Nine of the best luxury SUVs that really can go off-road

Luxury SUVs are like limousines on stilts, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, they try to mimic the space, grace and pace of a regular passenger car, but increasingly popular high-riding wagons are also about increased flexibility and going beyond the bitumen.

Despite the on-road focus, many have the genes to travel a long way off-road, provided you understand the limitations of the car – and provided you can find a willing participant to clean them at the other end.

Assuming you can, here are some luxury SUVs designed with rough roads in mind.

Range Rover Vogue

Range Rover invented the luxury SUV back in 1970 so it's no surprise the British brand continues to lead the market when it comes to highly capable off-roaders that pamper like a limousine.

Enter the Range Rover (not the Evoque or the Sport, but the regular Range Rover), the flagship of an expanding family. With elegant lines and a spacious five-seat interior it makes for a supremely comfortable everyday car. Even more so if you go for the fully loaded SV Autobiography with the longer body, for even more rear legroom.

Just be aware of the big wheels and tyres, which are prone to punctures over sharp rocks. So if you do plan on heading off-road, consider the smallest wheels on offer, the 19-inch units.

Mercedes G-Class

Off-road there are few vehicles as capable as the G-Class. Credit that to the basic but proven hardware that includes live axles front and rear (most of the world has switched to independent suspension these days) and three independently locking differentials for added traction.

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As for its popularity, the G-Wagen continues to get better with age, increasing sales each year, with the most recent year posting a global record. Little wonder the G-Wagen is the only Mercedes-Benz on sale that doesn't have an end date on its model life.

Bentley Bentayga

While not classically beautiful, the five-seat wagon is bold and imposing, guaranteeing to stand out from the SUV throng. And inside it's pure opulence courtesy of sumptuous leather, wood and metal.

Don't like the Burnt Oak hide or Dark Fiddleback Eucalyptus wood trim? Fear not, because there are dozens of combinations to choose from. And if one of the 106 standard colours doesn't appeal then Bentley technicians can colour-match the exterior to any item of your choice.

In keeping with Bentley's brand values the Bentayga is all about performance, with the flagship W12 twin-turbo engine ensuring it completes the 0-100km/h in a sports car-like 4.1 seconds on the way to a top speed of 301km/h.

Mercedes-Benz GLS

Formerly known as the GL, the largest of Mercedes-Benz's six SUVs (with eight body styles between them) now picks up S in its name, linking it to the S-Class limousine it is close to on some dimensions.

Not that the GLS has changed markedly from the GL that arrived in 2012. Made in America, it still shares components with the five-seat ML, but an extra 30cm to its length allows for a third row of seats, taking capacity to seven.

The GLS350d makes most sense for those looking to go off-road, mainly because its 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel will take you a lot further on the 100-litre fuel tank. It's a great engine, too, beautifully suited to the relaxed driving nature of the GLS.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

A soon-to-arrive addition to the Grand Cherokee family, the Trailhawk is all about going off-road.

The Trailhawk amps up off-road ability courtesy of chunkier (and more puncture resistant) 18-inch tyres and a specially tuned version of the adjustable air suspension that raises the ground clearance as high as 274mm. There's also a black sticker on the bonnet to reduce glare as well as stronger under body protection.

And if it all goes wrong there are snazzy red tow hooks front and rear to help drag the Trailhawk out.

Expect the leather-lined Trailhawk in dealerships in February priced at about $74,000.

Rolls-Royce Cullinan

The Rolls-Royce Cullinan looks decidedly SUV-like in its wagon-esque proportions and higher ride height designed to glide over the azaleas with minimal damage.

The Cullinan will ride on an all-new architecture, which will also underpin the next generation Phantom. As with other Rolls-Royces, expect plenty of tech from parent company BMW as well as, possibly, a V12 engine.

While it's still in development, Rolls-Royce chief Torsten Muller-Otvos is adamant the Cullinan will redefine luxury off-roading.

Lexus LX570

If it's going off-road you're after then few will do it as comfortably or competently as the LX. It gets the LandCruiser's off-road hardware and software – including Crawl Control (a form of off-road cruise control), tyre pressure sensors and high ground clearance – to make it a hugely capable machine.

And with a 19-speaker Mark Levinson sound system, DVD screens in the rear and loads of leather and wood the Lexus isn't lacking in accoutrements, either.

Infiniti QX80

Borrowing the engine and underpinnings from the Nissan Patrol, the eight-seat off-roader from fledgling luxury brand Infiniti is a sizeable beast – and one loaded with luxury gear.

There's no shortage of grunt from the 5.6-litre V8, which pumps out 298kW and 560Nm, although it calls for plenty of premium unleaded in the process. At least it shifts the 2.8-tonne body easily enough, while the well sorted suspension ensures it's well behaved on-road.

While the QX80 is designed to go off-road, it isn't as adept as its Nissan sibling. Blame that on the lower front bumper that will scrape sooner than the Patrol's as well as the sizeable 22-inch wheels.

Audi Q7

With the air suspension system and an Off-Road mode in its Drive Select system the seven-seat Audi is clearly designed to go beyond the suburbs. Activate all its off-road goodness and there is 245mm of ground clearance and it'll ford through 500mm of water. There's also hill descent control that can be programmed between 4 and 30km/h for an electronically controlled descent on slippery surfaces.

Yet it's on-road where the Q7 performs its best, with excellent body control and a smooth, controlled nature to it. The 3.0-litre diesel engine also pulls strongly and smoothly, or you can up it to a 4.0-litre triple turbo V8 diesel in the SQ7.

Final tips

  • Tyres are the biggest limiting factor with most luxury SUVs. Those larger tyres are often designed to travel safely at high speeds on European freeways. But large tyres typically have a low profile (the distance is small between the wheel and the road surface) and susceptible to damage, particularly punctures.
  • Many serious off-roaders have steel trays protecting vital engine components underneath. However, many lighter-duty models only have plastic protection, which is weak if you hit a rock. Check before you go – and drive accordingly.
  • Know what you're dealing with. Many luxury off-roaders have tricky electronics to help you clamber over rocks, snow or sand. If you're not familiar with what your car has (or hasn't) got, have a flick through the owner's manual or duck into the dealer where you bought the car to check it out.