Why are so many big SUVs so ugly?

Published: 09 May 2019

► Gavin Green isn’t a fan of most big SUVs
► From X1 to Cayenne, most are unfortunate-looking

► Of course, they may be engineered well underneath

As another grosswagen goes on sale, it is surely time to ponder: why are so many big SUVs so ugly? The latest to join the litany of unlovely leviathans is the new BMW X7, for those who reckon the X5 is perhaps just a touch too petite.

The X7 is an immense thing, complemented by a Hannibal Lecter grille big enough to ingest unsuspecting small hatchbacks and steep body sides that in the signature launch colour – Alpine White – look more like the cliffs of Dover than delicately sculpted car flanks.

Audi Q7

The big Audi Q7 looks like a slab-sided Godzilla stalking suburban streets, but the X7 takes super-size German car design to a whole new level of grossness. BMW is no stranger to unsightly SUVs, of course. The original ill-proportioned X1 (E84) looked more like a bloated big-eyed monster from the deep, fished up from the Mariana Trench, than a small BMW, a classic case of a platform (in this case, from an old 3-series) stretched and stuffed. It was Han Solo turned Jabba the Hutt.

The BMW X6 is possibly the most egregious SUV of all, and the epitome of Inefficient Dynamics. It has enough ground clearance to vault a log but struggles off road, a huge footprint yet minimal room inside, a massive engine but not particularly engaging performance, a firm ride but average handling, and it guzzles juice like last orders in the Hofbräuhaus. And it looks like a swollen sports saloon on stilts.

The big Bentley Bentayga

BMW’s other whopper, the X5, is far more comely, although they do seem to get uglier as they get newer and bigger. The original X5 (E53) was nicely proportioned, and now looks positively dainty. Equally, all big Benz SUVs look awful, apart from that honest workhorse, the G-Class. The Bentley Bentayga is a styling tragedy and the Rolls-Royce Cullinan looks like an upscaled version of the latest London taxi, albeit with nicer brightwork and better paint. Porsche Cayennes are also unsightly – although unlike BMW X5s, the newer they are, the better they look.

Gerry McGovern, designer of the Range Rover – widely regarded as the most elegant big SUV – once told me it’s more difficult to design a very big car than a small one, in the same way it’s harder to dress large people than slim folk.

Carryover platforms can also clearly compromise stance and proportions. Take the Bentley Bentayga with its pinched nose and top-heavy stance. The designers tried to package all that expansive Bentleyness on Audi Q7 underpinnings. Plus, once the stance and proportions are wrong, it’s easy to get all fussy and ornamental to compensate. Just look at big Lexuses for evidence.

Trying to mimic your brand’s iconic models is another mistake for SUV newbies. The first Porsche Cayenne looked like an over-inflated 911 on platform boots. Trying to make a truck look like a 911, of course, did neither the truck nor the 911 any favours.

Even the Rolls-Royce Cullinan gets it

I do wonder if the Germans are very good at luxury. Once they try to move beyond Bauhaus design purity and add a bit of Downton Abbey grandeur, they flounder. The Germans are probably too practical to really get luxury right.

Whereas other recent Rolls-Royces (Phantom, Ghost, Wraith) have brilliantly updated their brand’s time-honoured styling cues, the Cullinan was BMW-owned Rolls’ first attempt at starting from scratch. They’d never done an SUV before. The same was true for the Bentayga.

Of course, many of the above cars are good to drive and finely engineered.

They may also look okay in XL-obsessed America, where SUV dinosaurs still stalk the interstates. But in Britain, they’re like Moby Dicks on the Grand Union Canal. Plus, I’m sorry, when you’re piloting something so huge, that looks as intimidating as a snarling Rottweiler, and bullies other cars out of the way, you’re never going to feel the love.

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience