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Cars & travel.

7 September 2021

Best large SUVs and 4x4 cars for 2021

Our best large SUVs and 4x4 cars are refined, efficient and practical – and our recommend used model won't cost you a fortune in running costs.
Daljinder Nagra
Audi E-tron

Large SUVs and 4x4 cars are very popular in the UK. Favoured for their rugged good looks and the confidence they inspire on the road, thanks to their raised driving position and perceived safety.

The best large SUVs are also practical, with comfortable and spacious interiors. And – on most large models at least – you get four-wheel drive and the ability to venture off road. Few do, but beefy suspension and large tyres also do a good job of smoothing out rough roads and absorbing pot holes.

In recent years, manufacturers have committed to countering the ‘gas-guzzler’ image of large SUVs. With diesel falling out of favour with new car buyers, brands have turned to hybridisation and battery-electric power to reduce emissions and running costs – often with impressive results.

However, you need to choose carefully. Our testing has found purportedly ‘green’ models that breach EU limits for exhaust gases, as well as models that fall seriously short of their claimed fuel economy.

We’ve also found SUVs and 4x4 cars that are a nightmare to drive anywhere other than a muddy field. Long braking distances, wide turning circles and harsh suspension may be fine on a dirt track, but they become significant problems on a motorway or in town.

That’s not to say you can’t find a great large SUV that will meet your needs. You'll find our top recommendations for the best new and used large SUVs and 4x4 cars in the tables below. Plus, we reveal some models that aren't worth your money.

Log in now to see which large SUVs and 4x4s we recommend and get access to all of our independent, expert car reviews . If you're not already a member, join Which? to unlock our Best Buys and Don't Buys.

Best new large SUVs and 4x4s

Below, our experts reveal the very best SUVs and 4x4s available to buy new, including luxury models, which have excelled in our rigorous lab and road tests. If you're looking to reduce your environmental impact - as well as running costs - keep reading for our pick of the very best new hybrid, plug-in hybrid (PHEV) and full-electric large and luxury SUVs.

Best new hybrid large SUVs and 4x4s

Best new electric large SUVs and 4x4s

Best new electric large SUVs and 4x4s

Not found the model for you? See all of our large SUV reviews


Best used large SUVs and 4x4s

Save yourself a packet on depreciation by opting for a used model. We only give Best Buy ratings to the most reliable models, so you can buy with confidence.

 

Large SUVs and 4x4s to avoid

Beefy SUVs and 4x4s have a certain image to uphold. They look strong and durable - surely a car that can barrel across frozen tundra and rutted fields won’t break down?  Not necessarily, as our research has revealed.

There’s also the matter of fuel consumption. No one is expecting a hulking SUV or 4x4 to be super efficient, but people’s expectations aren’t an excuse to produce cars that do less than 20 miles to the gallon. We’ve tested hybrid SUVs that achieve more than 40mpg, so it’s not as if it can’t be done.

Below, we’ve rounded up three unreliable or gas-guzzling 4x4s that you should avoid.

What to look for in a large SUV or 4x4

The largest SUVs were originally beasts of burden; designed to tackle the toughest terrain with specialised hardware such as permanent four-wheel-drive and low-range transmissions, designed to keep you going when nature would rather you turned around and went home - see more below.

As the popularity of large SUVs has grown, the class has grown to encompass everything from sports models and alternatives to luxury limousines, to crossover cars which do without off-road specific features to improve efficiency and around-town road manners.

What’s best for you will depend on your specific requirements. A large off-roader with four-wheel drive and high ground clearance is recommended if you need to cross muddy fields, or regularly travel across difficult terrain or in particularly adverse weather.

However, if your driving life largely consists of commuting or school runs, and you simply want the better visibility afforded by a high driving position, or the practicality of seven seats, a crossover model with a smaller engine will likely fit the bill.

Should you buy a hybrid, electric, diesel or petrol SUV?

Traditionally, most large SUVs sold in the UK were diesel, as they offered more reasonable fuel economy over the big petrol engines needed to power these large cars.

Unless you opt for a hybrid model, this is still largely the case, particularly amongst the largest models available. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Modern diesels are generally very refined and offer plenty of torque (pulling power) – which is great for towing. They typically offer the best fuel economy over long distances, too, and our tests have revealed that some of the latest diesels are very clean indeed.

However, manufacturers’ need to reduce the carbon emissions of their fleets has seen many turn to both full hybrid and plug-in hybrid technology (the latter being the preferred choice for the largest luxury models).

There's also a trend towards large hybrid SUVs fitted with electric motors as well as conventional combustion engines. These often claim to have better fuel consumption and emissions than diesels, although in reality this will depend largely on the type of driving you do.

In our tests, both conventional self-charging hybrids (which charge using energy recuperation, such as from the brakes, rather than needing to be plugged in) and plug-in hybrid SUVs often outperform comparable petrol or diesel models in stop-start city driving. This is where hybrid systems are at their most effective.

However, this advantage is often lost in higher-speed driving, such as on the motorway.  

If you opt for a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), make sure you can regularly charge it. By not doing so, you risk being stung with expensive fuel bills. In our tests, we’ve seen a PHEV model’s fuel economy halve when it’s out of charge as its engine needs to work harder to keep the weight from the heavy battery and combustion engine rolling.

Our testing has also revealed that some PHEV large SUVs use a lot of electricity when running on batteries alone – a combination of relatively small electric motors and heavy overall vehicle weight.

Some manufacturers are also adding mild hybrid technology to their existing petrol and diesel engines. These have the smallest electric motor/battery configuration and can't be driven on electricity alone. However, they do offer claimed improvements to fuel economy and emissions with comparable combustion-only models. But we've seen in our tests that they don't always help. To make sure you'll get any benefit, you'll need to check our independent fuel consumption figures in our car reviews.  

If you can regularly charge your car, you might want to skip straight to a full battery electric car. The large SUV market is rapidly expanding with excellent zero-emissions models across the price spectrum. However, you’ll need to choose carefully if you want to tow anything, as most currently aren’t able to. And while they’ll likely cost you less to run (provided you charge at home), none currently offer the driving range that a conventional petrol or diesel SUV can manage.

Large SUVs boot space

Not all large SUVs are the practical workhorses you might imagine. Having lots of four-wheel-drive kit under the car's floor can lead to compromised interior space. Boot space, in particular, can be quite limited. And the fact SUVs sit so high off the ground can make them difficult to get in and out of.

On the other hand, some large SUVs are genuine substitutes for an MPV. Off-roaders available with seven seats include the Audi Q7, BMW X7, Hyundai Santa Fe,  Kia Sorento and Skoda Kodiaq.

Luxury SUVs as an alternative to premium saloons

The days of ultra-basic off-roaders that you could hose out after a day's work are all but over. Modern large SUVs are much more like conventional family cars, with premium models encroaching into the space of the traditional luxury limousine.

The Range Rover family of cars sums this category up well. Each model has serious off-road hardware, but it’s their styling, opulence, practicality and easy-going road manners that have seen them become a hit with buyers. The Audi Q7 and BMW X5 are also well worth a look if outright off-road performance is less important to you.

4x4 car driving through mud

Off-road performance vs comfort and economy

If you’re serious about going where few cars have gone before, then there's no real substitute for a large SUV. However, while most talk the talk, you need to ensure it has the right off-road hardware.

The main thing to consider is a low-range gearbox, which allows the car to crawl very slowly, and minimises the risk of wheel-spin. Locking differentials (which force two wheels on the same axle to move in unison) are also useful for not getting stuck.

One of the easiest ways of improving a car’s off-road ability is to fit it with proper all-terrain tyres. The road tyres fitted as standard to most models might benefit handling on tarmac, but are a serious limitation in the rough stuff.

‘Proper’ off-road models to consider include the Land Rover Discovery and Toyota Land Cruiser, which both have the high-ground clearance and aforementioned off-road kit to perform properly in very tricky conditions.

If you could do without a proper mud plugger, some luxury SUVs such as the BMW X5 can also be specified with 'off-road packs'. This includes kit like underbody protection to boost off-road ability.

Traditional 4x4s vs newer 4x2s

There's an increasing trend towards off-road-style cars that only have two-wheel drive. It's not only crossover models that can be bought with front-wheel drive; some more traditional-style 4x4s are available as 4x2s. 

Of course, some benefits of a 4x4 remain in two-wheel-drive SUVs, including the high seating position and ground clearance. But you won't benefit from improved traction. On the other hand, the price is usually lower and fuel economy is often significantly better.

Four-wheel-drive vs all-wheel drive

There's also all-wheel drive (AWD) rather than 'permanent' four-wheel drive. This means power will only go to the second axle (either front or rear, depending on the model) when the car decides it's needed - when detecting a loss of grip, for instance. In normal operation, such cars are two-wheel drive. 

An AWD model should provide greater traction over wet grass or gravel, but it's not for proper off-road driving. This is slightly complicated as the terms are used interchangeably, even by manufacturers, and with modern cars there's no hard and fast rule as to what sort of car would have what. Generally, however, AWD cars run in a two-wheel-drive configuration on the road to save fuel and for better handling. They then send power to the additional axle when required, so traction on slippery or loose surfaces is improved. This applies to the latest crossovers, too. 

Increasingly, SUV models that aren’t specifically designed for off-road use will have AWD, as it has less of an impact on fuel consumption. Four-wheel drive (or 4x4) is traditionally used in larger off roaders, and used to send power to all four wheels equally.

Best large SUVs and 4x4 cars for road travel

Since you'll probably be spending most of your time on tarmac, it's important to consider how your off-roader behaves on the road. 

Some are wider than two metres, so it will be tricky parking at the supermarket and you won't be able to drive through a 6ft 6in width restriction. It's also important to remember that a large, heavy SUV is never going to handle amazingly well or be the most economical - but there’s a big difference between the best and worst. 

Our comprehensive reviews cover important dynamic traits such as braking, suspension and how cars behave in emergency manoeuvres - particularly important in high-sided vehicles such as SUVs.

See all of our large SUV and 4x4 car reviews

We test cars more thoroughly than anyone else

Our tests go further than those carried out by other organisations, and because Which? is independent, you can trust our reviews to give you the full, honest and impartial truth about every car we test.

Every car we review is subjected to more than 100 individual tests in a lab, on a test track and on real roads – and we really clock up the miles, driving around 500 miles in every car that we test.

Testing in controlled lab conditions means that the results we collect are directly comparable between different cars, helping us determine exactly which models are better and why, and helping you find the perfect car for your needs

And so you know which cars are likely to prove reliable for years to come, we also gather feedback from thousands of UK car owners through the annual Which? Car Survey, using it to generate detailed reliability ratings for the cars we test.

To take the guesswork out of choosing your next car, join Which? and you’ll receive access to all our expert reviews and advice.