Off-road looks with on-road fun

Crossovers are vehicles designed to look like they can go off-road, but really be at their best on the road. Sure, some can do light off-roading, but realistically you won’t want to stray too far from the blacktop or the occasional bumpy gravel backroad.

To this end it’s not trivial to know which of these 4x4-aping high riders are best out on the open (and sometimes twisty) road, since it’s where they will spend most of their time. But don’t go thinking that they are on par with more conventional car shapes, because their higher center of gravity and usually higher mass will affect handling.

Safety is at the top of buyers’ lists these days, but what many don’t think about when browsing lists of cars rated with safety stars is that good, predictable road manners and sharp handling are one of the biggest safety features a car can have, since they allow the driver to avoid crashing in the first place.

And while crossovers may give occupants a feeling of extra safety when they’re on board, their poor road manners bring this into question.

Here’s a list of the 10 best handling high-riding vehicles ever made.

Alfa Romeo Stelvio

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2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio
Alfa Romeo’s first foray into the world of crossovers turned out to be a very successful one.

The Stelvio, which I placed at the top of the list simply to maintain alphabetical order, is actually the best handling car on this list. It’s actually better than some lower-riding cars from other manufacturers, and not too far off the wonderful Giulia sedan with which it shares its underpinnings.

The Alfa Stelvio really reveals its true character when you take it on a winding road, where its rear-wheel drive sedan roots become quite evident. Its front end is sharp, the overall experience is one of sure-footedness and comfort levels aren’t bad either. What will really impress you is just how sharp and communicative the steering is, which, again, is better than some rivals’ sedans.

The suspension is well-judged too. Comfort levels are about average for the class, and it is beaten hands down by some cars that didn’t make this list (like the relaxed and very refined Mercedes GLC), but it’s by no means unbearable. In Europe, you can get the base Stelvio in rear-wheel drive only form and this further enhances its handling in the dry, while making it less capable off road or in slippery conditions.

Read our full review on the 2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio.

BMW X3

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Now in its third generation, the BMW X3 has finally become the vehicle it was always meant to be.

The first-gen X3 was really rather good on road, but it suffered from a bone-shaking ride, and as a popular automotive TV show highlighted back in the day, it wasn’t very good off-road (or pretty to look at, or nice to sit inside of).

The second generation was a bit lacking in character, and although it addressed the first-gen model’s comfort issues, it just wasn’t very interesting. Now the latest X3 is finally there, with excellent on-road handling, good levels of comfort, an interior that can only be described as class-leading, and a very wide array of engines.

Take the new X3 on a winding bit of road, and you will be very impressed by how well it grips, how positive the steering feels, and just how little it rolls (especially if you option yours with adaptive dampers). It gets close to the Stelvio in terms of it being fun to drive, but it feels slightly more relaxed and mature.

Read our full review on the 2018 BMW X3.

Cadillac XT4

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Cadillac added a compact crossover to its range (the smallest one it offers) in 2018, and the vehicle is already being praised for being very good around the corners. It rides on an all-new (Cadillac-specific) front-wheel drive-biased platform, it’s powered by an all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, and it also shows the evolution of the new Cadillac design language.

Those who have had a chance to drive it already (it’s still a very new model) have praised its direct steering and the well-judged suspension.

Cadillac also offers a Sport model with adaptive dampers, and it’s this one you want to get if you want to take your XT4 on more spirited drives.

The XT4 continues Cadillac’s move towards a more complete and well-rounded modern luxury automaker, when small, plush crossovers are all the rage. Not all vehicles in this mould have good handling, but the XT4 is among them.

Read our full review on the 2019 Cadillac XT4.

Ford Kuga/Escape

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Now in its second generation, the Focus-sized Ford Escape (or Kuga, as it’s known outside North America) has always been regarded as a great handling compact high-rider. The latest incarnation of the nameplate, which underwent a major facelift in 2016, continues that tradition and provides arguably one of the sharpest drives of any crossover (from any size bracket).

Based on the same C1 platform as the Focus, which is an acclaimed handler in any version, the Escape hides its extra height and weight well.

This is thanks to excellent turn-in, a lot of grip, and a bit of playfulness in its chassis, the latter of which is pretty much absent among crossovers, so it kind of stands out in this company.

Read our full review on the 2017 Ford Escape.

Jaguar F-Pace

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Jaguar needed to keep up with its competitors, so in 2015, it revealed its first-ever series crossover vehicle: the F-Pace. It’s a handsome, well-proportioned high-rider with plenty of design flair and an imposing presence on the road, as well as great handling.

Underpinned by the same aluminum-intensive platform as the Jaguar XE and XF (and more recently the Range Rover Velar), it grips the road very well

It also boosts confidence with sharp and direct steering. It is a bit on the firm side, and therefore not the most comfortable in its class, but for swift driving around curvy roads, it’s actually pretty good. You do get a feeling that it’s very wide, when sitting behind the wheel, and squeezing through tight gaps is more tense than it should be, but the upside of this is just how stable it feels when cornering quickly.

Read our full review on the 2017 - 2019 Jaguar F-Pace.

Kia Sportage

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While it may be surprising to find a Kia model on this list, the latest Sportage has every right to be here, as it’s much better than you may think. Opt for the higher-powered all-wheel drive GT Line models, and you’ll be rewarded with a surprisingly engaging and spritely vehicle that drives like a well-sorted hatchback, not a high-riding, family-friendly crossover.

It won’t set your heart on fire, but it is well above average and fun can be derived from driving it quickly.

And it’s not tiring to drive quickly for long as it doesn’t really roll that much and you don’t feel seasick like you do in some tall vehicles. Steering has some feel too - not much, but some - which is more than most similar vehicles can muster.

The Sportage blends its pleasant road manners with a premium-feeling interior, unique exterior look, and a decent range of engines, making it an impressive all-rounder.

Read our full review on the 2017 Kia Sportage.

Mazda CX-3

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2019 Mazda CX-3

If you’ve ever seen a Mazda CX-3 on the road, and you probably have because it’s selling quite well, you’ll know it’s one of the sharpest looking high-riding vehicles, regardless of size. The CX-3 matches its aggressive lines with suitably sporty handling in pretty much all engine guises, and from entry-level front-wheel drive, to top-of-the-range all-wheel drive, it will reward a spirited drive.

With quite a firm ride and very sharp steering, the CX-3 is very fun to throw around a twisty road.

While it is not the best and most refined highway cruiser around, it is still bearable in this respect. It’s not as engaging as other Mazda cars to drive, though, and it only made this list because it’s good by crossover standards. However, compared to, say, a Mazda 3, there’s no contest - the hatchback wins hands down.

It’s also worth noting that the more nose-heavy 2.0-liter diesel version offered in some markets is nowhere near as good as the lighter gasoline burning variants.

Read our full review on the 2019 Mazda CX-3.

Mazda CX-5

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2017 Mazda CX-5

The Mazda CX-5 provided some of the most engaging drives I’ve ever had in a crossover of any size. It takes corners with much more gusto than anything this tall has a right to, its steering is superb by crossover standards (and it’s still pretty good by regular car standards), and it really gives the driver the impression it likes being thrown around.

It impresses in terms of grip and body control too, both being well above average for a crossover.

Versions with all-wheel drive and larger wheels feel best around corners, although they lose out in terms of comfort in all other conditions. Refinement is also surprisingly high for a vehicle in its size and price bracket, and the CX-5 actually has good road and wind noise levels compared to the class average.

Read our full review on the 2017 Mazda CX-5.

Mini Countryman

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2017 Mini Countryman

You don’t buy the Mini Countryman because you want a practical, family-oriented little crossover. You buy it for the badge. Thankfully, there is substance to the Countryman package, and part of it is down to the way it goes around corners.

Avoid the fastest version, which is the plug-in hybrid, as that has the dullest handling out of all versions, and just go for a Cooper S model.

Crossover steering doesn’t get any sharper or more communicative than this, and the Countryman corners with minimal lean. Powering out of corners is fun too, especially in the more powerful versions, as the chassis can really put the power down early.

Being a Mini, you also pay (a hefty premium) for the BMW level of interior quality. This extends to the driving position, which is quite low and sporty (for a crossover), and this further encourages you to explore its handling limits.

Read our full review of the 2017 Mini Countryman.

SEAT Ateca

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SEAT hasn’t been making crossovers for long, and in fact, the Ateca is the brand’s first crossover of any kind. It actually replaces the Altea people carrier in the Spanish automaker’s portfolio. It’s built alongside the mechanically-related Skoda Karoq in the Czech Republic, but feels noticeably sportier.

Any engine version is fun to throw around. Some say the Ateca is the best handling and most fun high-riding vehicle not wearing a premium badge.

Better still, SEAT offers it as a hot Cupra model which comes with a 2.0-liter turbo engine, all-wheel drive, and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which allows it to achieve a sprint time to 62 mph of just 5.4 seconds and a top speed of 152 mph.

SEAT makes the sportiest feeling mainstream vehicles from within the VW group. This extends to its high riders in general and the Ateca in particular - you really have to drive that Cupra version at least once as it’s really impressive and surprising.

Read our full review of the 2016 Seat Ateca.

Notable Mentions

Porsche Macan

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Bearing a Porsche badge, there is nothing unexpected about the way the Macan handles, no matter the version you choose. All are good and provide more fun than most conventional vehicles. The Macan hides the fact that it’s a crossover quite well, and it feels like a slightly taller but extremely well-sorted premium hatchback.

Read our full review on the 2015 - 2017 Porsche Macan.

Mercedes GLA

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Mercedes tries to sell the GLA as its own model, but after spending five minutes behind the wheel, you immediately finger it for being a tall A-Class. But that means it has sharp steering and is generally quite good to drive on a back road. However, its hard suspension and cramped cabin don’t really make it a recommendable buy, regardless of how well it may handle. The hottest version of them all, the GLA 45 AMG, is blisteringly quick, but way too firm on anything other than perfectly smooth roads.

Read our full review on the 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLA.

Jaguar I-Pace

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2019 Jaguar I-Pace

Jaguar designed the I-Pace specifically to be a tall-riding vehicle that you will enjoy a winding road in. Conceived from the ground up as an electric crossover, it’s apparently succeeded in that respect. It corners very flat, has positive steering and really rewards a vigorous drive. Power is respectable too, and with 394 horsepower going to all four wheels, it just shoots out of corners.

Read our full review on the 2019 Jaguar I-Pace.

Lamborghini Urus

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Still very new and not yet thoroughly tested by automotive journos, the Lamborghini Urus surely won’t disappoint. Imagined as a strong performer on tarmac and a decent one off-road, it’s kind of hard to beat its blend of aggressive styling, sheer power, and capability. Those who have driven it say it’s as good as you expect it to be and better than most other high-riders.

Read our full review on the 2019 Lamborghini Urus.

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