Vehicle Comparisons

BMW X5

BMW X5

The BMW X5 is the 4x4 that never put a foot wrong. Think about it. There's never been a weak model, much less a bad generation. This third iteration on the theme improves efficiency, practicality and responsiveness and you wouldn't expect anything less really. It's all change but business as usual.

There's some new nomenclature to get to grips with here. The big thing that you'll need to come to terms with is the concept of a front-wheel drive BMW X5. That's right, the range opens with the 231bhp BMW X5 sDrive25d, powered by a four-cylinder diesel. You can also buy this engine in a 'proper' four-wheel drive form, although I expect the front-wheel drive model's set to chalk up quite a few sales. Those looking for more in the way of grunt will want the 258bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder xDrive30d. More power and a drop in weight means this model now accelerates from 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds - seven-tenths quicker than before. The 313bhp X5 xDrive40d is where things start getting really serious and then there's the M-badged M50d with 381bhp and 740Nm, resulting in a sprint to 62mph of 5.3 seconds. Your petrol-powered options are slim but strong. The xDrive50i variant offers 449bhp, with 650Nm of torque and the ability to crack five seconds to 62mph with a favourable wind. Then there's the manic X5 M offering 575bhp from a 4.4-litre V8 and 0-62mph in just 4.2s. These are minority interest models, but we're certainly glad they're along for the ride. Perhaps most interestingly, BMW also offers the xDrive40e, a petrol-electric plug-in hybrid with 245bhp.

All versions come with an eight-speed automatic transmission which not only adds to driving enjoyment but also makes its own contribution to fuel-saving. The X5 also comes as standard with a Drive Dynamic Control switch, allowing the driver to fine-tune the balance between comfort and sportiness on and off-road. The Driving Experience Control switch adjusts accelerator response, the characteristics of the power-assisted steering, automatic transmission shifting and - depending on the choice of suspension - damping qualities and roll stabilisation. There's also a choice of four suspension packages: Adaptive Comfort suspension, Adaptive M suspension, Adaptive Dynamic suspension and Adaptive Professional suspension. The four-wheel drive system is claimed to be lighter than before and now features torque vectoring to help reduce unwanted understeer and oversteer.

You might feel a little disappointed that the styling looks so similar to the outgoing model but BMW has styled the car in a deliberately evolutionary manner, as it is fully entitled to given that the X5 is a well-recognised and loved shape. Signature exterior features are short overhangs, a long wheelbase and a short distance between the front axle and the instrument panel. The front apron has air intakes at its outer edges which emphasise the X5's wide track and broad stance, while striking underbody protection elements are a nod to its off-road chops.

The X5 once again demonstrates BMW's thorough understanding of this market sector. Now that buyers take good looks and sporty handling as a given across the board, the Germans have pushed the envelope a little further in other areas. It's not always wholly original, as the quest for Mercedes-style safety provision and Audi-style interior finishes proves, but it's hard to escape the notion that this is by some margin the most well-rounded car in its class.

Nothing gets close to matching the X5's combination of performance and economy in a car of this type. You only have to look at the X5 xDrive30d's economy of 45.6mpg and 162g/km for evidence of this. Key rivals? An equivalent Audi Q7 manages 38.7mpg and 195g/km while the Mercedes M-Class manages 39.2mpg and 189g/km. Both are slower and neither offers the driver appeal of the BMW. So despite all the changes, it looks as if the status quo will continue. Expect the X5 to be the target all the rest are tilting at.

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Volvo XC90

Volvo XC90

Less is most definitely not more when it comes to the second generation Volvo XC90. Bigger, bolder and more technologically advanced than ever, it's a long way removed from its low-key predecessor. The interior's beautifully finished and the focus is on downsized, efficient engines.

Key to understanding the dynamics of this second generation XC90 is the fact that it runs on the all-new chassis based on Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). Yes, it's Volvo's take on the infinitely customisable chassis systems like Volkswagen's MQB and will inevitably underpin a whole host of next-generation models. In this guise, it's lighter, stronger and safer than the old XC90 chassis, but despite an increase in vehicle dimensions, this XC90 downsizes its engines. You'll find no Yamaha V8s this time round, just a range of engines from the marque's green-tinted Drive-E family.

The flagship engine is the 320PS T6 petrol, which utilises both turbo and supercharging, while most British customers will inevitably walk straight past that to look instead at the 225PS D5 twin turbodiesel. Both engines drive all four wheels via the almost obligatory eight-speed automatic transmission. The other option is the T8 Twin Engine petrol/electric plug-in hybrid model, billed as 'the world's most powerful and cleanest SUV' This delivers a combined 412PS output, with a thumping 640Nm of torque. 62mph from rest is dispatchd in just 5.6s, yet this car can also gve you 26 miles of pure electric driving range when fully charged.

Whatever you think of Volvo's latest design direction, it's hard to ignore. The XC90 has a very big face. Even the 'iron mark' grille badge has been updated, while the headlamps now get T-shaped "Thor's Hammer" daytime running lights. The intricately shaped bonnet is an XC90 trope and that continues, blended into even more complex forms. The beltline and the sharpened shoulders connecting with the distinctive new rear lights are other design signatures that will be mirrored across the range. Wheels? They're big too, with alloys of up to 22 inches being offered.

The interior is even more boldly-styled, with a massive tablet-like touch screen control console helping to create an interior that is modern, spacious and uncluttered. Volvo's clearly put a lot of budget into driving up materials quality and this XC90 gets soft leather and wood with handcrafted details, including a gear lever made of crystal glass from Orrefors, the Swedish glassmaker, and diamond-cut controls for the start/stop button and volume control. This genuine seven seater features innovatively designed seats that also free up interior space for passengers in both the second and third seat rows. Even the third row can seat an adult up to 170cm tall.

Well, it's certainly different. Volvo has responded to an explosion in the big SUV market by bringing us an XC90 that's unrecognisable from the former model. It's bigger, bolder and, yes, a little brasher but with Chinese owners and a Chinese market that loves big and shiny, that was perhaps inevitable. The Cotswold set might be disappointed by the extrovert exterior but it's hard not to love the sheer audacity of the XC90's cabin, complete with its tablet-style input screen, brilliant safety systems and continuing focus on comfort.

Clearly Volvo's punt is that for every existing XC90 buyer who finds the latest car infra dig, there will be countless more attracted to the marque, and these will probably be valuable conquest sales from the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative. This XC90 is Volvo's natural progression.

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Audi Q7

Audi Q7

The Audi Q7 used to be a bit of a whale, but the latest version loses the blubber, delivers some pin-sharp engines, yet somehow manages to offer more space inside. It's a car that now works smarter rather than harder and is right back into contention.

Ever wondered why there was no S or RS version of the first generation Q7? Because it would have been like trying to turbocharge a continental plate. The thing was so big and lumbering that encouraging drivers to make it go faster would have been a recipe for disaster. The latest car doesn't go down that road either, but with all that weight excised from the chassis, it's a far nimbler thing. That tells in Audi's engine selection too. Most customers choose one of the efficient turbocharged 3.0-litre TDI units, these developing either 218 or 272PS. The alternative is an etron plug-in hybrid version that mates an electric motor with a petrol TFSI V6. Or a flagship SQ7 model that uses a 4.0-litre V8 TDI diesel.

The 3.0 TDI diesel's going to be the one getting the most play with UK buyers and it's a good 'un. Most choose the 272PS variant which has almost 600Nm of torque, which gives this Q7 enough about it to be able to mix it with the class best. In fact, 6.3 seconds to 62mph wouldn't be bad for a hot hatch. The Q7 rides on a steel springs as standard, although buyers can opt for air suspension. Another interesting option is a rear wheel steer function. At lower speeds, it counter steers the rear wheels for better manoeuvrability, while at higher speeds it steers them by up to five degrees in the same direction as the fronts to improve handling agility. All very Porsche 911 Turbo.

If you didn't have the two cars parked side by side, you'd probably never guess that the latest Q7 is so much smaller. The styling theme is evolutionary, although the car seems to sit lower on its springs, almost like a beefed up Audi super-estate than a typical SUV, an impression compounded by the aggressively raked windscreen. The chassis on which the Q7 sits will also form the basis for forthcoming Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg variants, with proposed Lamborghini and Bentley SUVs also using a version. An increased reliance on aluminium has shed weight, with 100kg coming out of the suspension, 71kg out of the body and a massive 24kg from the doors alone.

Audi worked and worked on the old Q7, but all the polish in the world couldn't bring it up to the pace of the class best. Something radical was needed and something radical just happened. Significantly smaller, lighter and more agile but, thanks to smarter packaging, bigger in the passenger cell, the latest Q7 offers efficiency measures that are night and day compared to its Panzer-like predecessor. Even the shape subtly morphs into something more estate car-like.

It'll be interesting to see whether the Q7's blend of talents can convince a market where many buyers choose according to predetermined brand loyalty. Can it bring customers back to a model that was never a front-runner? We wouldn't bet against it. The Audi Q7 has turned from a blunt implement to one of the sharpest vehicles in its sector. Who knows, it might even have pioneered a new niche on the sly. We can't help but have a sneaking admiration for what Audi has done here.

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