Battle of the premium SUVs: we test drive 5 of the best
Our motoring journalists pit the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, Lexus NX and BMW X3 against each other
You could assert that the humble sedan has taken a backseat at manufacturer product strategy sessions. Compact crossover and sport-utility vehicles are where the volumes are, we get told. And indeed, such claims are evidenced on the local sales charts. Before this category burgeoned into its current state, the three-box saloon offerings from the five brands represented here would have been immediate picks if you wanted four doors, medium length and an upscale persona.
You may have chosen the A4 from Audi, the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Alfa Romeo 159 (Giulia in latest form) or Lexus IS. But these long-standing nameplates have made way for the rise in popularity of a more contemporary breed. They are, respectively, the Q5, X3, GLC-Class, Stelvio and NX.
We convened the quintet for a friendly duel that spanned urban settings, countryside and a grueling (sort of) dynamic test. The latter was for the self-serving pursuit of going sideways and chucking up dust. But in the interests of good, old-fashioned consumer journalism, we will state that it was for the sole purpose of assessing manoeuvrability.
After all, the term "sport" is an important part of the title - perhaps more so than the "utility" aspect - as these cars are unlikely to see any real off-road treachery in their lifetimes.
A gymkhana on a dirt surface seemed like the most realistic combination of both worlds. Adding authenticity to things was the procurement of young and lauded racing driver Mandla Mdakane, certainly no stranger to all manner of circuits, surfaces and machines.
ALFA ROMEO STELVIO
THE MODEL: Alfa Romeo Stelvio Super
THE ENGINE: 1995cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol
THE NUMBERS: 206kW and 400Nm
THE OUTLAY: From R810,000
Alfa Romeo is enjoying a colourful resurgence. Competent new products and the announcement of a return to Formula One have earned the brand headlines for the right reasons. Of course, quips about dubious reliability are always going to linger. And it will take aggressive campaigning by the manufacturer to imbue local buyers with a true sense of confidence. But an initial experience of its latest wares should at least pique consumers' curiosity: they are quite good.
Bear in mind that the Stelvio is their maiden attempt at this genre. It rides on the same platform as the Giulia, which is an ideal place to start. The salient virtue of a plugged-in driving experience is part of this mix too.
And what about those clichéd elements of passion, panache and charisma? Well, they are inherent: lust permeates the mind and loins upon merely glancing at the front of this swashbuckling Italian. But we could not find consensus on the rear styling, with its Hyundai Tucson-esque execution.
Still, as a first go for Alfa Romeo in the sport-utility vehicle segment, the stellar Stelvio appeals to the heart in a way typical of the storied car maker. As always, the biggest challenges for the marque remains getting customers in seats and changing perceptions.
THE MODEL: BMW X3 xDrive20d
THE ENGINE: 1995cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel
THE NUMBERS: 140kW and 400Nm
THE OUTLAY: From R684,200
Wherever your allegiance lies, there is bound to be some affection for the BMW X3. Why? Because the third generation of the model is made locally, after a substantial investment at the plant in Rosslyn that, until recently, built the 3-Series. A telling move, as to the enormous quantities the Bavarian car maker envisages finding homes. The first two generations of the car sold over 1.5 million units in their production cycles.
The evolution of products invariably casts a light on the shortcomings of predecessors. This latest version of the car certainly looks more cohesive aesthetically than its somewhat awkward forbears. It ups the ante in virtually all aspects. That includes a lighter, stiffer chassis, while BMW purports an even front and rear weight distribution. Interestingly, they also claim the vehicle "can tackle water crossings with ease" - but you can try that for yourself.
Try a judicious approach to the optional equipment. Especially since one can tick some of the items as seen in the luxurious 7-Series flagship. You can, for example, have the same trick key fob with the display screen, that allows you to fiddle with the air-conditioning system remotely. This new X3 is an accomplished successor to a pioneer of the game.
THE MODEL: Mercedes-Benz GLC 250d 4MATIC
THE ENGINE: 2143cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel
THE NUMBERS: 150kW and 500Nm
THE OUTLAY: From R723,822
In November 2017 we explored the notch above this medium-sized rung of the sport-utility vehicle ladder. The Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class fared poorly against the BMW X5, Audi Q7, Volvo XC90 and Land Rover Discovery.
Happily, its smaller sibling, the GLC-Class, left a far better impression. It is thoroughly more modern than the GLE-Class, essentially the ML-Class of yore albeit with a different name. Anyway, our staff came away feeling this model stays true to the traditional hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz that many appreciate.
For starters, refinement. With Comfort mode engaged via the Dynamic Select driving settings, it cruises without a hiccup and manages a fine job of filtering out road imperfections before they jar occupants. It is certainly one of the roomier, more versatile contenders in this company. A wide rear berth makes loading tricky items easy. And its taller roofline allows rear occupants - even our height-gifted cameraman - to stretch out just a bit more.
It carries a slightly loftier asking price, as is usually the case when comparing Mercedes-Benz products to their peers.
THE MODEL: Lexus NX 300 F-Sport
THE ENGINE: 1998cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-petrol
THE NUMBERS: 175kW and 350Nm
THE OUTLAY: From R789,700
If we had a buck for each time someone used "sword" or "origami" in their style judgment of any new Lexus, we would have enough to buy a whole Bitcoin - when prices were at peak. That was the point, of course, of the designers' efforts: to woo with a daring and sharp design language. Would you believe that beneath the Samurai attire lies the spirit of a Toyota RAV4? Yes, it shares some bits with its humbler cousin, but it is well-disguised, in fairness.
If the Audi is trumps for fit and finish, then the Lexus wins for interior character. What a fantastic place to sit; all ensconced by a cabin seemingly designed to mimic the flight deck of a light aircraft. Lots of tiny buttons to press as well. Last year it received an assortment of minor tweaks, but no drastic changes to the first version our market saw in 2015.
If space is the biggest priority on the list, the snug confines of the NX will disappoint. But you may want to keep it on your list for the generous amount of specification it brings as standard, a notable competency especially when compared to the miserliness you might see with one of the German products. One may be swayed by the fact that the NX is the oldest car in this company.
THE MODEL: Audi Q5 2.0 TDI Quattro
THE ENGINE: 1968cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged-diesel
THE NUMBERS: 140kW and 400Nm
THE OUTLAY: From R701,900
Someone quipped that the new Audi Q5 looks like the old car would after a wash and polish. The designers would offer a riposte by pointing out its myriad unique styling features versus the predecessor - some of them really intriguing if you pay attention. Among them is that distinctive "tornado line" across the side profile. Truth be told, the average person would need to park former and current directly alongside to discern conclusively. But then, Audi representatives have often been boastful about their approach of putting substance over style.
The Q5 has lots of wholesomeness about it; from the moment you hear the hearty thud of one of its weighty doors. This sensation of weight translates into the driving character too. The contender with the least sporting slant here, our Q5 countered with a plushness and refinement that sees it better suited to freeway cruising than backroad scything. Take this as less of a criticism and more a neutral observation.
As for interior quality, this is textbook Audi stuff.
The gymkhana involved a slalom to test agility and a decent straight for enough momentum to unsettle the dust and provoke oscillation! Each vehicle was set to its most spirited driving mode. Not so the Alfa Romeo, however, as there is no toggle switch for driver aids. Minor increments set the vehicles apart.
34.03: Alfa Romeo Stelvio
34.09: BMW X3
34.20: Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class
34.44 Lexus NX
35.17: Audi Q5
• A special thanks to ADA Training & Outdoor Facility for use of their gravel skidpan.