Take the 600 hp, 12-cylinder 2017 Bentley Bentayga for a spin on almost any kind of terrain.

Super Utility Vehicles

Luxury car makers debut their first SUV models

BY MICHAEL FRANK

2016 marks the year the SUV steps up its game on the luxury meter while also raising the bar on greatness. Thank Bentley, Jaguar, and Maserati. By debuting their first SUVs, these upscale rookies to this category are forcing veterans Audi, Land Rover, and Mercedes-Benz to follow suit and counter with their best, sexiest, and most creative models. The result? Six of the best cars we've ever tested. You'll want to get behind their wheels, too.

Click here for photos of each featured luxury SUV.

2017 BENTLEY BENTAYGA
About an hour's drive from Dubai is a giant sand dune nicknamed Big Red. It's a favorite place for denizens of the UAE to exercise their 4x4s on weekends - and with so many Middle East Bentley buyers, it's a place the British carmaker's brand bosses knew their new Bentayga would have to be capable of maneuvering. Their first SUV - with a 600-hp, 12-cylinder engine good for a 187 mph top speed - had to be a top-flight luxury crossover and do everything a Range Rover could, but better.

Everywhere you go: We tested the automated hill-descent control just outside Palm Springs, Calif., and the Bentayga eased down a rock-strewn wash so steep we could only see the horizon by looking at the very top of the windscreen. We then chose from four selectable ride heights as well as multiple condition modes (from snow to sand) so we could bomb around huge dunes in the California desert, often banking around hills so cockeyed we feared we might scrape the door handles. Never fear: The engine is designed to pump oil at angles as steep as 35 degrees.

Road tested: One reason the Bentayga corners so well is its sophisticated, fully electronic Dynamic Ride system, in which active anti-roll bars respond to pitch, dive, and roll softening or stiffening on the fly. We drove the Bentayga around a test track, cresting triple-digit speeds, then into and out of sharp bends. Even some sports sedans we've tested would have raised more tire howl and screech. The Bentley just laughed its way along a route that was more fit for a Porsche 911 GT3, not a roomy, massively luxurious crossover.

Luxury to the max: Since every Bentayga is hand built, it takes roughly eight times as much labor to assemble as the average passenger car. Bentley employs 58 craftspeople full time just to do woodwork. Nothing is really "off the rack," save that every Bentayga is exceptionally refined, with triple-sealed doors to smite wind noise, extra-thick lamb's wool carpets, and diamond-quilt door panels.

MSRP: $229,100

More information: bentleymotors.com


2016 JAGUAR F-PACE
Since the 1950s, Jaguar has been known for making ultrasleek, taut-handling sports cars and sedans. With the F-Pace, the auto giant brings that same philosophy to SUVs, meaning it's erring on the side of excellent suspensions. Jag's engineers told us at a briefing last winter that too many crossovers and SUVs feel numb at the steering wheel and mushy around corners. They wanted the F-Pace to feel quick, fun, and lively. In other words, like any Jaguar.

Not a Rover: Yes, Jaguar and Land Rover are a single company. But because Jaguar wanted to make a car in keeping with its own ethos, the five-passenger F-Pace is not a re-skinned Rover. Rather, its bones are donated from the XE and XF Jaguar sedans and it handles that way. The F-Pace defaults to a rear-drive sedan bias, sending up to 92 percent of its 340-hp Supercharged V-6 power to the rear tires. That gives it a natural nimbleness that's lost with a lot of me-too crossovers.

Unstuck technology: The all-wheel-drive F-Pace detects the surface it's on - ice, for instance - and then automatically changes the calibration of wheel-spin tolerances so that just a slight bit of tire slip is allowed. Do this, and now your SUV can get unstuck. We know it works, too, because we tested it on a frozen lake so slippery we could barely stand upright.

Great proportions: A lot of SUVs simply don't work visually. The F-Pace is beautiful from any angle. It looks, as you'd hope, like a Jaguar - sleek, sexy, and classic. It's actually quite roomy, too, with more cargo space than the larger Mercedes GLE.

Tech that works: A lot of vehicles these days get serious technology packages that too frequently are far harder to use than the apps on your smartphone. But Jaguar has wisely given the F-Pace an infotainment system that works via touch. You tap, swipe, and pinch on the screen's surface, just as you would on your phone. It's dead smart and shows that the F-Pace is one of the best-designed, not just best-looking, Jaguars in the company's history.

MSRP: $42,390

More information: jaguarusa.com


2017 AUDI Q7
Though not a new vehicle in Audi's lineup, this newest Q7 excises 474 pounds from its previous frame and skin through the use of more high-strength steel and aluminum. The result is a far more agile crossover, but that's merely the start.

Rear-wheel steering: Audi shortened the Q7's turning circle so it handles tighter in traffic and during otherwise onerous duties such as parking. To do that with a 200-inch vehicle that seats seven requires a bit of engineering brilliance, which is why the Q7 gets four-wheel steering (in addition to standard all-wheel drive). At speeds below 31 mph, the rear wheels pivot in the opposite direction than the front wheels to enable the car to describe a narrower arc around any apex. To achieve high-speed stability at above 50 mph, the rear wheels pivot in the same direction as the fronts, just slightly. You feel the latter effect most in a high-speed corner, when you're really pushing the available traction at the tires.

Rocky Mountain test drive:
Combining the two steering effects into one drive, we plied the Q7 out on the crowded, snowy streets of Aspen, Colo., agilely carving around parked cars where passengers were unloading their skis, and into the steep, winding esses of a long mountain pass. Even on wet, slushy roads, the Q7 felt uncannily quick on its toes, with plenty of passing power on tap via the 333-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 and its super-quick-shifting eight-speed Tiptronic gearbox.

Techy dashboard: The very high-tech Q7 features its own Wi-Fi hot spot and you can sync up to eight devices. The gauge cluster, where you'd ordinarily have just a speedometer and tachometer, is entirely digital, and the screen there displays data such as route navigation usually shown on other cars' center console screen. Here, you need only glance down to eyeball an incredibly detail-rich map courtesy of Google Earth, as well as instant cues, such as your next turn.

Sleek interior: During night drives, ambient lighting hidden throughout the interior glows softly, and the hue can be tuned to up to 900 different colors. All the better to highlight the optional gorgeously wrapped, Valcona leather seats that feature a massage function. Slide back the Alcantara headliner to reveal a panoramic glass roof that sheds light on the entire interior so every passenger gets a sky view.

MSRP: $54,800

More information: audiusa.com


2016 MERCEDES-AMG GLE63 S COUPE
Mercedes calls this SUV a "coupe." Most of us think of coupes as two-door cars. But these days anything - even with four doors and double the ground clearance of a "car" - can be called a coupe. Skip the nomenclature lesson and just drive this all-new AMG GLE, and you simply won't care what anybody calls it. Because what we call it is amazing.

What's AMG anyway? You know how you can bring any car to a specialty shop to add more horsepower or stiffen its suspension? AMG, Mercedes' in-house tuner, is like that, save that it has decades of experience working within the carmaker's parameters for safety, engineering, quality, and design. Here, AMG adds a nappa-suede-wrapped steering wheel that would be right at home as the tiller of a sports car.

Engine and suspension:
Pin your right foot to the floor when you're behind the wheel and you'll unleash the full-throated growl of its twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-8. What else would you expect from 577 horsepower? But the truly astounding parlor trick isn't merely getting to 60 mph in just 4.1 seconds. Rather, it's that this all-wheel-drive vehicle with about 8 inches of ground clearance skates around corners as coolly as if it were a slammed-to-the-tarmac Ferrari. But thanks to its Airmatic suspension that adapts to changing road conditions and situations, this one corners like a sports car but doesn't punish your passengers like one.

Room to stretch: Despite the coupe shape, the cabin is incredibly airy, even for 6-foot-plus drivers and passengers. Plus, with up to 60.7 cubic feet of cargo room, you get an entirely new genre of vehicle: a higher-riding sports sedan or, if you will, a utility sports coupe.

MSRP: $110,225

More information: mbusa.com


2017 RANGE ROVER EVOQUE CONVERTIBLE

Land Rover's global smash hit, the three-door Evoque SUV, now can be had with a folding cloth top, yielding a commanding view of the road unlike most other convertibles. Plus, you get a polished, smooth, and composed ride and, inside, a leather-lined luxury and tech cocoon.

Balancing luxury and utility: When you cut the top off of any vehicle and add a folding roof, utility suffers. In the case of the Evoque Convertible, you lose rear seats that fold forward and the ability to mount a roof rack. Still, there's a ski pass-through between the rear seats and plenty of room for four passengers to stretch out comfortably. You also get assorted luxury amenities, from the 14-way heated-and-cooled driver's seat to an ultra-intuitive, 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and an optional astoundingly clean-sounding 13-speaker, 660w surround-sound Meridian audio system.

Alfresco in the Alps: We tested the Evoque Convertible in the snow-crested Swiss Alps, pushing the 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine from quaint village to quaint village along twisting mountain passes. The Evoque chassis, 612 pounds heavier than the standard Evoque in order to supplant the rigidity lost when engineers removed the rig's lid, felt solid, capable, and smooth.

No average ragtop: With an engine and transmission sheathed in a massive skid-plate of armor, 8.3 inches of ground clearance, and steep approach and departure angles - the better for not scraping a fender - this convertible is well cut out for serious off-roading. Flip the center-mounted selector to any of multiple off-road computer modes (we picked "Grass, Gravel, Snow") and you can do what we did, driving down an actual piste, where wheelspin on the low-grip surface was quelled so well it was easy to simply steer, brake, (wisely) add in throttle, and drive along merrily. After the snow, we switched to the "Mud & Ruts" mode and tiptoed the Evoque down a harrowing, 45-degree, boulder-strewn, forest track.

MSRP: $50,475

More information: landroverusa.com

Coming Soon From Maserati Another Newcomer

It may be sacrilege to say so, but the 2017 Maserati Levante S - which you'll be able to buy by the end of the summer for $83,000 - will be a far better sorted version of the Ghibli sedan that preceded it.

That's because unlike the too-firm-riding Ghibli, a car that was targeted at the Porsche Panamera buyer, the five-door Levante is what the Brits would call a "shooting brake," a tall wagon, in other words - very tall, really. It also has all-wheel drive, as much as 9.7 inches of ground clearance in off-road mode, and electronically controlled air suspension. All of which delivers more travel to each wheel, yielding much more compliance. Yes, that's for Americans who want an Italian racer, but not to the detriment of their dental work.

Unlike the Ghibli, you'll also gain more utility from this hatch. You won't even miss power, since here you'll have Ghibli's potent, 3.0-liter, 424-hp V-6 with a signature snarl to the exhaust note that, seemingly, only the Italians know how to tune. Speaking of things the Italians do well, one option is an interior by Ermenegildo Zegna, where the seating surfaces and door panels are finished in silk with leather accents. Trust us, it looks incredible, and is even functional - cooler feeling in summer and less chilly in winter. maserati.com

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