Nearly every product planner in the automotive industry has the same three letters in mind: SUV.
Big ones, small ones, fast ones, niche ones, convertible ones and luxurious ones. The segment’s popularity knows no bounds, a trend which has led to models no one would have dared imagine a decade ago like the Rolls-Royce Cullinan.
The idea of an expensive, upmarket SUV isn’t new, though. Join us as we look at the history of the luxury SUV, from the Jeep Wagoneer to the Bentley Bentayga by way of the original Oldsmobile Bravada and the first-generation Cadillac Escalade.
Jeep Wagoneer (1963)
Jeep launched the Wagoneer in 1963 to replace the venerable Station Wagon. The model played an immense role in making the SUV a common sight in suburban driveways, beach resorts and ski stations across America. Jeep made early models Spartan, but the Wagoneer (and, later, the Grand Wagoneer) became increasingly luxurious over the course of its long production run.
In 1991, its last year on the market, the Grand Wagoneer started at $29,695 (about £44,000 today). The Grand Wagoneer nameplate will make a comeback on a range-topping, Ram pick up-based SUV positioned a notch above the Grand Cherokee. We expect it in 2021.
PICTURE: Wagoneer Limited
Range Rover (1970)
Land Rover envisioned the Range Rover as a more comfortable, leisure-oriented alternative to the Series IIA. It made its debut in 1970 with two doors, a Rover V8 engine and permanent four-wheel drive. Basic by modern standards back then, it progressively became less so. Four doors became an option in 1981, an automatic gearbox the following year, and air-con and cruise shortly after that.
Of significance for the brand, the first US-spec Range Rover landed in March of 1987. Already marketed as a luxury model, it came fully loaded with a fuel-injected V8 and a four-speed automatic transmission. Land Rover claimed a sports saloon-like top speed of over 100mph.
Monteverdi Safari (1976)
Switzerland-based car-maker Monteverdi wisely predicted the rise of the luxury SUV. It set out to turn the homely International-Harvester Scout into an upmarket pick-up capable of blending the off-road capacity of a Land Rover with the opulence of a Jaguar XJ.
The Safari hid its Midwestern roots with a specific design that brought a new-look front end with four lights and a much nicer interior. Historians disagree on production figures but the Safari never matched the Range Rover’s popularity.
Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen/G-Class (1979)
In 1972, Mercedes-Benz and Steyr-Daimler-Puch began designing a Land Rover-baiting off-roader. The model finally broke cover in 1979. Early on, the G remained a solid but rudimentary form of transportation built for farmers and automotive Alpinists. Then-independent tuner AMG turned the G into an ostentatious, V8-powered beast in 1979 but production numbers remained low.
Mercedes began nudging the G upmarket in 1989 when it introduced a posher model named W463 (pictured). Based on the existing W460, it received wood trim on the dashboard, leather upholstery and permanent all-wheel drive. Its production run culminated with completely mad variants like the six-wheeled G63 6x6 and the Maybach-badged G650 Landaulet. The first all-new G in 39 years made its debut in 2018.
Jeep Wagoneer (XJ, 1983)
Jeep introduced a ritzier version of the XJ-generation Cherokee named Wagoneer in 1983. To avoid confusion, the existing, body-on-frame Wagoneer from 1963 became the Grand Wagoneer. The brand differentiated the Wagoneer and the Cherokee by adding imitation wood grain trim on the sides (which buyers could delete if they wanted), offering it only with four doors and making the list of standard equipment more extensive. Later on, the Wagoneer also received two-part headlights (pictured).
Both variants of the XJ helped turn Jeep around in the 1980s by nearly doubling the brand’s sales. In 1984, the XJ’s first model year on the market, Jeep sold 58,596 examples of the Cherokee and 20,940 examples of the Wagoneer. The base Wagoneer with a four-cylinder engine cost $12,444 (about £24,000 today) versus $9995 (£21,300) for the cheapest Cherokee.
Lamborghini LM002 (1986)
Lamborghini struggled during the 1970s. It tried bolstering its sports car business by supplying an off-roader to the American army but officials ultimately selected another design. The company couldn’t afford to waste precious resources so it turned its would-be Hummer-fighting SUV into a civilian model fit for the world’s elite. It was a last-ditch bid to recoup at least part of its investment.
Part supercar, the LM002 launched with a V12 engine borrowed from the Countach. Lamborghini built about 300 examples of the off-roader by hand in its Sant’Agata Bolognese, Italy, factory.
Oldsmobile Bravada (1990)
Never one to shy away from badge-engineering, General Motors launched an upscale SUV in 1990 by slapping Oldsmobile emblems on a Chevrolet Blazer. Named Bravada, the model offered a longer list of standard features than its Bowtie-badged sibling and a handful of brand-specific styling cues including plastic cladding on the bottom parts of the body. Buyers after a fully-loaded Bravada could order an appearance package that added imitation gold accents.
Surprisingly, the formula worked. Though not as successful as the Blazer, and not nearly as refined as today’s luxury SUVs, the Bravada appealed to buyers in the market for a posher way to power through a snow storm. Oldsmobile made three generations of the model until it shut down in 2004.
Toyota Land Cruiser (J80, 1989)
Toyota sensed the tide turning. The J80-generation Land Cruiser it introduced at the 1989 Tokyo motor show moved away from its utilitarian roots and came with more luxury features than its predecessor – at least on the American market. Loaded US-spec SUVs offered leather, power windows and locks, alloy wheels and a sprinkling of chrome trim.
And yet, that wasn’t enough to satisfy some buyers. Toyota felt it reached the upper limits of credibility in terms of grandeur so, as we’ll see later, it gave its Lexus division the Land Cruiser to play with.
Ford Explorer Limited (1991)
The rather unexpected popularity of the Eddie Bauer trim level showed Ford the viability of taking the hot-selling Explorer further upmarket. Introduced in 1991, the range-topping and unimaginatively-named Limited model ticked every conceivable box on the list of extra-cost options including leather upholstery, four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox.
It stood proud as Ford’s flagship SUV during much of the 1990s.
Acura SLX (1995)
Bighorn, Jackaroo, Monterey, Horizon and SLX. The second-generation Isuzu Trooper wore many nameplates over the course of its 11-year long production run. The SLX name belonged to Acura.
Honda’s luxury division created primarily for the US market knocked on Isuzu’s door because it wanted to offer a luxurious SUV without developing one from scratch. The two companies already had an on-going partnership; Honda sold its own version of the Rodeo as the Passport.
All but forgotten today, the SLX did its best to stand out from the Trooper with a brand-specific design and a nicer interior but few buyers took notice. Unfortunately, some of the ones that did also noticed its alarming tendency to roll over, a problematic trait it shared with its Isuzu-badged sibling.
SLX sales ended after the 1999 model year and Acura replaced it with the first-generation MDX, a model it developed entirely in-house.
Lexus LX 470 (1996)
Named LX 470, the first Lexus SUV stood out from the Toyota Land Cruiser it was based on with very minor details like a model-specific grille, Lexus-only body cladding and, of course, the brand’s emblem on both ends as well as on the alloy wheels.
The upmarket treatment and Lexus’ image helped justify the LX’s $7000 (about £9,000 today) premium over the Land Cruiser.
Infiniti QX4 (1996)
Japan’s luxury manufacturers quickly moved into SUV territory. Infiniti followed rivals Lexus and Acura by introducing the QX4 in September of 1996. Again, the brand didn’t start from a clean sheet of paper. It chose the faster, cheaper route of taking a Nissan Pathfinder, making several visual tweaks inside and out and piling on the options.
Infiniti’s marketing department called it a good job well done. More convincingly executed than the SLX, the QX4 remained in production until 2002.
By the end of 1996, American car buyers had three Japanese luxury SUVs to choose from. They could also select one from the growing list of US-made (or, in some cases, US-badged) pick-ups. Land Rover’s Range Rover and Discovery models single-handedly represented European manufacturers in the segment; Mercedes still didn’t sell the G-Class in the US, though several hundred examples trickled in through gray market channels with varying degrees of legality.
Part of it came down to image issues. Some doggedly clung on to the belief that a SUV-based wagon couldn’t drive like a BMW or feel as nice as a Mercedes-Benz inside. There was no way an SUV could accelerate like a Porsche, either. The thought was downright obscene to those who bought a 3 Series for the way it handled, an S-Class for its coddling cabin or a 911 for hot laps at the track. And yet, behind the scenes all three brands quietly toiled away on their own high-riding off-roader.
PICTURE: Jeep Grand Cherokee Orvis Edition
Mercedes-Benz M-Class (1997)
Mercedes-Benz remembers its board commissioned the M-Class as a replacement for the G-Class. Development work began in the early 1990s. M-Class production finally started in 1997, less than a year after the firm finished building its first American factory in Vance, Alabama.
Mercedes learned two valuable lessons from the G-Class. First, it quickly realised the M-Class wouldn’t replace the G because it still sold well in spite of its age. Second, and on a more lasting level, it showed performance and off-road capacity weren’t mutually exclusive. The ML55 AMG made its debut in 1999 with a buttoned-down chassis and a powerful V8 engine under the bonnet.
Lincoln Navigator (1997)
As the 1990s drew to a close, it became crystal clear that luxury car-makers couldn’t afford to ignore consumers’ shift towards high-riding vehicles. They weren’t just for country folks anymore; SUVs became common in cities, too. Instead of ducking its head in the sand, Lincoln embraced the trend and turned the first-generation Ford Expedition into the original Navigator.
The two SUVs shared basic dimensions, overall proportions and several mechanical components but the Lincoln gained a brand-specific front end and an array of amenities with the “power” prefix. Now in its fourth generation and still based on the Expedition, the Navigator continues to stand out as one of Lincoln’s greatest hits. It represents a sizable chunk of the company’s annual sales.
GMC Yukon Denali (1998)
The shift towards nicer SUVs gave General Motors the perfect opportunity to bump its GMC division up a notch on the market and further differentiate it from Chevrolet, which remained a mainstream brand.
It introduced the Denali nameplate to denote its more luxurious models and immediately slapped it on the Yukon, a model never developed with luxury in mind.
Cadillac Escalade (1998)
The Navigator caught Cadillac, Lincoln’s arch rival, completely off-guard. Worried about losing sales, General Motors’ luxury brand turned the GMC Yukon Denali into the original Escalade in record time.
The model made its debut in 1998 as a 1999 model. It looked an awful lot like the Yukon Denali with the notable exception of badges. Power came from the same 5.7-litre V8 engine. Inside, creature comforts like softer leather upholstery and a Bose sound system rewarded the buyers who paid the premium over the Yukon Denali.
BMW X5 (E53, 1999)
BMW, the self-proclaimed purveyor of the ultimate driving machine, shocked the public and the press when it unveiled the original X5. How could an SUV remain credible off-road while delivering the razor-sharp handling buyers expect from a BMW? The answer was in the recipe the brand followed.
If you classify cars like you classify whiskey, the X5 was a blend rather than a single malt. BMW owned Land Rover at the time so it leveraged its sub-division’s expertise in making unstoppable off-road vehicles. The P38-generation Range Rover donated many innovative features like hill descent control to the project. For on-road use, BMW rummaged the E39-generation 5 Series parts bin and came back with enthusiast-approved mechanical bits and pieces.
Porsche Cayenne (2002)
Porsche often considered building a four-door model. It experimented with several prototypes, including a 911-like saloon named 989 that nearly reached production in the early 1990s, but it didn’t pull the trigger until it introduced the original Cayenne in 2002.
In hindsight, the Cayenne represented a remarkable degree of forward planning for a company that, at the time, was known for being among the very last to adapt to market trends.
PICTURE: Porsche Cayenne Turbo, in flight during Autocar's roadtest
Range Rover Sport (2005)
The Cayenne encroached on Land Rover’s home turf. Instead of building a faster Range Rover, the company created a brand-new model named Range Rover Sport that placed an unabashed focus on performance. Buyers could order it with a supercharged 4.2-litre engine.
The Sport retained the stock Range Rover’s world-famous off-road capacity thanks in part to an adjustable air suspension. It lowered the body at motorway speeds and raised it off the beaten path to clear obstacles without leaving behind a trail of oily parts. Underneath, it was the Land Rover Discovery 4.
Bentley Bentayga (2015)
Bentley bravely ventured into uncharted waters when it introduced the Bentayga in 2015. It launched with a twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre W12 engine tuned to provide 591bhp, a figure that made it the world’s most powerful series-produced SUV at the time. It also ushered in a trick 48-volt suspension system that all but eliminated body roll. The brand topped it all off with an interior fit for a sultan.
Though controversial at launch, the Bentayga quickly became Bentley’s most popular model, especially in key markets like America. The firm recently expanded the line-up with V8 and hybrid variants, and a diesel version was briefly on sale, too, in Europe.
Tesla Model X (2015)
Tesla launched the Model X after numerous delays. It was worth the wait. It’s the world’s first mass-produced electric SUV and one of the quickest cars on the planet. Its unique falcon doors further help it stand out from the crowd, though they caused a good deal of the delays that plagued the model. Average real-world range is 250 miles.
The Model X’s hegemony over the electric SUV segment won’t last. Jaguar fired first when it introduced the I-Pace, and Audi and Mercedes-Benz launched their own rivals recently.
Lamborghini Urus (2017)
The Urus represents one of Lamborghini’s boldest projects to date. The Italian firm expects to sell 3500 examples of the Urus annually once production reaches cruising speed. If it’s successful, the Urus will double Lamborghini’s footprint.
We caught our first glimpse of the Urus when Lamborghini unveiled an eponymous concept at the 2012 Beijing auto show. Introduced in 2017, the production model kept the design study’s basic proportions but it received an updated design. It stands out as the firm’s first turbocharged model with a 4.0-litre V8 that channels 641bhp to all four wheels.
Rolls-Royce Cullinan (2018)
After denying it would make an SUV for many years, Rolls-Royce buckled an unveiled its Cullinan in 2018. Powered with a modified version of the V12 petrol engine that powers the rest of its range, it became the first Rolls equipped with four-wheel drive.
The opulence and magic-carpet ride is what we expect, complete with a vaguely scary £252,000 purchase price; that’s just the start: we had one in on test recently which, with options, cost over £400,000.
Aston Martin DBX (2019)
Even that maker of glorious grand tourers and super-sports cars Aston Martin can’t ignore the SUV. Later in 2019 it will unveil its new five-door DBX, to be built in an all-new factory in South Wales. It’ll feature a twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 sourced from Mercedes-AMG, which is a small shareholder in Aston Martin.
Like Rolls-Royce, Ferrari was for a long time a resistor to the idea of building an SUV. It too changed its mind, and we’re promised its entry into the market in around two years. Code-named Purosangue, Ferrari claims it will be like no other performance SUV available. “I think we’ve found a concept and a package that on one side is a real SUV… but on the other side there’s a huge differentiation of concept to existing SUVs,” a Ferrari spokesman told Autocar recently.
The only notable hold-out from the SUV trend is McLaren. The British sports car firm is adamant that a high-riding SUV is incompatible with its brand and product values, and so won’t be making one.
PICTURE: Autocar artist impression of Ferrari SUV.