July 18, 2024


Automotive pure lust

2010 Compact Luxury SUVs Compared

From the July 2009 issue of Car and Driver.

When getting there is assumed and what counts is your arrival, you need a ride with Coach cachet, Ferragamo flair, Saks snobbery, Vuitton verve.

In the travertine halls of the Somerset Collection, a ritzy shopping enclave in the Detroit suburb of  Troy, Michigan, our quintet of all-weather Arrival Vehicles—let’s call them AVs—basked in admiring glances. Burberry and Ralph Lauren behind showroom glass, Lexus and Mercedes out front, the coveting begins at 10 a.m.

Of course, an AV will get you to most any terrestrial destination; all-wheel drive, traction control, stability control, and onboard navigation see to that. But it’s the designer details and gilt-edge labels that mark an arrival.

Arrival—as opposed to just plain ol’ arrival—naturally costs a little more, the price of moving up the status pyramid far enough to be where everybody isn’t. Unrolling 45 or 50 thou won’t put you up in the thin oxygen, but the manners are more polite and the leather is softer.

This comparison test is prompted by four new entries in this so-called “compact-luxury sport-utility” class. We’re facing them off against the veteran BMW X3, first introduced in 2004, the winner of our last roundup [July 2007]. For the record, these crossover vehicles are all based on passenger-car platforms.

The Audi Q5, newborn for 2009 and Audi’s first entry in the segment, is based on the similarly new A4 sedan. A 3.2-liter V-6 and Quattro all-wheel drive are standard equipment.

The new-for-2010 Lexus RX350 follows the formula that made its predecessor the bestseller in the segment, a sumptuous leather cabin riding on a creamy suspension. Choose front- or all-wheel drive.

Mercedes-Benz, long a lofty presence in heavyweight SUVs, for the first time lowers its sights to the compact segment with the 2010 GLK350, which is based on C-class architecture. A 3.5-liter V-6 is standard equipment, backed by a seven-speed automatic, with your choice of rear- or all-wheel drive.

Volvo’s swoopy XC60 debuts as a 2010 model, a shortened and much resculpted take on a platform shared by the V70/XC70/S80 models. The 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline-six spools up to 281 peak horsepower, making it the top performer of this group, on paper at least.

Golf clap, please, for these five AVs.

Fifth Place: Mercedes-Benz GLK350

If comparison tests were decided on the basis of styling, this spunky little Benz rolling on Pirelli 20-inchers might have won here. But low-profile tires are noisy, and they often make the steering vague on-center; both complaints echoed and reechoed throughout our drive. All the other vehicles wore 55 and 60 profiles and elicited no squawks. Surprisingly, given the tires, the Benz’s ride was relatively smooth, better than the BMW’s.

HIGHS: Looks like fun on wheels, spirited growls from the V-6, smart screen-control strategy, excellent support from the driver’s seat.
LOWS: HVAC controls below driver’s knees, noisy on the road, dead travel in brake pedal, flaring sills put mud on pant legs.

The GLK350 looks sharp inside and out, with chunky expanses of neatly bent and brushed metal punctuating the black interior. The dash, and particularly the instrument cluster with its crisp markings, seems clean and contemporary. We like the firmly stuffed driver’s seat, pronouncing it just right for all-day journeys.

The V-6 growls as the Benz romps to the lead in the 0-to-30 sprint—only 2.2 seconds required—then falls back a nose by 60 mph before returning to the front of the pack to tie the Volvo for a 15.0-second ET in the quarter-mile. The snarl never goes away, though, making this a relatively noisy ride at interstate speeds.

This is the shortest and narrowest of our AVs, and if you’re planning to transport three adults in back, don’t—unless one of them agrees to leave a shoulder behind. The high doorsills try to trip you on exit, too.

Cargo capacity, measured in cubic feet, is smallest of the quintet. With the second row folded, however, the Benz tied the Volvo at the top of the chart, as both swallowed 37 longneck-beer cases. Those who opt for the power liftgate will learn to use it every time; manual operation takes a strong pull.

When the final votes were counted, the disconnected steering and wooden brake feel were too much to overlook, so we’ll appreciate GLK style from the cockpit of something else.

THE VERDICT: A baby G-wagen, if you go for that sort of thing.

2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 4MATIC
268-hp V-6, 7-speed automatic, 4234 lb
Base/as-tested price: $36,775/$45,935
Interior volume f/r: 53/45 ft3
Cargo behind f/r: 55/23 ft3
60 mph: 6.6 sec
100 mph: 17.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.0 sec @ 93 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 180 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 20 mpg

Fourth Place: Lexus RX350

This triple-creme Lexus may define the class in consumers’ minds—it is, after all, the top seller—but it takes more than comfort, silence, and top-level materials to push our car-enthusiast buttons. We insist on driver involvement; Lexus specializes in isolation. We end up feeling respect rather than love.

HIGHS: The zenith of plushness, buttery leather everywhere, creamy ride, thoughtful and convenient control layout.
Power outlets too far down in the console bin, seat cushion and lumbar adjusters never quite get the seat right.

That said, the RX350 offers much to respect. The bright, white instrument markings stand out against black backgrounds like stars on a desert night. The interior leather is surely from cows that enjoyed Oil of Olay rubdowns every day of their lives. The 275-hp V-6 purrs happily all the way to its 6500-rpm redline, allowing this Lexus to beat the BMW to 60 mph. Automatic shifts manage to feel silky and sound incredibly precise as well.

In most measures of performance, the RX turns in numbers that are average for the class, although road grip, at 0.76 g, is weakest of all by a narrow margin. Fuel economy, at 21 mpg on our 450-mile test trip, is exactly average for the group.

Surprisingly, given Lexus’s emphasis on luxury, the RX also tops the rankings in practicality. Perhaps in this class, usability is a prerequisite for lavishness. The liftgate is widest of all, opening to the largest floor area behind the second row. Only Lexus and Audi provide release mechanisms allowing you to fold the second-row seat as you load from behind. The hauling space available above the rear wheel arches is by far the widest of the group, resulting in the largest maximum cargo capacity measured by cubic feet, 13 percent larger than that of the second-place BMW. That said, the shape of your stuff determines how much can fit. A full-size bicycle fit most easily into the Lexus, though we managed to get it into every test vehicle. Yet in our beer-case test, both the Volvo and the Benz held more—37, versus 35 for the Lexus.

Our list of admirable Lexus features goes on and on, but we didn’t find the one quality that we seek more than any other—passion.

THE VERDICT: The definitive luxury utility absent of any real sport.

2010 Lexus RX350
275-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4471 lb
Base/as-tested price: $39,025/$52,965
Interior volume f/r: 57/46 ft3
Cargo behind f/r: 80/40 ft3
60 mph: 6.8 sec
100 mph: 18.6 sec
1/4 mile: 15.3 sec @ 92 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 175 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

Third Place: Volvo XC60

This turbo Volvo won the sprinting contest, faltering only in the 0-to-30-mph jump, where the Mercedes and the Audi nipped briefly to the front. From there on, it was all Volvo all the way, blowing through the quarter-mile at 96 mph, three up on the Mercedes, which scored the same time.

Big power is usually accompanied by small mpg numbers, and this Volvo is no exception—19 mpg puts it last on our trip, compared with 22 for the BMW at the top.

HIGHS: Fascinating styling, excellent front seats, lots of turbo thrust, low-mass liftgate swings easily.
LOWS: Pancake syrup in the steering, sharp ride motions and crashing noises on broken pavement, look-ahead safety system lights up laser detectors.

Turbo boost comes up quickly. The steering is highly damped, as if the parts were moving in a goopy fluid. The ride is firm over rough roads, accompanied by crashing sounds.

As Arrival Vehicles go, this one gives the fashionistas something to look at: a high-waisted shape that flares dramatically as it sweeps back to huge sculptural taillights. Better yet, this visual entertainment takes place without encroaching on the capacity within. The XC60 ties the Audi in length at 182.2, exactly mid-size in this collection. We rated rear-seat comfort equal to that of the Audi and the Lexus at the top of the group, cargo space topped them all in our beer-case test, and the lightweight liftgate swung so easily that power assist would have been superfluous. Our bicyclist says the Volvo and the Lexus are easiest to load.

Inside we found a design that mixes caution and daring, starting with relentless black, wall to wall. And yet the black seats are carefully accented with an orange stitching faint enough that it doesn’t immediately grab the eye. Looking around, there’s a potpourri of textures, with the one on the door inserts being so bold the mind considers, just briefly: Could this have been a mistake? Oddly, the radio/entertainment information appears in a display that humps up out of the dash top like it was an afterthought. The front buckets are form fitting, yet they seem to fit all shapes. We rated them highest for comfort, in a tie with the Audi’s.

Speed and comfort, a lasting recipe.

THE VERDICT: Volvo breaks the shackles of stodgy but can’t quite make the leap to fun.

2010 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD
281-hp turbo inline-6, 6-speed automatic, 4258 lb
Base/as-tested price: $38,025/$42,250
Interior volume f/r: 51/44 ft3
Cargo behind f/r: 67/31 ft3
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 16.5 sec
1/4 mile: 15.0 sec @ 96 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 177 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 19 mpg

Second Place: BMW X3

We like this high-riding X3 for the same reason we hoist superlatives in honor of most other BMWs: It drives like it loves what it’s doing.

HIGHS: Surprisingly agile, smooth six-cylinder, big glass area opens the view.
Shockingly expensive even in stripper form, inhospitable rear seat, thinly padded interior feels a class below the others.

At the same time, this X3 is the extremist of the group, the anti-Lexus, devoid of plush, abstinent of lush, so thinly padded inside that it feels bony, with road noises typical of a model that’s already five years into its run.

But that athletic BMW feel is there. Does it make up for the hideous value proposition? At $46,525 as tested—about $600 more than the nicely equipped Benz and $4275 pricier than the appealing Volvo—the X3 may not represent a sensible investment. The list of equipment we expect at that price that is absent from the X3 raises eyebrows: no navigation, no individual temperature controls for front occupants, no extend feature on the visors, no height adjuster for the front shoulder belts.

This is an austere car. And despite the athletic feel, the performance numbers mostly don’t impress. An exception is fuel economy, which tops all others at 22 mpg over 450 miles, compared with 19 mpg for the turbo Volvo at the thirsty end. This lightest-of-the-group X3 stops shortest, too, needing just 169 feet to halt from 70 mph. But it was consistently last in measures of acceleration.

The X3, and the Mercedes even more so, stands at the compact end of the class, almost eight inches shorter than the Lexus. We rated the rear seat lowest in comfort for two, a significant disadvantage for those with social lives. Out back, though the floor area is second smallest, the lean padding and upright sides allow a credible showing in the cargo-space department: 71 cubic feet with the second row folded, compared with 80 for the Lexus and 55 for the least-roomy Benz.

Bottom line, this is a driver’s AV, thoroughly and unconditionally satisfying on that count, at a price that promises more pampering than it delivers.

THE VERDICT: Imagine a five-year-old BMW on stilts, and you’ll get the idea.

2009 BMW X3 xDrive30i
260-hp inline-6, 6-speed automatic, 4141 lb
Base/as-tested price: $40,525/$46,525
Interior volume f/r: 51/45 ft3
Cargo behind f/r: 71/30 ft3
60 mph: 7.1 sec
100 mph: 19.1 sec
1/4 mile: 15.5 sec @ 91 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 169 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 22 mpg

First Place: Audi Q5

From the driver’s seat, you just have to love the surroundings, the smooth contouring of the almost seamless leather wheel, the deft designer touch with the metal trim around the burled-wood accents, the neat detailing of the door panels right down to the slickly integrated stiffener molded into the top edge of the storage pockets.

Oh, sure, we can nitpick. The bin under the center armrest isn’t big enough to be dinky, and what’s with the speedo markings up to 180 mph?

HIGHS: Sculptural perfection inside, inspired use of bright trim, fun screen graphics, composed handling.
Oddly heavy steering at low speeds, freakishly oversized side mirrors, screen-menu buttons too low in cockpit.

Audi has delivered where it counts, though: quick acceleration, top-level comfort in the back seat, class-leading grip as measured on the skidpad, better-than-average fuel-economy ratings, respectable cargo space, and, of course, an interior so classy you might delay your arrival for just one more trip around the block.

This test car was equipped with Audi drive select, a $2950 electronic controller that tailors throttle response, steering effort, automatic shift points, and ride damping according to your selection of buttons labeled comfort, auto, dynamic, and individual. But don’t expect comfort to be the Lexus mode. The Q5 always feels muscular, more inclined toward the BMW-Mercedes end of things. As with most of these “u-tailor-it” systems, there’s something to like and something to dislike in each position, and after a few days of evaluating, we just decided to default to auto and forget about it. Knocking three grand off the sticker is a better idea.

The driver’s seat earned top marks for both comfort and support, in a tie with the Volvo. The side mirrors are freakishly large; some test drivers complained they blocked the view toward the front corners. Out on the two-laners, we appreciated the passing power, confirmed by top marks in the 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70 acceleration tests. The steering, so heavy in town, seems just right at speed.

Comfortable, composed, and capable, that’s our consensus on this new entry, and the interior design is most inviting of all. In fact, we find it irresistible.

THE VERDICT: Great over-the-road dynamics in a high-class package.

2009 Audi Q5 3.2 Quattro
270-hp V-6, 6-speed automatic, 4346 lb
Base/as-tested price: $38,275/$48,275
Interior volume f/r: 52/46 ft3
Cargo behind f/r: 57/29 ft3
60 mph: 6.5 sec
100 mph: 17.5 sec
1/4 mile: 15.1 sec @ 94 mph
Braking, 70­-0 mph: 170 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.83 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 21 mpg

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