The Middle of Luxury: BMW X5 vs. Mercedes GLE and Porsche Cayenne

Each of these Germans has their strengths—and faults.

Buyers remain smitten with upmarket SUVs, and the German premium brands have been more than happy to oblige as they continue to rake in sales. But they're far from content. Ever mindful of what is a rapidly expanding and highly competitive segment, the latest midsize crossovers from BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche have been developed to further push dynamic and technical boundaries in an effort to satisfy ever more discerning buyers.

Though performance is usually a key competent of any test between these longtime rivals, the stopwatch was not the decider in this shootout we set up between three closely matched vehicles: the BMW X5 xDrive40i, Mercedes-Benz GLE450 4Matic, and Porsche Cayenne V-6. All can reach 150-plus mph, sprint to 60 mph in less than six seconds, and achieve similar fuel efficiency. But that's where the similarities end and the triathlon begins.

How Excellent Is the X5?

Based on these three quite specifically equipped specimens, the outcome of this comparison is not necessarily representative of the species as a whole. Consider for instance the blue BMW X5 xDrive40i, a fully loaded model looks aggressive and agile. Featuring an enlarged grille, assertive visuals, and baroque proportions, the latest X5's looks are bad taste personified to some, although its additional chrome, colossal wheels, and angular sculpting make for an imposing presence to others.

As is typical of BMW powertrains, the X5's doesn't back down. The turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six with 335 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque is eager to rev, keen to obey orders from the accelerator, and sublimely flexible between 1,500 and 5,200 rpm.

This particular X5 also came with 21-inch wheels shod with P Zero tires (all three vehicles featured the same-size wheels and Pirelli rubber), a sport-tuned eight-speed ZF automatic transmission, rear-wheel steering, air suspension, differential lock, and an off-road package. Not surprisingly, BMW is adamant that these extras are instrumental in turning the new X5 into the leader of the pack in terms of handling, roadholding, and performance—all for a premium, of course.

It promises to be fastest through a slalom and to spoil its owners with the most memorable driving experience possible. Its brakes perform very well whether cold or hot, fade is nonexistent in normal traffic, they're easy to modulate, and it relays all the feedback one could ask for. The only two niggles are not quite enough initial grab except when you're really hard on the pedal, and the extra effort it takes to reel in the car on the final feet of travel.

But its steering, usually an undisputed BMW strength, bites too hard and fast when you tug the wheel away from the strongly self-centered zero-lock position, and it requires too many minor corrections to maintain a straight line. Its delicate balance at the limit is liable to cause the driver to sweat by allowing budding understeer to briefly dice with a false feeling of oversteer. Sport and Sport+ modes further speed up the handling rhythm to a point when driver action and vehicle response become a time-warp two-step.

Since the steering is the key man-machine interface and the most important confidence-building instrument, timing and inputs must be synchronized to perfection. The actively involved rear-wheel steering makes the car more maneuverable in the urban jungle, and it extends the virtual wheelbase on the autobahn, though even at high speeds this X5 is best kept on a tight leash.

The Mercedes GLE Is Efficiently Appealing

Remember when the very first M-class came out back in 1997? Well, here comes the latest iteration of Benz's breakthrough crossover, now called GLE and in its second generation. Unlike its great grandfather, the new model that slots in between GLC and GLS is a proper Mercedes with regard to quality, driver appeal, and safety.

The GLE450 4Matic features the automaker's new inline six-cylinder engine which puts out 362 horses, the most in this group. Dishing up a feisty 369 lb-ft of torque, it also scores a torque advantage. Like its rivals, our GLE test vehicle was fitted with plenty of goodies conjured in the Untertürkheim witch kitchen. Among them are the Airmatic air suspension, E-Active Body Control complete with curve-leaning function, a road-surface scanner named Magic Vision Control that preps the suspension for imperfections, and a full driver-assistance roster.

The GLE is the roomiest vehicle of this threesome, offering quantifiably larger floor area, a bigger cargo area, and more headroom than the pursuer from Munich. At the same time, the GLE is narrower than the broad-shouldered BMW, which feels notably more unwieldy in traffic. In all three crossovers, cameras and sensors help protect vulnerable wheels, take the sting out of entering blind junctions, and enable automated parking. Trouble is, the angles and perspectives shown are far from consistent, distortion is common, the warning chimes are overeager, and myriad moving lines and hatched areas overlaid on the feeds can mask potentially dangerous objects.

The working noises of the GLE's new twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six are gruffer and even more intense that those of the BMW, and its engine is supported by Benz's EQ Boost starter-generator mated to the standard 48-volt system that can briefly lay on a small 21 horsepower boost. Every GLE available to date is also fitted with a new nine-speed automatic which tries even harder to match revs and twist action to deliver superior performance and leaner consumption. In fact, during our two-day shootout, the GLE proved to be the most efficient of the bunch.

As previously mentioned, all three participants traded ride comfort for sex appeal by opting for 21-inch footwear. Even the GLE, which boasts four air-sprung wheels as opposed to the BMW's two, felt brittle and overly robust on all but perfectly polished terrain. The forward-looking Magic Vision stereoscopic camera is claimed to be able to help mitigate the most minute irritations, but at low speed in particular there is no way the steamroller tires can absorb them. We'd certainly try smaller 19-inch wheels and the standard steel suspension before ordering this specification.

What hurts the GLE more than anything is its oddball steering. It feels vague and syrupy even before you wind on lock, it conveys that synthetic touch typical of a system crosslinked with various assistance devices, and, over undulations, the weight in your palms tends to stray an inch or two in either direction instead of simply resting in itself.

Then there's the GLE's optional Active Body Control with the so-called Curve mode, which turns the GLE into an on-demand lean machine. It felt odd at the start, and it still felt odd after 250 miles. No matter the drive mode, the Mercedes corners in a more relaxed manner than the always game BMW. This laid-back character suits the Benz, and it also helps it to deal with rough edges, repair patches, and transverse ridges. Harmonizing the efforts required to operate steering (light), brakes (medium), and throttle (swift response, but long pedal travel) would nonetheless be a welcome step in the right direction. And could someone please replace that flimsy column-mounted plastic gear-selector stalk with a device more befitting this price class?

The Cayenne Is Well-Calibrated

The base-model Cayenne is powered by Porsche's own 3.0-liter V-6, which musters 335 horsepower and 332 lb-ft. It lacks sparkle and punch, which is not what we've come to expect from the home of the iconic 911. Spec'd with active air suspension (PASM), dynamic chassis control (PDCC), the Sport Chrono pack, and rear-wheel steering, the Cayenne pulled away foot-by-foot from the X5 and the GLE above 75 mph, but it failed to carve out a sustainable lead. This verdict still stood after four runs up and down our six-mile handling road, where the BMW and the Porsche fought a dead heat, with the GLE crossing the line only a heartbeat behind in third position.

As you might expect, the Porsche's main dynamic forte lies in the fine art of adaptation, integration, and calibration. Its controls work together as a well-coordinated team, engine and transmission interact with commendably fluidity and efficiency, the steering and brakes feel like natural extensions of the driver's arms and legs. The direction-finder is always switched on yet calm, positively progressive and masterfully precise. That's the good news.

The less good news concerns the steering effort, which can be too high. Rear-wheel countersteer can be a tad twitchy through second-gear bends taken at full tilt, and the front axle load affects its off-center agility. With a comparatively humble 335 horsepower on tap, the creaminess of motion and the lust for corners of all radii is notably less distinct. Make no mistake: The Porsche is still the smartest-handling plaything in this sandbox. But despite all the electronic performance-enhancing trickeries, the weight and the mass behind the momentum remain a factor.

That said, the Cayenne has the best seats, it's arguably the best-looking contender to the SUV throne, and carries the most prestigious nameplate. But it, too, gets bad grades for the rough ride on those Dr. Martens-firm P Zeros, its performance numbers are not exactly outstanding, and it is—like the rest of the gang—half burdened, half blessed with CO2-reducing items like a hyperactive engine stop-start system and a host of safety-enhancing, pleasure-dimming tech bits which come to the fore as soon as the ship sets sail.

While the BMW has mercy on us by providing a single button that can turn off all its driver aids, the Porsche and the Benz make the distracted driver dive into various submenus to deactivate the product-liability watchdogs. Unlike the X5, which retains the useful iDrive controller along with a bunch of high-priority direct-access buttons, the Mercedes designers combined an excessively sensitive touchpad embedded in the transmission tunnel with a remarkably competent voice-control system.

The Cayenne shares its glossy keyboard-style center stack with the Panamera. To increase the likelihood of the wheelman's digit hitting its target, redundancy is an integral part of the switchgear, displays, and the multifunction steering-wheel. As long as ergonomic concepts as cryptic as these prevail, an autopilot which actually works can't get here soon enough.

Which One Wins the Wreath?

Getting the specification 100 percent right when buying a new car in 2019 is key to the nitty gritty of customer satisfaction. This becomes very clear when you examine the options fitted to our three musketeers. It's not so much what you can have that matters, it's what you definitely don't need that makes a big difference in vehicle price and personality. Marketing ensured that X5, GLE, and Cayenne tempt us with colorful in-dash Punch and Judy shows, technology as an end in itself, and several extras conceived to convert inherently handicapped crossovers into pseudo sports cars. As a result, traveling at high speed is safely possible in all three—despite their high centers of gravity, body roll, and weight penalties.

Even the sportiest SUVs are more cruisers than bruisers. Drive them with due enthusiasm, but save gas, tires, and embarrassment by keeping a low aggression profile and think twice before investing the equivalent of a Hawaiian vacation in various chassis-related wizardries and XXXL tires baked from hard rubber compounds.

As far as the rankings of these particular cars goes, the Cayenne comes in last. Sure, it's a highly competent piece of kit, but it doesn't harbor quite enough classic Porsche genes to satisfy died-in-the-wool enthusiasts of the marque. It's also too expensive and not sufficiently light and agile to emerge as a game-changing drive.

The duel between the X5 and GLE ends in a photo finish. Despite a clear on-paper lead in the horsepower and torque departments, the GLE failed to outpace its fellow combatants. A less fancy and more honest steering setup, less confusing infotainment system, and less gruff ride may have awarded the laurel wreath to the Benz, but it was not to be.

Like that of its rivals, the suspension of the BMW we tested can be rough, the design is very much an acquired taste, and we're not totally convinced by that super-sharp steering. But the updated X5 from Germany's Beer City clinched a narrow, bloodless victory. Its ergonomics are a little easier to use, it wins the performance chapter by a short head, and its movements are a touch more coherent overall.

On the whole, however, we found this trio to be overwrought, overpriced as equipped, and strangely underwhelming. That's simply not good enough for the cream-of-the-crop darlings of a popular—and perhaps vastly overrated—market segment.

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