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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.

When Mercedes-Benz introduced the first-generation M-Class in 1997 and kick-started the segment for on-road-biased luxury SUVs, few people would have predicted that such vehicles would be as popular – and therefore profitable – as they are now.

When planning this comparative test, it was soon clear the line-up of competitors could have been far larger. We had the option of including the always excellent Porsche Cayenne, Volkswagen’s underrated Touareg, Jeep’s left-field Grand Cherokee and the Range Rover Sport, a multiple champion in our annual Top 12 Best Buys awards programme. Except for the Grand Cherokee, which in any event was rudimentary before this current generation and would never have qualified for luxury SUV status, none of those vehicle existed before the M-Class’ arrival.

Nor did first generations of the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90. The former made its debut in 2005, while the latter joined the market three years earlier. Each had comparatively long model cycles and felt outclassed near the end of their market tenure. The vehicles you see on these pages represent each carmaker’s new take on what’s now become a tried-and-trusted recipe.

And the BMW X5? Well, that vehicle was a sales hit right from its launch in 1999 and to this day – now in its third iteration – has remained one of the SUVs the revised Volvo and Audi must beat. Let war commence.

OUTSIDE AND IN
The first-generation Q7 was a leviathan, measuring more than five metres long and two metres wide, and appeared as large as the shadow it cast. Its ungainly proportions and brutish front-end were perfectly in step with the ostentatious mid-2000s, but its air of unchecked excess found fewer devotees in more recent austere times (except in the US, where sales rose to records highs in 2013). The new model, although only slightly smaller in all measurable planes, has been wrought to downplay its (still) inflated size. More Avant than SUV in the way the sheet metal stretches low and straight towards the gently tapered rear-end, the Q7 eschews the traditional SUV styling cues in favour of gently sweeping side panels, horizontal elements front and rear and a less aggressive interpretation of Audi’s traditional hexagonal grille. Is it bland? Perhaps, but the Florett Silver paintwork of our test vehicle did it few favours. What’s without question is the quality of the paintwork, the uniformity of the panel gaps and the attention to fine detail in the optional Matrix LED headlamps (R38 500).

The Q7 may be understated, but its breeding is obvious.

Far more recognisably SUV in shape, the X5’s design is perhaps too familiar for the vehicle to stand out in a parking lot owing to its shared elements with other members of the X-family, as well as the sheer numbers on our roads. That said, if you’ve got the money, we’d recommend the M Sport body kit fitted to this test vehicle (R48 800). It enlivens the appearance in key places – the deeper bumpers and lovely alloy wheels are highlights – and adds a number of trim tweaks to the cabin.

Neither German garnered as much attention from other road users as the Volvo, however. Painted in deep-gloss black paint and sitting on beautiful jewel-like 20-inch wheels, it’s the best-looking vehicle here without appearing crass or overwrought.
The Volvo repeats this stellar performance inside. Trimmed in cream leather with brushed metallic and wood accents, the cabin feels airy and expertly assembled. All touch points are trimmed in silky leather or covered in soft-touch plastic, while the portrait-oriented infotainment system that controls all major functions limits the hard-button count. However, relegating the climate control system’s functions to the touchscreen has meant that familiarity is needed to toggle settings on the move. Likewise, the standard-fitment TFT instrument screen does require a scan through the owner’s manual before use.
Far more traditional in layout than that of the Swedish SUV, the X5’s interior is a cinch to use. Countless sensible updates to the initially maligned iDrive system have resulted in the user-friendliest setup here; using the rotary knob on the transmission tunnel soon becomes second nature. Quality is excellent throughout but for some cheaper plastic on the lid of the centre console cubby and air vents, while the seating position couldn’t be better.

Neither vehicle quite matches the Q7 for perceived quality, though. Emitting nary a squeak or rattle, the cabin feels as solid as a bank vault (an impression reinforced by the muted thunk when closing the hefty doors). We love the silky smooth operation of the climate control knobs – and the system’s screen that highlights functions as a hand approaches – the best cabin lighting here and the fact that the stubby gearlever cleverly stands in for a hand rest when twiddling the MMI controller that sits aft of an additional touch pad for written input. The Virtual Cockpit instrument screen (a R8 950 option) has a crystal-clear display and widely adjustable menu system.

SPACE FOR FIVE… OR SEVEN
Thanks to the use of the VW Group’s new scalable MLB-Evo platform – here stretched to 2 994 mm – the Q7 has loads of room both front and rear. This clever utilisation of space is perhaps the single biggest improvement over the outgoing model, which offered less occupant space than the heady dimensions suggested. Scalp clearance front and rear is the best of the trio, and the boot is the largest with the sliding second row of seats in their rearmost position. Fold those forward in a ratio of 40:20:40 and 1 472 dm3 is at a user’s disposal. Rear-seat occupants have access to individually adjustable air-con controls courtesy of the four-zone system, and a third row of seats can be specified.

However, the Audi can’t quite match the smaller Volvo’s space for passengers and their luggage. Offering a nominal 144 dm3 of luggage capacity with the third row erected, which can seat two adults at a pinch, the XC90 affords its owner the option of extending the size of the boot through 464 dm3 with five seats for passengers (with the bench set to its forward-most position) to a gargantuan 1 560 dm3 of utility room. All isn’t rosy, though – the Volvo’s firm second row seating doesn’t quite provide the long-distance comfort of the sumptuous front-row chairs, or of the bench installed in the third competitor here, the X5.

The BMW has the shortest body length and wheelbase, and it shows inside where the luggage bay is the tightest both lengthways and in terms of width, and headroom all-round is less generous, but its second-row seating is fabulously comfortable and supportive for two adults. Add a third occupant to the mix, though, and the narrow centre seat and transmission tunnel will force them into a compromised seating position. The optional third row of seats (R22 600) should be occupied only by children.

WHAT YOUR MONEY BUYS YOU
There’s very little difference between the Audi and BMW’s standard specification. Both vehicles offer xenon headlamps as standard, while the X5 counters the Q7’s satellite-navigation with full electric adjustment on its front seats (bizarrely, this is a R8 050 option on the latter).

The XC90 bests them both with, among other items, LED headlamps, 20-inch wheels, Nappa leather, the third row of seats and a number of safety and convenience features such as lane-departure warning and head-up display.

UNDER THE BONNETS
Volvo will in future offer no larger internal-combustion engine than this 2,0-litre four-cylinder unit, either in petrol- or diesel-propelled. For those buyers who desire more power and torque, the units will be supplemented with alternative-energy powertrains – such as the electric unit in the soon-to-arrive hybrid XC90 T8 – but this is the most powerful diesel engine you can buy currently in the flagship SUV.

Developing 165 kW and 470 N.m, on paper the 2,0-litre turbodiesel is outgunned, and so it proves on the road. To accelerate from standstill to the 100 km/h mark, the XC90 D5 needed a whole 1,95 seconds more than the quickest vehicle here, the Q7. Working in the Swedish vehicle’s favour is a slick-shifting, close-ratio eight-speed automatic transmission and the lightest mass of the three, but there’s no ignoring the fact that Volvo’s lauded approach to downsizing asks its owner to accept certain performance and refinement compromises (most notably a rattly engine note on start-up and a deep drone under acceleration). Once up to speed, however, the D5 propels the XC90 with decent gusto.

Doing a far better job of disguising the host vehicle’s heft (in this case, the heaviest one here at 2 265 kg) is the X5’s creamy 3,0-litre turbodiesel. It’s smoother than any other oil-burner of similar size, even when it operates in the vicinity of its 5 400 r/min red line, and finds the perfect partner in the flawless eight-speed ZF-developed automatic transmission.

Somewhat grumblier when extended but still commendably refined, the Audi’s 3,0-litre V6 never feels anything less than potent, whether the vehicle is pootling along on congested roads or merging with faster-moving traffic on the highway. It’s the quickest here from a standstill and between the gears – again, actuated by a great eight-speeder – and supplements the German car’s refined cabin (the Volvo is quiet, too, but its side mirrors kick up noticeable wind rustle; the BMW struggles slightly with wind rush across the large windscreen but suppresses road roar well).

ON-ROAD, BUT NOT OFF
In terms of on-road dynamics, the three vehicles are easier to split, but with a caveat: the Q7 we tested featured air springs (R30 500), unlike the XC90 (R26 500) and X5 (only on the rear axle as part of the M Sport package), which accounts for its excellent ride but made a direct comparison with the other two tricky. As it stands, it’s an option we’d tick because it affords the Q7 a gently loping gait that’s wonderfully soothing on longer journeys. There’s a slightly firm edge to the way it deals with lumps and bumps at city-bound speeds, but the optional 20-inch wheels on 45-profile tyres shoulder some of the blame. But this is a slight criticism – if you’re an owner of the previous Q7, the new version’s maturity in this respect will be a revelation.

The Audi’s steering ratio is perhaps a touch too quick at 2,8 turns lock-to-lock and cautious inputs to the wheel translate into generous lean angles in faster bends, but this characteristic can be quelled by switching the adaptive-damping system to a sportier setting.

At the other end of the spectrum rests the X5. Controlling its body better than the Audi when its Driver Experience Control system is set to default comfort mode, the BMW can be flung through corners with measured enthusiasm. Imagine a massive hatchback and you wouldn’t be far off the impression the BMW engenders. Yet the ride remains good even in sport+ mode – there’s discernible pitter-patter on broken roads, but the primary ride over crests and through dips is excellent.

Not quite as comfortable as the Audi, nor as obviously dynamic as the BMW, the Volvo manages to find a praiseworthy balance between ride refinement and body control. We’ve yet to try an XC90 locally on air springs – reports from European publications about this system are positive – but a passively sprung vehicle rides a touch too firmly at times. That said, it curbs body roll well and feels utterly predictable in the way it deals with varying road surfaces. Criticism should be levelled at the steering system, which has a tendency to lighten under cornering, but this is a characteristic that few owners will notice.

In terms of braking, the three competitors are very evenly matched. All three managed to record an average emergency-stopping time of less than three seconds, which is admirable for vehicles of this weight.

AT THE PUMPS
We expected the Volvo to have the advantage in terms of fuel consumption, but that assumption was shattered on our fuel route, where the vehicle used diesel at an average rate of 8,7 L/100 km. The Audi consumed 8,0 and the BMW 8,1.

TEST SUMMARY

As we expected when planning this test, it would prove difficult to settle. All three vehicles have enthusiastic fans in the CAR team, for very different reasons. The Q7 fan club loves its all-round competence; it does very little wrong and in many respects is class-leading. Admirers of the BMW applaud its great engine, silky smooth transmission and its ability to both cosset and entertain. The XC90's devotees, meanwhile, praise its sense of occasion, luxurious cabin and amount of space both where people sit and their luggage is stored.

Ultimately, the Q7 beat the X5 by a single point, while the XC90 was two further points adrift. In an ironic twist, had the Volvo shown a distinct advantage over the other two in our fuel-economy test, we may have been able to overlook the shortcomings of its smaller powertrain. The implementation of cutting-edge technology“ in this case in the field of powertrain development“ is commendable, but only if it has positive real-world implications. For now, the Q7 and X5 and their larger, unstressed engines, ask for less compromise from buyers who rightly expect only the best for their near-seven-
figure outlay.

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