Although I am a fanatic about most things auto-related, I can’t deny that by far and away my favourite segment of the market is the luxury SUV/crossover. Ever increasing sales of all things with a slightly raised ride height and chunky styling mean that there has been a continuous buzz of activity and model launches for the past 18 months or so, which has seen nearly all the main players significantly updated or replaced. This fortnight in particular has seen a large number of comparison road tests between a lot of these vehicles, and as a I result I decided to hop on the band wagon and give you all my opinion (despite the fact I have not sat in a couple of them!).
However before I do that, I thought I’d take a look back in time to around 9 years ago when the previous iterations of all these cars were still on the market. I have a lot of editions of Auto Express magazine from this time and they can be quite fun to flick through to see what reviewers of the day made of models which now are considered a bit past it. Of the hundreds I initially had, a couple of years ago I managed to thin out to just the ones which featured cars I was interested in, mainly in the aforementioned market section. Similar tests to the ones recently performed feature heavily and so I thought I’d do a ‘supertest’ of them all, an idea I will carryover with their modern equivalents in an upcoming post.
I could have easily included more than the 7 models below, but in the interests of keeping this post a semi-reasonable length I thought I’d only include the most popular models in the market, most of which are incidentally the ones which have featured in recent reviews on other websites. 4 Germans, 2 Brits and 1 Swede make up this little group, so sit back and take a jump into history.
The luxury SUV market back in 2006 was actually surprisingly similar to the one we have today, in that there are a few key players which gobble up market share globally in addition to some more expensive and sportier rivals which get some enthusiast’s blood pumping. The old men in this test are Volvo’s veteran XC90, which was already 4 years old, and the pumped up first generation Porsche Cayenne that launched in 2003. Ironically it’s these two cars which tend to characterise the market both back then and today; 7 seat car-like crossovers like the XC90 have proved extremely popular and the Volvo was the first of it’s ilk, and whilst the Cayenne was by no means the first SUV which drove like a hot hatch on stilts, it has always been the best. Land Rover’s Discovery and Range Rover Sport launched late in 2004 and by 2006 were beginning to prove extremely popular, especially in the British market. Mercedes’ much improved second generation ML followed in 2005 and 2006 saw the launch of another 2 important contenders; Audi’s Q7 and the second generation BMW X5, which now came with 7 seats and a range of powerful new engines to try and steal it’s crown back from the Cayenne.
These models offer a little something for everything, provided you don’t mind something that will comfortably fill the confines of a standard UK parking space. The shortest car here is the Cayenne at something like 4.7m long, and ironically it’s platform-mate the Q7 is the longest – pushing past the 5m barrier with some ease and as a result hangs over the edge of most parking spaces quite alarmingly.
Of course looks are subjective and buyers both new and used will have their own preferences – my own biases are probably based in the fact that I have the benefit of hindsight and what subsequent designs have evolved into. That said it is undeniable that the Porsche’s open air dams and swollen body mark it out as a clear first attempt by designers to marry the shape of an SUV with the design details of the famous Porsche 911. I don’t hate the design, but the 2007 facelift much improved things up front, and the second generation has morphed into one of the slinkier entrys in the sector.
Time has been a lot kinder to the looks of the Q7 and XC90 though, probably because they have only just been replaced and so remained a familiar sight on roads in the subsequent 9 years. Volvo’s strategy of giving very minor facelifts meant that the classy looks of the XC90 remained intact and although quite boxy by today’s standards remain very much traditional Volvo. Audi went for a flashier route with the Q7 and in 2010 added a tonne of LED lights to it’s front end, but earlier models still look smart in S-Line trim…just avoid the 2-tone SE models which are best left forgotten.
Of Land Rover’s two efforts, despite being based on the same platform and having similar dimensions they have gone for quite different looks. The Sport apes the design of the 2002-2011 full-size Range Rover and at the time was one of the most aggressive models on the road, whilst the Discovery’s boxy lines were a little controversial but continued popularity has seen the basic shape remain unchanged to this very day. That said the plastic trim on both designs and subsequent facelifts have seen the cars become a little dated, especially the Sport as a lot of examples have been pimped into the ground!
Both BMW and Mercedes’ efforts have also been replaced only relatively recently, but back when the second generation X5 first launched the popular M Sport package was not yet available and so the car was still smattered with black plastic trim and smallish wheels. The ML on the other hand looked very smart straight out of the box and is actually a far more attractive vehicle than the one that replaced it in 2012, it doesn’t shout out like the Porsche or Audi but in my opinion is probably the best resolved model looks wise.
Much more than the outsides of vehicles, the past 9 years has seen a massive change in the technology and design of car cabin’s, who’d have imagined the huge touchscreen of the Tesla Model S, or indeed the new Volvo XC90. It’s the XC90 which lags furthest behind here though, as the horrific user controls of the navigation system and tiny secondary screen for the audio mean that even buyers in 2006 were encouraged to go elsewhere if they wanted a premium experience – it’s amazing this vehicle remained on sale until earlier this year (2015)! The Volvo does admittedly have a massive boot and great third row of seats (in fact only really bettered by it’s 2015 successor), but that infotainment system and plasticky design really let it down.
Similarly the interiors of the Land Rover pair are a tale of two sides; they share the odd set up of having navigation and vehicle controls on a colour screen, with audio information being restricted to an odd monochrome screen further down the console. At least the navigation is touch screen based, but it’s painfully slow rate of input means that many buyers didn’t really mind that only the higher trim versions got a navigation screen…the horrible little shelf left in it’s absence was an eye sore though. The Discovery is also very utilitarian in terms of materials and design too, but is somewhat vindicated by it’s reasonably spacious third row and airy cabin. The Range Rover Sport can come across as a bit of a reverse tardis, but does at least have a nicer choice of materials up front. Subsequent facelifts saw material choices improve in both models, but unbelievably the £60k Discovery on sale today has the same basic touchscreen system.
Mercedes and Porsche decided to stick with a traditional infotainment system for their SUV’s; large-ish screens mounted below the car’s air vents and controlled by buttons surrounding the screen. The result is quite underwhelming although not the worst here by any means, and although both cars had the option of a central information screen between the diials, only top-trim Cayennes offered it in colour. Both offer a large boot though, it’s just a shame that Mercedes decided to offer 7 seats only on the much more expensive GL – most rivals here have at least evolved to have 7 seats as an option.
Then we come to the remaining Germans which are the ones which have pushed ahead with the idea of a centralised control system with a funny little knob controlling it; Audi’s MMI is in one of it’s earliest guises here and BMW were already onto their second generation of iDrive. To be completely honest both systems are going to come across as quite dated, but the X5’s much larger screen and more intuitive controls probably give it the edge here. The Q7’s system was good for the time, but also didn’t undergo many changes in it’s lifetime, though the new car has an amazing interactive LCD dial system. The Q7 also offers little extra space over the X5 despite being noticeably larger outside – both sets of rearmost seats have poor leg and headroom and lag behind the Discovery’s and XC90’s.
In European markets a 3L diesel 6-cylinder engine has had the must have for under the bonnet of machines of this type, which is why it is a little surprising that several models don’t have one. Admittedly Volvo have never made a diesel 6 cylinder engine, but it is a little disappointing that they bestowed their 5 cylinder ‘D5’ effort with just 163bhp in the XC90, a figure which improved to 185bhp later in 2006 when it also saw a 6 speed auto replace the previous 5 speed one. With these the Volvo manages to become just about competent for everyday driving but still lacks any of the athletic prowess that some of these cars have; in gear acceleration times are also poor and 0-60 takes around 11 seconds.
Land Rover used the Ford/PSA 2.7L V6 diesel in their two SUV’s, which had 190bhp and a little more torque than Volvo’s D5 to give the cars a bit more of a livlier feel – especially in the Range Rover Sport. That said the 3 tonne weight of both cars mean that acceleration is actually slower! The 6 speed ZF box (shared with the X5 and lots of other cars) tries but cannot better a 0-60 time of just under 12 seconds! Buyers of the Sport were able to choose the beefier 3.6 TDV8 from 2007, but Discovery buyers had to wait until 2009 for the 2.7TDV6 to be upgraded to 3L and 240bhp.
The Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne are also very heavy vehicles but had a bit more grunt underneath their bonnets; most Q7’s come with the 3.0 TDI which can be found in most Audi’s and with 229bhp it had a decent amount of grunt to reach 60 in around 9 seconds when paired with the standard 6 speed auto. Buyers who had the money could also choose a beefier 4.2L V8 TDI which bettered 7 seconds to 60 but drank fuel. For 2006 the Cayenne was lumbered only with petrol engines – a 3.6L V6 or 4.4L V8 in Cayenne S models(plus a couple of Turbos) – the V6’s are rare as most buyers preferred the extra speed of the V8 which did only a little poorer on fuel than the smaller engine.
It’s the BMW and Mercedes which win out in the end though unless you don’t mind a petrol- the BMW’s traditional 3L inline 6 diesel makes 230bhp and can reach 60 in under 8 seconds, pretty impressive considering it weighs a lot more than the previous generation. The ML has a similar amount of power and also gets an extra cog in it’s gearbox (7) to sit alongside it’s V6 diesel, which was available in both 320 and 280 guises for reasons not apparent to anyone outside of Mercedes HQ. The ML320 reaches 60 in 8.1 or thereabouts, with the ML280 taking a second or so longer yet not gaining any benefits apart from a lower price.
If I had looked back in time in 2005 to 1996 you’d have found a bunch of vehicles without premium badges (barring Land Rovers) and without a modicum of road handling, but by the early 00’s manufacturers had cottoned onto the idea that people liked their SUV’s to look like trucks but not to drive like one. Even the workhorse of this group, the Discovery, acquits itself reasonably well on most roads thanks to adjustable air suspension and a sorted chassis – OK so the tall height and heavy weight hardly make for the world’s greatest corner carver but it is still acceptable when driven sensibly.
The XC90 has a similar mission to the Discovery in that it is a premium people carrier which is in no rush to go anywhere, albeit without any real off road aspirations. Volvo tuned the traditional suspension for comfort but the fact it is based on the same platform as the S80 saloon means that it is pretty car like in most circumstances, and with sensible sized wheels it is also a comfortable cruiser (when it finally gets up to speed). The ML offers a similarly decent blend of comfort and car-like abilities, but being a German it of course prioritises sharp handling a little more and when paired with larger wheels can end up a little unsettled unless optioned with Airmatic suspension…a pricey option with a tendency to go wrong.
Both the Q7 and Range Rover Sport have air suspension as standard, although in the Q7 it is merely an adaptive system to help with handling and aerodynamics. Both cars actually handle pretty well despite their size, but the Range Rover falls behind at times thanks to it’s underpowered engines and heavy weight – the TDV8 which came in 2007 was a true hot hatch baiter but holds it’s value a lot better. The Q7 drives like a large estate car, but the real thorn in it’s side as with any Audi was ride quality…all aside from base SE models (with 18″ wheels and horrid 2 tone body) got 20 or 21 inch wheels, which ruined any benefits the air suspension might provide.
The X5 also had a horrid ride unfortunately, but this was more down to the choice of standard run-flat tyres being fitted by BMW to compensate for the lack of spare wheel – SE models were fine unless fitted with the Dynamic pack and it’s 20″ wheels, but later M Sport models are apparently quite awful. That said the X5 continues to handle like a sports saloon, just maybe a bit of a heavier and larger one than it’s well received predecessor. The Cayenne however is a good example of just how skilled Porsche is, taking a relatively dumpy platform shared with the Q7 and Volkswagen Touareg and turning it into probably the best driving SUV of the time. Optional air suspension gave the car a little extra comfort but nevertheless the Cayenne didn’t have the bone-shaking ride of some rivals, plus with those powerful petrol engines it performed like a proper muscle car – admittedly handling isn’t nearly as sharp as more recent efforts from the brand, but it probably edges out the X5 in terms of sheer fun for most people.
This is the area most people tend to overlook when they decide to buy a luxury SUV (I should know!), but there can be quite stark differences in running costs even between different models. It’s hard to separate running costs from reliability for me, but I will nevertheless try as it’s unfair to cast all examples of a certain car with the same brush. Obviously the most expensive to run is going to be the Porsche Cayenne as it features only thirsty petrol engines under it’s bonnet at this age – both V6 and V8 versions will struggle to beat 20mpg in mixed driving, with the Turbo models likely to return more like 17 or 18…ouch! Parts are also expensive for the Cayenne despite being based on the VW Touareg, but finding a good specialist will keep servicing costs at a realistic level.
Close behind the Porsche is the Land Rover Discovery, whose 3 tonne weight and underpowered engine result in an official fuel consumption of 27mpg and a more realistic figure of 23/24 unless driven like saint. Servicing is not necessarily cheap either, as certain fixes mean that the whole body has to be pulled off of the chassis using specialist equipment! The Range Rover Sport suffers from a lot of the same weaknesses but thanks to a slightly lower weight it can return more like 26mpg for most drivers even if they do insist on driving (and accessorising) it like a Vauxhall Corsa…choose that TDV8 though and you’ll be lucky to see more than 22mpg!
The Q7 weighs a lot too and subsequently doesn’t return much more than 25/26mpg unless it’s driven exclusively on the motorway, but more of an issue is the horrific tyre wear that owners of early models have experienced; it is not uncommon to need to replace them after 5,000 miles or so, with 10,000 being the most that even light footed drivers can manage. At £200 a corner that’s a lot of money, but keeping an eye on treads and having the tracking sorted every so often can help a lot. Against this the X5 comes across quite well, but the 26/27mpg that most buyers report is a fair amount off the 34.9mpg claimed figure and indeed is less than I am getting in my older (albeit lighter) first generation model. Still there are lots of BMW specialists around, and although the car is complicated the mechanical bits should be workable for most garages.
Then we come to the Volvo XC90, which for most buyers is going to be the cheapest to run by quite some margin. Probably due to the more relaxed nature of the car, fuel consumption figures of 32mpg or so compare well to pricier rivals and although there are not too many Volvo garages around, servicing is apparently quite reasonable. Just watch out for tyre prices as apparently they are an unusual size and can be quite expensive!
Reliability and Value:
This is the only part of this ‘test’ which can be completed more accurately after a bit of time, and 9 years is more than adequate to assess the long term viability of these models. Unfortunately the two Land Rover models have kept up the brand’s reputation for producing unreliable models, not that this has stopped them from being successful. Problems with air suspension, electronics and poor quality trim are all complaints for both models, with the Discovery regularly coming last in reliability surveys – the aforementioned repair process is also expensive too. Both cars have held their prices very well though but given their reliability issues I’d probably question whether that means they are good value for used buyers; a 2006 Discovery in plus HSE trim and reasonable miles will probably set you back £13k, with a Range Rover Sport HSE easily commanding £15k for a tidy example.
As a popular model which has only just been replaced, Q7 values have held pretty much solid since reaching £15k or so a year or so ago, with scrappy models edging down towards £11k. That said it is a lot of metal for the money and on the whole they have been pretty reliable, as long as you set aside a good chunk of money for replacement tyres! The X5 also has continuous popularity and similarly it’s values are holding pretty steadfast especially compared to the previous generation car. As a result it’s hard to get into a nice 2006 example for less than £14k, but if you are less fussy about wheels and navigation version (ie screen size) then this drops a couple of grand – on the whole it doesn’t have a great reputation for reliability but then I haven’t heard of any specific issues either
Being a petrol car, the Cayenne’s values have dropped like a stone and as such you can buy a 2006 example (with lowish miles – nobody in their right mind drives a V8 petrol for too long) can be found easily for under £10k – that’s the price of fancy brakes on a brand new Cayenne! If you do low miles then also bear in mind that fuel costs will not make much difference against a diesel which does 25mpg, just don’t drive it too hard and watch out for a few known issues like cooling pipes. The ML has ended up being very decent value too even when in diesel guise, you just have to watch out that you get the one which has all the spec you want; when I was considering one I found that not many buyers bothered with both heated seats and navigation, let alone memory seats! If you want a reliable ML you’d also do best to avoid examples with the Airmatic suspension, and also watch out for gearboxes issues…my friend who had a similar R Class ended up paying through the nose for them.
On the whole the XC90 has proved to be a reliable vehicle and probably the one which provides the best value for buyers for the money – as long as you avoid the unloved T6 petrol engine. There is a good range of examples out there which have been well cared for and 2006 models can easily be found for under £9k – and later 2006 examples have the added benefit of only costing £295 a year in road tax, as opposed to £490 for the majority of these vehicles here!
Exterior: Cayenne 1pt, XC90 2pts, Discovery 3 3pts, X5 4pts, Range Rover Sport 5pts, ML 6pts, Q7 7pts
Interior: XC90 1pt, Discovery 3 2pts, Range Rover Sport 3pts, Cayenne 4pts, ML 5pts, Q7 6pts, X5 7pts
Performance: XC90 1pt, Discovery3/Range Rover Sport 3pts, Q7 4pts, ML 5pts, X5 6pts, Cayenne 7pts
Driving: Discovery 3 1pt, XC90 2pts, ML 3pts, Range Rover Sport 4pts, Q7 5pts, X5 6pts, Cayenne 7pts
Running Costs: Cayenne 1pt, Discovery 2pts, Range Rover Sport 3pts, Q7 4pts, ML 5pts, X5 6pts, XC90 7pts
Reliability and Value: Range Rover Sport/Discovery 3 1pt, Q7 3pts, X5 4pts, Cayenne 5pts, ML 6pts, XC90 7pts
Totals: Cayenne:25 XC90:20 Discovery 3:12 X5:33 Range Rover Sport:19 ML:30 Q7:29
So the result here is reasonably conclusive and I guess I agree with the results here – the BMW X5 is definitely the best car but at the same time it is by far the newest car on this list. If you can afford it then it’s definitely the best vehicle here, but you won’t feel short changed if you could do a lot worse than any of these models depending on your priorities. It will be interesting to see what my second test results in as opinions on the new X5 are mixed.