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Of vital importance to the future success of each of their makers, we gather four of the leading premium midsize SUVs (and an upstart) with a view to getting them dirty...

The vehicles tested here are the Audi Q5 40 TDI Quattro S tronic, BMW X3 xDrive20d Steptronic, Mercedes-Benz GLC250d 4Matic 9G-tronic, Volkswagen Tiguan 2,0 TDI 4Motion Highline DSG and Volvo XC60 D5 AWD Momentum Geartronic.

It was 07h15 on a Tuesday morning and all through the land, thousands of raised ride height sports-utility vehicles were competing to see which could deliver uniformed young passengers closest to the entrance of their respective places of education. High above the Western Cape’s Elgin Valley, however, four examples of the most popular premium midsize SUVs gather, each soaking up the beauty of the terrain and concrete-free surroundings which more closely match their adventure-leaning original mandates. Keeping them honest over the next three days is the Volkswagen Tiguan, which straddles the line between midsize family cars and those with more aspirational badges.

Broadly engineered to tackle far more challenging terrain (both open- and off-road) than the average owner will likely encounter, we find out which 2,0-litre (2,1-litre in the case of the Mercedes-Benz GLC250d) turbodiesel-powered SUV – with even a hint of off-road ambition – copes best with a good old-fashioned mixed-surface South African road trip.

Meet the contenders

Having travelled the shortest distance from its production line to join this shootout, the South African-built third-generation (G01) BMW X3 made a positive first impression when we tested two of its range-topping derivatives (xDrive30d and xDrive40i) in 2018. Lighter than before and sharing a platform with the current, hugely accomplished 5 Series, the new X3 boasts fresh interior ergonomics and technologies while leaning heavily on its maker’s reputation for dynamics and driver enjoyment.

With less inherent pressure to serve up driving thrills, the effortless sophistication of the new XC60 continues to showcase the best Volvo has to offer. Proudly wearing its title as our 2019 Top 12 Best Buys segment winner – and like its two XC siblings – the XC60 impresses with a beautifully crafted interior and relaxed demeanour. Where the brand’s four-cylinder family of engines can at times feel overwhelmed within the large frame of the XC90, they feel that much better suited in the relatively smaller dimensions of both the XC60 and the boutique XC40.

Introduced in 2016 and therefore the oldest of these rivals, the Mercedes-Benz GLC continues to return encouraging sales volumes ahead of a forthcoming facelift and range realignment scheduled for the end of 2019. Based on the brand’s MRA platform (C- and E-Class), this update will likely focus on new engine options, as well as upgrades to this range’s infotainment technologies.

Recently deposed as our Top 12 Best Buys champion, one of the few criticisms levelled at the second-generation Audi Q5 since its introduction has been relatively conservative styling. This means the Ingolstadt-based rival is at risk of blending in, rather than standing out, within this traditionally image-conscious category. However, there remains little else to mark down the Q5, and it distinguishes itself with class-leading interior build quality and proven drivetrain options.

Such was the conviction with which the Q5’s stablemate, the new Volkswagen Tiguan, claimed its third-consecutive Top 12 win for best midsize SUV that we wondered how it might fare among the leading contenders in the premium segment. While even the most expensive derivatives within the current range wear price tags well below those associated with this premium category, as with most modern German offerings, it remains unnervingly easy to add R200 000 worth of optional extras to that bottom line. In the case of Volkswagen’s impressive midsize SUV, forsaking some perceived badge cachet in favour of added specification does hold appeal, though.

Under the bonnet

While the Tiguan 2,0 TDI and Q5 40 TDI share the same 1 968 cm3 turbo-diesel engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (badged DSG in the VW and S tronic by Audi), their torque outputs (380 and 400 N.m, respectively) are delivered to the road differently. The Tiguan’s transversely mounted engine combines with a Haldex-sourced all-wheel-drive system to send up to 50% of available torque to the rear wheels once slip is detected. The Audi’s longitudinal setup is mated with the brand’s Quattro Ultra arrangement to transfer up to 100% of drive to the rear when required. Both systems default to a more efficient front-wheel-drive setup under normal driving conditions.

It’s interesting to note we achieved a fuel route figure of just 6,40 L/100 km in the heavier (by 149 kg) Audi compared with the 4Motion-equipped Tiguan’s 7,80 L/100 km over the same route.

With BMW’s aforementioned slant towards dynamic ability, the X3 xDrive20d’s 400 N.m of torque is delivered via an eight-speed automatic transmission in a 40:60 front-to-rear split under normal driving conditions (100% can be transferred to either axle as conditions dictate). Combined with an optimal 50:50 mass distribution and a relatively low-slung driving position, it feels more closely matched with that of a 1 Series hatch than a vehicle boasting 204 mm worth of ground clearance.

The BMW proved the most frugal over the course of our standardised fuel route, returning an exceedingly impressive 5,80 L/100 km.

Also defaulting to rear-wheel drive, the Mercedes-Benz GLC250d’s 4Matic system delivers its 150 kW and 500 N.m of torque via a 9G-tronic transmission to all four wheels in a 31:69-split before adjusting to target individual wheels should it detect slip. This ageing 2,1-litre turbodiesel will be replaced with the aforementioned range update, but it remains an impressive – if noisy – performer, delivering 6,30 L/100 km on our fuel route.

The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system featured in the Volvo XC60 continuously monitors grip levels on the front wheels before sending between 5% and 65% of available torque to the rear depending on prevailing conditions. In D5 configuration, the brand’s 2,0-litre turbodiesel offers the most power (173 kW and 480 N.m) of all the rivals here. That said, the XC60 also returned the second-worst fuel consumption (a still impressive 7,40 L/100 km) over the course of our fuel run.

Step inside...

Mimicking the pace with which mobile phone-operating systems evolve, it’s become increasingly notable how quickly the interior of a motor vehicle ages with the introduction of each new upgrade in infotainment technology. That said, while the Mercedes-Benz GLC will inherit the brand’s latest voice-activated MBUX system in its model refresh, the current system has been aged dramatically by the touchscreen functionality offered in the Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen. Then again, it’s only Volvo which doesn’t offer the option to further upgrade the size of the display screen and the functionality of its system; the Swedish brand’s portrait-style 9,0-inch Sensus technology stands up relatively well (it can be a tad slow in its workings) against what the Germans have to offer.

On this note, we would aim for the upgraded infotainment systems in the X3 (R9 200) and the Tiguan (R16 500), with Audi’s R26 228 MMI Navigation Plus upgrade looking a little steep at the price. Digital instrumentation can be added to all but the Mercedes-Benz (which’ll be rectified on the facelift), yet as sophisticated as they appear, there’s something to be said for standard, crystal-clear analogue items.

If the list of potentially costly options available for each of the German models seems daunting, it’s countered by the welcome simplicity of Volvo’s package upgrades. A R33 000 Sport Pack, for example, adds such nice-to-have features as keyless entry, heated seats, park assist, an electrically operated tailgate, an audio system upgrade and 19-inch alloy wheels. All of these would need to be specced onto the asking price of the others here (although some models do offer various packages).

While each of the SUVs featured has been designed to comfortably accommodate up to five occupants and their luggage, by our measurements it’s the GLC which offers the most rear-passenger legroom (743 mm) yet the smallest amount of packing space; the XC60 and Q5 find the more favourable middle ground between these two key measurements.

Leather packages, optional sunroofs and upgraded sound systems aside, what becomes instantly noticeable once we set off towards Cape Agulhas is the level of refinement and overall comfort offered by each package, especially over varying road surfaces followed by long stretches of gravel.

Suspension set-ups

This Tiguan is fitted with an optional R-Line package, including a firmer suspension setup and 20-inch wheels, and the X3 taking part in this test boasts a cost-option M Sport package (with 19-inch alloys). It stands to reason then that these two would feel the sportiest behind the wheel. What would come as a surprise is how well these vehicles would later take to gravel. Each car’s well-insulated cabin resisted unwelcome squeaks and rattles, even if the impact of the occasional deep rut riffled through the steering wheel. Fitted with more accommodating side walls and a more forgiving (standard) suspension setup, either of these cars should prove fantastically competent gravel road cruisers, the BMW likely retaining its edge when it comes to on-road dynamics even without its M-inspired inputs.

Less comfortable on uneven surfaces and fairly reliant on its optional air suspension in most conditions is the Mercedes-Benz. Its interior trim bits sounded less than impressed with the change from smooth asphalt to corrugated surfaces, too. If the facelifted C-Class is any indication, Benz will have improved the quality of its midsize SUV come facelift time. Closely followed by the classy XC60, it’s the otherwise sophisticated GLC which feels the least inclined to get its wheels dirty, this despite the inclusion of an optional off-road package fitted to our test unit.

Perhaps it’s its effortless, refined demeanor or simply just us forgetting which European climates the XC60 was engineered to cope with, but the Volvo keeps surprising most testers once the tarmac ends. The presence of optional (R26 750) air suspension certainly helps to counter the potentially negative effect of those aforementioned 19-inch wheels on gravel, yet, at no stage during our road trip does the XC60’s cabin feel any less svelte or sophisticated.

One caveat to the XC60’s all-round poise and composure is that it never seems particularly sporty or too keen to switch to dynamic mode.

It’s here where the Audi finds a balance between finesse and forcefulness. From one of the quietest cabins we’ve ever experienced in an SUV, and fitted with an optional (R27 150) air suspension, the Q5 offers a choice of driving modes: off-road, efficiency, comfort, dynamic and individual, and feels as accomplished in each setting as it does the previous.


5. Mercedes-Benz GLC250d 4Matic 9G-tronic

While each of these premium midsize SUVs delivers on its mandate to offer a welcome sense of adventure within a sophisticated and classy package, it’s the three-year-old GLC that feels most ready for its forthcoming update where it’ll receive the interior revisions and fresh drivetrain options needed to bring it back in contention for line honours in this segment.

4. Volkswagen Tiguan 2,0 TDI 4Motion Highline DSG

Like the Golf on which it’s based, the Tiguan continues to impress not only within its traditional segment, but also in the classes above. Firmer interior plastics and inferior perceived brand status compared with the others aside, there is the potential of huge value and undeniable quality in a visit to a Volkswagen dealership en route to the glossier showrooms further up the road. But today it doesn’t quite match the next three’s more rounded characters.

3. BMW X3 xDrive20d Steptronic

The X3 can thank its inherent superior on-road dynamics, well-considered and solid interior, and admirable badge appeal, for bumping what is indeed the surprise package, the Tiguan, into third place. The X3 is a brilliantly rounded SUV.

2. Volvo XC60 D5 AWD Momentum Geartronic

And then there are two: this year’s Top 12 Best Buys winner versus last year’s champion. We stand by our decision to award the svelte Volvo XC60 range its accolade but, in this comparison, it doesn’t quite match the Q5’s fantastic showing over the three days of SUV Shootout.

1. Audi Q5 40 TDI Quattro S tronic

Added to its all-round ability, relative value (notwithstanding costly, although not all necessary, extras), its versatile and beautifully built cabin, easy-going on-road nature, refined and impressively frugal drivetrain, plus its ability to soak up a gravel path, it’s easy to see why the Q5 walks away with the spoils.

Larger, lighter and more sophisticated than ever, the new BMW X3 makes a strong case for itself, particularly in xDrive30d form...

Introduced globally in 1999 and in South Africa two years later, BMW’s reluctance to label its first-generation X5 an SUV was a clear indication of the Bavarian brand’s priorities. Instead, BMW tweaked the descriptor into “sport activity vehicle”, thereby melding the burgeoning call for adventure-seeking vehicles with the kind of driver-focused, dynamic ability on which this Munich-based manufacturer has built its reputation.

In the decades that have followed, as the X family has evolved to include derivatives appeasing every conceivable niche, each incarnation has retained a healthy hint of athleticism. The latest of these is the third-generation (G01) X3 that we test here.


With its two predecessors quickly establishing the model range as one of the most significant not just in the greater X family, but also in BMW’s complete portfolio, this new X3 has a sizeable reputation to uphold. It may be notably larger from every angle than the first X3 (and the first X5), but given its bolder-than-ever stance and sharp lines, it’s clear BMW wants its bestselling SUV to boast as much dynamic DNA as possible. For the full effect, an optional M Sport package (as fitted to our test unit) is offered on all models bar the M40i, which sports it own bespoke design.


Sharing its platform with the 5 Series, the X3 is around 55 kg lighter, model for model, than the range it replaces. And that’s despite clear dimensional gains, the most significant of which is a 50 mm stretch in wheelbase. While this increase undoubtedly provides handling benefits, it’s the improvement in occupant space and comfort that owners will appreciate.


Obvious from any seat in the X3’s cabin is an advance in both perceived build quality and ergonomics. True to the dynamic DNA requirements, the centre console is notably tilted to the driver’s position, with the rest of the facia looking and feeling altogether sleeker. While a comprehensive options list includes modern technologies such as gesture control and heated seating all-round, it’s the R9 200 upgraded Professional navigation system we’d want most. Here, in conjunction with a more comprehensive mapping system and 20 GB worth of music storage, the cabin is lifted above the ordinary with the fitment of a crisp 10,2-inch touchscreen.


Both the top-of-the-range M40i and this xDrive30d gain a full bouquet of modern tele-phony integration, including a wireless charging pad. Included in the M Sport package are impressively comfortable, more cosseting front seats offering appropriately upgraded bolstering for lateral support. A further advantage of these pews is that their moulded rear trim grants rear passengers more kneeroom. Despite the installation of an optional panoramic sunroof – something that often encroaches on cabin space – headroom throughout is plentiful.


While a no-cost, optional space-saver spare wheel (as a backup to the run-flats) adds peace of mind, it does impact space by raising the default height of the boot board. There is no longer a trailing lip to prevent loose items from falling out once the tailgate is lifted.


Were it not for our recent experiences with the M40i’s free-revving, 3,0-litre, straight-six turbopetrol, you could easily assume the brilliantly refined and effortlessly capable 3,0-litre turbodiesel powering this xDrive30d was the top-of-the-range offering. Mated with a polished eight-speed automatic transmission, it’s a drivetrain that delivers a notably broader breadth of ability than its faster M-tuned sibling. From blasting to 100 km/h in just 6,32 seconds, to settling into a 120 km/h cruise at just 1 700 r/min (and recording an impressive 7,2 L/100 km fuel-route figure), it’s only those seeking sub-five-second traffic-light thrills that realistically need M Power in an X3.


While the combination of upgraded 21-inch tyres (245/40s at the front and 275/35s at the rear), as well as an optional M Sport suspension, might ordinarily have had the older members of the CAR test booking an appointment with the chiropractor, it’s a credit to BMW’s engineering department that the default ride quality of our heavily specced test unit was acceptable rather than harsh. Thanks to this inherently compliant suspension setup, we anticipate good things for conservatively specced versions of the two four-cylinder (20d and 30i) models that are likely to fulfil volume sales roles in our market.


Also promising is the standard fitment of BMW’s xDrive permanent all-wheel-drive system that delivers torque to the front wheels as required, as well as mass distribution as close as possible to 50:50; this X3 registered a split of 48/52%.


Despite weighing a rather portly 1 987 kg, the test unit carried its weight so well that most testers questioned our scales’ calibration on arriving back from a spirited run in the 30d. Matching our experiences with the M40i on both its international and local launches, so impressive is the balance, poise and grip levels offered by the X3 that, if it weren’t for the raised driving position afforded by the 204 mm ground clearance, it’s easy to mistake the X3 for one of BMW’s 1 Series hatchbacks.


If we have a caveat in our assessment of the X3’s driving dynamics, it’s BMW’s sport steering system that is standard throughout the range. The variable-ratio setup initially feels unintuitive and a few testers noted they were caught out having to dial in more lock in high-speed corners, while adding too much input at lower speeds. That said – and as we did – it shouldn’t take an owner too long to adjust to these intricacies.


If the summary of our first test of the second-generation X3 (an xDrive35i from March 2011) questioned what impact this impressive package would have on X5 sales, the introduction of this thoroughly improved new X3 ratchets up that predicament.


Yes, the current-generation X5 has grown accordingly to stand tallest at the summit of the X family (at least until the X7 arrives later this year), but when there's an X3 this sophisticated and versatile sitting just below it on the price list, we'd be carefully measuring just how much luggage space (314 versus' 368 litres for the bigger car) we actually require before putting pen to paper.


While it's often the case that manufacturers load their launch and press vehicles with specification - largely as a means of showcasing new technologies - it is curious that only the top two derivatives (30d and M40i) have been made available for us to drive at both the local and international launches.


Certainly, when these two models offer as much as they do by way of performance and impressive levels of refinement, this decision seems justified. However, it's also a strategy that leaves us wondering whether the two lesser models, the 20d and 30i, can live up to the standards set by their performance-based siblings. We'll soon find out...

*From the April 2018 issue of CAR magazine



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