SUVs aren’t what they used to be. Despite the “S” standing for “sport,” many popular SUVs are just compact family vans. They’re comfortable and packed with convenient cargo space, sure, but with paltry powertrains and top-heavy handling that makes them hard to enjoy. However, not every SUV is a dullard. We aren’t just talking about brand-new editions, either; some used SUV dealers are holding onto a veritable goldmine of fun, well-engineered rides.
In contrast to the typical, unimpressive SUV, we present these five alternatives. The following are five older SUVs that are actually fun to drive. Offering excellent performance on the road and maybe even outstanding off-road power, these satisfying vehicles are exceptions to the rule. Thrilling enough to compete with lightweight coupes and durable enough to compete with hefty pickup trucks or vans, these are examples of the SUV done right, not simply existing in the middle of the body style range but offering the best aspects of either extreme.
We aren’t talking about luxury cars either. Anyone could easily find a luxurious Mercedes, Audi, or BMW SUV that’s engineered to perfection. Of course, these top-of-the-line products outprice most shoppers, even when used. The models on our list are affordable, made for the everyday folk, and still manage to exceed expectations.
#5 – Jeep Wrangler
The quintessential Jeep, harkening back to this brand’s military origins, the Wrangler is a 2-door or 4-door sports utility vehicle that actually lives up to its sporty expectations. Wranglers consistently combine excellent engines with high towing capacity, the ability to endure huge cargo loads, and, of course, off-road driving. They’re enduringly popular, and it’s easy to see why.
Jeep Wranglers are the go-to for off-roading thanks to consistently outstanding 4×4, all-terrain tires, torquey drivetrains, and suspension that gives you that satisfying wobble when you traverse off-road hazards with ease. This SUV popularized removable tops and doors, for goodness sake. Used models vary from bare-bones Sport editions to more sophisticated trims like the High Altitude that are stitched to perfection, surprisingly comfortable, and – if you’re looking at a recent edition – chock-full of enhanced safety and infotainment tech. If the Wrangler seems a little too rough-and-tumble or its style too militaristic for some, then we present a more urbane Jeep, just for good measure.
#4 – Jeep Grand Cherokee
One of the most popular midsize SUVs on earth year by year, the Grand Cherokee perfectly straddles the line between family-friendly engineering and alluring off-road capability. It consistently lends itself to both fans of creature comforts and wild adventures without abandoning either cause. The Grand Cherokee has been lauded with awards for years, and many outlets have claimed this as the best SUV around. What makes this such a well-received vehicle?
Start with its peppy V-6 engine or an aggressive HEMI V-8 in recent models, both of which are paired with excellent transmission for smooth but speedy driving. Just about every edition is available with Jeep’s excellent 4×4, which enables all-terrain driving and safe, slip-resistant driving on wet or icy roads. Also, while the exterior has a rugged front grille and all-terrain tires – depending on the edition you find – the interior is roomy, comfortable, well-appointed, and definitely a crowd-pleaser for families. The Grand Cherokee’s two rows of seating and ample cargo space don’t betray its aerodynamic shape, either. Excellent Uconnect infotainment technology is available in recent editions, while outstanding safety tech abounds.
Ultimately, the Grand Cherokee is a popular model for a reason. It’s reliable well into old age, which is why it is also a favorite for used car hunters. Even older editions offer Jeep’s excellent off-road features and surprisingly agile powertrains, while recent editions just keep getting more and more luxurious.
#3 – Dodge Durango
Dodge has really lost their minds with this one. While the bulky Durango has space for up to 7 passengers, it’s actually more a performance car, especially the closer you get to 2021’s wild Hellcat edition that has a supercharged V-8 taken from the Dodge Challenger muscle car. Just about every version has a V-6 or available V-8 that enables high-octane driving for a thrilling experience you’d hardly expect from a family-sized SUV.
The Durango is also highly capable of towing, especially when equipped with rear-wheel drive. Some versions are really more of an enclosed pickup truck than an SUV, while others are like the biggest race car you’ve ever seen. There’s quite a bit of variation between years and trims, but R/T and SRT models tend to be the quickest, with sporty, masculine interiors to match. Safety features like a rearview camera and automatic emergency braking are available on some models and add some family-appropriate safety tech to this beastly SUV.
#2 – Chrysler Aspen
“I thought you said no luxury brands!” Well, the Aspen can hardly be considered luxury anymore, what with its being discontinued back in 2009. They’ve aged gracefully, though, with low used prices and some Chrysler fans even clamoring for its return. This large, luxury SUV was short-lived but is still well-regarded for its impressive features, including luxurious interior detailing and ergonomic seats.
The Aspen was a high-performer as well, being one of the few SUVs of the time to offer a V-8 powertrain. A HEMI-powered Aspen delivered outstanding on-road performance, including quick acceleration, sharp steering, and firm brakes. Driving an Aspen, despite its age, feels pleasantly responsive, and it delivers on your commands with ease. Despite being an SUV, it handles incredibly well, even in fast highway traffic.
At the same time, the Aspen’s interior – which seats up to eight – is calming and subdued. Elegant heated front seats, reclining captain’s chairs in the second row, and refined suede accents are distinctly Chrysler in their attention to detail. Meanwhile, a pleasant amount of legroom in all rows, plus available features like navigation software and rear-seat entertainment systems, are definitely great features for open road adventures.
#1 – Dodge Journey
Known for its rock-bottom prices, the Journey is the everyman of the SUV market. While it’s smaller than the aforementioned Durango, the Journey is still well-equipped for fun on asphalt and beyond. Its V-6 engine is powerful and pleasant to drive, while the generous cargo capacity enables you to pack up the whole family for a road trip. Or, take to the open road with your sports equipment. The R/T and GT trims are particularly satisfying thanks to features like sport-tuned suspension, superior audio systems, larger wheels, and all-wheel drive.
To address the elephant in the room, recent editions of the Journey have faced some negative reviews. However, editions as recent as 2017 have been lauded for their great balance of low price and excellent driving. Don’t overlook an older (and better-priced) model, especially if you come across one with an upgraded powertrain that’s thrilling to drive.
Buying Used Options Up Options
You may have noticed that all five of these SUVs fall under the Stellantis umbrella (formerly Fiat Chrysler). This isn’t a coincidence; at Auto Influence, we believe that this family of brands offers SUVs at a great price to quality ratio. We also call this “good value.” There are plenty of other excellent SUVs out there but used Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep models are consistently some of the most affordable and enjoyable options.
Despite booming sales, a fun-to-drive SUV is an unfortunate rarity. As more and more vehicle brands devote themselves to the most popular body style in the automotive market, we hope to see more SUVs that better balance their convenience roots with sporty drivetrains, more off-road capability, and a sense of adventure. After all, there’s almost no better feeling than taking a city-bound vehicle to the open road and then veering off course and making one’s own trail.