Small, High-Performance SUVs are the New Hot Hatch

Purists, take note.

SUVs are not a fad. They are the present and future. Buyers want, above all other considerations, ride height and robust cladding. Automakers are reorienting themselves as SUV companies first. The definition of “SUV” is broadening, with slightly raised vehicles expanding into every non-supercar niche as traditional body styles wither and die on model trees. EVs, judging by current concepts, will look a lot like crossovers.

That sounds bleak for the car industry. But, it won’t be all bad. SUVs share platforms with cars. They don’t need to sacrifice performance and efficiency. “SUVs” can include vehicles heavy on the “sport” and low on the “utility.” While we may hear the death knell for many sedans in the near future, the hot hatchback segment looks like it will not just survive but flourish, under a different name. Freed from the “hatchback” stigma, de facto hatchback SUVs can be sold as full-fledged luxury cars.

Mercedes offers the AMG GLA 45, a “compact performance SUV.” The GLA 45 puts out 375 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. It can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.3 seconds. You can add an “AMG Gloss Black” rear spoiler for it to look extra cool. The GLA 45 is five doors and small (same rough footprint as a VW Golf, less cargo and passenger volume). It looks just like a hatchback. But, again, it’s a “compact performance SUV” which carries no stigma and permits Mercedes to charge $50,000-plus for it.

BMW chose a similar direction with the m35i edition of the X2 “Sports Activity Coupe.” It’s not a full bore BMW “M” car. But, it is BMW putting its most powerful four-pot into its smallest SUV, generating 302 hp, 332 lb-ft of torque and a sub-5.0 second 0-60mph time. Lexus, with the UX begging for more power, is having “active conversations” about an F-brand crossover.

Audi is not yet in this hot SUV segment, but expect them to enter soon. Q3 sales declined 18 percent year over year in 2018, while Q5 and Q7 sales carried the water. Efforts to liven up the compact SUV segment are afoot. Reports have Audi bringing what looks like an RS Q3 to the American market with the inline-five from the RS3. The first generation Q3 had an RS variant (362 hp) in Europe. The hotter engine could also be paired with the potential Q4 coupe recently spotted.

A de facto hot hatch would be a bit of a departure for Volkswagen AG. Lamborghini Urus aside, VW brands have taken a traditional, approach to the SUV. The Touareg does not even feign being anything but a practical kid hauler. Porsche has brought sporty features to the Cayenne, though that’s a much larger car. Even the smaller Macan is in a much heavier weight class.

A great automotive thing is occurring. Luxury automakers, under a different guise, are finally giving the hot hatch its due effort. Purists, however, will struggle to enjoy it. Acceptance means admitting defeat and joining the ride height obsessed hordes. Some car enthusiasts may still prefer holding a candle for the RS4 Avant wagon that isn’t coming.

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