SUV sales are booming. It’s easy to see why, given their lofty height offering a commanding view over the top of lesser motors, together with perceptions of improved safety and grip, say Andy Goundry.
Prestige brand manufacturers seem to have capitalised on this booming market by pushing prices ever higher. Typically, a Range Rover can now easily cost well over £100,000. Surprisingly, in these increasingly diesel-discriminatory days, many prestige models are either only available with diesel engines, or confine petrol power to higher-priced versions. For example, whilst Range Rover Evoque prices start from £30,600, the cheapest petrol version is significantly more at £44,100.
However, if prestige brand prices don’t appeal to you, plenty of other excellent SUV models are available offering much more for your money whilst still providing similar if not better levels of performance and quality.
Some are very low-priced, such as the Dacia Duster whose prices start from only £9,495. Incredible value for money, but beware that the basic specification is exactly that: by the time a few options such as air-con are added the price can increase quickly. A better choice may be the Korean SsangYong Tivoli: not a model of which many people are aware, but well worth considering as its starting price of £12,950 includes such goodies as a five year warranty, air conditioning and cruise control.
Volkswagen Group offer some impressive SUVs in the mid-price range. The group, including VW, Skoda, Seat, Audi and indeed Porsche, have succeeded in offering a wide range of SUVs catering for all budgets and tastes, thanks to extensive component-sharing between their brands. In fact, this sharing extends to the sites where the SUVs are manufactured. Audi Q3s, definitely one of today’s premium SUVs, are built at a Seat factory in Spain, whilst a Skoda factory is home to the Audi Q5.
Typical of this commonality is the Volkswagen Tiguan. With levels of quality as good as any of the prestige brands, the mid-sized Tiguan is available in a wide range of versions and prices, from an effective 1.4-litre petrol starting at a reasonable £23,140 up to a mighty 240PS / 500Nm diesel.
I tried a Tiguan in extremely well-specified SEL form, which features Volkswagen’s 4 Motion four-wheel-drive system along with lots of useful equipment. The standard specification includes a an 8” touchscreen navigation system, adaptive cruise control, LED headlights, a 12.3” customisable dash display screen, and parking sensors front and rear, all topped off with a panoramic, opening sunroof. And all for a starting price of £31,170, almost identical to the base model Range Rover Evoque, which lacks most of those features and is only 2-wheel-drive.
Despite the SEL’s already comprehensive specification, Volkswagen had equipped the test car with just about every option in the book, resulting in an on-the-road price of around £40,000. Not cheap, however kitting an Evoque to a similar level would set you back closer to £55,000.
To us, the Tiguan seemed more spacious and smooth-riding than the Evoque, and quality levels of interior trim felt similar. One feature likely to appeal to caravanners and others is an impressive 2,500kg towing capacity, only 200kg less than the much bigger and more expensive Volvo XC90 and much greater than the 1,800kg of the Evoque. When the optional trailer reversing system is specified, the Tiguan should make a superb tow car.
On the safety front the Tiguan scores highly, having recently been nominated as ‘Best Small SUV’ by Euro NCAP, the organisation responsible for assessing European car safety standards. Currently available with 5 seats, a 7-seat version of the Tiguan is also expected soon.
In the meantime, seven seats are already offered by the newly-launched and slightly larger Skoda Kodiaq. Sharing most of the Tiguan’s engine and transmission options, the Kodiaq range is a little cheaper and even more extensive. For example, for a driver who needs to venture off-road regularly, the Kodiaq Scout version offers rugged bodywork, with plastic panels protecting the lower sections of bodywork together, with a raised ride height and 4-wheel-drive in all models.
Prices for the Kodiaq range start from a very reasonable £21,495 for the 1.4 petrol S model. Even a top-of-the range 2 litre 180PS petrol ‘Edition’ model at £33,545 comfortably undercuts an equivalent Land Rover Discovery Sport, one of the few other 7-seat SUVs in this size, and which is presently unavailable with a petrol engine.
Last but certainly not least within the Volkswagen Group SUV line-up is the smaller Seat Ateca, starting at £17,990. This Spanish-built SUV has only been on sale for a few months, yet has deservedly already garnered many awards, including What Car’s ‘Best Small SUV of 2017’.
The Ateca is again available with a wide range of engine and gearbox options, ranging from an economical 1.0 litre petrol engine with 6-speed manual transmission and 2-wheel-drive, up to a 190hp 7-speed auto with 4-wheel drive.
Our test car was a 1.4 litre Eco TSI 150PS petrol, 2-wheel-drive manual gearbox version, a specification likely to be the choice for many families. Emissions and fuel consumption are impressive, with only 123g/km of CO2 and a claimed combined fuel consumption of 52.3mpg. The top of the range ‘Excellence’ model with this engine retails at £24,440, although equipment levels of some of the lower specification models are almost as good and usefully cheaper.
The days of Seats being of humdrum quality are long gone. Closing the doors gives a reassuring ‘thunk’ of solidity. Indeed, anyone used to the premium feel of a Golf will be instantly at home inside the Ateca, for trim materials and finishes are of excellent quality, tactile soft-feel materials being used almost everywhere. The interior offers plenty of room for passengers, and not at the expense of luggage space either, for the Ateca’s boot offers 510 litres of space, usefully more than most family hatchbacks. All four doors open wide, making for very easy entry and exit to all the seats. Once aboard, legroom is generous as well. All this within compact external dimensions – at 4363mm long it’s only just over 100mm longer than a Golf, and only 40mm wider.
One of the highlights of driving the Ateca was its smoothness and extremely low noise levels. Performance from the 1.4 litre engine was entirely adequate, thanks to the diesel-rivalling 250Nm of torque on tap from only 1500 RPM.
Ride, on the optional 19” wheels fitted, was perhaps a little on the firm side, although still soft enough to cushion the passengers from the worst of our dreadful road surfaces very effectively. Roll, often the bugbear of similar tall SUVs was well-controlled, and overall the ride and handling package was well-judged.
As with the Tiguan and Kodiaq, safety is given a high priority. Front Assist and City Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Protection are standard on all models, constantly scanning the road ahead for collision risks, sounding warnings and triggering emergency braking if need be. Additional safety features can be specified including Adaptive Cruise Control, Traffic Sign Recognition and Lane Departure Warning.
The awards and praise are well-deserved for this excellent family-friendly motor, especially at a price point which undercuts most of the opposition by some margin, together with a class-leading residual value after 3 years of up to 50% according to CAP experts.
As alternatives, then, to the likes of Range Rover, BMW and Mercedes, the SUV models from Seat, Skoda and Volkswagen make a lot of sense. Try them before you buy that Evoque, X3 or Q5 – you might be pleasantly surprised.
Andy Goundry spent his entire working career in vehicle design and development, and since retirement has continued a close involvement with vehicles, writing for specialist magazines and websites, as well as producing his own motoring website www.autonews.uk.com