Remember all those reviews from a couple of decades ago that breathlessly described Porsche Cayennes and BMW X5s as being ‘car-like’ to drive? Well, they were wrong, or at best far too generous. It is true that around the turn of the century a new breed of SUV arrived with keener handling and more precise steering – none more so than the Cayenne – but car-like? Not even close.
It would be many more years before any SUV truly handled with the poise, agility and response of a conventional saloon, because that only became possible when a glut of new chassis technologies came on stream. Nowadays there are plenty of high-end 4x4s that will startle you with how defiantly they resist body roll in corners and how intuitive is the relationship between the inputs you make at the wheel and the outputs you sense down at road level. And the very best of them all have air suspension, active anti-roll bars and four-wheel steering.
It’s a point ably expressed by a pair of new high-performance SUVs, one that features all this wizardry and another that does not. For while the Alpina XB7 will boggle the mind with how deftly it finds its way along a road at speed, the Volkswagen Touareg R eHybrid reminds you that these machines will nonetheless always be compromised.
Air springs aren’t new but they are being used so effectively these days, enabling something like the Aston Martin DBX to lift itself higher off the ground to traverse ruts and gravel tracks, then squat down into the surface to lower its own ride height and press its centre of gravity towards the road. Meanwhile, active anti-roll bars, powered by 48-volt electrical architecture, enable a tall and very heavy machine like the Bentley Bentayga to fight back against the forces that make it want to topple over in corners, keeping its body flat and level – all without harming ride quality. Finally, rear-wheel steering makes the Lamborghini Urus, for instance, much more manoeuvrable at low speeds than such a large car has any right to be, while also adding stability at medium and high speeds.
Bundle all three technologies together in one package, which most super-SUVs now do, and you really are left with a high-riding car that steers and handles like a low one. Yep, they’re car-like. Combine all those active systems with intelligent four-wheel drive and torque vectoring and, as in the case of the DBX and Urus, a big SUV can even be quite fun to drive.
Even now it seems absurd to clamber up into one of these cars, fire its thunderous engine, select a driving mode labelled Sport or Race and set off in search of some approximation of driving pleasure. But it’s there to be had, after a fashion. There is a road that spears arrow straight through the countryside for half a mile, only deviating from its course to navigate a small hillock. It jinks right momentarily before looping around to the left, eventually bending back the other way before resuming its headlong charge for the horizon. It’s a one-mile stretch of B-road that reveals in ultra high-definition how unalike the XB7 and Touareg R actually are to drive.
The 621hp Alpina romps along the straight. In the lower gears it accelerates so hard it has the feel of a runaway freight train, that fleeting sense that it’s getting away from you and may never be stopped. You expect a deep, distant bellow from its 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8, but instead you get a hard-edged and quite high-pitched V8 yowl. Behind the XB7, the 462hp Touareg R scampers along in its own distinctive way. The turbocharged petrol V6 thrashes away joylessly, but it’s the potent electric motor that makes the rear of the car squat as the prow rises towards the sky. After second gear the sensation is lost, but away from the line Touareg R is almost aggressively accelerative.
Even so, the Alpina gaps it. The first right-hander approaches at speed. Hard on the brakes the XB7 is stable and planted, and as it darts through the jink and towards the tighter left, it stuns you with how agile it is and how much grip it seems to claw out of the road surface. But it’s through the left that follows that you discover the stupefying effects of a variable ride height, four-wheel steering and active anti-roll bars. It corners flat, rolling only enough to let you feel the vast grip build down the side of the car. It steers accurately and intuitively, so with a single input you bend it neatly around the hillock.
It’s almost exactly like driving a sports saloon – you’re just sat several feet off the ground. Behind you, the Touareg R squirms as it slows for the right-hander. As it turns into the left immediately after, its front tyres smear across the asphalt, body listing heavily onto its outer springs, the steering failing to transmit any of this to its driver. As the car ploughs a line of its own choosing, a bolt shoots up the driver’s back and his heart rate spikes.
The Alpina is astonishingly easy to drive quickly because it controls and minimises its masses, while the VW is trickier because it doesn’t. It is vague and aloof, keeping you guessing. And on our mile-long stretch of road, we see how keenly a heavy SUV can handle if it employs all that clever hardware, and how slack it can be otherwise.
At this point, it must be acknowledged that these two cars are hardly direct rivals. Indeed, a skilful negotiator might manage to buy two £71,995 Touareg Rs for the price of one £130,000 XB7. Costing so much more than the VW as it does, the Alpina really should be so much sharper to drive. I’m interested to know how long it will take for these chassis technologies to filter their way down to the Touareg’s end of the market, because when they do a whole segment of SUVs will be transformed. You might drive a Porsche Macan GTS or Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio and think such cars don’t need active anti-roll bars or four-wheel steering, but so equipped I believe even they they would be vastly better to drive (though inevitably more expensive too).
The Touareg R is not without its merits, for it would be a calming and effortless car to use every day. It mightn’t be especially darty along a B-road but it is comfortable, refined and broadly capable. More to the point, it is the VW that’s altogether more relevant in this day and age. It consumes vastly less fuel than the Alpina, will slip silently and innocently thought town thanks to a 28-mile electric range and, though it isn’t exactly pretty, the VW is a whole lot less offensive a machine to behold than the obnoxiously styled and grossly wasteful XB7.
One of these cars has an awful lot to learn from the other, if only it were to adopt the same technologies. But maybe it’s the plug-in hybrid Touareg R that is the tutor, rather than the pupil.
SPECIFICATION | ALPINA XB7
Engine: 4,395cc, twin-turbocharged V8
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 612hp @ 5500 – 6500 rpm
Torque: 590 lb-ft @ 2000 – 5000rpm
0-62mph: 4.2 seconds
Top speed: 180 mph (21-inch wheels, sports tyres)
MPG: 23.5 (WLTP)
SPECIFICATION | VOLKSWAGEN TOUAREG R EHYBRID
Engine: 2,995cc, V6, turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 462@5,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 516@1,340-5,300rpm
0-62mph: 5.1 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 2,465kg (unladen)
MPG: 95.2 (WLTP combined)
Price: £71,995 (price as standard; price as tested £75,170 comprised of driver’s assistance pack for £870, head-up display for £1,090, Lapiz Blue metallic paint with Puglia leather upholstery for £1,235)