Way back around the turn of the last century, many automotive experts believed that buyers of European-brand luxury cars would never purchase SUVs from those brands. And the executives of brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Volvo reinforced that notion by dragging their feet about entering the SUV market. But times have changed. These days most European luxury brands would have virtually no sales at all if it weren’t for the wholesale shift to crossover SUVs. For most of these brands, their SUV sales are more than three-quarters of their volume. Further, the end of that trend seems nowhere in sight.
While those seeking the ultimate in performance and handling still gravitate to coupes and sedans, the vast majority of well-heeled buyers want the added utility and versatility that crossover SUVs offer. And even if they’re not willing to admit it, they probably appreciate the ease with which they can get into and out of their SUVs rather than dropping down into the driver’s seat of a contemporary European luxury sedan. Of course, today’s luxury SUVs do not lack for luxury amenities. Virtually any upscale convenience item or accessory available on a sedan is also available across a wide range of lux-brand SUVs.
When we view the contemporary light-vehicle market, one thing becomes clear. There seems to be a sweet spot of beautifully styled, well-finished and nicely equipped European-brand crossover SUVs with manufacturer’s suggested list prices of right around $40,000. Because of that, we decided to share our thoughts on seven of those top European luxury SUVs with you.
For more than a decade, Mercedes-Benz’ SUVs were also-rans among the European crossovers, and it seemed like the corporation’s heart just wasn’t in it. They did construct a plant to build SUVs here in America, however, and in recent years their SUV products have hit their stride. In recent months the Mercedes-Benz GLC has often outsold the BMW X3, a perennial favorite. One reason for its recent success is its design. Like many current Mercedes-Benz vehicles, it is a style leader in its segment, something that couldn’t have been said a decade ago.
But there is more to the GLC’s success that its pretty face topped with the three-pointed Mercedes-Benz star. Its 255-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is one of the most robust in the segment, and it is accompanied by a very sophisticated 9-speed automatic equipped with wheel-mounted shift paddles. The base GLC is rear-drive, which has its advantages, and the well-regarded 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system is also available at extra cost. With its sophisticated multi-link front and rear suspension, adaptive shock absorbers and reasonably low center of gravity, the GLC delivers some degree of fun to drive while not upsetting occupants with a harsh ride.
We were particularly impressed with the GLC’s interior. It manages to be reasonably ergonomic while at the same time offering a whimsical touch. The center of its dash is devoted to a giant digital display, accompanied by classic round vents and easy-to-operate discrete climate controls. Back in the day, M-B audio left a lot to be desired. Not so with the GLC’s 14-speaker Burmester system.
While on the sedan side, BMW model nomenclature has become a bit confusing of late, on the crossover SUV side things are much clearer. For example, the popular BMW X3 is based on the same platform as the BMW 3 Series sedan. And that’s good news for those in the audience who want both a degree of utility and more than the usual share of driving fun. Many of us who review cars for a living believe the X3 is the most fun-to-drive model in the class.
One knock against previous-generation X3s was the claim they made sacrifices in utility in favor of performance, but the current X3 offers more cargo space than any other vehicle on this stellar list. Occupants will like the interior space they share as well. The 5-passenger X3 offers 3-zone automatic climate control with separate temperature settings for the rear compartment.
The X3 is assembled in Spartanburg, SC, but the vehicle’s German heritage permeates every sinew. The crossover certainly doesn’t skimp performance, and at the wheel, you often have to remind yourself you’re not in a 3 Series sedan. The X3’s 248-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine backed by an 8-speed automatic transmission offers plenty of acceleration. Both the rear-drive base model and more costly all-wheel-drive versions maintain that special BMW handling feel.
Unlike the Mercedes-Benz GLC and the BMW X3, the base Audi Q5 is equipped with quattro all-wheel-drive. This edition of quattro enables the front-wheels to drive the vehicle a high percentage of the time, giving it a bit of a different driving demeanor than its two German-brand rivals. Still, the Q5 has a great deal in common with the X3 and GLC.
When it comes to the power quotient, the Q5’s powertrain is right there with its competitors. Its 2.0-liter 4-cylinder TFSI (turbocharged) engine offers 252 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. In combination with its 7-speed S tronic dual-clutch transmission, the willing engine enables the Q5 to zip from zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds, according to Audi’s own test results.
We have to admit we are fans of the Q5’s tidy, well-drawn exterior lines that are accentuated by the massive (and perhaps overwrought) “Singleframe” grille. The grille is the exception that proves the rule because the remainder of the Audi’s exterior is, to its credit, simply and elegantly conceived.
Ditto for the interior. While BMWs used to have the most-copied interior designs in the business, now that honor goes to Audi. To us, the interior design epitomizes contemporary elegance, while it also offers some “oh-wow” features like the Audi Virtual Cockpit with its 12.3-inch digital display and Audi’s MMI digital infotainment interface. Audio enthusiasts can choose a 19-speaker, 755-watt Bang & Olufsen sound system.
The previous-generation Volvo XC60 luxury crossover held the line for the brand as it was transitioning from a Swedish company to a Swedish company owned by a Chinese company, and its successor has proven equally durable. Based on the same modular platform as the larger, more luxurious XC90 SUV, the XC60 is the beneficiary of many of that model’s up-level features.
Safety is, of course, one of Volvo’s watchwords, and the XC60 demonstrates that. Automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping are standard equipment, but the others on this list also have those features. Volvo can claim leadership with its Pilot Assist, the semi-autonomous driver assistance system that steers, accelerates and brakes on well-marked roads, which is optional.
The XC60 is available with either front-drive or all-wheel-drive, and the lowest-priced version is front-drive. The XC60 also offers an array of powertrains, but if you’d like to keep your overall expenditure to around $40,000, you’ll be looking at the T5 with its 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine delivering 250 horsepower.
Despite the fact that Chinese finances and management figure into Volvo’s overall presence these days, the XC60 features an interior that reflects Scandinavian design. It is rather minimalist, though it does offer a 12.3-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen in the middle of its handsome dash. Volvo seats remain some of the most supportive and adjustable in the business.
Range Rover Evoque
With the Range Rover Evoque, it’s all about style. The vehicle doesn’t have the size or interior carrying capacity of the others on this list, but it is a head-turner. On top of that, it is a Range Rover, and that means as an off-roader it doesn’t mind getting its pretty body muddy.
Like the Volvo XC60, the Evoque offers a mind-boggling selection of powertrains. The base, which keeps you at about $40K, is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which delivers 246 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. It drives all four wheels through a 9-speed ZF-built automatic transmission. On-road performance is good, and overall ride comfort is among the best in this mix, but an enthusiast driver would probably be more satisfied with the BMW or the Alfa.
The interior is as rich and classy as it is baffling. On the plus side is the fact the interior veritably reeks of British noblesse oblige. Once inside you immediately crave a cup of tea that you can sip with your pinky in the air. Despite the Evoque’s smaller overall dimensions, interior passenger space is actually quite good. On the downside, however, is the difficult-to-understand InControl Touch Pro Duo infotainment system. It works well once you understand the secret code and have all the pass signs, but the word “intuitive” should never be applied to it except in jest. The one saving grace is that both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto interfaces are available and intelligible.
Alfa Romeo Stelvio
The Alfa Romeo Stelvio is the rowdy hooligan in the midst of this buttoned-down list, and we mean that with a high degree of affection. Certainly, the German-brand vehicles we have described make efforts to cater to those who think driving is more than a means of picking up the dry cleaning, but the Stelvio doesn’t hide its desire to scream down a deserted back road.
During our delightful turns behind the wheel of various Stelvios, we experienced firsthand the SUV’s driver-oriented chassis and suspension. Front suspension is double wishbone and the rear is multi-link, and it is obvious it has been rigged for (not-so) silent running.
Its base 2.0-liter turbocharged engine squeezes out 280 horsepower, and it is mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission that allows manual shifting if desired. Sporting a boatload of low-end torque and a thrilling exhaust roar, it’ll get your driving juices flowing.
With its unique grille and svelte Italian bodywork, the Stelvio cuts a dashing figure compared to the other vehicles in this segment. The price you pay for that style is somewhat less interior volume and cargo space.
The Stelvio’s distinct interior is rife with Italian influences like the rich leather on the seats (red on our most recent test vehicle.) For this model year, the sporty crossover features a new 8.8-inch center touchscreen display with improved graphics, some owner-configurable interactive widgets and horizontal scroll for additional personalization.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
The Land Rover Discovery Sport still looks good in its purposeful Land Rover way despite the fact that it came to market six models years ago. Standard seating is for five, but the Discovery Sport does offer an optional third row that can accommodate two children or close friends. It also has the lowest base MSRP of the vehicles on this list.
As you would expect with the Land Rover name emblazoned on it, the 4-wheel-drive-only Discovery Sport is very at home off-road. Frankly, it is also very at home hauling kids to soccer practice, and that’s the prime duty for many of them here in America’s affluent zones.
While they are waiting for practice to end, mothers and fathers of those soccer kids can spend their time trying to figure out the Discovery’s infotainment system. It has a full range of functions, and the available Meridian premium audio system sounds great, but the control of the system requires a learning curve.
The Discovery Sport its equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that produces 246-horsepower. It’s mated to a 9-speed automatic, and as we said, the 4-wheel-drive system is more than up to most off-highway tasks. Of the vehicles on this list, this is the one to take across a desert or up to a mountaintop.
After a look at all these worthy contenders, what have we learned? First, we’ve learned that every one of these vehicles brings with it more pure driving enjoyment than you might believe, and they couple that with at least a middling amount of practicality. Choosing the right one for you depends a great deal on what your hot buttons are.
If you seek driving performance, the BMW X3 and Alfa Romeo Stelvio should rise to the top of your list. Safety a major concern? Then the Volvo is the obvious choice. If you dream of off-road adventures with your SUV — isn’t that what they are intended for? — the Land Rover Discovery Sport should occupy slot one with the Range Rover Evoque on the list as well. And should you covet great looks, interior style and prestige endorsed by plenty of fellow buyers, the Mercedes-Benz GLC and Audi Q5 get the nod.