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When it comes to generously sized premium SUVs, the fun really begins at the $90k-$100k mark. Why? Because at this sweet spot, the choice of people-moving metal on offer is as diverse a melting pot as you’ll likely find at any other price point or broadly encompassing segment.

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When talking prestigious big-SUV badge cache, there are two unavoidable anchor points. The first is the veritable upmarket SUV originator, the Range Rover, and buyers can slip into the Sport in relatively bare-boned 3.0 TDV6 S form for $91,754 (plus on-roads).

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The other is BMW’s X5, a stalwart of German-badged, unibody-constructed luxury family haulers, spearheading the formula back in the ’90s when Mercedes-Benz’s ML-Class was a more rustic body-on-frame alternative and Audi was years away from its Q-branded SUVs.

Around since 2013 in this generation, you can slip into X5 territory for a little over $86K for the rear-driven sDrive 25d version, though the next-rung-up 2.0 xDrive 25d version for $91,155 (plus on-roads) – recently updated with added safety and tech – bring parity against the Range Rover and neatly sets a format with an exclusively all-wheel-driven, mostly diesel-powered eight-way field.

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Mercedes Benz’s former ML-Class has also had a freshen up last year to complement its new GLE nomenclature, and the most affordable variant of the range is what we’ve got on test here: the GLE 250d which, like our BMW tester, adopts four-cylinder diesel power, while the entire GLE range is all-wheel drive as standard. At $86,900 (plus on-roads), it undercuts its Munich rival by more than four grand…

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Rounding out The Usual German Suspects is Audi’s Q7, a range completely revamped when it arrived 12 months ago and one recently complemented with a new entry variant in the 3.0 TDI 160kW version. At $96,300 (before on-roads), it’s nearly a frosty $10k more than the base GLE 250d, though the most-affordable Q7 does get larger, three-litre V6 power.

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Matching Q7’s revamped freshness is Volvo’s own ground-up big-SUV reinvention, the XC90. Like the Audi, the entire Swedish range is all-wheel-driven though the two-litre four-cylinder format is the only diesel (or petrol) choice available. Available from a touch under $90k for the basic D5 Momentum trim, we’ve opted for one rung higher trim in the D5 Inscription that asks for $96,910 (plus-on-roads).

Left there, the five-way test might make a solid Euro-British affair at the lower end of a premium price point. But there’s a key impetus for this upmarket family-friendly mega-test: Jaguar first-ever SUV, the F-Pace.

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However, semantics or not, the F-Pace is an outlier among the above mentioned SUV pack. Technically, as a medium-sizer, it’s one-size-smaller. But while the Jaguar SUV misses out on sheer size – though, dimensionally, not by much – it delivers generously in other areas, such as powertrain and spec. So while buyers can tip into a two-litre-diesel and all-wheel-driven 20d Prestige for around $75k, a low-$90k budget affords a 3.0-litre V6 ‘30d’ version in well-endowed Portfolio trim, landing sans options at $91,304 (plus on-roads).

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Of any competitor, the F-Pace range’s most natural nemesis is our only Japanese offering in this field, the Lexus RX350. The RX, too, is technically a mid-sizer and, in terms of price spread and variant choice, the Lexus and Jaguar ranges are relative equals. But while the middle-rung F Sport version of the RX350 is, at $91,716 (plus on-roads), right on the money, it’s the odd man out in powertrain, as the entire RX range is petrol (or petrol-electric hybrid) only. And thus, our 3.5-litre V6 example is the only SUV on test to feature spark plugs…

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If there’s a bona-fide wildcard in this lot, it’s the Porsche Cayenne Diesel. Sure, it’s the entry point to Stuttgart’s large SUV range and it’s got the engine type and driven-wheel count to align itself with the majority of its test competitors. It’s just that, at $107,855 before on-roads or any options, it’s the priciest car of the eight-way pack by quite some margin. It’s over $20k more expensive in virgin form than the Mercedes-Benz GLE 250d…

That’s one helluva diverse and motley crew. And you’d expect there’s something for every taste and whim.

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Two (Q7, XC90) are seven-seaters amongst fives. Two (Cayenne, RR Sport) tout proper off-roading drive systems and functionality out of the box. Three (RX350, Cayenne, F-Pace) have sporting on-road aspirations. And there are three (xDrive 25d, GLE 250d, XC90) four-cylinder proponents in the company of V6s. So if we were conducting this test to decide the roomiest, the most flexibly ‘all-terrain’, the most dynamic or the most performance-focused plus-sized, premium-badged SUV, there’d certainly be some favouritism at play.

Instead, we’re looking for the best and finest all-round luxury experience for roughly sub-$100k (give or take a pricey Porsche). A consistently strong showing across five mega-test criteria centred around comfort, luxury, refinement, value and – crucially – family friendliness should and will sort a winner from the also-rans.

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Taking the knives to this SUV octet are dads Anthony Crawford, yours truly and Chris Beattie (from clubmarine.com.au) and mum Tegan Lawson. Joining the ‘parental guidance’ judging panel is Mike “no kids as far as I know” Costello.

The crew will put no less than 700 kilometres under the wheels of each SUV throughout three days of testing across three different driving disciplines: long-haul highway duties, a combined urban/country road loop, and some light-duty off-roading. We’ll throw in the odd dirt rut and sweeping bend, but judging will centre on balance of typical driving tasks most luxury SUVs tackle in the real world when hauling loved ones.

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Supplementing this is stationary testing where cabins and cargo areas will get a thorough teardown for features, functionality and comfort. But before we even open a door or turn a key, let’s dig into equipment to shake out their value pitches.

Pricing/Value

The sheer diversity in sizing, seating, powertrains and variant grades at play makes analysing value a murky prospect. On top of that is factoring in cost options. Regardless, it’s the sub-$100k price point that glues this field together so let’s see what’s on offer in basic and as-tested forms.

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At four grand less than any competitor here, the ($86,900) GLE 250d looks the compelling pitch, and many buyers will find Mercedes-Benz brand cache at a discount price irresistible. And it’s backed by a solid list of core equipment: ‘intelligent’ LED headlights, keyless go with push-button start, a powered tailgate, heated front seats, DAB+ radio, touch-pad functionality for (recently updated) infotainment system with a rear-view camera and front and rear sensors.

The GLE 250d’s inclusion of driver assists and active safety is impressive: radar-based adaptive cruise control, active steering assist, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot and lane departure warning systems and more.

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That’s a really solid pitch even ignoring the $17,100 options lifting its as-tested list price to $104,000 before on-roads. Of these extras, it’s really the $3000 nappa leather (manmade ‘leather’ is standard), $3300 adaptive air suspension and $900 heated front seats that bolster the 250d’s luxury and comfort equation. Those 21-inch wheels, up from 19 inches standard, add $1000 to the bottom line.

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Comparatively, the S-level Range Rover Sport is bare boned. Halogen headlights, cloth trim, a basic low-resolution touchscreen infotainment system, regular cruise control and a rudimentary rear-view camera system with rear-only sensors tick essentials boxes. It lacks powered tailgate functionality and except for driver’s-side electric height adjustment, the front seats are mechanical.

What the Rangie does bring to the party is adaptive air suspension and a suite of off-road friendly drive modes called Terrain Response, which shows which side of the driving experience the big Brit’s bread is buttered…

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Our test car, at $103,260 (before on-roads) as tested, asks $4720 extra for leather trim, $900 for DAB+ radio and $4390 for Convenience Pack that adds, among features, keyless entry and power-folding mirrors. Elaborately kitted out is certainly isn’t, though it does offer a big 3.0-litre V6 in the price-parity company of a number of four-cylinder diesels.

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The X5 xDrive 25d has, like its Mercedes-Benz contemporary, a solid array of features, if not completely aligned. Headlights are Bi-Xenon, leather is standard, the cruise control is non-adaptive but does have braking functionality, and high-grade infotainment with touch-pad and DAB+ comes bundled in at this base level. A recent addition – a response to rival GLE’s updates, perhaps – is a no-cost-optional Innovations Pack adding 360-degree parking camera, head-up display and other bells and whistles. Plus, it’s the only SUV here with a split-folding tailgate as opposed to the conventional lift-back design featured on every other SUV on test.

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The BMW’s safety smarts include lane departure warning, forward collision warning with ‘light city braking’ and, unlike the RR Sport, there are front sensors to complement the rears. Our lightly fettled example adds $2300 19-inch wheels, up from 18 inches, a $3700 panoramic glass roof and Pure Excellent exterior appearance as a no-cost option. Like the Benz, there’s a lot of stuff for a modest trim level. Call it $97,155 (before on-roads) as tested.

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Being slightly smaller than six of its large-SUV rivals and landing in high-spec Portfolio trim, the F-Pace complicates matters. Standard features are very solid: keyless start, adaptive LED headlights with auto high-beam, heated/dimming/power-fold mirrors, high-grade leather seat and door trim, keyless entry, powered tailgate, 19-inch wheels and rear-view camera with front and rear sensors fit well in present company. And autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure warnings bolster active safety credentials, before you factor in the equal-most powerful and easily most torque-laden V6 of the field. Looking very tidy indeed.

However… there are options. Lots of options. Options inseparable from appraisal that indelibly impact its value pitch.

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They are: 22in wheels ($4700), panoramic glass roof ($4200), high-end InControl Touch Pro navigation and digital instrumentation ($2550), Adaptive Dynamics Pack ($2530), heated and cooled seating ($2300), digital TV tuner ($2100), four-zone climate control ($2000), 14×14 front seat adjustment ($1420), 360-degree Park Distance Control ($1210), illuminated scuff plates ($1000), a full-size spare wheel ($1000), tow hitch receiver ($950), privacy glass ($900), electric steering column adjustment ($850), cooled glovebox ($800), leisure activity key ($640), power rear seat reclining ($600), premium mats ($300), remote seat latches in the cargo bay ($110) and a partridge in a pear tree (NCO).

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But wait, there’s more…

Add optional active safety such as blind-spot monitoring and reverse traffic detection ($1120) and lane-keep assist with driver attention alert ($1060) and you’ve hit $125,144 before on-road costs, making it pricier than the lavishly appointed, 280kW First Edition, the current range-topping king of a dozen-strong local F-Pace fleet. While it’s debatable if buyers would actually tick so many costly options, most of these extras impact the effect on the F-Pace experience – we must factor in what’s impossible to ignore.

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By stark contrast, the F-Pace’s most direct competitor here, the Lexus RX350 F Sport, lists for $91,716 and wants for the same figure as tested (before on-roads). Yes, ours has no options fitted whatsoever.

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Under-equipped? Hardly. In fact, it’s amongst the most well-endowed here for standard equipment, including adaptive high-beam LED headlights with sequential LED indicators, keyless entry, adaptive suspension, a 12.3-inch infotainment screen (as sizeable as the Jaguar’s optional screen), adaptive cruise control, panoramic glass roof, head-up display, 20-inch wheels, 10-way electric heated and cooled front seats, full leather trim, power-adjustable steering column, heated and power mirrors, privacy glass and rear-view camera and rear sensors. Active safety covers off the Germans with blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross traffic alert and lane-keeping assists. For the full equipment monty without further outlay, the Lexus is a very hard act to top.

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That the Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 both offer extra third-rows of seating go some way to justifying these seven-seaters’ respective $96,300 and $96,910 list prices, each around 10 grand more expensive than the price-busting Mercedes-Benz. What separates this pair, though, is that the Audi gets larger V6 power while the Volvo makes do with a smaller four.

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The most basic Q7 available has decent, rather than generous, standard equipment, which includes Xenon headlights, 19-inch wheels, leather-appointed trim, and its suite of upmarket infotainment, sat-nav and rear-view camera and sensors are as comprehensive as any of the Audi’s competition. Side assist, rear cross-traffic alerts and exit warning functionality tick a few key active safety boxes.

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Our test car adds a $4075 Assistance Package, bundling in heightened active safety kit such as active lane assist, collision ‘pre sense front’ (to complement the standard ‘rear’ system), autonomous emergency braking and some conveniences such as adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist and turn assist, plus there’s a $1300 option adding a 360-degree camera and park assist trickery and a further $2800 sting for an LED headlight update. Further, non-essential appearance options lift the Q7’s as-tested price to $111,095 before on-roads. Not optioned, however, is Q7’s rather superb $4950 adaptive air suspension system.

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The Volvo, in mid-spec Inscription trim, is a little flashier than the Audi out of the box, offering a huge 12.3-inch digital instrumentation to complement its tablet-style 9.0-inch infotainment screen, fully active LED headlights, 20-inch wheels, high-grade nappa leather, hands-free automated tailgate and both front and rear sensors to go with its rear-view camera.

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In for the Swede’s entry price are City Safe collision mitigation, blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, cross-traffic alert, rear collision warning and understeer control, though our example benefits from a Driver Support Pack that, at $4000, adds a 360-degree camera, head-up display and IntelliSafe suite bundling in adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and (low-speed) queue assists and a distance alert. Interestingly, our XC90 does add $3600 adaptive air suspension yet, at $107,920 as tested and before on-roads, undercuts the steel sprung Audi by a little over three grand.

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“Because Porsche,” was one judge’s reasoning as to why the $107,855 Cayenne Diesel demands a near 11-grand premium over the second-priciest SUV in field (though it is, behind a base Cayman, the second most-affordable Porsche money can buy). Yes, you get the badge cache, a lusty V6, all-terrain active chassis trickery, massive six- and four-piston monobloc brakes and the promise of sporting dynamics – for many buyers, that lot is 11-grand of justification alone. However, the basic specifications don’t quite stack up against the dollar figure in basic value.

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Bi-Xenon headlights, 19-inch wheels, leather trim, sat-nav, DAB+, a rear-view camera with front and rear sensors and the like cover off the basics. However, our test car’s additions of $1660 360-degree camera, $1390 aluminium roof rails, $1090 digital reception, $1890 sports tail pipes, $990 heated front seats and $650 ‘Power Steering Plus’ (speed-dependent assistance) demonstrates the sorts of items you pay extra for. Add $2190 metallic paint, $6230 21-inch wheels, $2470 Bose audio and other niceties and our example is ready for battle at a field-topping $132,745 before on-road costs. Or over $40k pricier than our Lexus RX350 F Sport…

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Hurting the Porsche most is that it’s so much pricier than rivals touting myriad active safety system, yet the Cayenne offers little in the way of comparable technology. Basic stuff such lane-departure warning and lane-change assistance functionality costs $2930 extra, while adaptive cruise with active braking is another $3790 – that neither package is fitted to our car negatively impacts the value equation.

But while value is one thing, genuine, prestigious and convincing luxury is something else entirely. And providing a bona-fide premium experience can’t be measured by merely stacking up features lists against one another, as these eight SUVs would prove.

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Interiors

Judging the merits of the field’s cabin spaces involves four team members climbing into each SUV’s first and second rows and prodding everything that does and doesn’t move. It tests roominess, comfort, functionality, convenience, all-round practicality and design, though every judge is looking for that convincing luxuriousness with which to underpin their appraisals.

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Off the bat, the Porsche impresses. As Mike remarks, it feels “hewn from granite.” A great many of the driver and passenger touchpoints are satisfyingly metallic or leathery supple and material choice is excellent. And from the snug seat design and sound ergonomics to the clear instrumentation and wheel shape, it’s focused for spirited driving.

Everyone bar Mike, though, criticises the frenzied approach to buttons, including the jet fighter-like overhead cluster. Yes, it avoids digging though submenus to operate functions, but it’s overwrought and demands acclimatising to use without undue distraction – not ideal if the key gets regular passed around family or friends.

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The tiny 7.0-inch infotainment touchscreen drew criticism as being downmarket at this pricepoint and graphically dowdy, though it is super quick to negotiate from screen to screen. However, the optional Bose audio system, to the judges’ ears, is an average performer.

The Cayenne does cocoon its occupants, so it does feel claustrophobic and lacking airiness in both rows of seating. In the back, the bases are short and the seat padding firm, though the 40:20:40 splitfold seat backs do slide and recline. It does, though, lack shoulder room, the middle position is nearly unusable, particularly with the large tailshaft floor hump robbing foot room, so there’s not much long-haul comfort on offer for adults.

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With no rear temperature adjustment and just a single 12v outlet, it’s hardly five-star accommodation for those in back. Perhaps the biggest markdown, though, is that this large SUV feels less roomy than the mid-sized Lexus in any seating position… The Porsche also suffers in the cargo area: it’s a modest 670 litres in size with rear seats in play and, like many of the SUVs on test, the second row doesn’t fold completely flat for a total 1780L of luggage space.

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The Jaguar, too, suffers somewhat on absolute cabin space, but every judge remarks on how wonderfully tactile the seat leather is the instant they climb in.

There’s plenty of fanfare with the F-Pace’s cabin design, though opinions were mixed on whether the effect was upmarket or cheap looking… depending on judges’ subjective tastes. “The cabin really lets it down,” Anthony reckons. Some prospective SUV buyers, though, will love the stylised approach.

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All judges agreed that the F-Pace doesn’t quite maintain its game once you settle in for the long haul. In an antithesis to the Porsche, the Jaguar is rich to look at but, leather quality apart, falls down to the touch.

There are splashes of lovely metal – on the handbrake, for example – though in many of the wrong places. The wheel and paddleshifters are plasticky, the stitching on the dash unconvincing. “It feels all quite low rent,” says Mike, a case of too much flash and not quite as much substance. And with $17,020 worth of spruce-ups in the cabin alone, we have to wonder how non-premium a basic F-Pace Portfolio must be, let alone your entry-level Prestige variety…

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Thus optioned, though, there are delights. The InControl Touch Pro infotainment is slick and fast operating, the digital instrumentation superb eye candy. And the four-zone air-con is a class act of functionality in row two.

But it does, like the Porsche, suffer a little for cabin packaging, joining the Cayenne as having the tightest second row. Also, the seat bases are firm, the middle seat “rubbish” as one judge describes it, and the high window line may obscure outward viewing for younger rear passengers.

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The Jaguar’s swooping exterior styling also eats into the awkwardly shaped 650L of cargo space with rear sets in play, though that’s without the optional full-sized spare wheel that raises the floor and eats into luggage space markedly. Jaguar quotes a total of 1740L with the rear folded flat (with no spare wheel).

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Despite being corporate cousins, the Range Rover Sport couldn’t be more different to the Jag. But even though the Rangie has the barest and most simplistic interior of the field, it really swooned the judges.

Those seats might be (mostly) mechanically adjustable, and the leather optional, but the seat positioning is commanding, their comfort supremely plush, and outward vision both clear and authoritative. From the ‘thunk’ of the doors to the heft of cabin design, it feels built like a bank vault and there’s some big, solid and almost rustic x-factor to the Rangie that makes it feel King of High Street.

The materials and sense of build quality is beyond that of the Jaguar, and from the quality of the handbrake to the large climate control dials it exude simple joy. “The acres of leather and metalwork just feels great,” says Mike.

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Whether it beats out the Audi as the most cavernous cabin of the field is contentious, though it certainly feels the case, perhaps because of the captain’s chair seating, the humongous glasshouse, or in fact other design slights of hand.

However, it’s not all superlatives for the big Brit. The infotainment system and rear-view camera are budget-worthy, and the gaudy steering wheel with its cheap plastic switchgear really lets the team down. Despite the flat second row floor, it’s not as roomy or cleverly packaged as some of the more contemporary cabin designs on test, though second-row stowage and functionality is limited.

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Rear seats in play the 781L boot is huge, while the Sport’s high ceiling helps carve out a formidable 1761L with the 60:40 splitfold rears stowed. Neat, too, is that the Rangie squats on its air suspension when parked for a little extra entry and egress convenience: a nice premium touch.

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Less charm-filled, if blending classic and modern styling with more gusto, is the X5’s interior treatment, though it is more contemporary in specifics, particularly that slick Navigation System Professional unilaterally judged as the class of the field for design and functionality. In fact, the whole approach of straightforward user interface of its myriad features draws high praise all round, Anthony highlighting the handy shortcut buttons on the centre stack.

The BMW’s no-name (albeit nine-speaker 205-watt) audio, too, absolutely creamed many of its rivals’ brand name system for clarity, punch and sound separation.

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The X5 is honest and simple: highly legible and unfussy instrumentation, a large glasshouse with excellent outward visibility and hard-wearing if hardly the most tactile leather trim. It feels utterly serviceable and thoroughly kid friendly.

“The cabin feels really tough and durable,” Mike says, adding that it “looks low rent but is made of lasting, quality materials.” Appealing, yes, though a styling brief that hardly wears opulence on its sleeves.

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The second-row seating is practical and supportive while roominess is such that three adults will be reasonably comfortable even on very long hauls. There’s ample oddment stowage in back, too.

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Despite an impressive 650L of luggage space, there are no remote levers in the cargo walls to drop the 40:20:40 splitfold second-row seats, converting to a huge 1870L albeit without a completely flat load area. The tailgate, too, is the only two-piece unit of the field, offering loading flexibility if being more cumbersome to open and close when accessing the luggage space.

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The Mercedes-Benz GLE ups the in-cabin sportiness compared with the more austere BMW, though the effect is almost entirely down to the cost-optional AMG Line styling. The leather, too, is nicer, though this is also the nappa option in lieu of the standard-fit manmade material.

Consensus is that the GLE meets the premium brief with its chunkiness, general solidity and a deft choice of wood and metal inlay textures, though it’s overly plasticky – most of those metal-look surfaces – to touch in too many areas. The steering wheel, switchgear and instrumentation comes in for praise, as does the ‘codpiece’ infotainment controller, though the recently updated Comand Online infotainment still has it detractors for lacking intuitive interface and, as Anthony describes, the key number pads in the central stack “look like they’re from the 1980s”.

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“One of the most timeless cabins,” as Mike describes it, isn’t necessarily the roomiest or airiest in row two, especially compared with its Audi and BMW rivals. And without stadium seating, USB connectivity or any rear airflow control, it’s somewhat limited in comfort and outright practicality for this now ageing package.

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The GLE matches the X5 for 650L of luggage space and a superior 1870L with the 40:20:40-splitable second row folded, though it’s frustratingly convoluted exercise requiring the rear seat bases to flip forward and the headrest to be moved each time. Nor does this “clumsy design,” as Mike calls it, offer activation levers from the cargo area.

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While its distinctive approach to styling won’t suit all tastes, the Lexus drew praise from all who climbed inside for its combined high levels of flashiness, tactility and quality workmanship.

“The presentation and appointments as a whole are delightful and there’s plenty of x-factor,” say Tegan. “Awesome seats and quality stitching,” says Mike, though the leather itself is surprisingly slippery. Be it the reconfigurable instrumentation or the ‘damped’ soft-close glovebox, there is devil in details few rival delve into.

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That said, it isn’t all gushing plaudits. Far too many of the buttons seem lifted from Toyota’s budget-happy parts bin, and the fake dash top stitching and transmission controller garnered derision, though not nearly to the magnitude of the universally disliked infotainment functionality and its joystick controller. Add a myriad different font types for displays and buttons – with far too much labelling – and it just isn’t terribly, well, prestigious. Its Mark Levinson audio system, too, got a pasting for its fatiguing treble response.

The second row seating is, in context of its mid-size format, hugely impressive. It rivalled many of its larger competitors for roominess and is much more spacious than the Jaguar or the Porsche. The rear seating strikes a similar comfort-focus blend to the front seats, there’s no intrusive tailshaft tunnel robbing foot room, and there are clever fold-down armrests and ample oddment storage. And like the BMW, the Lexus offers pull-up sunscreens in the doors, and the rear air-con outlet has temperature controls.

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If there’s a markdown anywhere, it’s that the 453L luggage space limits outright practicality and the oddly shaped tailgate aperture is restrictive, though you do have rear 40:20:40 seat-folding control – for a 924L total – from the cargo space wall.

The class acts, though, were the Audi and Volvo. And not, as might be assumed, because the pair offers the flexibility of a third row of seating.

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“Everyone found the Volvo cabin the most fascinating,” says Mike, and mostly because it bucks convention and – perhaps taking its cue from smartphones – is incredibly simple in its user interface.

The digital instrumentation is streamlined, easily legible and configurable. The tablet style infotainment screen groups the car’s functionality within a single touch or swipe, albeit with some minor submenu digging. The materials, much of it leather and metal, are gorgeous to look at and to touch. Details? Everything from a slick frameless mirror to neat Swedish flag symbols embossed into the seats…

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Not only does the seating look hyper-modern, they’re amazingly comfy and are trimmed in the most sumptuous leather found in the entire field. The second row was heaped with praise, from earning the “best rear seats” from Mike to offering seat heating and temperature controls for air-con, to the clever in-built kiddie seat boosters through to the excellent outward vision and the ease of egress.

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For luggage space, the Volvo is huge, converting from a seven-seat 451L to five-seat 1102L (with a 40:20:40 second row) then producing a cavernous 1951L as a two-seater. That said, dropping both second and third rows of the seating is a little awkward and once stowed the load surface isn’t entirely flat… which isn’t the case with the Audi Q7.

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The Audi Q7 wins the cabin test. Not merely because it’s incredibly roomy, particularly in width. Not simply because fit and finish is superb and that it has the most convincing premium combination of metals, leather, plastics and rubber. Not only because, once the electric folding third row drops (295L to 700L) and the 40:20:40 second row stows, the ultimate load space is a field-topping 1955L and with a floor that is nearly completely flat. It’s because it does everything well. The Audi is simply the most clever, well-packaged and well thought-out design of the pack.

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Audi does cabin design well, but from the knurled dials to the tilt and slide flexibility of the second row, and from the double sun visors to LED rear reading lights, it’s full of useful and practical applications centred equally on both driver and passengers.

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The only area polarising judges’ opinion is the dash and centre stack array – some found it clever and intuitive, others (yours truly included) find it a bit of information overload. The audio quality, too, is merely mid-field. And while the Q7 doesn’t have the outright comfiest or body hugging seating, the overall ambience is perhaps the most serenely relaxing of the eight SUVs on test, which is premium embodiment in itself.

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Long-haul comfort         

A repeatable 40-kilometre loop of the Hume Highway’s more inconsistent surfaces serves to test the SUVs’ ride quality, noise and general comfort levels. It’s hardly a challenge… until you throw in entry from a side road into 110km/h highway traffic at one end of the loop and a short on-road ramp on which to get up to speed at the other. Each judge is instructed to keep the SUVs in comfort drive mode for an added test of powertrain flexibility.

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Unsurprisingly, the diesel fours and the Lexus’s petrol V6 struggled to get up to speed as quickly as the oiler V6s. Despite equalling the Jaguar with the highest kilowatt figure, the 221kW RX350’s modest 370Nm torque figure from its 3.5 litres didn’t do it any favours in reaching the highway speed limit, though it is a sweet revving and sounding engine backed by a co-operative eight-speed auto. “It’s no firebrand,” comments Mike.

Despite its looks, stance and those big 20-inch wheels – albeit on 55-series rubber – the Lexus’s ride is surprisingly plush. Noise isolation, a brand hallmark, is exceptional.

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Of the diesel fours, the Volvo’s 2.0L 165kW/470Nm unit feels and sounds the most strained getting up to speed, though the less-powerful if torquier 2.1L 150kW/500Nm engine in the Mercedes-Benz also has excessive clatter under load and with its cruise control dial up. Neither feel to have properly premium powertrains, the GLE’s nine-speed auto, in particular, a little lazy and reluctant in shifting character. The Volvo’s eight-speed, in contrast, is generally crisper and more urgent.

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The BMW is the finest four here, the 2.0L unit matching the Benz’s 500Nm if with an extra 20kW (170kW total), it pulls more assertively and is smoother and quieter in operation throughout the balance of driving, the smooth shift action of its eight-speed a key part of the X5’s generally high refinement levels on the move.

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The 3.0L V6 diesel in the Audi might only offer 160kW and the similar 500Nm but, like the BMW, it hauls to the highway speed limit without a sweat, and with an extra level smoothness and refinement typical of V-cylinder diesels and a particularly sweetly-calibrated eight-speed. With cruise control activated, the Q7’s engine is incredibly quiet and, like the Cayenne, offers a nifty ‘sailing mode’ that idles the engine on downhill runs to save fuel.

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The Porsche, the Jaguar and, perhaps surprisingly, the Range Rover are properly quick to march. Little separates the 193kW/580Nm Cayenne’s and the 190kW/600Nm Sport’s 3.0L engine in terms of energy, though in throwing themselves up a motorway the Rangie feels a touch more explosive if slightly laggy off the mark. The German rival, though, seems more precise and focused in powertrain character, particularly its eight-speed automatic transmission’s slick shift programming with utterly seamless upchanges.

None match the 3.0L Jaguar’s 221kW/700Nm force though. In acceleration, it seems barely swifter than the Sport or Cayenne, though the F-Pace’s powertrain, with its eight-speed automatic, is flexible and punchy. Where all three come into their own is in overtaking, dispatching B-doubles on a whim where the others demand more patience and planning.

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Both the Jaguar and Porsche – arguably the drivers’ cars of the pack – feel planted and offer good engagement on the highway, though the Brit’s bold exhaust note gets tiresome over time and distance and the German settles into an rpm point that sends a drone through the cabin. With their low-profile 21-inch (Porsche) and 22-inch (Jaguar) wheels there’s a lot of tyre noise, particularly on a concrete section of the Hume, and both tend to thump over cats’ eyes and separation joins.

Of this pair, it’s the Jaguar that is a little better at isolating noise from outside the cabin, while the Porsche, at least by high-level luxury SUV measures, is a little fatiguing over big distances.

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No such gripes for the Range Rover which, with its fat-sidewall 19-inch wheels, wafts smoothly and near silently across any road surface and imperfection. It’s perhaps not as tied down as some rivals and with quite aloof steering off centre, but the big Brit is an utterly serene, five-star highway bomber.

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The same can be said for the Audi, matching the Range Rover for the quietest cruising device. In fact, it’s so quiet that the sound of the air-con fans – and often your own breathing – becomes noticeable. The Q7’s chassis doesn’t benefit from the superb optional air suspension, and yet on standard steel springs and 55-series tyres on 19-inch wheels it’s a class act, a touch of chassis ‘float’ absorbing the bumps and it settles nicely at speed.

“Super loping ride,” Mike says, “but there are no vibrations.”

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The BMW isn’t the smoothest or firmest, the quietest or noisiest. Instead, it does everything well enough where, in this company, a median performance is very good indeed. “It rides well but jars over small knobbly hits,” is Mike’s feedback, though negatives are few.

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The Mercedes-Benz, though, is a head scratcher. With optional air suspension, it should cream the steel sprung Audi and BMW, to name just two, in general ride comfort and NVH quality. It doesn’t. Blame the AMG branded 40-series 21-inch wheels, perhaps, but it thumps and fidgets more than any other SUV on test. In isolation, it’s a fine SUV specimen – in present company, though, it’s not rising to the occasion.

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Impressions are one thing, science is another. On our decibel meter, measured at 110km/h, the BMW, Porsche and Jaguar are matches at 80dB on concrete and 76dB over hotmix. The Volvo was, at 81dB, louder on rough surface, but measured 75dB on the smoother stuff, while the Mercedes-Benz was comparatively one decibel quieter on the black surface. Realistically, there’s not much in it.

Both the Lexus and Rangie tied each other with quieter 79dB concrete and 75dB hotmix figures, but the Audi came out on top regardless of surface with 78dB and 74dB.

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Soft-roading

A rutted six-kilometre loop across dirt, sand and embedded rock trails in New South Wales’ Belanglo State Forest is a firm but fair test of soft-roading capabilities these SUVs might typically experience on weekend away at the farm or heading bush for camping. Especially loaded up with the weight of four judges at a time and ‘driven to conditions’, which is around 60km/h-70km/h depending on the surface. No specialised off-road modes are activated: all SUVs are left in comfort-type drive modes.

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The Mercedes-Benz isn’t having a good time of it. It’s not uncomfortable, but there is a lot of vibration coming up through the chassis. “The ride is brittle on sharp hits and it thumbs over corrugations,” Mike reckons, though it tracks well despite the low-profile tyres and is downright pleasant on gravel.

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In this forum, the Jaguar is less than happy. It negotiates potholes without a sweat but big or sharp ruts overcome the damping and come crashing through the cabin. It is, though, less brittle over the minor bumps and core compliance is good, with Mike relaying that “the ride is gentler than the Merc” on balance. It also has no problem putting its torque to the dirty floor.

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The BMW, though, is impressive, with good noise and bump isolation and the general driving experience is quite tied down despite some light steering feel. Some judges comment on some engine lag (perhaps ESP intervention) though it certainly doesn’t lack drive or grip on broken surfaces. “It’s about middle of the pack for how it trips over sharp edges,” Mike opines.

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Strangely, the Porsche feels a little detached on dirt. Perhaps it’s the performance road tyres, but it doesn’t really bite into the trail surfaces well. With its stellar steering accuracy and responsive powertrain, though, it’s a hoot to punt hard – like a gigantic rally car – though it’s crashy and noisy over the potholes that you quickly learn to avoid.

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The Audi continues to impress. It has more tyre noise than the Mercedes-Benz but negotiates every type of imperfection and surface with more rounded and pliant damping and with body control among the best of the field. You do hear sharp hits through the suspension though, crucially, they don’t intrude into the cabin much at all. Like its on-road character, the Audi remains serene even carrying speed across the properly rough stuff.

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Feeling surprisingly light on its feet, and easy to punt through the forest, is the Volvo. It’s quite floaty, particularly over one big crest, and yet it doesn’t get as unsettled as some of its rivals. As with on-road driving, there’s not a lot of shove from the diesel, but it’s perhaps the easiest to place on a twisty dirt track and, despite some jarring here and there, is a comfortable SUV for the beaten track.

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The big surprise is the Lexus that, truth be told, looks completely out of place in this neck of the woods. Yet it feels strangely at home. “It’s fidgety over small rapid corrugations but it’s really quiet,” says Mike, and the compliance of the suspension is well-rounded enough to keep the Japanese SUV impressively settled all the way around the six-kay loop. The lack of torque, though, means it needs to be pedalled hard to maintain velocity.

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The Range Rover Sport? Well, it was born for this stuff wasn’t it? And so it proved. Measured by the seat of the pants, it doesn’t so much negotiate a trail as flatten the landscape. You see rough stuff through the windscreen, but you hardly feel or hear it. Vertical movement does become more pronounced the slower it travels, but it’s so composed on the move, and those Pirelli Scorpion tyres bite in so well, that you simply plough on. Which is easy to do with that lusty V6 making a mockery of the Sport’s considerable mass.

The big Brit presents the smallest divide between the tangible on- and off-road experience. And it’s the SUV your kids will most likely remain asleep in no matter how rough the road becomes. And, thus, for this test it’s an easy win.

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Urban and country driving

From the speed humps and roundabouts of downtown Kiama to the steep ascents and descents of Saddleback Mountain and the smooth curves of Jamberoo, our 30-kilometre mixed urban/country road loop – our final test – embodies the 90-percentile driving experience many luxury SUVs contend with. It’s also an apt forum to try each SUV’s more sporting drive modes where suitable.

If you’ve just pulled a heist and are making haste to the hills, the Porsche and Jaguar are your best forms of escape. They truly come to fore when driven with gusto, pillars of grip, competency and proper pace. Had this been Quickest and Best Drivers’ SUV Shootout you’d have your two clear frontrunners, easy. Unfortunately, though, both are at their best when it’s prudent to leave the loved ones back at the homestead. But it isn’t. We’re primarily testing this pack’s luxury credentials, and neither are really benchmarks in this comparison’s broader criteria.

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The Porsche is certainly surefooted though, again, it’s a trade-off for sheer comfort. Its tremendous grip and fantastic brakes – some of the largest on show – do bring surety in safety. It’s got the most dynamically adept chassis and most accurate steering. If there’s a markdown for the Cayenne in this particular driving situation, it’s that sometimes the powertrain gets caught snoozing with sudden and heavy throttle application.

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“The Jaguar is the equal-most fun with the Porsche,” Mike says, complete with direct steering, a flat cornering stance and sharp turn-in. But there’s just a bit too much sportiness at play at any pace to provide a genuinely unfussed touring experience outside of anywhere but the open highway. Fun for the driver, less so for the passengers.

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The Lexus tempers its sporting intent enough to become downright pleasant for this kind of country touring. But you really do need to wring its neck to stay within the tyre tracks of the torquey diesels on the run up to Saddleback Mountain Lookout, and despite its reasonably lithe nature, it does feel strained for grip even at a moderate clip across the smoother hotmix curves. And the ride does get flustered in the urban crawl, particularly over speed humps.

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Neither the BMW nor Mercedes-Benz present any great revelations in mixed touring conditions. The xDrive 25d soldiers on in a workmanlike manner, with a middling ride and handling balance, strong powertrain and neither puts a tyre wrong nor shines terribly brightly. “The steering is woolly but well weighted in sports mode,” says Mike, “and it remains well damped with good body control despite some noticeable roll.” Key highlights include its excellent all-round vision from the commanding seating position and a quite decisive transmission tune both around town and once it gets move on.

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The two main shortcomings of the GLE 250d – its gruff powertrain and terse ride quality – remain during our mixed ‘normal’ driving loop, though both the engine and transmission do become more responsive once the SUV’s sporting drive mode is activated. That said, it still feels laboured and lacking some final polish in the all-round driving experience. Disconcertingly, the brake pedal feel is quite soft – which grabs your attention on the descent from Saddleback Mountain – though the brakes themselves never fade. And while those Continental Cross Contact tyres generate fantastic grip, the chassis remains floaty and rolly enough to rob it of a bit of touring confidence.

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The Range Rover and Volvo prove to be polar opposites down sweeping and narrow country lanes. The Brit really starts to feel its size in corners, and placement on the road takes accuracy and judgement. It steers well despite the lack of actual feel and it powers along easily; it’s just that the narrower the path ahead the more circumspect the driver needs to be with its guidance. That said, it’s almost never bothered by bumps and no matter what kind of lap you take, the Rangie always makes it a lap of consummate luxury.

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Meanwhile, the Volvo seems to shrink around you in the curves, even if the engine remains strained far too much of the time. There’s a nice blend of engagement and surefootedness, with middling body control and surprisingly direct steering. The ride can get a little brittle at low speed and its chassis a touch fidgety in bumpy corners, but at a clip it’s both reasonably comfy and composed.

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The eye-raiser, though, is the Audi. Surely that calm solace it presents on the open road would unravel itself on a lumpy back road or the around town grind? Not at all.

Its big engine remains quiet, silken and punchy even when pushed up the mountain, its eight-speed auto an intuitive ally. It does float on suspension yet remains utterly tied down across big dips and lumpy sweepers, and in sport mode the steering is surprisingly direct. “The cabin isolates noise spectacularly,” Mike says, “and the Audi is truly an outstanding ‘plush’ compromise.” As a ride and handling package, the large Audi is very difficult to fault. Or, in the case of this eight-way, a difficult act to beat.

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Fuel consumption? We calculated all eight SUVs’ average thirsts after around 600 kilometres of mixed driving. And the results are thus:

No surprises that our only petrol competitor, the Lexus, drank the most, returning a 12.16L average. Impressive is that it’s less than two-litres-per-hundred thirstier than four of its diesel competitors: the BMW (10.62L), the Rangie (10.55L), the Jaguar (10.43L) and the Porsche (10.27L). Not such a great showing for the Munich SUV given its four cylinder drank more than a trio of higher output V6s, each with 50-percent-larger engine capacity.

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Of the remaining three SUVs, the Mercedes-Benz and Volvo four bangers returned 9.95L and 9.71L respectively. The only competitor to dip into the eights was the Audi – yes, with its large V6 – returning an impressive 8.98L average.

(Worth noting, too, is that each SUV was subjected to a lot rigorous kays on test, and over the days following formal testing consumption figures for most of them dropped as much as three litres per hundred.)

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Verdict

To say there’s not a bad apple on this tree may be a tired cliche, but if you’re spending around $100k on a luxury SUV you really won’t lose out whichever way you go. This is a field of impressive quality and depth right across the board.

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The Mercedes-Benz GLE 250d is fine motoring. But in the criteria set out for this mega test, it was consistently average in two key areas – powertrain and ride refinement – and the most affordable SUV on show only really rose to the occasion on value. In isolation, it looks fantastic, has the requisite premium presentation, the badge cache and – importantly – is loaded with goodness, including key active safety, for a relatively modest price tag. That said, each of the five judges ranked it eighth and last.

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We expected more from newcomer Jaguar, though the SUV breed itself offers plenty of goodness. Just, perhaps, not this example. Its exhaustive, $24k hit list of options punished the value quotient, where perhaps an unoptioned Portfolio 30d – or even an extras-free higher-grade S version ($99,894 before on-roads) – might’ve given Jaguar’s rivals a much harder shake. That many of those cost options, such as the 22in wheels, actually inhibited its luxury credentials in terms of ride and comfort didn’t do the leaping cat many favours. That said, if you’re shopping for flashiness and (F-)pace…

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Four judges ranked the mighty Porsche no higher than sixth place, and Chris lifted his vote to fifth. Like the Jaguar, the Cayenne, as arguably the fittest driver’s machine, suffered a little in that really shines outside our criteria set for luxury appraisal. As a base model, it’s expensive – thus optioned, doubly so. And what hurt the Porsche is that its myriad option didn’t improve its luxury credentials much at all. Like the Benz, the Cayenne is an ageing breed. And that our test car lacked anything like the amount of cutting-edge active safety fitted to even the eighth-placed GLE 250d really anchored its rise up the rankings.

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The BMW scored a solid fifth for an all-round solid effort. And everywhere we looked, it neither floundered nor really gave the benchmarks a shake… except, perhaps, in diesel-four refinement and its excellent iDrive infotainment. Neither of which would propel the X5 beyond a highest ranking of fourth for one judge (Anthony) and a sixth for another (Chris).

2016 Luxury SUV Comparo_Range Rover Sport V Jaguar F Pace V Porsche Cayenne V Volvo XC90 V BMW X5 V Audi Q7 V Lexus RX350 V Merc GLE250d-195

“Any surprises?” video host James Ward would ask us during testing. Yes indeed: the Lexus. It adopts the typically Japanese approach of equating the premium experience with loading a model to the hilt with equipment, but its top-four showing was for other reasons entirely. It was well beyond average – and, to be honest, beyond expectation – in almost every criterion. It took its city slicker flash and demonstrated great depth in places where you expect it shouldn’t, particularly with its soft-roading abilities. It’s the solid quality beneath its bells, whistles and stylised appearance that serve it so well in this comparison…

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Our concerns about the Range Rover Sport were opposite to those of the Lexus: could a vehicle rooted in relatively simpler old-school 4×4 traditions, one stripped of contemporary frills, even compete with rivals celebrating modern excess? It did. And more…

The base Sport TDV6 S is a reminder that it’s not glitter and the length of features that underpin ‘premium’ and ‘luxury’, but rather good, old-fashioned fundamentals such as quality, comfort, refinement, solidity and classiness. In test, the Rangie became something of a ‘touchstone of fundamentals’ against which rivals would be measured, and so often, the rivals lost.

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Whether it’s a trend-bucker or a proper game-changer, the Volvo XC90 brings a refreshingly simplistic approach to interior design and lays on styling, yet backs it all up with thoroughly solid substance. It’s this highbrow, well-executed balance of form and functionality that ultimately won the judges over, garnering four second-place rankings and one atop the podium. Who knows – had Volvo ditched the slightly under-baked two-litre diesel in favour of a larger V6 as fitted to the Audi…

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The Audi Q7 narrowly dispatched the XC90 for the top spot, and it did so by performing commendably across all criteria and more or less benchmarking areas for luxury excellence: ride and handling balance, quietness, refinement, materials, core features, roominess, practicality, design and functionality. And it nailed fuel economy for kicks.

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It’s not the prettiest SUV on High Street and, as the base 160kW version, nor is it the biggest branch in the Q7 family tree. But as finery for transporting loved ones in supreme luxury it’s very difficult to fault. Stick a $100k price cap on that challenge, and an options-free Q7 is very hard to beat. As its win here proves.

Final Rankings

How did the five-strong judging crew arrive at the final standings? Taking our test criteria into account, each judge was sent off to individually rank the field first place through to last. And without group consultation. Here’s a table of the result:

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Then we applied some simple maths: a first place ranking scored one point, fourth place scoring four points, seventh place earning seven points, and so on. The final overall ranking, then, reflects the lowest score for win through to the highest score for the wooden spoon.

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As you can see, most placings are fairly emphatic except one: kudos goes to the Volvo as it lost out to the Audi by the slimmest one-point margin.

 






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