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BBC TopGear
Top Gear Advice

Nine cars to buy instead of the best small SUVs

It’s the advice we really shouldn’t have to give, yet here we are!

  1. Instead of a Nissan Qashqai: a Nissan GT-R

    The Qashqai routinely sells like proverbial hotcakes. Or like very non-proverbial track pants and sourdough starter kits during COVID. And there are many things that recommend it as a new car purchase. One; it is definitely a car. We checked. Two: it costs an amount of money that doesn’t seem to be too difficult for new car buyers to come across, given how well it sells.

    But it’s hardly the most interesting thing that Nissan does. The closest facsimile of interest looks to be the 160bhp Tekna variant, which has a manual gearbox, a petrol engine and front-wheel drive. This would be a heady combination in something like a Peugeot 205 GTI, but it’s not going to blow anyone’s hair back in an SUV. And then we arrive at the price for this hair-staying-resolutely-where-it-is performance: more than £30,000.

    Luckily, £30,000 is just enough to find yourself strapped into something from the same brand, but a clearly very different stable: the GT-R. Hand-built under hermetically sealed conditions with precision usually reserved for ocular surgery, it’s pretty much the trope of Japanese-ness distilled into a road-going supercar.

    We found a 2009 GT-R with 60,000 miles for 30 grand, it’s Litchfield-tuned 3.8-litre, twin-turbo V6 pumping out 600bhp. And, being the generally excellent mathematicians that we are, we’ve ascertained that 600 is a good deal more than 160. And we know that power isn’t everything. Good god, do we know. So let’s leave you with an often overlooked factoid: the wheels on the GT-R have special beads to stop the tyres coming off the rim, because the GT-R can corner that hard. The Qashqai probably doesn’t have that.

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  2. Instead of a Porsche Macan: a Lancia Delta Integrale

    OK, it’s probably going to be difficult to talk you out of what’s arguably the best small SUV on the planet, especially when the car in question drives like a hot hatch, has one of the best badges in the business and is in that shape that seems to sway the yummiest of mummies. But as our job doesn’t usually abound with difficulty, we’re going to take a challenge on, just for the hell of it.

    The good news, at least for us, is that a Porsche Macan costs a pretty penny, and quite a few ugly ones too. In fact, you’re going to have to find 5,000,000 pennies of varying attractiveness to buy a Macan – and that can get you quite a bit of car, should you look elsewhere.

    In fact, you could have the road-going version of one of the best rally cars of all time. In a perfect world, we certainly would. Yep, it’s the Lancia Delta Integrale, and, for the £50,000 budget needed for a Macan, you can pick up a very clean Evo version. Or, if you were going to plump for the Macan Turbo, you can pick up a limited edition Giallo Ginestra for the same money.

    Downsides? Well, the steering wheel is on the continental side of the car, which matters for about 10 seconds or so until you get used to it. Also, you may experience the feeling that you are much, much cooler than you actually are. Upsides? Oh, roughly everything else.

  3. Instead of a Dacia Duster: an E90 BMW M3 saloon

    A Dacia Duster is very, very cheap and somehow not at all rubbish. This is a commendable combination. You can technically get one for £11,000, but that’s the one that comes without air conditioning or a stereo and only comes in white with steel wheels, and looks for all the world like it should have a big ‘U.N.’ written on the side. It’s more like £12,500 for one you’d actually be OK to drive on a daily basis. And we can do a lot with that.

    We can actually do a 4.0-litre motorsport-derived V8 with individual throttle bodies for that. And a whole saloon to go around it. And air conditioning! We are getting really good at this.

    It’ll carry just as many passengers as the Dacia, and has a handy boot for your things. And, with practicality sewn up, let’s talk a little bit more about the performance side of things – 414bhp delivered through a six-speed manual to the rear wheels, disc brakes the size of dinner plates and a suspension setup that will more than likely ensure much better cornering than a Duster. We’re pretty proud of ourselves for this one. 

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  4. Instead of a Volkswagen Tiguan: a Golf, like we told you to get in the first place. Yeesh

    As professional car people, we’re often asked by family members for advice on future automobile purchases. Seems like an easy enough transaction: have a big decision to make, consult an expert. And yet we always seem to recommend something that falls by the wayside, especially after the advent of SUVs. Case in point: we recommended a Golf as a second car for our parents, who duly bought a nice second-hand MkV. Then, within 18 months, traded it for a new Tiguan.

    This left us to ponder a few points. One: does any other profession have its advice so easily overridden? If a doctor said their patient needed to start taking insulin, would the patient respond with “No, I think I’ll have a heart transplant instead, because that feels like a better fit for this stage of my life”? Or maybe a spine extension, because they “really like being up higher”? Two: why, if people want to see better, do they need to be up higher? Race drivers sit about an inch from the ground, and they manage to race, wheel-to-wheel, for hundreds of miles. And three: if the siren song of SUVs is so strong to seemingly everyone else, why does it sound like endless repeats of Eiffel 65 to us?

    So, because it handles better, because it rides better, because it uses less fuel and fits just about the same amount of stuff in it, get the Golf, please? And then, unlike our parents, would you try keeping it, too?

  5. Instead of a Volvo XC40: a Subaru Impreza WRX estate

    OK, fine, you won’t have the same level of interior softness and modern Volvo-ness in the interior, but it’s worth remembering that SUVs are bought to be family cars. And, as the people in the office with families keep demonstrating – usually when we drive a car after they’ve had it for a few days – children are basically the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. Do you really want your plush new Scandi-sofa-style interior covered in shredded crisps, footprints and an unidentifiable stickiness?

    See? We clear the mental hurdles so you don’t have to. All part of the service.

    Now, the main benefit here – apart from another excuse for us to talk about cars that have become legends thanks to the World Rally Championship – is that the WRX is a performance-oriented car. The Volvo – and indeed, most Volvos, barring the 850R and a smattering of Polestars – doesn’t really share the same ethos. Safety? Sure. Comfort? Absolutely. But not performance. Even the 850R estate’s entry into the BTCC was a flash in the pan.

    Compare this to Subaru’s efforts in rallying. The 850R estate finished 14th in 1994; the Impreza won three constructor’s championships on the trot. OK, sure, owning a road-going WRX estate has about as much to do with winning a rally as a morning jog has to do with claiming the world record for the 100-metre sprint, but, what are we if not simple beings who aspire to the stars while sitting in the gutter?

  6. Instead of a Mazda CX-5: a Mazda MX-5

    It’s a simple argument: if the people in your life don't really know cars, they’ll easily confuse the latter for the former, and you can look like a sensible, upstanding family-type person. And, in many ways, you really will be. Because, for all that we’ve been told to the contrary, an SUV is almost never the most practical, sensible car for an upstanding family-type person. That’ll be the estate. And excuse us while we find another skin for this drum; it seems to have worn out.

    Secondly, the MX-5 is about the most sensible and practical fun car on sale today. It hardly uses any fuel, is as reliable as the tides and easy to drive. There’s just enough power to make it entertaining without getting you into trouble, and it’s the perfect starting point to learn real car control. As opposed to fake car control, which is just nowhere near as satisfying.

    But what more can we say about the world’s most accessible (and probably most wonderful) drop-top sports car? Either you know and we’re just retreading old ground, or you don’t, and you think it’s that sharply styled SUV you saw an ad for.

  7. Instead of a Skoda Yeti 4x4... um, we’re actually OK with this one

    Yeah, yeah, we know – SUV bad, four legs good and so on. But for some reason, the personality of the little Skoda warms our stone-cold hearts just enough to escape the razor’s edge... this time.

    It just does what it needs to, without fuss, frippery or f... er, messing about. You can do roughly anything you want with a Skoda Yeti and it’ll keep lapping up the punishment. Go offroad? Sure. Have screaming, ice-cream-sticky children clambering over the seats? Yup. Carry immense, hoarder-level amounts of stuff? Easy - the boxy back end means you could probably fit a staircase in it. Some bloke even landed a helicopter on one.

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  8. Instead of an Audi Q5: an HSV Maloo

    You want an SUV because it “can carry so much stuff”, right? Well, you’re barking up the wrong tree there, matey. In fact, you’re barking up the wrong kind of tree, in the wrong country, in the wrong hemisphere. You are not great at botany. Or car-buying decisions.

    Luckily, we are here to help. And so are the Australians, helpful chaps that they are. First Gallipoli and now this. Of all the former penal colonies we can think of, Australia has to be somewhere near the top.

    Now, if you’re thinking “Why don’t I just buy a pickup instead? They’re the same thing and I can get one anywhere.” OK, you, whoever you are, stand up and get out of our damn classroom; you’re disrupting the people who want to learn.

    Unlike a pickup, an HSV Maloo – nor the Holden ute it’s based on – doesn’t use a horrid ladder chassis, which, in case you’re not the conceptual type, literally looks like a ladder: two socking great girders run the length of the cars, with a few cross beams to hold it together, and the car body is placed on top. It was perfectly acceptable technology when F Scott Fitzgerald was putting the finishing touches on The Great Gatsby, but we’ve come a little way with engineering since. Well, those of us with cars have.

    But that’s the secret joy of the HSV Maloo: they’re based on saloons, and use unitary construction. Or, for those without a lot of aerospace experience, monocoque. But we’re not going to have a drawn-out thing about what constitutes a true monocoque, no sir. We’re talking about why unitary construction makes the Holden ute so damn enticing.

    And here it is: It drives like a car. Just like a car. A car with a 6.2-litre V8 from a Corvette, to be even more precise. That is, hilariously, yet perfectly controllably sideways when you want it, and a comfortable cruiser when you don’t. Man, if it weren’t for the flies, spiders, snakes, sharks, searing heat, ridiculously hawkish highway patrol and insistence that rugby league is a good thing, Australia would actually be a pretty decent place to live.

  9. Instead of a Range Rover Evoque: an old Defender and a Spice Girls CD

    Remember when everyone made a song and dance about Land Rover’s new baby SUV being styled with the help of someone posh who was famous for songs and dancing? It really was a simpler time.

    But if you really want a Land Rover, get a proper one, then use it for its proper purpose. Not to be too pointed about it, but it’s patently ridiculous to use the wrong tool for the job. Imagine if everyone started playing golf with lacrosse sticks. It’s clearly not what they’re for, and, as much as you can adapt and refine the lacrosse stick, it still won’t work as well as the proper implement designed for a specific purpose.

    And, out in the barren and abandoned moors that people tend to take Land Rovers, feel free to put on a Spice Girls CD. That way, no one else has to listen to it. And it’ll have about as much say on the styling of your Land Rover as Posh had on the Evoque.

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