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by James Whitbourn

The arrival of a bigger, third-generation BMW X5 styled to please America prompted that we revisit that age old question – are large SUVs lumbering, unwieldy tanks better suited to the bush? (or Bush?) Or are they viable high-rise family wagons?

We picked the $100K price point, where the stars align in terms of 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo-diesel specification (Benz and BMW offer circa-$80K entry-level four-cylinder diesels, but Porsche and Land Rover don’t).

It’s a question that couldn’t possibly be answered without the Mercedes-Benz ML-Class, which is represented in $101,900 ML350 BlueTec form. A pioneer and former benchmark, the third-gen ML is entering its third year on sale.

The Porsche Cayenne as a model is newer than the ML-Class, having made its debut in 2002, but the second-gen Porsche SUV, like the current-shape Benz, has been around since 2011. It lines up in $101,100 entry-level Diesel form.

The new, lighter, more accomplished Range Rover Sport, meanwhile, fronts up in more powerful $125,800 HSE SDV6 form, rather than the right-priced $102,800 TDV6 that wasn’t available to test, but will help us get to the bottom of yet another large SUV question – Deutsch by default, or Britannia rules?

Luxury SUV Comparison 3

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

You might expect a broadly similar level of generous standard equipment in the European luxury SUV realm, but even at $100K it pays to have a good look at what’s included for the price.

For example, you might expect keyless entry, a reversing camera and seat heaters to come standard because they do on many high-spec Korean and Japanese cars, but that’s not universally the case. But across the board you can count on standard automatic stop/start, hill descent control, and sat-nav as part of a well-featured infotainment system with lots of connectivity possibilities.

The $101,100 Cayenne Diesel brought the most basic level of standard equipment, missing out on a powered steering column, a driver’s knee airbag and voice control for the infotainment system.

2014 Porsche Cayenne 4

Ours came with a moderate level of optional equipment, including 20-inch wheels, a panoramic roof, Porsche active suspension management and a ‘special interior package in black’, which took the total price to $116,210.

The Range Rover Sport, even in up-spec $125,800 HSE SDV6 trim, is still not the best-equipped here.

However, in keeping with its rugged origins, the Range Rover majors on off-roading tech such as switchable high/low range, electronic air suspension with automatic load-levelling and variable ride heights, the brand’s Terrain Response 2 auto system, trailer stability control, and roll stability control.

2014 Range Rover Sport 2

Ours came with a further $22,850 of extras, which included the HSE luxury pack, which consists of 19-speaker Meridian brand surround sound, 12.3-inch TFT virtual instruments, an alarm system, a first aid kit and 18-way powered memory front seats.

In addition, it was optioned with a sliding panoramic roof, four-zone air-con, heated and ventilated front and rear seats, a blind-spot monitoring system, and an HSE comfort pack made up of high-beam assist, auto dimming mirrors, configurable mood lighting and floor mats. The grand total: $148,650.

The $99,900 BMW X5 xDrive30d is unique in bringing a standard head-up display and a low-speed collision-prevention city braking function, and offers cutting-edge options such as the brand’s night vision ($3700).

2014 BMW X5 1

Our test car was treated to $17K worth of equipment, including metallic paint, ‘comfort’ adaptive suspension, aluminium running boards, a panorama glass sunroof, comfort seats with lumbar support, a Harman/Kardon surround sound system, and a Nappa leather interior pack.

The Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec is listed at $101,900, and delivered the most persuasive list of standard equipment. As well as items it shares with some rivals, such as front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, a surround camera system, a lane keeping system, voice control, it brought items they charge extra for, such as a blind-spot monitor system.

In addition, ours brought metallic paint, black/almond beige leather, a rear-seat entertainment system, a sport package including air suspension, adaptive damping and 21-inch alloys, a convenience package incorporating keyless entry and start functions, a powered tailgate and a glass sunroof, and an entertainment pack including Harman/Kardon surround sound and digital radio and TV tuners, which together took the price to $121,400 plus on roads.

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 2

INTERIORS

The rounded-off SUV shape of the Cayenne makes it seem the smallest – and it is between 57mm and 91mm lower in height than rivals, on a shorter wheelbase, though it’s about average for overall length (at 4846mm, it’s 42mm longer than the ML-Class).

It matters little inside. The Cayenne’s rear seat is on MPV-style sliding rails, but even slid forward, in a triumph of clever packaging over size, it’s a match for the far bigger X5. Back-seaters perch on a supportive, well-cushioned seat base, with a backrest that’s ideally angled at the most upright of two positions, and are afforded generous legroom – 35mm more than in the BMW with the seat slid back.

It’s equally appealing up front, offering fine ergonomics, and niceties such as the handy TFT display right of the tacho in the instrument cluster. Some testers reported being overwhelmed by the busy-looking centre console, though others liked the Panamera-style design.

2014 Porsche Cayenne 3

2014 Porsche Cayenne 9

2014 Porsche Cayenne 10

Either way, familiarity breeds user-friendliness, though it did take me a while to figure out how to temporarily disable the parking sensors (it’s not a simple push-button process, but accessed through an on-screen menu). While rivals attempt first class accommodation to varying degrees of success, the austere all-black Cayenne cabin nails luxury in the sense of its terrific packaging and cosseting comfort.

Power open the tailgate and the Porsche’s 670L cargo bay, while just as deep (with the seats slid forward), is noticeably narrower than those of the Mercedes (690L) and the Range Rover (784L), though it is a fraction more capacious than that of the BMW (650L).

With its rear seat fully forward, the Porsche, as with the Mercedes and the BMW, offers about 50mm more legroom than the Range Rover. It’s a pity, because the Rangie is externally bigger than the BMW in some dimensions, and impressed with easy entry/egress thanks to its wide-opening doors.

2014 Range Rover Sport 3

2014 Range Rover Sport 6

2014 Range Rover Sport 7

Inside, the seat bases are hard, and the tapered sides of the roof eat into rear headroom, which is generous for the centre occupant, despite the fact he or she sits higher than outboard passengers. Air-con controls for the rear compartment impressed, but as with the heated and ventilated seats, they’re an option.

The Range Rover’s smaller glasshouse compared with the X5 and Cayenne, together with the more traditional dash design, contributes to a more old-school feel, though materials fit and finish is excellent. Among minor annoyances are the poorly sited power window switches, up on top of the door trims, a slow-to-respond touchscreen, and the fact the headlights don’t turn off automatically unless they’re set to auto.

The ML350 shares a shallow glasshouse and ease of entry/egress with the Range Rover, though the latter is to do with ride height more than the doors/apertures. The Mercedes sits lower than its rivals which makes it less of a climb up into the seats – unless you pump up the optional air-suspension for greater ground clearance.

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 3

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 6

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 7

The Benz’s back seat offers near Cayenne-rivalling legroom and superior foot room, great comfort and, unlike the Range Rover, the box-shape delivers the expected benefit of generous headroom. But the Merc can feel a bit claustrophobic, especially compared with the BMW, which is as much to do with the ML’s older design as the dark rear-window tint and subdued trim hue. Meanwhile, the infotainment system’s user interface can’t touch the ease-of-use of the current iteration of the once-ridiculed BMW iDrive.

That system headlines the most convincing luxury cabin of the quartet – the X5’s ivory trim and large panorama sunroof makes it a far brighter place than rivals, and its iDrive has become the benchmark. The large dial lets you intuitively scroll and press through menus on the central, dashtop 10.25-inch colour display. Or, you can scrawl a word with your finger atop the dial, or use voice control. The polished application of clever tech, such as the top-view camera, continues to impress, as do design details such as the extra-large door bins, or the neat two-piece tailgate.

In the back of the BMW, toe room is generous and legroom is ample – similar to that of the Porsche (with its seats forward), despite the fact that the X5’s wheelbase (at 2933mm) is 38mm longer than the Cayenne’s. Surprisingly, headroom can’t match that of the Cayenne. The flat bench lacks under-thigh support but better accommodates three-across than the Range Rover’s bucketed rear seat.

2014 BMW X5 3

2014 BMW X5 8

2014 BMW X5 9

ENGINES

A 3.0-litre turbo-diesel six is the common link, but the differences range from the subtle to the significant.

The Land Rover engine is the only twin-turbo, but shares its bore and stroke (and therefore its 2993cc swept capacity) with the BMW X5’s engine, which is the only straight six here.

All four get torque-converter automatic transmissions, with eight speeds in all bar the seven-speed ML350. The Mercedes has a ratio for every occasion, but not the shifting smarts – it can be a bit lethargic. The column-shifted Benz takes some getting used to, but with experience it’s no more difficult to operate than a normal gear lever. The column stalk dictates that paddle shifters come standard, though they can be slow to respond.

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 4

Paddles are also offered in the Range Rover, while the Porsche offers its own, less-effective steering wheel push/pull shift buttons (normal paddles are offered as an option). The BMW doesn’t get standard paddles (they’re a $400 option), but just as in the Range Rover you (intuitively) push the gear lever forward to downshift and pull it back to upshift.

The BMW boasts the smallest combined cycle fuel consumption figure (6.2L/100km) but was the thirstiest on test, at 11.8L/100km. Meanwhile, the Mercedes’ 620Nm torque output towers above those of its rivals, but the 2175kg ML350 is the heaviest, and the second-thirstiest, at 11.3L/100km.

The Cayenne offers the smallest figures of 180kW and 550Nm, but is only 10 units short of the X5 for power and torque, and both SUVs are relatively light.

2014 Porsche Cayenne 5

What’s more important than anything the spec sheet could say is the way the Porsche torques away from the mark. The virtually lag-free, linear relationship between accelerator angle and accelerative thrust makes it easy to dial out just the right amount of grunt, which makes the performance deficit feel negligible. The cultured Cayenne also brings the least diesel-like soundtrack.

Peak power is delivered across 3800-4400rpm, giving the 4600rpm-redlined Porsche a 400rpm broader rev range than the X5 and Range Rover, and an extra 800rpm compared with the Mercedes.

However, the BMW, with peak torque delivered from a low 1500rpm to a high 3000rpm (by the standards of the class), hauls effortlessly in the mid-range, bringing similar hill-flattening ability to the Mercedes, though there’s obvious initial lag in both of them.

2014 BMW X5 4

But it’s nothing compared to that of the Range Rover. In 215kW SDV6 spec, as tested, it’s the most powerful and, with 600Nm, plenty torquey, but despite its twin turbos you certainly have to wait for it to wind up, which is at its most frustrating in city driving or on tight country roads.

At least it’s economical – the thriftiest on test, at 9.4L/100km, to the next-best Cayenne’s 10.2L/100km.

That figure gives the Range Rover a touring range of more than 850km on a fill of its 80L tank; the Porsche would do 830km from its 85L tank, or more than 1000km with the no-cost-option 100L tank. Meanwhile, the Mercedes would travel more than 820km from 93 litres, and the BMW more than 720km from 85 litres.

2014 Range Rover Sport 4

STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING

It’s a clear-cut case of the chassis with finesse, and the one that’s flummoxed by challenging roads – the Cayenne is a fine handler and the ML350 is quickly out of its depth away from the straight and narrow. However, it’s more difficult to separate the X5 and the Range Rover – they’re both capable, but their characters and skill sets differ.

Just as in the Porsche, a short drive in the BMW suggests that it’s up for it – a driver’s SUV. The big Bavarian steers quickly and, once through an initial region of lost motion, the thick-rimmed wheel proves a precise tool with which to guide the nose. But it’s not as quick or as sharp as that of the Cayenne…

There’s no normal suspension setting in the X5, just Sport and Comfort. On bad backroads, Sport feels a bit harsh by comparison with the Porsche, and Comfort can’t fully cure the busy ride. It sits flat in an SUV context, but there’s more roll than in the Cayenne. Hurry the X5 through a sequence of tight corners, and it leans over onto the outside front tyre, which can be felt working hard.

2014 BMW X5 16

The Range Rover, meanwhile, is a more measured drive. The steering feels the slowest of the quartet, while the dynamic flavour is rollier and more SUV-like than the BMW and the Porsche. Its maker made much of the hundreds of kilograms that were shed in the move to an aluminium body. The Sport now inhabits the same circa-two-tonne region as its rivals, but it still doesn’t feel light on its tyres like the Cayenne can.

The consistency and well-judged weighting of the steering might make the Range Rover feel less reactive, but it’s right-on for relaxed touring. The Rangie rides with greater absorbency than the X5, if not quite the well-calibrated compliance of the Cayenne. Big hits and undulations fail to fluster it, but a ripply succession of smaller bumps can catch the suspension out. But together with the quietness of the cabin, the polished ride and sense of dynamic cohesion make the big Brit an accomplished cruiser in which to spend many comfortable kilometres.

Testing the myriad off-roading modes offered was beyond the scope of our family-focussed comparison, but their inclusion signposts the Range Rover Sport’s rough-track roots, and makes it worth a close look if you’re planning to go bush between school runs.

2014 Range Rover Sport 8

It terms of its packaging, equipment and engine, the ML350 BlueTec has plenty going for it, but dynamic shortcomings diminish its appeal.

Just one enthusiastic bite of steering lock is enough to feel the reluctance of the nose to turn in, and the less than natural weighting of the wheel. Sure, it’s much better than big SUVs once were, but the genre has come a long way and the Benz is far from leading edge.

The reality of Sport mode is that it’s neither well controlled nor comfortable. Comfort mode is less controlled without offering a significant improvement in ride quality. The ride woes only compound the cabin rattles and dashboard creaks. And forget what we said about the BMW – here’s an SUV that overworks its outside front tyre in corners…

2014 Mercedes-Benz ML-Class 14

All of which leaves the Cayenne as truly the Porsche of SUVs.

There’s a clearly noticeable increase in damping as you progress through Comfort, Normal and Sport modes, and each mode has its place, which is something we rarely say about adaptive damper buttons. There’s slight float in Comfort, which brings a loping gait; Normal lets the suspension breathe just enough to be the do-it-all mode. Then slip it into Sport – responses sharpen and body control tightens up nicely, though there’s still enough compliance to prevent big hits from jarring occupants.

Turn-in is crisp, and the steering is well weighted and friction-free. When the front-end is loaded up there are both feedback and occasional kickback, which is preferable to the over-refined lifelessness that once pervaded.

2014 Porsche Cayenne 12

VERDICT

The toughest battle is between the BMW X5 and the Range Rover Sport, and the pick could come down to personal preference.

Despite a lack of ride polish on seriously bad roads, we love the X5 for its driver-oriented chassis, rapid performance and slick eight-speed auto, its luxurious, teched-out cabin and clever design touches. Add a solid level of standard equipment and factor in the state-of-the-art options available, and its second spot on the podium is deserved.

That said, the Range Rover’s dynamic flavour is more sports-tourer, which could be just right for you, and it soaks up bumpy roads better than the BMW can. The twin-turbo diesel is efficient, but the lag frustrates, and the Range Rover isn’t as well equipped, or as roomy or comfortable to sit in.

2014 Range Rover Sport 15

The Mercedes-Benz ML350, despite offering a generous level of standard equipment, a well packaged cabin and a mountain of torque, is undone by a dozy auto, lumpy ride quality and lacklustre dynamics of a magnitude that can’t be overlooked.

More than being good for an SUV, the Cayenne is plain good. The Porsche is the most car-like – the high-riding family wagon that’s genuinely fun to hustle along a country road.

But there’s more to the Porsche Cayenne Diesel. From the responsiveness, refinement and efficiency of its engine, to the excellent interior packaging and ergonomics, it’s a cut above. So, once you’ve brought equipment up to a level that’s comparable with its rivals, we think it’s reasonable enough to have to pay a bit more for it.

2014 Porsche Cayenne 11

Photography by Thomas Wielecki. See the full photo gallery, with the ability to enlarge the photos, here.



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BMW X5 BREAKDOWN

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PORSCHE CAYENNE BREAKDOWN

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RANGE ROVER BREAKDOWN

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