In the space between regal and rock hopper sits the ideal big SUV fusing comfort, quality and status...

The vehicles tested here are the Audi Q7 45 TDI Quattro S tronic, BMW X5 xDrive30d Steptronic, Range Rover Sport HSE SDV6, Volkswagen Touareg 3,0 V6 TDI Luxury 4Motion AT and Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Inscription Geartronic.

The luxury SUV line-up is a micronised version of the three-way tangle of this year’s Top 12 Best Buys finalists, with the reigning Range Rover Sport tasked with seeing off the challenges of the new BMW X5 and Volkswagen Touareg. The VW is no longer saddled with a reputation for being a cut-price Audi Q7 that helped contenders keep this polished and capable SUV at arm’s length; the new one is fantastically accomplished.

A non-diesel entrant has also moseyed into the picture in the guise of Volvo’s XC90 T6 AWD Inscription. Repeatedly a runner-up in our Top 12 Best Buys awards programme, the big Swede is here represented in petrol rather than diesel guise. While its presence may seem incongruous, we simply could not exclude an XC90 because it drinks from the cleaner side of the forecourt (a D5 simply wasn’t available at the time of Shootout).

Also read: CAR magazine's 2019 SUV Shootout: Premium midsize SUVs

And, lastly, there is the Audi Q7. It may be one of the oldest competitors here but last time it met an XC90 and X5 in a comparative test (in November 2015), it gave them a lashing. Will it do so again?

As you may have noticed, there are two glaring omissions in this group… Porsche could not supply a Cayenne in time, and the Mercedes-Benz GLE’s launch date was after the Shootout trip in early March.

So, let’s not dally any further and get to the result.

THE VOTE

5. Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Inscription Geartronic

We’re huge fans of the XC90, admiring not just its chiselled good looks but so too its civilised road manners and generous specification. For it to place last in SUV Shootout 2019 is testimony to just how cutthroat the luxury SUV segment has become. There was always some contention surrounding the inclusion of this petrol-engined model to a predominantly diesel line-up. By and large, the engine is smooth and has enough grunt to deal with most challenges. However, it does feel a little overtaxed by the XC90’s bulk and its dearth of low-end torque compared with its rivals here. This and its somewhat less linear arrival under low-to-medium speeds meant sand driving and the like required far greater caution and a measured foot on the throttle compared with the diesels; to the extent that we left it to relax with some of the premium midsize SUVs halfway through the dunes while the others pressed on.

The emergence of some rattles from the otherwise solid cabin (curious, considering the XC60 felt rock-solid) and a spot of tremor over the rutted sections of dirt road furthered the impression the XC90 is far happier on asphalt, where it continues to serve up a serene and comfortable driving experience.

Another area where the XC90 impresses in this company is value for money. Inscription specification leaves you wanting for little, but our unit wore the recommendable Premium Pack. This R70 000 option adds such items as head-up display, 360-degree parking camera, uprated audio and smartphone connectivity, keyless entry and ignition, heated seats and some extra safety features, while keeping the price competitive. Opt for the D5, though, when you’ve settled on an XC90.

4. Audi Q7 45 TDI Quattro S tronic

Although mechanically related to the Touareg, the Q7 has a character all of its own, allowing you to appreciate just what it can do. While the engine is a mildly detuned version of the VW’s 3,0-litre V6 unit – being 7 kW down – its identical 600 N.m of torque and marginally lighter kerb weight make it feel a touch nippier than its relative. The driving experience is pure Audi, with weighty steering, composed body control and prodigious grip that transitions fluidly into understeer when pushed, making it a touch more engaging than the VW on blacktop.

The ride doesn’t, however, quite measure up to its rivals’. Despite the presence of air suspension, the chassis tuning is tight, leaving things on the firm side and resulting in crashing on corrugated surfaces. Off the beaten track, the Q7 at times feels a little skittish on loose gravel and requires provocation at low speeds when tackling sand and rocks.

Yet, on more challenging sections, it surprised with its ability, gamely ploughing through the challenging sections of dune driving, despite its road-biased footwear.

So, why the fourth placing? When viewed next to the Touareg, the Q7 feels rather dated. The cabin, although bank-vault solid, wants for some of its rivals’ visual panache and the overall styling is conservative to the extent of being near-anonymous. Admittedly, our unit’s S-line addenda lend it some kerbside credibility, but it’s part of a suite of extras that adds an eye-watering R402 000 to this unit’s base price (R54 000 for that gorgeous paintwork alone) which didn’t make it feel significantly better than its peers. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the Q7 but, as was mentioned in the XC90’s précis, very good won’t cut it in this exchange.

3. Range Rover Sport HSE SDV6

If the pricing of the Audi after options is considered steep, the Sport’s sticker price is positively vertical. HSE grade does net you a whole lot of specification and that badge carries some serious clout but, at a premium nearing R500 000 over the less expensive competitors, it’s a little difficult to digest.

It also has to be said that, despite some neat cosmetic updates to the exterior and a huge improvement to the cabin and its previously dated infotainment system, the “Sport” suffix is beginning to wear a little thin. Don’t get us wrong, the Range Rover can be hustled along windy roads without tripping over its feet and that engine feels plenty punchy and possesses an almost V8-esque growl when pushed. But the steering remains numb and you still get that slightly floaty, top-heavy feel which doesn’t present itself as acutely in the others and erodes some of that perceived dynamic confidence.

Bear in mind though, that floatiness is the product of an air-suspension system around which wonderful-motorway speed comfort is centred. And, while its on-road manners don’t inspire the most confidence, the Sport is the gold standard in terms of off-road ability here. An updated Terrain Select drivetrain-management system that’s equally capable of serving up every off-road preset you’d conceivably need as it is automatically adapting to conditions, low range, generous ground clearance and huge axle articulation meant the Sport was always tasked with off-road reconnaissance, easily cutting a track ahead of rivals.

Fantastic as it is though, there’s much better value to be found lower down the range (with the sweet spot the SE TDV6 at R1 254 906), hence why it’s a Top 12 Best Buys 2019 champion but this specific model places no higher than third in SUV Shootout.    

2. BMW X5 xDrive30d Steptronic

We’ve taken in many surprising sights on our road trip but none more so than the new X5 happily rumbling shoulder to shoulder with the Range Rover over some (although not all) off-road conditions the others warily approached. Granted, our test unit was wearing some seriously chunky General off-road tyres, but the usual side effect of such footwear – wearisome tyre noise – couldn’t penetrate the well-insulated and beautifully finished cabin.

We’ve been impressed with the latest X5, having driven both this model and formally tested the thundering M50d in recent issues, and the 30d’s showing here has only strengthened our stance. The inline-six turbodiesel is the smoothest engine of the assembled and it dovetails neatly with the X5’s good road manners to make it a consummate mileage eater with a little bit of dynamic fun thrown in.

We say a little bit because the steering possesses a vagueness which slightly blunts things when pushing on. We also noticed a tendency to tramline along longitudinal road imperfections, requiring small but constant steering corrections, although this could be an upshot of the off-road rubber it was running. Like the Audi, standard specification is adequate rather than overly generous, and ticking the options box without due care can see the price nudging into the Range Rover Sport’s territory without too much effort.

1. Volkswagen Touareg 3,0 V6 TDI Luxury 4Motion AT

Having been a perennial bit player in the luxury SUV market, it’s surprising to see the Touareg besting some of the strongest competition on offer. Those previous wallflower looks have blossomed and now attracts plenty of unexpected attention, while the cabin is both spacious and excellently crafted. The crowning point of the Touareg’s interior, though, has to be that vast, pin-sharp TFT Inno-Vision Cockpit infotainment system pairing a 12-inch instrument screen with a 15-inch centrally sited one. While the system wears a significant R74 000 price tag, it makes the Touareg feel more advanced and forward-thinking than its rivals, not to mention helping it step confidently out of the Q7’s shadow. If you feel it’s too much to pay, though, the standard infotainment system is equally excellent and pairs with classy analogue instrumentation.

The team was particularly taken with the strong but flexible powertrain; that fire-and-forget effortlessness on the open road meant dropping the heavy key into the next drivers’ hand always met with a smile. This test unit wasn’t fitted with the R51 950 air suspension package but its wonderfully supple ride and stable road manners suggest it’s not a vital addition.

The Touareg also made light work of sand driving and rock hopping, and remained assuredly planted travelling gravel tracks at a fair lick. Standard specification is generous, too, but even with the extras on this test unit totalling R150 600, the Touareg remains competitively priced.

Like its hatchback cousin, the Golf, the Touareg doesn’t shine incandescently in any one area. Instead, it serves up a package that’s so well balanced and classily executed, it’s difficult to match, netting it the win.