prestige 4x4 comparison - first and fourmost

with ever more manufacturers rushing headlong to bring us prestige 4x4s, we take the best of the current crop and see how they measure up. andy enright reports

prestige 4x4 comparison - first and fourmost

As a nation, we're expanding fast. Average waistlines are inching upwards as we succumb to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and calorie stuffed convenience foods. It's not just us either, it's our cars as well and no sector better exemplifies this than luxury 4x4s. In its first generation guise, a Range Rover took up less space on the road than a current generation Freelander, supposedly a 'compact 4x4'. If our appetite for supersizing our sports utility vehicles has grown, so has the choice available to us. All terrain conspicuous consumption has never been so mouth watering.

THE CONTENDERS

In order to find out which luxury 4x4 rules the roost, many hours were spent wheedling six of the best from various manufacturers. The lynchpin around which any luxury 4x4 test revolves is still the Range Rover, and despite the popularity of diesel versions, the definitive model is powered by a 4.4-litre V8 in Vogue SE guise. This model very much set the tone for the rest of the contenders, all powered by gas-guzzling petrol engines. There's a time and a place for fuel economy. This wasn't to be it.

Next in terms of expense is Porsche's Cayenne Turbo V8. This 4.8-litre behemoth may have rather unconventional looks but the promise of class leading road manners and Porsche build quality had us intrigued. BMW's X5 is the car that really jump started the luxury 4x4 class back into life when it appeared in 2000. Again, we opt for an octet of cylinders and xDrive50i and its 408bhp twin-turbo V8 petrol engine. The big BMW managed to steal the thunder from Mercedes' M-class range and a series of subsequent revisions to the Stuttgarters 4x4 has seen it enjoy something of a renaissance. In ML 63 AMG guise, the big Benz brings a lot of power to the party with its twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V8.

The Volkswagen Touareg has monopolised plenty of column inches since it was first introduced and we've brought along the top of the range 4.2 V8, itself no mean fall back option. The final car at first seems something of a misnomer. Significantly cheaper than the rest and only fronting up five cylinders, Volvo's XC90 2.4-litre D5 diesel might seem a little lightweight when it comes to the bald statistics, but our experience with the car led us to suspect otherwise. Pitched into a no-lose situation, the Volvo had the opportunity to claim some notable scalps.

IN THE CABINS

When it comes to all-round feel-good factor there's only one winner here and it's the Range Rover. No other 4x4 manufacturer has quite cracked how to make wood look good on the fascia, yet the Range Rover effortlessly incorporates its timberwork with cool metal finishes, and delightfully detailed leatherwork. Somewhat surprisingly, given its leviathan bulk, actual interior space isn't the best but a few millimetres here and there are a small price to pay for an interior ambience that wouldn't disgrace an Aston Martin. The Volvo XC90's cabin is a million miles away in terms of look and feel, but in terms of utility, commonsense design and utilisation of space, there's little to touch it, giving it a runner's up position behind the plutocratic Range Rover.

It's difficult to split the Volkswagen and the BMW. Both offer beautifully constructed, if rather uninspiring fascias majoring on electronic gadgetry. The BMW's fascia is only now starting to appear slightly dated but such is its ergonomic excellence, few owners will care. The Volkswagen's cabin looks well screwed together but a few of the minor controls feel a little flimsy. The Porsche is something of a surprise. We don't tend to expect rock solid build quality in a top end sports car and have forgiven the company for years for slightly rattly dashboards and minor controls that feel a little plasticky. Unfortunately the same philosophy doesn't wash in a big 4x4. The Cayenne's cockpit succeeds in making you feel as if you're at the wheel of a Boxster on build up heels, but is some way off the class best. As is the interior of the Mercedes ML 63 AMG. One glance at the array of buttons on the dash will deter many buyers looking for a cutting edge premium 4x4. Space inside the Mercedes is actually very good and there is no shortage of considerate touches to help utility, but the look and feel is an acquired taste.

ON THE ROAD

Having accumulated thousands of development miles being honed for excellence around the Nurburgring, it's little surprise that Porsche's Cayenne Turbo feels the most satisfying driver's car. Capable of sprinting to 60mph in 4.7 seconds and running on to 173mph, it corners with a reassuring firmness that belies its weight. The engine is by far the most impressive of the bunch and the steering and brakes are also top of the tree. The BMW X5 and the Range Rover tie for second place, the X5's superior all-round handling countered by the Range Rover's butter smooth ride.

The Volvo achieves a creditable fourth position, the handling being comfort oriented without lapsing into sogginess. The turbocharged five-cylinder diesel engine posts the best fuel economy figures, but these will take a dent if you keep the turbocharger on song. A 9.7 second sprint to 60mph and a 127mph top speed make the Volvo the slowest of the bunch but the in-gear acceleration when the turbocharger comes on stream can catch the others unawares. The Mercedes ML 63 AMG occasionally seems to have too much engine than always seems wise and makes by far the best noise of the entire group, but the handling isn't initially encouraging. As a point and squirt machine, the big Merc takes some beating. The Touareg is a strange beast. Volkswagen seems to have optimised the handling so much that ride quality has suffered. Given that many of the underpinnings are shared with the Porsche Cayenne, it's testament to the Weissach company's chassis tuning skills that the Cayenne comes top of the group whereas the Touareg vies with the Mercedes for the wooden spoon.

OWNERSHIP

The Volvo's crushing price advantage means it's probably the best buy of the bunch. Group 39 to 41 insurance and a retained value of 56% after three years make the XC90 by far the most affordable of the bunch. Factor in the lowest CO2 emissions (219g/km) and the best fuel economy (34mpg) and the Volvo is the runaway winner as an ownership proposition.

Next up is the venerable BMW, courtesy of demand still being strong as a used buy. With identical residual values to the Volvo, the X5 xDrive50i V8 is a realistic ownership proposition as long as you can stomach the 20mpg fuel economy. The Range Rover fares respectably too, courtesy of its decent residuals. The worst fuel economy and highest emissions of the group prevent it grabbing second spot on the podium. The Volkswagen Touareg gains a respectable midfield position with 48% residuals, just pipping the Cayenne. The Porsche is suffering a little at the moment due to many customers' being rather underwhelmed by the styling. The 45% residual rating of the Mercedes coupled with 19mpg fuel economy mean ML 63 AMG motoring is a relatively expensive habit.

VERDICT

Although it's tempting to offer a 'horses for courses' verdict, certain issues become apparent. The Mercedes, whilst offering a charismatic engine and punchy acceleration, is a bit too flashy in this company. The handling, costs and interior quality relegate it to the bottom of this particular pile. One place off the floor is Volkswagen's Touareg. Refined, spacious and sharp handling, the big Volkswagen's so-so ride quality, strangely anodyne engine and unexciting looks may not be enough in this tough corner of the market.

The Porsche Cayenne Turbo V8 is a curious proposition. It drives beautifully and is probably the only car of the bunch you'd take out for a drive just for the hell of it. This, and the Porsche badge on the bonnet, will make the surprisingly affordable Cayenne Turbo V8 the default choice for a few enthusiasts but its panoply of talents is just that little too focused to succeed as an all-round luxury 4x4. For an example of a better compromise between handling and hauling, look no further than the BMW X5 xDrive50i V8. It may be a familiar sight on our roads but there's a reason for that. It's an extremely good car.

Separating the top two ought to be an easy task, comparing as we are the least and most expensive rivals in the test. Indeed, if money genuinely was no object, the Range Rover 4.4 V8 could come in no other place than top of this particular shop. Objectively it's the best in the business. With a silky ride and a genuine sense of occasion every time you thunk that safe-vault of a door shut behind you, Solihull's finest will take some overhauling. The surprise package of this test is the bargain basement Volvo XC90 D5. The cheapest, slowest car of the bunch has ended up carrying away the spoils. The XC90 makes by far the most sense financially yet punches its weight when it comes to desirability. It's a deserved winner.