There is a segment of cars on the market that carries a crowd of unique followers. They’re cars that are not universally loved for their designs, but they offer buyers a unique styling proposition backed by efficient engines.
In a bid to see what this segment is all about and get a better understanding of why people buy these cars, we lined up the 2016 Audi A7, the 2016 BMW X6 xDrive 30d and 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE350d Coupe to see which is best.
Each vehicle offers an all-wheel drive drivetrain and a diesel engine, but that’s where the similarities end. Each manufacturer takes a different approach in this segment, so we went through a mix of city, country and real-world performance tests to whittle down the competitors to one winner. Some of the results may surprise you…
Pricing and specifications
The vehicles in this comparison sit within earshot of each other when it comes to pricing. To address each vehicle in ascending order of price, it’s the entry-level Audi A7 that comes in cheapest with a manufacturer's recommended list price (MRLP) of $115,400.
Of the two models in the A7 range (not including the S and RS models), both are offered with diesel engines, the entry-level uses a single turbocharged six-cylinder diesel, while the top-specification A7 comes with a twin-turbocharged unit.
The engine fitted to the A7 S Line is a 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder diesel that produces 160kW of power and 500Nm of torque. The engine is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and manages a remarkable combined fuel efficiency of just 5.2L/100km. Coupled with that engine, Audi also claims that the car is capable of a 0-100km/h time of just 6.8 seconds.
Each vehicle on test here comes with a manufacturer's claim for a 0-100km/h time. We bench tested all three cars against our GPS-aided VBox to ensure the times were on par with manufacturer claims, so we will mention the manufacturer’s claimed figures here and tested figures later.
In terms of features, the A7 is loaded with standard inclusions. Some of these features include: 19-inch alloy wheels, 4-zone automatic climate control, satellite navigation with overlayed Google Maps, leather seats with electric adjustment for front row, front and rear parking sensors, auto dimming rear vision mirror, 14 speaker stereo with Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input and digital radio, keyless entry and start, power tailgate and automatic windscreen wipers with automatic LED headlights.
Safety features include lane departure warning, ESP, six airbags and rear cross traffic alert, among others.
Next up the ladder in MRLP is the BMW X6 xDrive 30d, which sits at the bottom of the X6 range priced from $117,500 plus on-road costs. BMW offers a diverse range of vehicles across the X6 model line up with a mix of diesel and petrol engines.
Powering the X6 xDrive 30d is 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produces 190kW of power and 560Nm of torque. The engine sits attached to an eight-speed automatic gearbox that uses a torque converter and constant all-wheel drive. BMW claims the fuel use to be 6.0L/100km. Additionally, BMW says that it will sprint from 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds, which is 0.1 seconds quicker than the A7.
Like the A7, the BMW X6 comes with a heap of standard kit. Some of those features include: 20-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, LED headlights, automatic windscreen wipers and headlights, leather seats with power adjustment, 9 speaker stereo with Bluetooth audio streaming and digital radio, front, rear and side cameras, power tailgate and front and rear parking sensors.
The X6 also comes with more safety technology than the A7 with low-speed autonomous emergency braking, six airbags, forward collision warning and lane departure warning.
The newest arrival in this segment is also the most expensive. The Mercedes-Benz GLE350d Coupe starts from $121,900 plus on-road costs. While this is a new vehicle for Mercedes-Benz, it uses the GLE’s underpinnings — which was previously known as the ML-Class.
Under its bonnet is a 3.0-litre turbocharged six-cylinder diesel engine that produces 190kW of power and 620Nm of torque. It’s mated to a nine-speed automatic gearbox with torque converter. Mercedes-Benz claims that it uses 7.2L/100km on the combined cycle and that it dashes from 0-100km/h in 7.0-seconds, making it the slowest car here — despite being the most powerful.
Standard features include: Adaptive LED headlights, 21-inch alloy wheels, auto dimming rear vision mirror, dual-zone automatic climate control, 14 speaker stereo with Bluetooth audio connectivity and inbuilt hard disk, keyless entry and start, heated driver and front passenger seat, air suspension, electric driver and front passenger seat, satellite navigation and adaptive cruise control.
In terms of safety features, the Mercedes-Benz takes the win with high-speed autonomous emergency braking, seven airbags (including knee airbag), rear collision alert, lane departure warning and passive steering.
It’s interesting to note how heavy these three vehicles are. The A7 comes in second-heaviest at 2040kg, the BMW was the lightest at 2002kg, while the Mercedes-Benz came in at a whopping 2337kg, almost 300kg heavier than the Audi.
All three vehicles have a number of options that can be chosen in addition to the standard specification. Some of the notable ones include Bang and Olufsen sound systems (they vary in price from $12,000 in the Audi to $9500 in the Mercedes-Benz). The BMW and Mercedes-Benz can also be optioned with rear seat entertainment systems.
As you would expect, it’s what’s inside that counts. All three vehicles offer a premium experience but deliver it in very different ways.
Given the age of the A7 — it has been on the market for around six years — it feels the most dated from inside the cabin. While it does feel dated, the functionality is still modern, as is the level of style and sophistication.
Elegant inlays and excellent fit and finish complement the wrap-around dashboard styling. The soft surfaces on the doors and centre console work well in terms of a relaxing driving position. It’s always important to have finishes that allow arms to be rested during highway driving or slow city commutes.
The older Audi MMI system with an 8-inch colour screen is easy to use but is certainly starting to show its age. The convoluted process of entering a navigation address takes a while, but is complemented by a touchpad that can be used to manually write letters in with your finger.
It caters for left-handers given its central position in the cabin, so it’s probably best left to the passenger to enter information.
The steering wheel is an excellent size with all controls in logical locations. There is also a voice recognition system, which works well but isn't anywhere near as accurate as the one in the BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
The standard 14-speaker stereo is fantastic and is on par with the Mercedes-Benz for sound clarity. It offers plenty of bass and extremely crisp high frequencies. It can be upgraded to a Bang and Olufsen system for $12,000, but the standard sound system does the job perfectly, so you’re better off saving your money.
From the driver’s seat, everything feels within reach and easy to access. The standard four-zone climate control also means you can leave temperature control up to your passengers.
Leg and headroom in the front is great. The A7’s swooping roofline doesn’t intrude into the cabin and allows the front seat passenger to stretch out with ease. The seats are comfortable, but don’t offer the hugging comfort of the GLE Coupe.
Rear seat leg and headroom in the A7 is a little cramped in comparison, as getting in and out of the back seat can be tricky due to the narrow opening of the rear doors (but more on this later). There’s also a sizeable intrusion from the driveline that runs down the centre of the car with a trademark floor hump.
Cargo volume is 535 litres with the second row up and 1390 litres with the second row folded. The spare tyre is a space saver and sits beneath the boot floor. Should you wish to tow with the A7, the towing capacity is rated at 2100kg with a braked trailer and 750kg with an unbraked trailer.
As you enter the BMW X6 cabin, it doesn’t take long for it to feel very familiar. While it received an update last year, the X6’s interior looks and feels unchanged since it was launched. The acres of black material can still make it feel cold and uninviting.
The X6 now comes with an LCD display for the speedometer and tachometer cluster, which is a nice touch, though the standard steering wheel feels a bit big in comparison to the GLE Coupe’s small AMG wheel.
Like the Audi, all controls in the X6 are within reach and easy to use. The voice recognition system allows you to read out phone contacts and even enter full navigation addresses in one phrase. It’s very accurate and simple to use.
In general, the BMW iDrive system is leaps and bounds ahead of Audi’s ancient MMI system and Mercedes-Benz’s sometimes-clunky COMAND system. The screen is high resolution and the maps suit the wide 10.2-inch screen.
The sound system is good, but doesn’t offer the clarity of the Audi system. As mentioned before, buyers can option a Bang and Olufsen sound system for just under $12,000, but a better option is the 16-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system for just $1500. It provides all the kick without the brand name price tag.
Stepping into the X6’s cabin feels natural. When seated, visibility is great as is leg and headroom in the front row. Rear seat passengers are also afforded ample leg and headroom.
Cargo volume is an impressive 580 litres with the second row seats up and 1525 litres with the second row stowed. The 40:20:40 split-folding seats are also a handy addition. The spare wheel is also, like the others, a space saver tyre. Towing capacity is rated at 2700kg with a braked trailer and 750kg without a braked trailer.
As the newest car here, it’s disappointing to see that the GLE Coupe uses the previous generation Mercedes-Benz interior. It doesn’t get the C-Class and S-Class interior, instead using an older version of the brand’s climate and infotainment controls.
That means a cluster of buttons spread across the central cluster mixed in with the iDrive-esque controller in the centre of the cabin.
These things aside, the driver’s seat in the GLE is very comfortable and feels the sportiest of the bunch. The chubby sports steering wheel fills the hand nicely, while the seats hug you in tightly.
The infotainment system is quirky and can be difficult to use at times, with the 8.0-inch colour COMAND system feeling like it requires several more steps than it should to perform tasks. On the upside, the voice recognition system is fantastic and is very accurate. It’s able to accept telephone and navigation commands in one phrase, like the X6, and makes the destination entry process very easy.
If you like listening to music, you’ll love the standard 14-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system. It offers an 830W power output and Logic7 — the company’s trademark digital surround sound processor.
While you could option the Bang and Olufsen sound system, the standard unit offers plenty of punch and crystal clear high frequencies. It also supports the full gamut of audio streaming from USB to Bluetooth.
Despite feeling quite dated, the cabin feels well-built with premium materials used throughout. It also feels quite hard-wearing, meaning you could load kids into the car and not stress too much about them damaging the interior. Leg and headroom in the first row of the GLE is great. The seating position really makes you feel like you’re in an SUV, but it’s not difficult to climb into and out.
Of the three cars here, the rear leg and headroom feels the best in the GLE Coupe. Like the X6, the glasshouse is minimised due to the swooping roofline, which could affect kids, but remains fine for adults. The rear seats are comfortable, but feel quite flat.
The GLE Coupe offers the biggest cargo area with 650 litres available with the third row up. Fold that down and space increases to 1650 litres. The spare tyre is yet another space saver, which sits under the boot floor.
When it comes to interiors, the Mercedes-Benz is best equipped, but feels dated despite being the newest model here. It offers the most cargo space and arguably feels the most premium and durable.
In order to really test these three vehicles across a gamut of conditions, we drove them in the urban sprawl, and then out to the country for some more rigorous testing.
Our urban and suburban tests involved a short 15km road loop that canvassed speed humps, uneven surfaces and cobblestones. It also gave us a chance to test rear seat legroom and comfort.
Important for the urban test is throttle response from standstill, a quiet ride, great visibility and easy parking.
First to set off was the A7. One of the first things we noticed was the weight of the steering. It wasn’t overly light, but it equally wasn’t too heavy. The throttle responded promptly to inputs but had a hint of traditional diesel lag off the line.
It was the easiest of the three to place on the road with excellent visibility out the front, rear and sides. This is particularly important in the urban sprawl with kids running around and wheel destroying kerbs.
Over cobblestones the A7 impressed with compliant bump absorption. It did show a tendency to float over the cobblestones as speeds increased, but it wasn't anything major.
As we travelled across bumpy portions of suburban road and speed humps, the A7 had a very stately feel to it. The dampers absorbed bumps nicely and allowed the suspension to extend far enough to limit the knocks you sometimes experience in cars that are too softly sprung.
The drivetrain is incredibly quiet, with the diesel not exhibiting the diesel clatter that can ruin the drive experience in a premium vehicle.
When it came to parking, the A7 was let down by low quality reverse-view cameras. The cameras were of very low resolution and weren’t clear enough during night driving. The A7 also misses out on a semi-automatic parking feature, which is fitted standard on both the X6 and GLE Coupe.
Comfort from the A7's rear seat was great, but felt a little cramped. Entry and egress was compromised by narrow door openings and deep sills, which needed to be stepped over to get out of the car.
We swapped over to the X6 and were immediately confused by the steering. The electrically assisted steering rack is incredibly light and makes the X6 feel like a small city car instead of a big sporty SUV. It’s so light that it feels unnatural.
Steering weight aside, the X6 feels confident on the road and offers good visibility out the front and sides. Rearward visibility is compromised by the closing roofline that joins to a small window at the rear.
Over cobblestones, the X6’s huge footprint means the suspension needs to work overtime to smooth out the ride. It does so very well, despite the fact it doesn't feature adaptive suspension as standard fitment.
Parking the X6 is made easy thanks to sizeable wing mirrors, a clear reversing camera and a semi-automatic parking feature (which was an option fitted to the test vehicle). The X6 parking system is a little different to most other cars on the market.
Instead of just pressing a button and letting the car do all the work; you need to actually hold a button for the entire duration of the park. You also can’t touch any of the pedals, which is quite unnerving if it’s a tight parking space.
It’s a bit clumsy to activate as well, as you need to select reverse, select the parking button using iDrive and then hold the parking button. In its defence, it’s one of the only cars on the market that will reverse and automatically select drive to complete the park.
Getting in and out of the rear of the X6 is easy and legroom is quite good (as is toe room). Headroom is also good, but taller passengers may find their heads brushing the swooping roofline. Visibility could be slightly compromised for smaller kids due to the high beltline and narrow glasshouse, but it wasn’t too bad for adults.
The final car to run through the suburban loop was the GLE Coupe. Fitted as standard is air suspension, which is a godsend for the big SUV. The steering has the most natural feel of the three cars and feels ‘sporty’ to steer through the suburban setting.
The huge 21-inch wheels make the ride a little jittery at times, but the air suspension and damper combination helps smooth things out. Over cobblestones the added tread contact patch means you feel a lot of it through the cabin and the wheel.
Sitting in the driver’s pew feels the sportiest of the three with a sports steering wheel and hugging seats. It feels much more like an AMG-equipped sports car than it does a touring SUV.
Over continuous bumps and speed humps the initial impact is soft and it levels out nicely, but it does tend to take some time to settle, which is a trade off of the softly sprung ride and big wheels.
Parking is taken care of using the semi-automatic parking feature. Of the three, the reverse-view camera in the GLE Coupe is easily the best. It offers clear visibility during the day and high quality vision at night.
Semi-automatic parking is activated quite easily using the COMAND display in the driver’s binnacle. It’s constantly scanning the road for parking spaces and brings up a ‘P’ when it finds a park big enough for the car. It’s then as simple as engaging reverse and selecting ‘OK’ to activate the parking feature.
On the topic of engaging reverse, I’m a huge fan of the stalk used to switch between Park, Reverse and Drive. It’s easy to use and it also clears the centre of the cabin for storage holes. It seems a perfectly logical placement for the gear lever.
Arguably the most surprising element of this test was performance testing. Buyers of these vehicles expect them to be dynamically sound, given both the price tags and the performance variants on offer further up the tree.
Audi says the A7 has "superb performance dynamics", BMW says that the X6 is "powerful and athletic", while Mercedes-Benz describes the GLE Coupe as "uniquely agile and exceptionally impressive". Given the marketing hype, we went into this test expecting big things.
On the day of testing, ambient temperature was around 34 degrees Celcius. We used a VBox PerformanceBoxGPS speed measurement device to obtain acceleration times from standstill to 100km/h and braking distances from 100km/h to stop. Acceleration testing was done three times back-to-back with the best time selected, and this test was repeated likewise for braking.
The A7 effectively matched the manufacturer claim for its acceleration time, consistently clocking 6.9 seconds 0-100km/h. The manufacturer claim is 6.8 seconds.
It also performed best when it came to braking, twice stopping from 100km/h in 37.3m and then 38.8m on the third and final attempt. The purpose of three sequential stops from 100km/h was to test the effectiveness of the pads and rotors and to simulate the type of heat generation that one would expect when travelling down a mountain, for example. In the real world, it's unlikely that anybody would stop three times consecutively from 100km/h, but it's a good indication of the vehicle's braking capability.
As the braking system heats up, the brakes become less effective. In this instance, the third and final stop showed a braking distance increase of around 4 per cent for the Audi.
The X6 was the fastest of the three cars and actually eclipsed the manufacturer acceleration claims. It sprinted from 0-100km/h in just 6.3 seconds (compared to a manufacturer claim of 6.7 seconds). On the braking front, it pulled up from 100km/h to zero in 38.1m on the first attempt. After two more attempts, the braking distance blew out to 41m, showing an increase of around 8 per cent.
The GLE Coupe was equipped with the most competent braking package of all cars tested, featuring cross-drilled rotors. But it was also both the slowest car here and was affected the most by brake fade.
It moved from standstill to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds (compared to a manufacturer claim of 7.0 seconds) and took 39.3m to stop from 100km/h. While its initial stopping distance was good, it skyrocketed to 49.5m by the third stop with the pedal feeling spongy and succumbing to the effects of brake fade. That represents a stopping distance increase of around 26 per cent.
The GLE Coupe's braking performance seemed a little out of kilter, so we asked to retest another vehicle. The second vehicle we tested was the same specification, but offered slightly different results.
During the second round of testing with the GLE Coupe, we had an ambient temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius.
The 0-100km/h times were very similar, with the best recorded measure of 7.7 seconds (still down on the manufacturer claim of 7.0 seconds). Our first stop from 100km/h to zero took 42.3m and then increased to 46.9m by the third stop. This represented an increase of around 11 per cent. Curiously, after some further testing and more heat in the rotors, braking performance actually improved with a best recorded stopping distance of 38.2m from 100km/h.
Our test circuit then went on to include elements of country driving; including gravel roads, and some all-wheel drive tests.
The A7 proved to be the most nimble on all fronts. It soaked up poor quality country roads with little fuss while providing effective feedback through the steering wheel. The on-demand torque delivery was excellent with the full 500Nm available from just 1250rpm.
On the move, the gearbox offered quick gearshifts and minimal fuss during transitions between gears in both the up and down directions. The Sport mode produced the best driving experience with predictive gearshifts and optimal throttle response.
The gravel portion of our test exposed a weakness of the A7. The lack of ride height in comparison to the X6 and GLE Coupe meant that it would suffer from the effect of potholes more so than the other two.
Given all three vehicles offer constant all-wheel drive, we were keen to see how the systems handled a progressive throttle application on a tight bend. The A7 performed best again offering impressive body control and a seamless torque distribution. It actually allowed the driver to push quite hard on the throttle without suffering the effects of understeer.
The next cab off the rank was the X6. Its engine left us quite impressed with strong torque delivery from 1500rpm (560Nm) and a gearbox that was precise and fast, despite not being dual-clutch.
Entering the Sport mode adjusts steering feel and sharpens throttle response. The ride on our country road stretch was quite firm in both Comfort and Sport modes, but it didn’t intrude too much in terms of the drive experience.
Unfortunately, the steering was the most disappointing part of the package. It was far, far too light in Comfort mode and then felt disproportionate in Sport mode. It didn’t feel anywhere near as communicative as a BMW should, which was disappointing.
On gravel, the X6 really shone. It glided over ruts and felt supremely confident, especially when powering out of corners at speed, mostly thanks to its huge tyre contact area. It actually felt livelier in this setting than it did on the road.
It was fun to punt through tight corners but was really let down by the steering. During cornering on our sweeping bend, it showed a tendency to send torque to the rear axle, which made the drive quite lively and fun.
The GLE Coupe was the least impressive of the three. The comparatively heavy kerb weight of almost 2400kg meant that it felt much slower on tap than the other two.
Despite featuring 620Nm of torque, it didn’t feel as spritely as the A7 or X6. The nine-speed automatic felt like overkill at times, with the car needing to kick down for prompt acceleration requests.
It was the firmest vehicle when it came to country roads and our gravel tests. The sizeable 21-inch wheels with 40 and 45 profile front/rear tyres overcame the subtleness of the air suspension in terms of ride comfort. It was too firm for the country setting and bucked about on gravel.
Its saving grace was the steering, which felt the best of the three, offering high levels of communication and feedback.
The huge 275mm front and 310mm wide rear tyres caused the car to skip about under throttle on a tightening bend. The huge tyre contact patch would transition between offering plenty of grip to then skipping and pushing to understeer. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural.
For reference, the 275mm front and 315mm wide rear (20-inch 40/35 front/rear profile tyres) of the X6 didn’t cause this phenomenon.
The result of our on-road testing found that the A7 really excelled in the city, country and handling tests. This was closely followed by the X6, with the GLE Coupe a distant third.
There is a misconception that owning a prestige car like one of these will cost you an arm and a leg. That’s not quite the case, with all three manufacturers offering a form of agreed service pricing up front.
In terms of warranty, all three vehicles feature a three-year warranty with unlimited kilometres.
Audi offers a capped-price servicing program for the first three years or 45,000km, which costs $1930 over three years. Conveniently, service intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km.
The X6 also comes with a capped price program that covers 12 monthly service intervals for the first five years (or 80,000km) at $1540 (for five years), making it the most affordable of the three to service.
The GLE350d offers the first three 12 monthly services at a capped cost. The first service costs $616, the second at $1232 and the third for $1232.
One thing you may not consider when purchasing a car is the cost of replacement tyres. Both the X6 and GLE Coupe use big tyres, which generally means big cost when it comes to replacement. To give you an indication, we priced tyres for the A7, X6 and GLE Coupe.
The A7 was the most affordable, coming in at $544 per tyre for a set of Continental ContiSportContact treads measuring 255/40 R19 all round.
The X6 was a huge step up, thanks to the run flat tyres. We priced a set of Continental ContiSportContact 5 SSR run-flat tyres. The front set measure 275/40 R20 and cost $572 each, while the rear treads come in at $675 each, measuring 315/35 R20.
The GLE Coupe was the most expensive, coming in at $646 for the 275/45 R21 front tyres and $867 for the 315/40 R21 rear tyres. These were Pirelli PZero tyres.
Third place went to the Mercedes-Benz GLE350d Coupe, which was let down by bloated agility and unimpressive brake feel and performance. The chassis didn’t help either, feeling a generation old, despite being a new model.
It doesn’t feel almost $7000 more premium than the A7 and can’t match the Audi for dynamic performance or ride comfort. But, to its advantage it is quite well equipped.
Then it was the BMW X6 xDrive 30d. It’s a good car from an all-round point of view, but it’s let down by an interior that feels dated and dynamic performance that sits just below the A7.
The steering could also do with a rework — it’s far too light and offers little communication with the road. BMW is known for its dynamic agility, but it simply doesn’t show with the X6.
That leaves us with the A7. It’s a really surprising package that manages to tick all the boxes.
While it doesn’t offer the ride height or ‘SUV’ presence of the GLE Coupe and X6, it compensates for that with an excellent ride, spritely performance and impressive dynamic ability.
It carves a sharp line on the road and is well equipped for the asking price. It’s also the most efficient and performed very well during our set of performance tests.
It goes to show that despite being one of the oldest cars here, it still has what it takes to offer buyers in this segment a unique offering.
Click on the Photos tab for the full image gallery by Tom Fraser.