Of course, it’s life’s guilty pleasures that add zest to the daily grind. But the funny underlying truth is, these vehicles aren’t any crazier than hot-rod wagons—well, maybe a little—and any residual insanity pretty much evaporates the moment you personally unleash 500-some horsepower to slingshot out of an increasing-radius downhill turn in Ohio’s Hocking Hills. It’s like riding a runaway Sherman tank with wings.
We last compared hi-po SUVs in January 2010. Back then, we included a Range Rover Sport Supercharged, but it finished last. So this time around, we ditched the Brit in favor of the new 550-hp Mercedes-Benz ML63, the first of these bruisers to wear an AMG badge since the third-gen MLs were launched in 2011.
Returning to the fray is the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, which finished third in 2010. Since then, the Jeep has benefited from a full redesign including a revised rear suspension, a stiffer body structure, 50 bonus horses, paddle shifters, an improved ride, and a pair of hood-mounted heat extractors that look like dinosaur nostrils. What’s more, the Jeep’s old center-mounted exhausts have been ditched in favor of conventional left/right exits, and a Class IV hitch is now a factory option.
The Porsche Cayenne Turbo returns, too, hoping to improve on its previous runner-up finish. But this is the second-gen Cayenne, with a body that looks less air-puffed from every angle. It rides on 1.6 inches of newfound wheelbase, includes a wholly new cockpit that in several ways mimics the Panamera’s, and makes use of a revised all-wheel-drive system connected to an eight-speed Tiptronic automatic. Cargo room is up and weight is down. Our test car proved 63 pounds lighter than the Turbo S we tested in 2010.
BMW’s X5 M likewise returns, hoping to retain its champion status. It affords us a chance to sample the latest iterations of BMW’s iDrive, full-time all-wheel-drive system, and limited-slip torque-vectoring rear differential. You believe that? Ha-ha. All we really wanted was to mess around again with 555 horsepower, obtaining 60 mph in 4.0 seconds. That’s quicker than an Aston Martin V-12 Vantage. From a 5289-pound SUV with $100 “high-gloss roof rails”—proof that BMW is amused by all of this, too.
Fourth Place: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
In this contest, the Jeep faced three competitors whose average MSRP was in six-figure territory. Unfair, right? Maybe so, but we hoped that its as-tested price—$34,160 below the winner’s—would represent the sort of frugality that overcomes a battery of behavioral faults.
HIGHS: Familiar ergonomics, terrific sightlines, a bargain in this group.
LOWS: Squishy seat cushions, five gears only, always looking for a drag strip instead of a slalom.
It didn’t work out that way. For one thing, this is still a damnably expensive Jeep, so how come its interior is still a mosh pit of hard surfaces and questionable gauges? And that’s with the $4495 Luxury Group option. Bonus abuse was expended on the front seats, whose squishy, unsupportive cushions are upholstered in what we dubbed “Elvis velvet.”
The SRT8 is a hot rod in the conventional sense, a big wet-kissing American who opens his arms to welcome you to the Motel 6, where everything is in a familiar location and the seats are veritable La-Z-Boys. Check out the steering wheel—thick as a bat.
With only five gears, the Jeep felt at sea around our handling loop, where second was often too low and third too high. And no matter how often we flicked at the paddles, the shifts sometimes banged and slammed with such harshness that deputy editor Daniel Pund remarked, “I wonder how long this transmission will last.” At least the shifts were quick. Body motions were often unchecked; the steering was light but slow; the brakes weren’t especially easy to modulate; and all operators experienced an instance or two of unpleasant head toss. In the hills, it was nearly impossible to establish a driving rhythm other than to enter corners tentatively, wait around, then wait some more, then full power out. “It’s as if your only choice is all of the horsepower or none of it,” noted Pund. “I’m pitching it into corners instead of pouring it in.”
Not only did the Grand Cherokee’s engine produce the most NVH, it also proved to be the noisiest at idle, at a 70-mph cruise, and at full throttle. At least the big V-8—the only naturally aspirated engine in the group—sounds as glorious as a Corvette’s.
“To varying extents, the three other SUVs feel light and agile—essentially carlike,” noted senior editor Jared Gall. “Not the Jeep. There’s lots of body roll, and it takes a long moment to take a set. You’re always aware that you’re just driving a fast truck.”
THE VERDICT: Shy on sophistication, long on hot-roddishness.
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
470-hp V-8, 5-speed automatic, 5272 lb
Base/as-tested price: $55,395/$61,885
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 5.0 sec
100 mph: 12.8 sec
1/4 mile: 13.7 @ 103 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 163 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.87 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
Third Place: Porsche Cayenne Turbo
Our Cayenne Turbo began life with a $108,075 base price, then someone—not us—began ticking options. If you’re ever looking for hilarious reading, try scanning a Porsche window sticker. Let’s see, there’s the optional “sand yellow” paint ($3140), the ceramic-composite brakes ($8840), the stainless door sills ($1100), the Burmester stereo ($3990). And who’d own a Cayenne whose key fob wasn’t painted body color ($335)?
HIGHS: Sharp steering, brilliant seats, an SUV ready for Road America.
LOWS: Absurd price, restricted view astern, ergonomically intimidating, cramped.
Those financial rimshots rapidly withered, however, once the Cayenne was uncorked in the hills of southern Ohio. With the lowest center of gravity and the most skidpad grip, the Cayenne soon showed its power-oversteering Waffle House–yellow tail to its colleagues. “This thing is so low and sleek and hardy that I’m not sure why it’s not just a wagon,” said Pund. Added editor-in-chief Eddie Alterman, “In hard use, the brakes have the effect of shrinking this vehicle’s size.” Combine that with light, accurate steering—“Turn-in and front grip are just astounding,” noted Gall—as well as the most supportive seats, and, well, yessir, Dr. Piëch, we’ve got our handling victor right here.
Despite this new Cayenne’s larger cockpit, it remains a tight fit. It offered the least rear-seat comfort and the least cargo space behind both the front and rear seats. Three adults back there will become familiar with each other’s deodorant brands. It does help, however, that the rear bench slides fore and aft 6.3 inches and that the split folding backrest can be tilted six degrees.
What’s more, our Cayenne delivered an observed 15 mpg—best in the group and 1 mpg better than our previous-gen Cayenne Turbo S. We do wish this Porsche offered better sightlines. The backlight is truncated and raked, and all three mirrors are miniscule. Moreover, it takes some time to master the intimidating array of piano-key switches on that tall Panamera-esque center console. Speaking of hard-to-find switchgear, how is it possible that the Cayenne’s shift paddles—buttons, actually—are so finicky and difficult to operate in the heat of battle? This is a Porsche, right?
In the end, Mellow Yellow was easily the most fun to drive, a dizzying exercise in sophisticated brutality. This SUV will tow 7716 pounds, and in our hands it achieved 172 mph. But with an as-tested price that is $87,170 beyond, say, the Jeep’s, it represents the kind of fiscal irresponsibility that reliably causes Chancellor Merkel to spit up her spätzle.
THE VERDICT: How is it possible to make 5242 pounds feel so agile?
2012 Porsche Cayenne Turbo
500-hp twin-turbo V-8, 8-speed automatic, 5242 lb
Base/as-tested price: $108,075/$149,055
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.5 sec
100 mph: 10.9 sec
1/4 mile: 13.0 @ 109 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 166 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.93 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 15 mpg
Second Place: Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG
This is the flagship of the M-class, and, with a base price of $95,865, it oughta be. On the other hand, a recent study suggests that folks buying AMG-branded Benzes possess a median household income of $430,000. Jeepers.
There are two ML63 flavors on tap. The base version delivers “only” 518 horsepower at 5250 rpm, but if you specify the AMG Performance package ($6550)—as tested here—the output rises to 550 ponies at 5750 rpm. It’s a boost that is a side effect of boost: 18.9 psi rather than 14.5. At the proving grounds, we hustled our Benz—in Diamond White raiment ($795)—to 175 mph. Come on, kids, we’re headed for Talladega!
HIGHS: Princely cockpit, serene freeway cruiser, 175-mph top speed.
LOWS: Uninformative to start with, completely numb at its handling limits.
Thanks to pleas from Mercedes’ U.S. marketers in New Jersey, the interior of every ML63 now benefits from a standard Designo dress-up package. “It’s like a leather bomb that we set off inside,” says AMG’s U.S. product manager, Rob Moran, and he ain’t kiddin’. Every touchable surface is either bovine derived or glossy or rich or Dinamica (faux suede that wraps the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 positions), and there’s contrasting double topstitching that crisscrosses the dash, armrests, and door liners. Toss in the optional black “piano lacquer wood trim” ($1600), and this ML’s interior would serve admirably in a Maybach, were that brand ever to nonsensically reappear.
Not only is the cockpit classy, it’s serene—as quiet as the BMW’s at idle and the outright quietest at 70 mph.
The ML63 offers three driving modes—in only one is the stop-start function active—and three ride/handling maps, allowing us to pretend to talk knowledgeably about the air suspension’s elastokinematics. No matter which mode is selected, the ride is firm but well controlled, and the transmission undertakes all shifts with clockwork precision and astounding speed. In sport and manual shift modes, there’s even a rev-matching function for downshifts. It’s satisfying even though your feet play no part in the drama. The Benz’s brakes are easy to modulate, and we can’t recall many turbo’d engines whose immense power can be applied and removed in a manner so linear and seamless. Well, the Benz E63 wagon’s V-8 would be high on that list, too, wouldn’t it?
This SUV was much loved everywhere except at its ragged limits around our handling loop, where it always felt insensitive and massive, as if it clogged a lane and a half. Once you venture beyond, say, seven-tenths of the ML63’s lateral limits, it stops talking. The driver is suddenly isolated from the steering, the tires, the suspension, the Greek debt crisis. How much grip remains? Turns out it’s usually plenty, but the consequences of possibly knocking down the nearby hemlocks are too ugly to contemplate, and you back off in response. “It’s as if the vehicle suddenly ‘masses out,’ ” as Alterman put it.
Still, the Benz was every inch the luxoliner in this group, with perfectly sculpted front seats and ample rear-seat comfort and space. And it was the SUV we most desired for freeway slogs, where its ride and Harman/Kardon aural extravaganza proved nigh-on irresistible.
THE VERDICT: The Moët & Chandon of SUV status symbols.
2012 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG
550-hp twin-turbo V-8, 7-speed automatic, 5285 lb
Base/as-tested price: $95,865/$109,010
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.2 sec
100 mph: 9.8 sec
1/4 mile: 12.6 @ 113 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 164 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.88 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 13 mpg
First Place: BMW X5 M
Viewed from head-on, the X5 M’s monster radiators, intercoolers, and gill intakes lend it the look of an industrial HVAC unit that might more appropriately be attached to the Trump Tower. But that’s the sort of cooling you’ll need when you funnel 555 horses through the launch control—three or four times in a row—just to hear yourself spontaneously come up with increasingly profane variations of the exclamation “Holy Moses!”
HIGHS: Blindingly quick, plenty of cargo room, a transmission that predicts the future.
LOWS: Bizarre exhaust note, slightly leaden steering, minor impact harshness, smallish fuel tank.
In this group, no SUV could match the X5 M’s 4.0-second dash to 60 mph—same as our last X5 M—nor its 12.5-second blast through the quarter-mile. No SUV could match the BMW’s brake feel nor the gratifyingly forceful “click” with which it automatically selects each of its six gears. And despite all that oomph produced by the BMW, no SUV in this group could equal its engine’s low levels of NVH. Tack on superior ergonomics in an SUV offering 75 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seat, and you’re off to what we’d call a very strong start.
With a push of the M Drive button, the X5 M enthusiastically undertakes the transition to a taut, crisp, and sophisticated Mr. Hyde, making the most of 500 pound-feet of torque available just off idle—as low as 1500 rpm. This ute felt far more agile than the Benz and the Jeep, especially in traffic, where it was aided by its upright stance and its vast, nearly flat expanses of glass. On freeways, it tracked like a BNSF locomotive, and in the hills, well, the BMW felt as if it had been schooled there. “It manages fast transitions with real poise,” noted Alterman. “In sport mode, the transmission is always in the perfect gear.” Every bizarre road condition we could throw at the X5 M left it unfazed, unflustered, unflummoxed.
We noted only minor niggles. Impact harshness was greater than we’d prefer. More feedback from the slightly too heavy steering would be nice. The smallish fuel tank meant the X5 M was usually the first in search of a Shell station. The BMW’s shifter is still an ergonomic mystery that should be the focus of a wasted-motion study. And at WOT, this engine has a peculiarly synthesized flat-plane-crank four-cylinder sound that is less than thrilling.
Otherwise, it was Gall who delivered an apt summation: “BMW’s chassis engineers know more than you do about these things, and they’ve made the call for you—the right call.”
THE VERDICT: A driveline and chassis that love and respect each other forever and ever.
2012 BMW X5 M
555-hp twin-turbo V-8, 6-speed automatic, 5289 lb
Base/as-tested price: $88,145/$96,045
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 4.0 sec
100 mph: 9.9 sec
1/4 mile: 12.5 @ 113 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 172 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 14 mpg
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