April 22, 2013
It's a topic of debate -- some would argue the Range Rover kicked off the prestige SUV craze 40 years ago.
Others say SUVs aren't serious off-roaders and the modern category was established by ze Germans. It is the latter crowd that -- regardless of the origins of the species -- have come to dominate this prestige SUV segment.
Be it an upper-crust shopping centre carpark or the leafy confines of a private school's grounds, you are guaranteed of spotting three particular vehicles -- the BMW X5, Audi's Q7 and examples of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
The brand that has built its image on sheer driving pleasure and derivations therein has the X5 on its books, the benchmark in the class for on-road dynamics and some epic powerplants.
The X5 sits behind only the 3 Series as BMW's top seller and is the best of its SUVs, fitted with six and eight cylinder petrol engines and six-cylinder turbo diesels.
For those not concerned with fuel economy, the petrol V8s provide much in the way of propulsion and aural amusement but the oilers are the gems. The X5 has badge cred, car-like dynamics and family wagon versatility -- even a third-row option but space isn't abundant.
Audi's Q7 has been outshone to some extent by the introduction of the smaller Q5, but the big Ingolstadt wagon has space aplenty. Among its petrol and turbo diesel engines, the 3.0-litre V6 oiler is the value pick. Not as nimble or car-like as the BMW, the Audi has a more useable third row of seats but lacks low-range.
The M-Class is best off the beaten track, with an optional off-road package for the more serious adventurer. It has V6 petrol and turbo diesel, and V8 options including the super-quick ML63. As with the Audi, the V6 diesel is the best all-rounder.
Last year the sales of large SUVs over $70,000 topped 17,000 , up 11 per cent. This year the segment is up more than 30 per cent with all three brands' SUVs selling strongly.
Getting into one of these late-model beasts is relatively not expensive. Thanks to finance defaults, leased vehicles moving on and even trophy wives wanting something new, the "pre-owned'' market has no shortage of them, some with new car warranty remaining.
As with all used cars, signs of poorly repaired accident damage (inconsistent welds, paint and panel fit) as well as signs of water intrusion (given recent flood events and submerged new car stocks) can point to rusty consequences.
Diesel powerplants are generally more frugal when towing or on the open road but the fuel economy is offset by higher purchase price, service costs and the price of diesel. Do the numbers based on your driving habits (using urban and extra-urban fuel economy figures, not the combined-cycle number) and pick the appropriate machine.
If you are hauling polo ponies, dressage nags, a boat or a van, check the towing capacity details, as some 4WDs make big boasts but fall over in real-world applications.
2006 BMW X5 4.4
Engine: 4.4-litre V8 petrol
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
The slogan "there's nothing quite like a V8'' applies here -- while the X5 has worthy diesels, the 4.4-litre V8 on offer in the big Beemer has appeal and when used sensibly won't drink ridiculous amounts of pulp. Leather trim, the full gamut of electronic safety gear and a clever all-wheel drivetrain make the big wagon more nimble than many passenger wagons and more than a few sedans.
2008 AUDI Q7 3.0 TDI
Engine: 3.0-litre V6 Turbo Diesel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
The V6 turbo diesel, one of the brand's better engines, deals well with the Audi's mass. Not as nimble as an X5 but far from a truck, the Q7 has a long features and safety equipment list plus leather trim. Tips the scales over two tonnes but can drag 3.5 tonnes when asked. There are bigger diesel and petrol engines but the 3.0-litre is a good all-rounder.
2009 MERCEDES-BENZ ML 350 CDI WAGON
Engine: 3-litre V6 turbo diesel
Transmission: 7-speed automatic
US-built -- as is the X5, which pipped the Benz by 49 sales last year -- the ML progressed significantly from the original M-Class, maintaining a greater off-road ability while closing the gap to the X5 in on-road dynamics. The badge holds plenty of cachet. There is an off-road pack with diff locks, low range, height-adjustable suspension and under-body protection.