Automakers looking to increase SUV sales are offering high-performance variants that provide the acceleration, handling and braking of sports cars.
Both the Mercedes-AMG GLC63 and Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk were inducted into the growing fraternity of these steroidal SUVs this week during their public debuts at the New York International Auto Show.
The GLC63 features a biturbo 4.0-liter V-8 engine with up to 503 horsepower. The Trackhawk adopts the 6.2-liter HEMI V-8 engine with 707 horsepower also used in the Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat.
Sport-inspired SUVs are becoming more prevalent as new car buyers expect large vehicles to fit all of their needs — including thrilling power and athleticism.
“These SUVs are legitimate performance vehicles,” said Ed Kim, a vice president at AutoPacific, an industry consulting firm. “And being SUVs, they are incredibly practical.”
The GLC63 and Trackhawk join a small but growing group of speedy SUVs such as the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, BMW X5 M and Range Rover Sport SVR.
Each of the SUVs feature advanced suspension technology in addition to bruising power.
“I’ve got plenty of performance cars, and the X5 M is probably the most fun of all the cars to drive on the track,” said Travis Smith, of Bend, Ore.
Smith said he has lapped his 2016 BMW X5 M at Portland International Raceway within 2 seconds of his 2005 Lamborghini Gallardo. The family typically uses it for errands, school pickups and weekend cruises around town.
“Not only is it a daily driver, it’s a kid hauler,” he said.
Automakers are turning to muscled-up SUVs because they are highly profitable, said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with IHS Markit. Companies can use engines and performance technology developed for other models and install them in SUVs with minimal investment.
At the same time, vehicles like the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk bring high-profile attention to the brand and its more mundane SUVs, Brinley said.
“The Trackhawk makes your Grand Cherokee Limited just a little more cool than it was before,” Brinley said. “It lends an image boost even to people who wouldn’t buy that particular product.”
Performance SUVs have existed for decades, with vehicles like the 1991 GMC Typhoon offering then-shocking 280 horsepower. In 1999, Mercedes launched the ML55 AMG with 342 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque.
“It used to be unbelievable,” Tobias Moers, chief executive of Mercedes-AMG, told Trucks.com at the New York Auto Show.
Moers said that the ML55 pioneered the super-SUV segment with its lighter frame and driving behavior. He said Mercedes is carrying on its spirit with the GLC63.
“Regarding performance and drivability on a racetrack, it’s the benchmark,” he said. “There are people who love performance SUVs. They love to have a V-8, they love the sound of a V-8, they love the higher position. And the GLC63, we are going to have a lot of buyers for that car, I’m pretty sure.”
Several automakers are hoping to find success using the same formula. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will soon release its new Alfa Romeo Stelvio crossover led by a performance variant called the Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Its engine is a twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter V-6 derived from Ferrari that puts out 505 horsepower.
Part of Alfa Romeo’s marketing for the Stelvio Quadrifoglio has been to predict that it will be the fastest SUV to lap the Nürburgring, the famous track in Germany where supercars compete for bragging rights.
The Stelvio Quadrifoglio will have plenty of competition when it comes to dealerships. Other performance variants in the crossover segment — each offering at least 345 horsepower — include the new GLC63, the Audi SQ5, the Jaguar F-Pace R-Sport and the Porsche Macan Turbo.
In the case of Porsche, SUVs have delivered unparalleled sales success. The iconic sports car company delivered its best quarter of U.S. sales through the first three months of 2017, said Dave Engelman, spokesman for Porsche Cars North America.
The brand’s SUV models accounted for 70.6 percent of total sales in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same period last year, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
Cayenne and Macan sales rose 17.8 percent. Sales of the 911, Boxster and Cayman sports cars dropped 14.5 percent.
Mike Breault, a part-time race instructor at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn., has owned both the Cayenne Turbo and Cayenne GTS and lapped them around the track. He said the extra weight taxes the tires, and the brakes were smoking when he returned to the pits. But the Turbo reached 130 mph on the straightaway.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Breault. “In the GTS there’s a Sport+ setting which stiffens the suspension, lowers it to the ground, increases the torque and changes the gear ratios.”
When he’s not hot-lapping, Breault said that he occasionally uses the Cayenne GTS to tow his 911 GT3 to the track.
Kim and Brinley agreed that performance SUVs are here to stay, largely because customers will continue to desire more power. They also said that large vehicles no longer suffer from ride quality and fuel efficiency issues that once turned people away.
Brinley said that performance SUVs help automakers inject new excitement into their models as the new car market begins to cool. U.S. auto sales dipped 1.5 percent in the first quarter from the same period a year earlier.
“There are fewer and fewer niche products and all-new segments to enter,” she said. “Increasing performance is just one of the things automakers can do to help make sure those popular segments maintain and increase momentum.”
Count Smith among the potential customers who can’t wait to get ahold of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. Along with his BMW, Smith said he hopes to bring the Trackhawk to the race course to see how it stacks up.
“That’ll be a great comparison once we have both of those,” he said.