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.