While off-road capability isn’t a priority for many luxury SUV buyers, there are enough serious off-roaders with luxury demands to identify and rank the best off-road premium SUVs. That’s what iSeeCars has done below, only including models with at least 6.5 or more inches of ground clearance along with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive as standard or optional equipment.
Because we’re only considering SUVs from luxury automakers you won’t see well-known nameplates like the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, or Jeep Grand Cherokee. But you will see models with body-on-frame construction like the Lexus GX (a mechanical twin of the Toyota 4Runner) and Mercedes-Benz G-Class.
Luxury off-road shoppers looking for maximum off-road prowess might consider body-on-frame models more appealing, but keep in mind that even with their high price tags and advanced air suspension systems, their on-road ride comfort won’t match that of unibody/car-based models. Sport utility vehicles with a body-on-frame chassis will often boast improved approach and departure angles, as well as a higher towing capacity.
In addition to sufficient ground clearance and an all- or four-wheel-drive system, the best luxury SUVs for off-roading will include dedicated equipment that goes well beyond all-terrain tires. iSeeCars identified the top 10 most important off-road features and used them, along with ground clearance, to rank the models below. These 10 off-road features, listed by priority, are:
- Two-Speed Transfer Case: Also known as a two-speed gearbox, this allows the vehicle to switch into a lower (or low-range) gear set for improved torque and pulling power, which can be extremely helpful when scaling or descending steep inclines
- Locking Differential: Unlike a limited slip differential, which tries to keep the wheels on each side of an axle from spinning on low-traction surfaces, a locking differential will lock both sides together, removing any possibility of one side spinning freely; most vehicles have a locking rear differential, though some, like the Mercedes G-Wagen, can also have a central and front locking differential that lock all four wheels together
- Skid Plates: Skid plates protect the underside of a vehicle by forming a shield between outside terrain and critical drivetrain components like the cooling system, oil pan, and transmission to greatly improve the durability of serious off-road vehicles
- Disconnecting Sway Bars: The most capable off-road vehicles, including the Ford Bronco Raptor and Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, can disconnect their front sway bars to allow additional suspension articulation under extreme off-roading conditions
- Winch: A winch can be mounted on a vehicle’s front or rear bumper, allowing an extended cable to be attached to a fixed location (like a tree) and then retracted to free an otherwise stranded vehicle; winches are common in the off-road aftermarket, but a few vehicles, including the Chevy Colorado, offer them as factory equipment
- Hill Descent Control: Hill descent control is a driving mode that controls a vehicle's speed while descending a sharp incline, ensuring it doesn’t begin traveling so fast the driver loses control or risks damaging the vehicle
- Multiple Driving Modes: In recent model years it’s become more common for off-road vehicles to include specific off-road driving modes; these driving modes coordinate everything from throttle response to transmission shifting to the suspension dampers to maximize a vehicle’s off-road capabilities
- Hill Hold Technology: Similar to hill descent control, this technology keeps a vehicle from rolling backwards when climbing up a steep incline; it lets a driver carefully release the brake and apply throttle versus feeling rushed in this process to avoid rolling back
- Full-size Spare Tire: Getting a flat tire is never fun, but it can be life threatening when traveling off-road where a tow truck or Triple A might never arrive; a full-size spare allows the driver to change a damaged tire and continue on without any outside aid
- Roof Rack Crossbars: Safely traveling off road can involve a lot of extra equipment, and having a roof rack with crossbars increases a vehicle’s storage capacity to carry this equipment
SUVs with more of these upgrades, either standard on the base model or optional on higher trims, ranked better than luxury SUVs that didn’t offer them at all.
It’s worth noting that powertrain characteristics like a twin-turbo V6 engine or supercharged V8 engine aren’t included in this list of critical off-road features. While more power is helpful in high-performance sports cars traveling on pavement, it doesn’t beat a capable terrain response all-wheel drive system or advanced low-speed crawl control when taking an SUV well off the beaten path.
Browse the lists below to find the best off-road luxury SUVs in 9 categories.