Prospective buyers of big luxury SUVs are spoiled for choice, and here are three of the best.
The BMW X5 is an enduring top seller and almost certainly the storied Bavarian brand’s most important model, offering an unmistakable look with dynamic handling.
The new Mercedes-Benz GLE is freshly arrived to challenge it, and in its eye-catching new incarnation has style to burn, plus an optional seven-seat set-up to impress more families.
Perhaps the most surprising entrant here is the new Volkswagen Touareg, which shares technologies from VW subsidiaries Audi and Porsche to offer a premium experience with a less-than-glamorous badge. But does the substance stack up?
Pricing and features
We’ve been a smidgen unfair on the X5 here, since the real contender is the just-arriving base X5 25d. But we asked for it and could only get our hands on the 30d, which is the volume-seller anyhow.
So it’s the most expensive car here at the base list price, $112,990. This compares to the Mercedes-Benz GLE 300d at $99,900 and the Touareg Launch Edition at $89,990, making the Wolfsburg entrant something of a 'bargain'.
We won’t go over all the specs here, since it would take the whole day. But common features include leather (or believable fake stuff on the Benz), head-up display, big centre screens with live sat-nav, adaptive dampers, an overhead camera, and the requisite driver-assist functions such as AEB, lane-keeping aid, blind-spot monitoring, and active cruise control.
Of course, being luxury cars, our loaner vehicles were all optioned up.
The BMW had $18,100 worth of extras such as a delightful leather instrument panel ($2700), the performance-y M Sport package ($4000), 22-inch wheels ($3900), four-zone climate control ($900), BMW’s Laserlight active headlights ($2400), a ramped-up 16-speaker Harman Kardon audio system ($1400), and a wireless phone charger (a steep $900!).
And we hadn’t even cleaned out the options list, with a heap more there to choose from, including some expensive features that are remarkably standard on the far cheaper Touareg, such as air suspension and massaging seats.
The Mercedes had an even greater $26,300 worth of options, including Airmatic air suspension ($3400), the seven-seat package ($3900), the towbar package ($1900), luxury seat package with massaging and climate functions ($3700), and a 13-speaker 590-watt audio system ($1400).
It also came with the AMG Sport package ($9900) that adds sporty AMG design bits such as the bold ‘diamond’ grille and painted flared guards, privacy glass, genuine leather interior, 21-inch wheels, memory seats, a panoramic sunroof, and a wireless phone charger (what is it with luxury brands charging extra for that?).
The Touareg’s sole option here is the Innovision package ($8000), which adds a 12.3-inch Active Info Display instrument readout, a head-up display, adjustable ambient cabin lighting, scuff plates, and a centrepiece 15.0-inch centre screen that looks unbelievable – second-in-market to Tesla, I’d say. Plus $2000 paint.
So, for a list price of under $100,000, you’re getting a luxury SUV with scarcely less equipment than German rivals rocking 30 per cent higher price tags once options are added. It’s a pretty well-specified package.
The Touareg’s cabin in no way feels outclassed in this company either, though the branding clearly carries a little less cachet. Its brushed-aluminium trims, touchpoints, dashtop stitching, knurled dials, deep carpet and ambient lighting are all premium.
Only the occasional piece of Golf-like plastic on the transmission tunnel and fairly uninspiring steering wheel design detract.
The fact you have multi-mode-massaging leather seats with memory presets, an electric steering column, plus two-piece sun visors, means it never takes much time to get yourself settled in for a long drive, which is precisely the point of cars like this.
Dominating our test car’s cabin was a 15.0-inch centre touchscreen facing the driver, which (almost, but not quite) blends with the nearly-as-big digital Active Info Display instruments, topped off by a projecting head-up display (HUD) on the windscreen showing you even more information.
The spectacular centre screen is operated by touch or, in limited cases, gestures. The screen also hides certain menus until your finger gets within a few millimetres of it. To ease the user experience, there is a permanent home ‘button’ that takes you to your main menu, as well as permanently displayed shortcuts to control ventilation and the seat settings.
My favourite way to drive was to have a minimalist digital instrument display, navigation instructions on the HUD, and my Apple CarPlay phone mirroring on the centre display. But you might prefer to show your sat-nav in the instruments and music on the centre screen. There’s a wide breadth of options.
The transmission tunnel comprises a lovely gearstick that seems pilfered from Audi, a rolling dial for volume controls, a felt-lined console, and two rotary dials: one controlling the air suspension heights (low for loading, or higher for off-roading) and chassis/steering/drivetrain modes.
The back seats come with air vents in the B-pillars and behind the centre console, separate rear temperature controls, pull-up sun shades, LED reading lights, a pair of USBs, a flipping centre armrest with cupholders, and 40:20:40 seats that slide and recline. There’s also room for two 2.0m-tall adults back there. There is, however, no seven-seat option.
The electric-opening tailgate reveals a sizeable boot with buttons to lower the rear air suspension, plus levers to flip the back seats down. There’s also a nice retractable cargo cover and various hooks and lights. However, there’s no full-size spare wheel option. Check out the pics for boot comparisons.
To the BMW. Let’s get one thing straight: the cream leather, brown carpeting and dash leather, and wood grain, are not my style. But you can choose something far more modern if you like, maybe cold steel with black-on-black carpet and trims?
No matter. It’s beautifully finished and sports a driver-facing 12.3-inch display with crisp 1920x1080 resolution running BMW’s 7.0 operating system, and offers to the driver a gorgeous steering wheel ahead of a fully digital instrument cluster augmented by a HUD.
As I’ve said before, the integration of the technology worked really well for the most part, with the resolution and customisation of the screens both outstanding, and the iDrive system as slick as ever. However, the voice-controlled personal assistant is not as intuitive as the MBUX alternative, which seamlessly controls almost all non-driving-related auto functions.
More than once, the BMW system failed to call the person I’d instructed it to, and failed to enter the suitable navigation endpoint. I tried a few accents, too. Good old Siri on my iPhone ran rings around it, though BMW is promising regular updates to the system as it matures.
One nifty piece of tech expanding on this theme, which is rolling out region by region, is a new digital key that employs Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to allow the vehicle to be locked and unlocked from your Android smartphone. All the driver has to do to open the vehicle is put their phone to the door handle. Once inside, the engine can be started as soon as the phone has been placed in the wireless charging tray.
The back seats are largely excellent in terms of space for two adults or three kids, and you get standard USB-C points and mounting points for an iPad holder. You can also order a third seating row for $3700, though if you want to regularly carry seven occupants, BMW will attempt to woo you into the bigger, more garish X7.
The tailgate can be opened by a kicking motion under the bumper, or conventional button. And unlike some rivals, this hands-free system seems free of bugs. There’s also a neat centre ski port.
As ever, the rear tailgate splits into two sections, with each segment electronically actuated for the first time. The lower portion can either stay in place to hold in your paraphernalia, or come down and act as a makeshift bench. The pull-out cargo cover is also a work of genius, with the fixed beam simply sliding into place and clipping in.
To the Mercedes, which has an interior design that looks two generations ahead of the old model’s layout, and which is one of the coolest cabins on any car going around at the moment, all big screens and the juxtaposition of old materials and new tech. With bling.
Those side-by-side 12.3-inch screens run Daimler’s feted MBUX operating system controlled by inputs to the trackpad along the transmission tunnel, by touchscreen, steering wheel trackpad, or voice recognition.
Using the latter you can ask the car to call someone, or take you to a destination, or change the radio station. But you can also use voice instructions to close the sunroof cover, turn on the seat heating, or change the cabin temperature. Most functions that aren’t related to actual driving (vehicle modes, cruise-control speed and such) are voice-changeable.
From the driver's seat, you see a digital instrument cluster that can display all manner of functions including maps, controlled by the touchpad on the right-side spoke of the wheel. Above this sits the HUD showing your speed, the speed limit, and navigation instructions.
The centre screen has a simpler interface than before, comprising horizontally scrolling icons taking you to submenus for media, navigation, vehicle data et cetera. The graphics are ultra-slick.
The textures and materials are nice, too. Our tester had open-pore oak wood trim along the dash and doors, though lighter walnut or modern brushed aluminium are available at no cost. The car also comes with changeable ambient cabin lights with 64 optional colours.
The back seats are notably more spacious than before, and rear occupants get a USB-C point and vents. The second row is class-leading. The electric tailgate reveals a boot that is actually 60L smaller than before.
As mentioned, our test car came with the '7 Seat' package, which adds a pair of seats in the third row covered by the curtain airbags, to be folded into the boot floor when not in use. This option pack also adds electric seat adjustment for the middle seat row controlled by the same style of door-mounted switches as found up front.
The third-row seats are apparently designed to accommodate people up to 1.8m tall; however, as we've come to expect from this class, they are more suited to kids or diminutive adults. We’d suggest waiting for the new GLS if you want more.
Three cars, three brilliant interiors. The Touareg has the best screen, the BMW the best ergonomics, and the Mercedes all of the bling and killer voice control. The real takeaway for me is how at home that VW feels in such company…
The GLE 300d uses a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine making 180kW of peak power and 500Nm of torque at 1600–2400rpm, and is matched to a permanent 50:50 AWD system and nine-speed automatic transmission controlled by a column shifter where a right-side indicator stalk would live. Mercedes-Benz claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.9L/100km.
While a 2.0-litre engine seems small for a car weighing nearly 2.2 tonnes, the GLE 300d’s 0–100km/h sprint time of 7.2 seconds (1.4s faster than the old GLE 250d base car) is sprightly enough, and you’ll rarely get the gearbox to use its top gear. One thing it does very well is refinement – it’s super quiet and free of rattling.
If you buy the $1900 Towbar Package, you also get an uprated 3.5-tonne braked towing capacity on this engine.
For background, the $18,000-pricier GLE 400d’s diesel option is a 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder making 243kW and 700Nm, slashing the 0–100km/h time to 5.8 seconds while worsening fuel economy by 10 per cent over the 300d.
About the only part of this new Touareg familiar from the old one is the drivetrain. In fact, at its core the driveline found in the Amarok V6 workhorse ute. The 3.0-litre turbo diesel makes 190kW of peak power at 4000rpm and 600Nm of max torque from 2250rpm. It’s only Euro 5 certified, and is fitted with a DPF. It’s matched to an eight-speed ZF torque-converter automatic.
It punts the big Touareg to 100km/h from standstill in a rapid 6.5 seconds, and manages a claimed combined-cycle fuel figure of 7.4L/100km. On our long stint at the wheel outside of urban surrounds, I averaged 7.2L/100km (the extra-urban claim is 6.7L/100km).
There are other engines overseas, such as 170kW and 210kW diesels, a 250kW V6 petrol and a thumping Euro6d-TEMP 4.0-litre turbo-diesel V8, which has been tuned to deliver 310kW of power and 900Nm of torque. They're on the radar, but for now it’s just the engine you see here.
Volkswagen has done a good job keeping engine, noise and vibrations out of the cabin. It’s a surprisingly refined engine, and the gearbox is typically smooth. The Touareg’s claim is a 3.5-tonne braked-trailer towing capacity, though in reality its tow ball load limit is 280kg (with two occupants), making the realistic ceiling 2.8t.
The 4Motion full-time all-wheel-drive system can shuffle torque between the axles on demand, but is always at least partially running both. While you go without conventional low-range, you get some clever snow and mud/rock modes that fettle the throttle, gearbox and stability-control systems to suit lower-traction surfaces.
The BMW also uses a 3.0-litre turbo-diesel six, but this time in inline (longitudinal) configuration, making 195kW of peak power and a meaty 620Nm of torque from 2000rpm. That’s up 5kW and a whopping 60Nm over the outgoing equivalent.
It’ll send the 2.2-tonne porker from 0–100km/h in 6.5 seconds like the VW, and consume as little as 7.2L/100km of fuel. The sole gearbox is a reworked version of the familiar eight-speed Steptronic auto with a wider ratio spread, new torsion dampers, and different control electronics.
The thing that grabs you is how quiet the engine is. There’s a heap of firewall insulation, meaning that even under heavy throttle it’s no louder or rattlier than a petrol engine. The only ‘tell’ that it’s a diesel is the reduced redline on the tacho. It’ll also tow 3.5 tonnes.
The ZF-made eight-speed automatic transmission never puts a foot wrong, and is matched with a permanent rear-biased all-wheel-drive system that BMW calls xDrive, capable of a fully variable torque split between the axles, hill-descent control, and individual-wheel engine torque vectoring.
It can also drive as a two-wheel drive if you’re just coasting along to save fuel. You can also get an electronically actuated rear diff lock.
To sum the engines up in a paragraph, the Mercedes’s base engine has the least inspiring performance but is at least refined, and you can get something more potent. The Volkswagen’s unit belies its age and is actually extremely muscular, but the BMW’s is slightly better, mostly on account of its brilliant gearbox tune and marginally superior refinement.
Ride and handling
The Volkswagen’s new platform has cut around 120kg, getting the mass down to around the two-tonne mark. The suspension is a pretty standard five-link MacPherson strut up front and five-link at the rear, and the disc brakes (six-piston front, single rear) have rotors of 350mm and 330mm respectively.
It also gets standard adjustable (oxygen-filled) air suspension that can raise the height of the vehicle at low speeds. This system is linked in with the adaptive dampers that become firmer or softer at the twist of a rotary dial, the latter improving ride comfort and the former handling.
Despite running on 20-inch wheels (shod with 285/45 tyres), the ride comfort is outstandingly good, isolating cabin occupants from all but the worst ruts and potholes. At the same time, the body control/handling in corners is above average. The electromechanical steering loads up at higher speeds.
For an off-road-capable 4x4 (clearance is 215mm, wading depth 500mm, and the maximum climbing gradient is 60 degrees), it’s actually really good to drive in anger on sealed roads.
It’s a good thing our GLE had air suspension fitted, which greatly enhances the ride comfort over its steel-sprung compadres, especially given ours had 21-inch wheels.
You can also shell out a whopping $13,000 for ‘E-Active Body Control’ from the S-Class limo, which uses cameras to scan the road and change suspension settings preemptively, and the outside damper settings to ‘lean into’ corners. You’d be mad...
What did impress us, though, was the quietude onboard. Mercedes has made a lot of effort to reduce in-cabin noise from tyres or from wind rushing over the A-pillars and mirrors, and it shows.
Overall, the 300d’s cornering stance, obedience to driver inputs, and sorted body control and grip deserved ticks, though it feels happier around town than carving corners like the Bimmer, or potentially off-road like the VW.
The BMW’s handling is rather gravity-defying, with the X5 able to carry tremendous cornering speeds. It feels more stable, planted and comfortable on a twisting road than anything this tall and heavy ought to, and that’s without the fancy $2250-extra Integral Active (rear-wheel) Steering feature.
The ride quality degrades somewhat over really choppy roads or potholes, down largely to the stiff and slim tyre sidewalls. One option we’d consider is the two-axle air suspension, which costs between $2300 and $3900 depending on what else it’s specified with precisely. Such a system adjusts your ride height, auto levels under weight, and typically adds some smoothness to proceedings. It's standard on that pesky VW!
This can be paired with various off-road engine torque- and ESC-fettling modes, underbody protection, and high-tech displays that are covered here, but we wouldn’t bother. If you’re going luxury off-roading, just purchase a Range Rover, yeah?
From an ownership perspective, the BMW gets a three-year warranty that is starting to look dated, though Mercedes and Audi are no better. Servicing can be paid for in advance, with five-year/80,000km packages priced at $2050 for the basic offer.
Mercedes also offers a 'pay upfront' servicing plan for $2600 covering three visits done at intervals of 12 months or 25,000km. You also get warranty cover for three years.
Volkswagen Australia recently lifted its game by introducing a five-year warranty with no distance limit, and 12 months of free roadside assist. A five-year servicing plan (with 12-month/15,000km intervals) costs $2500.
The Mercedes-Benz GLE is certainly the most subjectively glamorous car here. That cabin is a work of art, and it offers all the presence and tech you could want. But it's a little under-engined and over-optioned in this incarnation.
The BMW X5 has a sublime drivetrain and a clever interior that reveals more tricks the longer you spend with it. It’s easy to see why it’s the top-seller, though be disciplined on the options boxes.
Yet controversially, at least in this particular specification level, the Touareg offers all the cabin tech and quality, engine capability, ride comfort, towing and off-road nous, and presence you could want, and for a far more reasonable price.
How much is a badge worth? Well, it’s evidently ‘worth’ the premiums that BMW and Mercedes ask for over the VW…