In the 1970s, the Range Rover was the unchallenged overlord, and arguably the creator of this subsection of the car world. Save for a few other players in the market, such as the Mercedes G-Wagen and the hardy Toyota Land Cruiser, these were cars suited to farmers-done-good and various heads of state. The Shah of Iran had a hand in commissioning the G-Wagen, a car that straddled a line between tough military vehicle and opulent piece of urban exhibitionism. Back then, even ardent luxury 4x4 advocate Mr Charles King, chief engineer of the original Range Rover, said: “To use the 4x4 for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid.” If you were a high-flying executive with your bonus freshly cleared in the bank, your daily drive would more likely have involved a Mercedes S-Class saloon for the weekday commute and a fire-engine-red Porsche 911 Turbo at the weekend.
Then something changed. The world was rocketing ahead with mobile phones and the internet, yet for some reason, the driver had decided it wanted bigger, heavier and more cumbersome vehicles. Mr Enzo Ferrari may have claimed that “the client is not always right”, but people had spoken. That left the car companies with a problem. How did they please the masses, but stop their designers tearing their hair out? The watershed moment came when Porsche moved first and decided to build an SUV in 2002. The howls from its sporting rivals must have been deafening when the sports car brand rolled out a great big pig of a car. It was dumpy and its grill had been squared in with an ugly stick. Surely this was an insane misjudgement that could send the company down the drain. “Can you believe Porsche is putting its badge on this car? Believe it! Traditionalists are horrified,” ran Fortune magazine's headline at the time. But – wonder of wonders – the Cayenne sold like hot cakes smothered in truffle oil. SUVs now account for over half all Porsche cars sold worldwide, leaving sport-luxury companies bereft of an SUV in their line-up and they promptly whipped their designers back to their clay models and said, “Build it bigger, build it stronger and don’t worry too much what it looks like.” The truth was not why get into building an SUV, but build SUVs or bust.
There was method to this seeming madness. Land Rover always knew that when a driver that sat in a Range Rover had an imperial feeling of rising above the traffic. And the royals have always been a good advert for the luxury end of 4x4 and SUV-love is obviously in the genes. When Prince William introduced his heir, Prince George, he was cossetted in the rear of his father’s immaculate black Range Rover Special-edition .
The luxury SUV market is now awash with choice. Porsche has not one but two SUVs in their range, Bentley now has the Bentayga and Lamborghini the Urus. Resurgent Alfa Romeo’s splendidly light and responsive Stelvio Quadrifoglio is showing even the sportier brand has a clean pair of heels. Eagerly anticipated this year are the stately Rolls-Royce Cullinan and the Aston Martin DBX, first forays into the sector from two of Britain’s most famous brands. Even that colossus of supercar fantasy, Ferrari has recently announced that it will now be making its own SUV. After saying, “You’d have to shoot me first,” when asked about the prospect a couple of years ago, CEO Mr Sergio Marchionne has come around to the idea and announced last month that Ferrari will be building a sports utility vehicle, albeit one firmly in Ferrari DNA – an “FUV” as he labelled it. “It will look like a Ferrari utility vehicle needs to look like,” he said. “But it has to drive like a Ferrari.” Old man Enzo could well be turning in his grave, but the brand simply can’t afford to ignore this market.