The SUV market has been booming for the past few years, and that means the
luxury SUV market has also been on the rise.
Business has gotten so good that brands that never did SUVs in the past — Jaguar, Lamborghini, Bentley, Maserati — are getting into the game.
Consumers have more luxury SUV choices than ever, so choosing the right vehicle can be difficult. Over the past year, we’ve sample three good choices: The Lexus RX 350, the Volvo XC90, and the Audi Q7.
They’re all excellent. So how to chose among them?
THE LEXUS RX 350: This midsize crossover SUV has been in the Lexus lineup since 1998 and is perhaps the luxury brand's most important vehicle in the US market, where SUVs rule the road these days. Pricing starts at about $43,000.
The RX 350 is a core product for Lexus -- the Lexus that Lexus can't afford to screw up. The vehicle was redesigned for the 2016 model year, and our conclusion after we reviewed it was that Lexus did a fine job.
The RX 350 remains the default luxury family hauler in the segment. Basically, everything about it is good. Well, almost everything. But we'll get to that in a second.
Our test car had a 3.5-litre V6 that served up 295 horsepower, with an all-wheel-drive system could handle nasty weather. This is a perfectly capable powerplant that won't leave anyone wanting.
The luxury level is sort of high-medium. The materials are excellent, the fit and finish is wonderful, and the overall comfort level of superb. Nothing on the RX 350 blows you away, but there's also very little to complain about. There's a reason this thing has been going strong since the late 1990s.
The new styling is mildly controversial, but over a week, we got used to it.
Infotainment is a weak spot for the RX 350. Lexus is lagging the competition here, but not by all that much.
Here's what we said in our review:
The infotainment system runs off a substantial center screen that's controlled with a puck-like thingy that resides between the seats. The screen doesn't retract, and while it satisfies all the necessary functions -- audio, navigation, Bluetooth connections, and so on -- it simply doesn't feel as up-to-date as what you can get in a Cadillac, Audi, or BMW.
We've made this complaint about all the Lexus vehicles we've tested. This is in no way a dealbreaker because the system works fine, once you get the hang of it. But infotainment is the main place where owners interact with vehicle technology, and as Apple CarPlay and greater levels of connectivity come online in autos, some new standards are being established.
Overall, we try to put ourselves in the mind of an owner when we review a vehicle, and we think that RX 350 will ultimately be irritated by some of the SUV's infotainment quirks.
VERDICT: You really can't go wrong with the RX 350. This is the one that doesn't require a lot of thought.
Lexus has been selling this car since the late 1990s, and it should keep selling it until humanity decides that luxury SUVs are going the way of the Conestoga wagon.
'The 2016 RX 350 was one of those cars that tested out exactly as expected,' we wrote. 'OK, the design is going to be a bit much for the 'burbs. But otherwise the crossover that started it all is holding up its responsibilities admirably.'
For the price, it's an easy choice. But maybe you don't want an easy choice. So read on.
THE VOLVO XC90: We chose the XC90 as our 2015 Business Insider Car of the Year, and for good reason. It's the best vehicle yet from Volvo under the ownership of China's Geely, and it provide an excellent combination of performance, versatility, and technology. Pricing starts at about $48,000.
Here's what we said when we chose the XC90 as the 2015 BI Car of the Year:
The bottom line is the XC90 has so much going for it that it was ultimately a challenge to not choose it.
While the Volvo might not be as luxurious as a Mercedes G Class or as robust under the hood as a BMW X Series -- and we're unsure of whether its reliability can challenge Acura or Lexus -- there's no doubt that it's feature- and technology-packed, a joy to drive, and exceptionally versatile and comfortable.
Yep, we were mighty impressed. The car looks good, drives good, and feels good. It also has that special Volvo thing, where the luxury doesn't come off as luxurious (although this was easily one of the snazziest Volvos I've ever experienced, and I've owned two). That said, this is a luxury SUV, not a near-luxury or premium vehicle.
It shows that Volvo wants to be a luxury player.
Inside, this is a modern SUV for modern needs. Technology is first-rate. The overall impression is also unpretentious luxury.
The XC90 gives you everything you'd expect on the infotainment front, at this level. The systems are also fairly easy to use, although they're not quite as simple as what I think is now the industry standard: GM's infotainment suite, connected to OnStar with 4G LTE wireless.
The Bowers & Wilkins audio system on our test car was among the best we sampled all last year.
And the XC90 has a pretty good engine, although I was a bit underwhelmed at first, remarking, that 'while the XC90 ticked off numerous boxes on the luxury and versatility front, I had a tough time with the turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder engine.'
I added: 'Although 316 horsepower is nothing to sneeze at, I wanted more obvious oomph, from a good old-fashioned six-banger.'
Volvos are all about family life and safety, but those longstanding brand values have to change with the times.
Luxury buyers now want more luxury and more technology in their vehicles than ever. On that front, Volvo has admirably addressed their desires with one of the best new SUVs to hit the streets in years.
The choice here is a bit more offbeat. It's easier to pick the Lexus -- and if that's too challenging, to look at BMWs and Mercedes. But if you think of yourself as being a Volvo person -- or just just aspire to being one -- that XC90 is a great place to start.
THE AUDI Q7: This big Audi is a full-size luxury SUV, a bit larger than either the RX 350 or the CX90. The extra space is useful if you have a family with a few more teenagers or young adults. The level of luxury is also a touch more German: minimalist but scrupulously engineered. Pricing starts at about $55,000.
Well, let's face it: when we tested a well-appointed, $US69,000 Audi Q7, we said that it has achieved 'luxury SUV perfection.'
So there you go. It was a stupendous vehicle.
However, perfection comes at a price, and the Q7 is both larger and more expensive than the other two luxury SUVs in our comparison. On the other hand, you're getting what you pay for, starting with that classic Audi look.
'The design is typical Audi: dignified minimalism. Nothing stands out, but every inch of the Q7 -- and there are many inches -- is well-balanced,' I said in my review. 'This is the state-of-the-art for modern large SUV styling.'
A bigger car also needs a bigger engine, and the Q7 has one:
Under the hood is a 3.0-litre, supercharged V6 that makes 333 horsepower. Audi says it will do zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and top out at 130 mph. That's real quick for a vehicle of this size, and a testament to how much weight -- about 700 pounds -- the Q7 has shed since the previous generation. ('Quattro' is Audi's excellent all-wheel-drive system.)
We've included this Q7 in this comparo because we think it's useful to have an option that, for a price, give you more room. The XC90 has three rows of seats, but the RX 350 doesn't. And the Audi's performance and general impressive of luxury is more substantial the XC90's.
Very Audi inside. We think this car maker has the best interiors in the business, and one of the best technology setups.
Audis interiors are typically brilliant, the Q7's is no exception. I'd go so far as to say that the Q7, being the largest Audi you can buy, represents the state of the art -- the comfort level is nothing short of spectacular. You're going to feel great in this vehicle is you're the driver, and so is everybody else.
I used to agree with my colleagues that Audi has the best infotainment system in the industry -- especially navigation, which is powered by Google Maps -- but I now think that GM's Cadillac Cue nips it, thanks largely to a more intuitive touchscreen interface and 4g LTE wireless.
That said, Audi's is pretty awesome. Our Q7 came with a Bose audio system that sounded astonishingly good, right up there with more overtly premium offerings from Bowers & Wilkins and Lincoln's amazing Revel.
There are no technologies in the Q7 that will disappoint an owner in any way.
VERDICT: For the price, this is the finest full-size luxury SUV on the market. But you do have to pay for the privilege of owning it.
Audi has the best recent story of any major luxury auto brand. The 'Big Three' for luxury in the US have long been Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus.
But with its formidable portfolio of vehicles, Audi has become for all purposes a fourth brand in that elevated realm. Audi cars and SUVs also appeal to a younger buyership.
The Q7 sits at the apex of Audi's lineup (OK, it's no R8 supercar, but Audi expects to sell a lot of Q7s). It has a huge burden to bear, as it's the vehicle that some of the market's most demanding buyers -- large, affluent families -- will be checking out.
On that score, it's could easily be the best full-size luxury SUV anyone has ever built.
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