You don't need to be a dyed-in-the-wool granola eater donning a hand-knitted sweater, burlap trousers, and Birkenstock sandals to qualify as a professional SUV hater. After all, the dreaded two-plus-tonners guzzle gasoline, and more and more people feel that they threaten our loved ones with their potentially lethal mix of high mass and low maneuverability. That's why the automotive world is - at least in so-called civilized countries - giving the antiquated body-on-frame off-roader a collective thumbs-down. But in a closely related and thus mildly schizophrenic move, the crossover population is mushrooming.
Most crossovers look as if they could drive up the north face of Mount Washington with the gear selector stuck in D, yet they often struggle for traction on muddy farm tracks because of their Nürburgring-biased tires. Perhaps nothing but a giant marketing ploy, soft-roaders combine Indiana Jones appearances with city-slicker undercarriages borrowed from related sedans and wagons. Although it's hard to predict how long the zeitgeist will tolerate these worst-of-both-worlds half-breeds, we wasted no time checking out the latest high-roof premium-brand entries. Predictably, the trio of small crossovers we tested from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo is much more environmentally friendly and less dysfunctional than full-size SUVs. While fuel economy almost matches identically equipped versions of the sedans upon which these vehicles are based, handling and roadholding are surprisingly unfazed by the higher centers of gravity and added belly fat. Welcome to the strange world of all-providing, genetically engineered automobiles.
Four-wheel drive should be taken for granted in these pricey high-tech circles, but Mercedes offers a rear-wheel-drive, price-leader version of the GLK for $34,775. Our particular vehicles, however, each feature four driven wheels. Although in most cases a set of decent winter tires would do just fine, only four-wheel drive offers the confidence, control, convenience, and traction that these vehicles are all about. We understand why crossovers are so popular in Bavaria and Colorado. But what is the attraction when you live in London, Redondo Beach, or Abu Dhabi, where lack of traction is rarely an issue? Frequently asked question, disarming answer: the overriding appeal of our three musketeers is, of course, the mix of easy entry and exit, a commanding driving position, and relative invulnerability. You sit above the madding crowd, are surrounded by a few extra square inches of sheetmetal, and can see things earlier and more clearly. It's not just a girlie thing. It's a tangible asset and on aggregate almost certainly the main buying motive.
We could have included the X3 in this shoot-out, but the aging BMW would have placed last. It's still a hoot to drive, yet its ride is unacceptably crash-bang hard, its cabin is sadly outmoded, and its compromised packaging is a good reason why buyers should wait for the replacement that is due next year. That's why this comparison concentrates on three brand-new and emphatically modern contenders. In the left corner, the Audi Q5 - pretty, practical, sporty, innovative, and powerful. In the right corner, the Mercedes-Benz GLK350 - more comfort-oriented, more relaxed, competent even off the beaten path, but styled inside and out with chisel and ax. Between the two German vehicles poses the Volvo XC60 - contemporary, clever, tastefully appointed, Scandinavian in style and character, and emphatically dynamic thanks to its distinct turbo urge.
In terms of styling, the three rivals radiate a mixed bag of charm and appeal. The GLK was allegedly conceived in an intimate fusion between design and marketing, but somehow the outcome looks more like an optical short circuit. The Audi is an Audi is an Audi, another newcomer from Ingolstadt adorned by the trademark single-frame grille that could do with some kind of evolution, pronto. The Q5, then, is our runner-up in the curb-appeal sweepstakes. The Volvo may be a flashy fashion item on wheels, but here today, the solid, light gray XC60 test car with the duotone two-piece aluminum wheels is our favorite centerfold.
If economy and ecology were our prime deciders, we would have picked the diesel models - which unfortunately won't go on sale in the United States anytime soon, if ever. This leaves us with a trio of gasoline-fed six-cylinder powerplants that provide enough grunt for energetic back-road passing maneuvers, legs long enough for relaxed highway cruising, and sufficiently docile manners for brisk intra-city commuting work. In terms of power output and torque delivery, there isn't much difference among these three units. Nominally least potent is the 3.2-liter direct-injection Audi V-6, which develops 270 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. Next in the hierarchy is the Mercedes GLK350's 3.5-liter V-6, which is rated at 268 hp and 258 lb-ft. The Grunt & Oomph trophy goes to the 3.0-liter turbocharged in-line six of the Volvo XC60, which is good for 281 hp and 295 lb-ft. The machine from Sweden is also the heaviest drinker in this group. In our hands, it averaged an OPEC-supporting 15 mpg, thereby trailing the Benz (16 mpg) and the Audi (17 mpg). The Q5 can carry 19.8 gallons of fuel - that's 1.3 gallons more than the XC60 and a 2.4-gallon advantage over the GLK.
Subjectively, the Volvo feels the quickest, the fastest, and the most responsive. According to their manufacturers, however, the Merc wins the 0-to-60-mph sprint in 6.5 seconds, the Q5 comes second in 6.7 seconds, and the XC60 finishes third in 7.1 seconds. Nonetheless, inside your head, it's the Swede that leads the pack. It simply whips up more momentum as the revs build, and the impressive avalanche effect generated by the zero-lag turbocharger peaks at a commendably low 1500 rpm. The Volvo straight six spins to its redline like a turbine on steroids, but its six-speed autobox is over-eager and not quite smooth enough. All three vehicles can cruise easily at triple-digit speeds, although they'll each be limited to 130 mph in U.S. specification.
With every new generation of vehicles, automotive engineers seem to unearth a little more grip and traction as well as an extra dose of power and torque. In addition, they try to give us more space, added versatility, improved ergonomics, and new driver-assistance systems. But what the R&D departments often stubbornly ignore is progress in terms of ride quality and suspension comfort. Despite innovations like air springs, adjustable dampers, and pneumatic massage seats, many vehicles' chassis setups vary between firm and overly firm. This trend is evident in our three crossovers. In their ambition to make their vehicles outhandle and outcorner each other, vehicle line executives are resorting to spring and damper calibrations that are aggressive enough to rearrange your discs in the wake of one deep pothole or a single tall transverse ridge. Other contributing elements are low-profile tires that look great but tend to crush every bit of compliance they can find.
Even with the optional Drive Select set to comfort mode, the Audi, with its nineteen-inch Goodyear Eagle all-season tires, felt too stiff. Our Volvo was equipped with fat, nineteen-inch Pirelli Scorpion winter tires that gave it a tendency to tramline, but we've had more favorable ride-quality impressions in other XC60s shod with conventional rubber. Still, although the XC60 is in its element on supersmooth blacktop, on undulating tarmac it can develop too much yaw, pitch, and roll. The fail-safe handling is put into perspective by excessive early understeer, the inherently light steering stiffens during brisk changes of direction, and the chassis feels brittle on broken surfaces while providing too much seesaw motion over bigger obstacles.
Shod with modest seventeen-inch Pirelli winter rubber, our Mercedes test car turned out to be the smoothest riding and most relaxed soft-roader in this class. U.S.-spec GLK350s are offered only with standard nineteen-inch or optional twenty-inch wheels, but our stateside drives with the largest wheels also demonstrated good ride quality. Calm, composed, and almost cossetting, the GLK350 also deserves praise for its impeccable directional stability. It does not beg to be pushed, but when you do crack the whip, the Benz doesn't take long to enjoy life at the limit of adhesion. Having said that, the meaty steering is a tad on the heavy side, the brakes need a good stab to deliver, and the V-6 wants to be revved before it will show off. The Audi sports the best brakes, as far as effort and modularity are concerned.
The GLK is let down by its Tonka toy exterior and its somewhat uninviting interior, with a mix of angular shapes and surfaces plus a dashboard and door panels that are clad with humdrum materials. Despite the latest-generation Comand system, which works very well, the cockpit layout looks strangely old-fashioned - with the notable exception of the easy-to-reach window switches and the power seat adjusters. The Audi's cabin, naturally, is extremely well made and, in the case of our test car, was also very well equipped. Audi's new, second-generation MMI control system makes its U.S. debut in the Q5, and it's a significant improvement over a system that already far surpassed BMW's iDrive. There are still too many switches grouped around the MMI knob, but a new joystick controller and 3-D maps that show the outlines of buildings more than compensate. The Volvo XC60, conversely, is handicapped by a navigation system that's hard to read, hard to operate, and a potential deal-breaker. But the cabin layout, the seats, and the main instrument panel are first-rate. It's too bad that the active cruise control, lane-departure warning, and driver-alert monitor are linked to a nerve-racking army of warning lights and chimes.
Although the GLK is a highly capable, all-weather vehicle, its design polarizes, which is almost never a good thing, its presentation is ho-hum by Mercedes standards, and dynamically it is in almost every respect bettered by the Audi. It also has the smallest cargo compartment (23.3 cubic feet versus 30.8 for the XC60 and even more for the Q5) and the tightest back seats. The XC60 beats the Benz only by a head, but when it comes to form, fashion, and flair, the Swedish model is, in fact, our undisputed favorite. On the debit side, the large turning circle diminishes maneuverability, and the complicated ergonomics need updating.
The gold medal thus goes to the Q5 - but we have seen grander victories and more compelling winners. While engine, handling, roadholding, and build quality are hard to fault, the U.S. version lacks Audi's superb S tronic seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. All three of these vehicles are offered in Europe with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines that surely would broaden their appeal in the U.S. market. American product planners hint that plans are under way to bring them here. As far as we're concerned, they can't come soon enough.
Techtonics: Compact Crossovers
Three ways to do the twist. Each of these compact crossovers employs a six-cylinder engine to power all four wheels in a slightly different manner.
Audi and Mercedes-Benz agree on the 90-degree V-6 format with variable intake and exhaust valve timing. The two German engines achieve about the same peak power (270 hp for Audi, 268 hp for Mercedes), with the larger Mercedes engine generating a bit more torque. To manipulate airflow into the combustion chambers, Audi uses variable valve lift while Mercedes favors adjustable port flaps. Volvo lines its cylinders in a row and positions the engine transversely in the XC60's chassis. A twin-scroll turbo boosts the 3.0-liter six to 281 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque to trump the Germans' output.
The Audi Quattro and the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel-drive systems both employ a rear-biased torque split (40/60 front/rear in the Audi, 45/55 in the Benz). The Q5's Torsen limited-slip center differential is capable of routing a maximum of 65 percent of the available torque to the front wheels but no more than 85 percent to the rear wheels. Mercedes uses a multiplate clutch in the center differential to keep one axle driving when the other loses its footing. In the Volvo XC60, drive to the front wheels is direct. A Haldex coupling adds rear propulsion in response to commands from a control computer. All three crossovers use momentary brake applications to curb wheel spin.
A Crowded Pool
Our featured trio of all-new European luxury crossovers joins an already-packed segment of strong players from around the globe. But in 2008, the models below accounted for less than 1.5 percent of new-car sales in the U.S.
Base price: $34,655
2.3L turbocharged I-4, 240 hp, 260 lb-ft
Acura's (and Honda's) first gasoline turbocharged engine provides the performance of a six-cylinder, and the SH-AWD system makes it very capable in the turns.
Base price: $40,525
3.0 I-6, 260 hp, 225 lb-ft
6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
BMW invented a new niche with the X3, but it's getting long in the tooth. Ride quality in particular compares poorly with that of its rivals.
Base price: $40,000 (est.)
3.0L V-6, 260 hp, 214 lb-ft (est.); 2.8L turbo V-6, 300 hp, 295 lb-ft (est.)
Set to go on sale this summer, the redesigned SRX trims down and gets a pair of small, powerful V-6s to compete squarely against the strong-selling Lexus RX and BMW X3.
Base price: $36,315
3.5L V-6, 297 hp, 253 lb-ft
The Infiniti is smaller than the others and it shows, both in its excellent driving dynamics and its somewhat limited utility.
Land Rover LR2
Base price: $36,150
3.2L I-6, 230 hp, 234 lb-ft
Cute and reasonably sporty, the LR2 keeps with Land Rover tradition and offers a bit more off-road ability than its competitors.
Base price: $39,000 (est.)
3.5L V-6, 275 hp, 256 lb-ft
The longtime segment leader has been redesigned to offer even more refinement, comfort, and power.
Base price: $34,717
3.5L V-6, 265 hp, 250 lb-ft
Lincoln's entry is heavy on tech features, but it still comes off as a fancified Ford Edge.
| ||2009 Volvo XC60 T6 ||2009 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 ||2009 Audi Q5 3.2FSI |
|base price ||$38,025 ||$36,775 ||$38,000 (est.) |
|Powertrain || || || |
|engine ||Turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6 ||DOHC 24-valve V-6 ||DOHC 24-valve V-6 |
|displacement ||3.0 liters (180 cu in) ||3.5 liters (214 cu in) ||3.2 liters (195 cu in) |
|horsepower ||281 hp @ 5600 rpm ||268 hp @ 6000 rpm ||270 hp @ 6500 rpm |
|torque ||295 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm ||258 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm ||243 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm |
|transmission type ||6-speed automatic ||7-speed automatic ||6-speed automatic |
|drive ||4-wheel ||4-wheel ||4-wheel |
|Chassis || || || |
|steering ||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion ||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion ||Power-assisted rack-and-pinion |
|suspension FRONT ||Strut-type, |
|suspension BACK ||Multilink, coil springs ||Multilink, coil springs ||Multilink, coil springs |
|brakes ||Vented discs, ABS ||Vented discs, ABS ||Vented discs, ABS |
|Measurements || || || |
|L x W x H ||182.2 x 74.4 x 67.4 in ||178.3 x 72.4 x 66.9 in ||182.2 x 74.8 x 65.2 in |
|wheelbase ||109.2 in ||108.5 in ||110.6 in |
|track f/r ||64.3/62.4 in ||61.7/62.5 in ||63.7/63.5 in |
|weight ||4174 lb (per manufacturer) ||4034 lb (per manufacturer) ||3957 lb (per manufacturer) |
|epa fuel mileage ||15/22 mpg ||17/23 mpg (est.) ||18/23 mpg (est.) |