We were stopped in the middle of nowhere by a river rushing across the road, so we left our cars idling on the wet, patched pavement and stood in the rain to watch it. We were on the back roads of Texas Hill Country, and spring rains had turned many dry creek beds into fast-moving streams and rivers. We'd come here because it seemed like the right place to wring out a cross-section of high-performance SUVs, a distinct mutation of the sport-utility species, one whose lineage we trace back to the original BMW X5. We stood contemplating the churning brown water, but a modicum of good sense--and a healthy fear of ending up on YouTube courtesy of some unseen observer's camera phone--stopped us from trying a water crossing. (Fording attempts claimed the lives of three other drivers in south-central Texas during our visit). Later, the sun would shine on our efforts, as we pushed our five sporty sport-utes along the picturesque and challenging byways that crisscross Hill Country.
BMW added sporty driving character to the sport-utility vehicle for the first time back in 1999. But once the X5 created a new branch in the SUV stream, that stream quickly swelled with entries from Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, Porsche, Cadillac, Land Rover, Chevrolet, Jeep, Acura, and Audi, all of which have introduced SUVs with some degree of sportiness. (Do we hear some student of the early '90s squawking about the turbocharged GMC Typhoon? OK, but it was pretty one-dimensional, not to mention short-lived.)
The occasion of an all-new X5 struck us as the perfect time to take a fresh look at the idea of the athletic SUV. So we gathered up the new BMW plus a group of performance sport-utilities that spanned a wide range.
The Mercedes-Benz M-class can be made into a sporting machine, but it takes in-house tuner AMG to do it. AMG's tack here is typical of the company's method elsewhere in the Mercedes-Benz lineup: stuff its 6.2-liter V-8 into the engine bay and back it up with wide tires, a stiff suspension, and massive brakes.
The fact that Porsche entered this field says a lot about how popular--and profitable--it is. The Porsche Cayenne was codeveloped with the Volkswagen Touareg and is now also related to the Audi Q7, but the Porsche is undeniably the sportiest of the siblings. We chose a Cayenne Turbo to push the idea of a Porsche SUV to its logical conclusion.
Coming from the other direction is staid old Land Rover, which earned its street cred in sub-Saharan Africa but nonetheless felt the need to give its nose-in-the-air Range Rover brand a model designed to whip around corners as well as tiptoe down hillsides. We specified a supercharger for our Range Rover Sport, because without it, the last part of the name is a bit of a misnomer.
Finally, we threw an American wild card into this Eurocentric mix. Both Chevrolet, with its TrailBlazer SS, and Jeep, with its Grand Cherokee SRT8, make muscle-truck versions of their mid-size SUVs, but the TrailBlazer's less-potent V-8 and crude four-speed automatic made the Jeep the easy pick to carry the U.S. flag on our foray into the Lone Star State.
We knew immediately that we wanted to take these trucks to Texas. The notion of performance cars in the shape of SUVs would seem perfectly natural there. After all, the Chevrolet Suburban has been embraced as the national car of Texas, and countless Texans use crew-cab diesel pickups as everyday rides. Not to mention that when you're driving a group of vehicles whose EPA city gas mileage is mired in the low teens, it's good to be in a state that pumps its own oil.
We based ourselves in Austin, because it's one of our favorite cities. We did most of our driving in Hill Country, since we wanted roads that weren't just long, flat straights. Despite the image of Austinites as layabouts (thanks largely to native-son filmmaker Richard Link-later's 1991 film, Slacker), the locals we encountered were very car-aware; our quintet of potent SUVs attracted lots of attention.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8Standing out in a crowd is no accident for the Grand Cherokee SRT8, which looks like an escapee from the SEMA show. With its massive front air dam, center-mounted dual exhausts, and bright twenty-inch wheels, the SRT8 is not for cruising incognito--the rather bland-looking BMW would be the choice for that. The Mercedes is the most highly stylized, but we found the squared-off Range Rover far more handsome. And the Cayenne's recent redo hasn't made it any more fetching, but it still brings out the camera phones simply because it's a Porsche.
Rumbling through Austin, it's the Jeep that wants to mix it up with the locals in stoplight duels. You get the sense that the SRT8 was engineered around the 0-to-60-mph sprint, which it dispensed in an amazing 4.4 seconds in our tests. That's quicker than any of the European bluebloods, including its twice-as-expensive and slightly better-endowed German cousin (with 6.2 liters of hand-built AMG V-8 versus the Jeep's 6.1-liter Chrysler Hemi). At low speeds, the SRT8's throttle response is explosive; credit the Hemi and the Jeep's relatively light weight. The full-time four-wheel drive, though, seems a shame--you really want to burn rubber in this thing.
We found the Grand Cherokee relatively easy to maneuver and park in town, thanks to its tidy size and optional rearview camera. The downside is a cabin and cargo hold that are on the smallish side, compromising utility. Additionally, the SRT8 tows less than other Grand Cherokees (3500 pounds, versus 7400 pounds with the 5.7-liter V-8), and the central tail-pipes necessitate a custom-made hitch.
The SRT8's slightly numb but straightforward steering, paired with its one-inch-lower ride height, beefed-up suspension, and ultrawide tires, had us carving easy turns on the smooth, curving ranch roads that follow the Colorado River northwest out of Austin. But once we were on the rougher backcountry two-lanes, with their bumps, drops, and cattle guards, the choppy-riding Jeep was over its head. "It feels to me like the width and the offset of the front wheels are incompatible with the fundamental chassis engineering," said technical editor Don Sherman. "Bumps trigger wandering that the steering rack can't contain, so you feel like you're merely along for the wild ride, not fully in charge of your directional destiny."
Its back-road performance is a reminder that the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is clearly a traditional SUV given a pimp-my-ride makeover rather than a cohesively engineered sporty sport-ute. The Jeep provides obvious bang for the buck at a starting price of just over forty grand, but it's really more of an amusing toy than a serious machine.
Porsche Cayenne TurboThe words "Porsche" and "Turbo" always denote seriousness, and the Cayenne is no exception. But Porsche's stern refusal to compromise results in a vehicle that's certainly very capable but not much fun. The Cayenne Turbo not only endeavors to provide Porsche-like levels of performance (such as its advertised 171-mph top speed) but also major towing ability (7716 pounds) and serious off-road chops (with up to 10.7 inches of ground clearance).
But all that off-road hardware--such as the standard two-speed transfer case with low range--is really just along for the ride, because no sport SUV is going to see off-roading tougher than the dirt roads we drove in Hill Country. Why not? In a word, tires. Tackling difficult terrain in high-performance tires is like going rock climbing in wing tips. In fact, a sharp rock punctured a sidewall on one of our Cayenne's 35-series, twenty-one-inch tires, and that was on a relatively ordinary dirt road.
As part of the Cayenne's 2008 redo, Porsche has added direct fuel injection and variable valve timing to the twin-turbo V-8, upping output to a nice, round 500 hp--easy to remember for barroom boasts. Torque is an impressive 516 lb-ft, but the Turbo still proved disappointingly docile in town. Its six-speed automatic likes to start off in second gear, and, until the turbos kick in, you have a relatively puny 4.8 liters tugging more than two-and-a-half tons. But once we got it onto the wide-open roads west of Austin, the Porsche turned into a rocket. We'd be cruising at a casual 80 mph and come up on a driver doing the 70-mph limit. Almost invariably, the incredibly polite local driver would move onto the shoulder to facilitate a pass. They wouldn't have to stay there for long, though, because the Cayenne Turbo accelerates from 80 mph with a ferocity that doesn't begin to let up until 120 or better. "I was amazed how 140 mph felt like nothing," said road test editor Marc Noordeloos after an evening run back to town in the Porsche.
Our Turbo's all-singing, all-dancing suspension--air springs with three firmness settings and active management plus optional active antiroll bars--kept the Cayenne stable through high-speed sweepers. But it couldn't make this high-and-heavy beast feel nimble when we hit a series of tight switchbacks coming south out of Kerrville. And reconciling the high-speed cornering ability with a decent ride requires toggling among the three suspension settings. Furthermore, in marked contrast to Porsche's sports cars, the Cayenne's steering had drivers grumbling about its lack of feel and its ultraquick response off-center. "Regular street manners have been sacrificed to the road racing gods," concluded Sherman.
Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMGLike the Jeep, the Mercedes-Benz wouldn't be here but for the efforts of the brand's in-house skunk works crew to transform a suburban schlepper into something sporty. And like the Porsche, the ML63 takes the sporting theme to an extreme degree. In many ways, though, the AMG M-class is more successful than both.
Our admiration for what AMG has wrought here is somewhat surprising, considering we weren't fans of its first M-class effort, the ML55. It helps that we're completely smitten with AMG's new big-block V-8, which here pours out 503 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque without a turbocharger or a supercharger. Although our tests had the upstart (and 640-pound lighter) Grand Cherokee beating the ML63 to 60 mph by a razor-thin 0.1 second, the bad-boy Benz was clearly the acceleration champ in the run up to 100 mph. Best of all, the big V-8 was instantly responsive throughout the rev range, and it did it all to the accompaniment of an amazing sound track that's "manly yet exotic," as Noordeloos put it.
As is the case wherever it appears, AMG's 6.2-liter V-8 is backed up by Mercedes' seven-speed automatic with its easy-to-use shift buttons. The ML63's steering proved more linear than that of either of its German competitors, prompting senior editor Joe DeMatio to comment, "Imagine, Mercedes steering that's better than a BMW's or a Porsche's!" Like the Cayenne, the Mercedes is a fat boy, and it, too, relies on air springs with adaptive damping and three driver-selectable firmness settings to deliver inspired handling or a decent ride.
The high-powered Mercedes was a letdown mostly in the small details. Its cabin is roomy, but there's little that's special to the AMG version of the ML. The aero add-ons are a bit too aftermarket-looking; the rubber-dotted running boards are particularly unattractive and totally unnecessary. Steering that's pleasantly meaty when you're working fast corners out in Hill Country feels just plain heavy when you go to park. The brake pedal travels a ways before it begins to really bite. And the steep price looks reasonable only next to the ridiculously expensive Porsche. As copy editor Rusty Blackwell pointed out, "You don't receive twice the joy of a base X5 for (almost) twice the price."
Range Rover Sport SuperchargedIf the ML63 AMG, the Cayenne Turbo, and the Grand Cherokee SRT8 all attempt to push the sporting SUV theme much further than the X5 did, the Range Rover Sport only tries to match it. The result, in the words of DeMatio, is that the Range Rover is "in many ways the most satisfying vehicle here."
As you'd expect, the Range Rover has long suspension travel, but it also displayed very impressive wheel damping when hustling along the Hill Country back roads. The Range Rover achieves a comfortable ride/handling balance, without requiring the driver to make selections choosing one over the other. DeMatio again: "The steering has some feel and is predictable, and it's very easy to enter a wide sweeper on one of the Farm to Market roads, like 1623 out of Stonewall, and place the vehicle comfortably through the corner." The Range Rover's superb sight lines and upright driving position help here, too. The cabin materials, though, are closer to the cheaper Land Rover LR3 than to the more expensive senior Range Rover, but the high center console and the prominent center stack provide a pleasantly coupelike cockpit.
Unfortunately, the Range Rover can't be a true athlete because it's just too porky--the fattest in this corpulent crew. Look underneath, and you'll see why: The Range Rover alone uses full-frame construction. Not only that, but Land Rover's engineers have actually hung massive iron ballasts from all four corners for vibration tuning. Clearly, shaving pounds was not a primary concern.
Despite the efforts of the supercharger (which emits a deeply unsexy whine), the 4.2-liter V-8 is hard-pressed to move so much mass with any urgency--its 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times are the slowest here. You also feel the Range Rover's weight during tight, low-speed corners, where it understeers early and earnestly. And, after several passes over one particularly intense section of Route 16, the heavy Rover had fatigued its Brembos, whereas none of the other trucks showed any signs of brake fade.
The Range Rover Sport has its sights on the right place. Unfortunately, it's let down by its old-tech construction and an overemphasis on extreme off-road ability. What, then, of the vehicle in its crosshairs--the BMW X5, the sport-ute that started it all?
BMW X5 4.8iFor the most part, the new X5 carefully hews to the original's successful formula. The biggest changes in the 2007 redesign address criticisms of the last-generation version. There's a larger cabin with roomy, easily accessed back seats, and the X5--alone among the SUVs here--now offers a token third-row seat as an option. The cargo hold is larger and more useful as well.
The X5 has grown more than seven inches longer and some two inches wider and taller, but it doesn't feel appreciably bigger from the driver's seat. It retains the same sedanlike, down-in-the-car seating position as before, and the driver faces a fat, three-spoke steering wheel that would be at home in any BMW sport sedan. Some bemoaned the quality of the plastics on the center console, but everyone gave props to the optional Napa leather ($1000), which was ultrasmooth and rich.
Both the straight six and the V-8 engines are more powerful than last year's offerings, the latter having been enlarged from 4.4 to 4.8 liters and now making 350 hp. But even that figure looks small in this steroidal crowd, and the V-8 needs to be revved high to quicken the pace when the road opens up. Luckily, it sounds great doing so. The X5's six-speed automatic uses a new electronic gearshift, a console-mounted lever that toggles forward and back for manual shifts, but its action is rather dainty and unsatisfying.
Although the previous X5 effectively set the standard for sport-ute agility, the new one got a completely new front suspension, abandoning BMW's traditional struts in favor of control arms. Our test vehicle had two other new elements: adaptive dampers and active antiroll bars, both part of the Sport Package.
The new hardware has more weight to contend with, weight that makes itself felt in very tight corners. Otherwise, the X5 is amazingly athletic for such a tall, heavy machine. We pushed it hard along the lumpy, bumpy Texas back roads, and it remained as composed and unflappable as a B-movie cowboy. At the same time, the BMW manages to deliver a civilized ride, a feat all the more impressive considering that run-flat tires are standard. Our particular example enjoyed a bit of an advantage over the other trucks here, though, as its nineteen-inch wheels and 50-series rubber was the least extreme and therefore the most ride-comfort-friendly setup.
The X5 has added two new high-tech features that were largely unwelcome. The first is iDrive, a relatively minor annoyance but one that's unavoidable--it's standard even if you forego navigation. The second is active steering, which proved highly controversial among our group of five test drivers. Most hated it because of its lack of linearity and its unpredictable response, and even its strongest defender acknowledged that it can feel numb at times. This controversy, however, is easily sidestepped by skipping this stand-alone option, a move that also saves $1250.
The original X5 invented this genre, and BMW's approach is still the most rewarding. Interestingly, BMW has never offered an M version of the X5. The previous model topped out with the 4.8is, which offered five more ponies than the 4.8-liter in the new car, and we wouldn't be unhappy to see a bit more power here. But even in an environment as truck-friendly as Texas, the concept of turning an SUV into an ultra-high-performance machine just doesn't gel. The price goes through the roof, the gas mileage falls through the floor, and despite the giddy acceleration, the fun factor really goes nowhere. The idea of a sporty SUV is a good one, but it's best when not pushed too far. Despite being in a land that's never been known for restraint, our time with these SUVs had us respecting that very quality. Too much is sometimes . . . too much.