• The Evolution of Performance SUVs

Taking a look at how much the performance SUV has changed over the years

LISTEN 13:47

Back in the day, if you wanted to have a practical and fun car, you needed to have two cars. Things are different nowadays, as most manufacturers, even those you do not expect, have a fast SUV in their lineup. Obviously, the versatility of an SUV is second to none, but performance has always left something to be desired. That is, until the first performance SUV came out and started a trend that would spiral out of control. Suddenly, you didn’t need to have two cars, but that didn’t came by overnight. This is the history of the performance SUV and how it got to where it is today.

A Common Misconception - The Lamborghini LM002 Was A Performance SUV

1986 - 1993 Lamborghini LM002 Exterior Wallpaper quality
- image 737267

When talking about fast SUVs, many people immediately think of the Lamborghini LM002, also known as the “Rambo Lambo”. However, there are many reasons why it isn’t a performance SUV. Yes, it may have had a 5.2-liter normally-aspirated V-12, borrowed from the Lamborghini Countach, with 420 horsepower (309 kilowatts) at 6,800 RPM and 369 pound-feet (500 Nm) at 4,500 RPM, but the actual purpose of the car was not performance.

Its development started in 1977, with the Cheetah concept, which had a rear-mounted Chrysler V-8 engine.

This later evolved into the LM001, which now had an AMC V-8. The goal was to make a military car for the US military, but in the end, AM General’s HUMVEE was chosen.

The Evolution of Performance SUVs Exterior Wallpaper quality
- image 737275

Nevertheless, at the 1986 Brussels Auto Show, the “Rambo Lambo” was unveiled. It now used a new tubular steel frame, which accommodated a front-engine layout and riveted aluminum body panels. Between 1986 and 1993, only 328 LM002 were made.

The first Lambo SUV could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in around 7.8 seconds and hit a top speed of 125 mph (201 km/h), despite its dry weight of 5,952 pounds (2,700 kg). For those who wanted more power, there was a version called the L804, which used a 7.2-liter V-12 from a boat. Even so, the “Rambo Lambo” is not a performance SUV, even though many people refer to it as one.

Lamborghini LM002 specifications
Engine type 5.2-liter V-12
Transmission 5-speed Manual
Horsepower 420 HP @ 6,800 RPM
Torque 369 LB-FT @ 4,500 RPM
0-to-100 km/h (62 mph) 7.8 seconds
Top Speed 125 mph
Weight 5,952 pounds (2,700 kg)

Who Really Started The Performance SUV Craze?

The Evolution of Performance SUVs
- image 985041

The first performance SUV is considered to be the GMC Typhoon. At this point, the performance formula was still relatively simple. Simply put a powerful engine and a slightly more aggressive body kit, consisting mostly of lower bumpers and blacked-out trim. Suspension mods were quite minor. The Typhoon shared a platform with the Cyclone pick-up truck. The same body on frame construction was used by the Chevy Blazer and S-10.

Although modern performance SUVs make sure to let you know you are in something special, the Typhoon was quite subtle. The interior was identical to the non-performance version - GMC Jimmy – except for the Typhoon logos on the headrests and glove box.

American high-performance vehicles usually have a V-8 stuffed under the hood. The GMC Typhoon breaks the stereotype by using a 4.3-liter turbocharged V-6. The unit produced 284 horsepower (209 kilowatts) at 4,400 RPM and 360 pound-feet (488 Nm) at 3,600 RPM and allowed for a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 5.3 seconds, which was quicker than most performance cars at the time, including the C4 Corvette. Thanks to a BorgWarner 1372 transfer case, 65 percent of the torque went to the rear axle.

GMC Typhoon specifications
Engine 4.3-liter turbocharged V-6
Horsepower 284 HP @ 4,400 RPM
Torque 360 LB-FT @ 3,600 RPM
0 to 60 mph 5.3 seconds
Weight 3,807 lbs (1,727 kg)
The Evolution of Performance SUVs
- image 985042

Other performance modifications include lower suspension, better brakes, and a limited-slip differential. In addition, the relatively light dry weight of 3,807 pounds (1,727 kg) made it nimbler than your normal run-of-the-mill SUV from that time. Nevertheless, a slow-shifting four-speed torque converter automatic and a body on frame construction – both still common in the 1990s - did not do the Typhoon any favors.

The Ford Performance SUV That Should Have Been Made But Wasn’t

The Ford Thunder - Everything You Didn't Know And Why You've Never Heard Of It
- image 984030

We recently talked about Ford’s decision not to make what would have been the first three-row performance SUV. Just like the GMC Typhoon, which shared a platform with the GMC Cyclone, the Ford SVT Thunder Expedition shared a platform with the Ford SVT Lightning. Sadly, the production of the SVT Thunder never went beyond the one test car that was built.

Sadly, the Expedition was a body on frame, which is better if you want to go off-roading, but not great for performance. Still, the car could manage a 13.87-second quarter-mile time with eight people on board, thanks to the 5.4-liter supercharged V-8, producing 360 horsepower (268 kilowatts) at 4,750 RPM and 440 pound-feet (597 Nm) at 3,250 RPM. The 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time was 5.6 seconds and the top speed 149 mph (240 km/h).

The Ford Thunder - Everything You Didn't Know And Why You've Never Heard Of It
- image 984029
Ford SVT Thunder specifications
Engine 5.4-liter supercharged SOHC V-8
Horsepower 360 HP @ 4,750 RPM
Torque 440 LB-FT @ 3,250 RPM
0 to 60 mph 5.6 seconds
0 to 60 mph 149 mph (240 km/h)

The Germans Created the Modern-Day Performance SUV

The Evolution of Performance SUVs
- image 985046

Because the Thunder was never actually produced, the first modern-day performance SUV is considered to be the Mercedes (W163) ML55 AMG. The performance SUV from Stuttgart was still based on a body-on-frame design. However, it was now adapted in order to accommodate full independent suspension. Power came from the M113 5.4-liter normally-aspirated V-8, which made 347 horsepower (270 kilowatts) at 5,500 RPM and 376 pound-feet (510 Nm) at 2,800 – 5,400 RPM.

Power was sent to the ground thanks to Mercedes’ 4MATIC system and a five-speed automatic. The ML55 MG could reach from 0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, on its way to a top speed of 144 mph (232 km/h).

Mercedes-Benz) ML55 AMG specifications
Engine 5.4-liter normally-aspirated V-8
Horsepower 347 HP @ 5,500 RPM
Torque 376 LB-Ft @ 2,800 RPM
0 to 60 mph 6.6 seconds
Top Speed 144 mph (232 km/h)
2000 BMW X5
- image 31173

Many would argue that the BMW X5 48i (E53) should be crowned the first performance SUV of the century. Despite its smaller N62B48 4.8-liter V-8 engine, the “Beemer” made 360 horsepower 268 kilowatts) at 6,200 RPM and 361 pound-feet (490 Nm). Moreover, these were sent to the ground via the X-Drive AWD system and a six-speed automatic. This resulted in a 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) time of 5.8 seconds, on the way to 153 mph (246 km/h).

BMW X5 48i specifications
Engine 4.8-liter V-8
Horsepower 360 HP @ 6,200 RPM
Torque 361 LB-FT
0 to 60 mph 5.8 seconds
Top Speed 153 mph (246 km/h)

Probably the strongest argument, in favor of the X5 is that it was the first SUV to use unibody construction, as opposed to the body-on-frame. As mentioned before, the former is much better for performance applications. Despite that, the X5 48i was not considered the first performance SUV, since it was just a normal X5 with a bigger engine. Had BMW’s M-division touched the E53 X5, things might have been different, as SUVs by themselves are not performance vehicles.


2007 BMW X5 LeMans
- image 160130
2007BMW X5 le mans

Like the SVT Thunder, this is a one-off project, made specifically to set a lap record at the Nurburgring. It used An S70/3 V-12, taken straight out of the Le Mans-winning BMW V-12 LMR. It made 700 horsepower (514 kilowatts) and 530 pound-feet (700 Nm) at 5,000 RPM. This was enough for a 4.7-second time to 60 mph (97 km/h) and a top speed of 173 mph (278 km/h). We are simply mentioning it because it’s awesome.

BMW X5 Le Mans specifications
Engine 6.1-liter V-12
Horsepower 700 HP
Torque 530 LB-FT
0 to 60 mph 4.7 seconds
Top Speed 278 km/h (173 mph)

The First True Sports SUV

2004 Porsche 911 Cayenne (996)
- image 18860
Porsche Cayenne

Porsche is mostly known for its sports cars, more specifically the 911. About 20 years ago, no one would have thought they’d be making SUVs and crossovers. Then again, the same goes for many other manufacturers, like Maserati, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, and many others. By the 2000s, the German sports carmaker still wasn’t financially out of the woods.

Seeing how other manufacturers are capitalizing on the niche, making an SUV seemed like the logical choice. The good thing is that, despite sharing a platform and many components with the VW Touareg and Audi Q7, Porsche put an effort to make the Cayenne as sportier as possible, without compromising its versatility.

2004 Porsche 911 Cayenne (996)
- image 18863

This resulted in the first truly high-performance SUV. The Porsche engineers made sure the SUV feels as close to a sports car as possible. The Cayenne Turbo S was the top of the cherry. It had a 4.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 producing 521 horsepower (388 kilowatts) at 5,500 RPM and 531 pound-feet (720 Nm) at 2,750 – 3,750 RPM. Which allowed for a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 168 mph (270 km/h). But the most impressive thing about the Cayenne was that, despite all the sports car-like performance, it was also quite capable off-road. This means that, in 2003, the Cayenne Turbo S was the most versatile vehicle on sale.

Porsche Cayenne Turbo S specifications
Engine 4.5-liter twin-turbo V-8
Power 521 HP @ 5,500 RPM
Torque 531 LB-FT @ 2,750 – 3,750 RPM
0 to 60 mph 4.9 seconds
Top Speed 168 mph (270 km/h)

A Muscle SUV?

The Evolution of Performance SUVs
- image 985056

Muscle cars are definitively American, in the same way, a Ferrari or an Alfa-Romeo is definitively Italian. With the SUV/crossover boom, a new trend had emerged. Remember the muscle car formula? Manufacturers put the biggest possible engine in the smallest possible car, and voila! Now manufacturers (mainly Chrysler) seem to be doing the same with their SUVs.

The first SUV to get the “Muscle treatment” was the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, which utilized a 6.1-liter HEMI V-8 with 426 horsepower and 420 pound-feet (569 Nm), allowing a 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph (97 km/h) and a top speed of 152 mph (245 km/h).
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 specifications
Engine 6.1-liter HEMI V-8
Power 426 HP
Torque 420 LB-FT
0 to 60 mph 4.8 seconds
Top Speed 152 mph (245 km/h)
The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk Is Big And Dumb And Pointless And I Really Want To Drive It High Resolution Exterior
- image 713067

Two generations later, the Hellcat 6.2-liter Supercharged V-8 found its way inside the Grand Cherokee’s engine bay, giving birth to the 707-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. It blasted to 60 mph in just 3.3 seconds on its way to 180 mph (290 km/h), making it the fastest SUV at the time.

By this point, all performance SUVs have transitioned to a unibody architecture. This includes full-size SUV models, like the Dodge Durango, which also received the Hellcat treatment, bringing its performance capabilities close to that of the Trackhawk and in some cases even pulling away in a drag race. This also happens to be the first three-row performance/Muscle SUV.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk specifications
Power 707 HP @ 6,000 RPM
Torque 645 LB-FT @ 4,800 RPM
Max. Engine Speed 6,200 RPM
Transmission eight-speed automatic

Carmakers May Have Lost The Plot

2020 Rolls-Royce Cullinan - Driven Exterior
- image 962602

As time goes by, the definition of what makes an SUV is continuously being stretched. Sport Utility Vehicles need to combine road and off-road features. With many of them, that’s no longer the case, as they have as many off-road capabilities as a hot hatchback. It’s a well-known fact that most SUV buyers will never use them off-road and that they simply lie in the high seating position.

Carmakers, on the other hand, are so obsessed with infusing performance and luxury in their SUVs that they’ve completely lost the plot, giving birth to super exclusive, high-performance, luxury SUVs. I don’t imagine anyone will take their Rolls Royce Cullinan, Lamborghini Urus, or Maserati Levante off-road.

2019 Lamborghini Urus Exterior
- image 749812
Hexagonal shapes and sharp angles front to back
Typical Lambo Styling with an SUV twist

Despite its controversial looks, the Porsche Cayenne Turbo S was the pinnacle of SUV for one simple reason – it was the most versatile. If you wanted performance, similar to that of a sports car, comfort, decent practicality, and off-road capabilities, it could give it to you. And although Lamborghini Urus owners probably have another vehicle, for venturing off the asphalt, cars like the Urus are no longer performance SUVs.


Just like the definition for a supercar has changed over the years, so did the definition of an SUV. In 1936, the Bugatti Type 57 Atlantique was considered a supercar, because it could do 124 mph (200 km/h). Nowadays, most hatchbacks can do that. Nowadays, an SUV no longer needs to have exceptional off-road capabilities. Simply put, modern-day performance SUVs are too heavy on tech, complex, fragile, and sophisticated for the old-school definition of an SUV. It’s not that they can’t be taken off-roading. It’s just that most people wouldn’t dare, because of how flashy, sophisticated, and sports car-like they have become.

Dim Angelov
Dim Angelov
Born in 1992, I come from a family of motoring enthusiasts. My passion for cars was awoken at the age of six, when I saw a Lamborghini Diablo SV in a magazine. After high school I earned a master’s degree in marketing and a Master of Arts in Media and Communications. Over the years, I’ve practiced and become skilled in precision driving and to date have test driven more than 250 cars across the globe. Over the years, I’ve picked up basic mechanical knowledge and have even taken part in the restoration of a 1964 Jaguar E-Type and an Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint. Lately, I’ve taken a fancy to automotive photography, and while modern cars are my primary passion, I also have a love for Asian Martial Arts, swimming, war history, craft beer, historical weapons, and car restoration. In time, I plan my own classic car restoration and hope to earn my racing certificate, after which I expect to establish my own racing team.  Read full bio
About the author

Related Articles

Is It Finally Time For McLaren To Take The Crossover Plunge?

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: