7 seconds
Top speed 220km/h
fuel consumption 5.6/100km
co2 emissions 146g/km

Volvo XC90
Price From R863 700 (2016)
Power 140kW
Torque 400Nm
0-100km/h 9.2 seconds
Top speed 205km/h
fuel consumption 5.2/100km
co2 emissions 136g/km

Toyota Land Cruiser Prado
Price From R765 000 (2016)
Power 120kW
Torque 400Nm
0-100km/h 11.7 seconds
Top speed 175km/h
fuel consumption 8.5/100km
co2 emissions 224g/km

Kia Sportage
Price TBA
Power 130kW
Torque 392Nm
0-100km/h 9.8 seconds
Top speed 195km/h
fuel consumption 7.3/100km
co2 emissions 192g/km

Audi Q7
Price R1 012 000 (2016)
Power 183kW
Torque 600Nm
0-100km/h 6.9 seconds
Top speed 225km/h
fuel consumption 6.3/100km
co2 emissions 164g/km

Jaguar F-Pace
Price From R778 966 (2016)
Power 132kW
Torque 430Nm
0-100km/h 8.7 seconds
Top speed 208km/h
fuel consumption 5.3/100km
co2 emissions 139g/km

Maserati Levante
Price R1 650 000 (2016)
Power 202kW
Torque 600Nm
0-100km/h 6.9 seconds
Top speed 230km/h
fuel consumption 7.2/100km
co2 emissions 189g/km