Volvo XC90 vs. BMW X5 vs Mercedes GLE

A quantum shift in the middle of the SUV world

Gain-ground is an ancient game played by a couple of teams — the idea being to quite literally gain ground by forcing the opposition into a mistake. If they drop the ball, the attacking team advances until the defending team exits the end of the field of play and then it starts over again with the teams additionally scoring points on the same basis as tennis.

In fact tennis originally developed out of gain-ground and often, the principles of life and business are the same too — one should always strive to outplay or outperform your opposition in such a way that you dominate the market, no. So, occasionally through the game of life, the advantage shifts too and it seems such a shift has just gone down right in the middle of the sport utility vehicle world…

That comes straight off three significant new launches in this SUV neck of the woods, so we wasted no time to get the trio together for a little shootout that proved a bit of a revelation…

Is he back?
BMW some months ago rolled the dice first with its new X5, boldly claiming that the Boss is Back. Was that brave? Or arrogant? With north of 2.2-million X5s sold across its three generations, this longer, wider and taller newcomer allegedly 'embodies the origins of the X family’. Well, its Mickey Mouse grill certainly sets it apart and it seems BMW is slipping away from traditions like the Hofmeister Kink, but I'll leave you to make your own style judgement there.

This xDrive30d gets Munich’s latest 3-litre straight-six turbodiesel packing all the very latest Beemer tech even in its most menial 2019 form, it’s still splendid, albeit that BMW claims quaintly low outputs. This one quite peculiarly also comes with an Off-Road package with its own special instrument graphics, four driving modes and, God forbid, knobbly tyres…

Mercedes-Benz likes to call the GLE (nee ML) the pioneer of street-oriented Sport Utility Vehicles and this fifth-generation comes in the choice of a 5-seat option with a cavernous boot or a real seven-seat version thanks to its longer wheelbase and a far more spacious cabin. This turbodiesel straight-six 400 d carries all the typical ML/GLE traits forward with latest Benz tech and Starship Enterprise-like latest generation artificial intelligence MBUX infotainment spread out across the dash.

The XC90 has also been through a recent metamorphosis, but unlike its German rivals, the Swede merely benefited a mid-cycle nip and tuck with subtle detail styling and trim advances to its ’Thor’s Hammer’ DRL headlights and a modern new grille. Other tweaks include new wheels, exterior colours and an interesting new six-seat cabin configuration alongside the expected 5 and 7-seat options.

Even though it is a generation older, Volvo is still probably cooler than the complicated BMW inside and out, and I’d say even better than the Merc outside too, but we were surprised that Volvo did not take advantage of this step in its development to add to its touchscreen-based infotainment. Make no mistake, its a cool system but its difficult to manage on rough road surfaces and I for one hate the finger marks all that touching leaves on the screen.

So the Benz’s crisp, current cabin steals that cabin show for sure. I know it’s a moot point and my take on style may well be different to yours, but we ran a quick little survey as we often do among our friends to gauge it and unusually, this GLE’s cockpit was an unanimous favourite. Most often everyone has a different view on cabin style...

Cockpit King
The best thing about the Merc cockpit package is however its latest steering controlled infotainment — a tiny touch pad on the stalks either side of the wheel run everything — the left for infotainment and the right side to look after what you control on the dash. Quite brilliant, actually. Of course all three cars are supremely equipped and they can all be controlled by voice and a variety of gesture, touch and other aspects too, but the Merc is still the top of that pile in our opinion.

Our performance tests delivered some interesting results — in fact that was our first real gain-ground surprise, so to speak. This Volvo is powered by the entry engine in the recently consolidated XC90 range and makes 173kW and 480Nm from a 2-litre turbodiesel. Performance is good — in fact a tenth or two of a second quicker than the old five-cylinder turbo flagship XC90 T5 we tested a decade or so ago across its entire range of performance. And it uses less than half the fuel that car did! 

As good as the Volvo is, the 195kW 620Nm BMW X5 xDrive30d – also now the entry engine in the cropped new X5 range —performs quite a bit better. Witness its stunning tested 6.5-second 0-100km/h dash; a 14-second quarter-mile and overtaking acceleration quicker than most warm hatchbacks. That's also indeed swifter than the old bi-turbodiesel 3-litre X5 xDrive35d we so raved about back then and it also sips 7 litres per hundred when that old one seldom beat ten, 10 years ago.

And then we have the 243kW 700Nm Mercedes-Benz GLE400d 4Matic — the quickset of the three in our tests, although not by much over the BMW, to see to the Benz stealing the high ground here too — and not just the straight line high ground either. Ten years ago I drove a BMW X5 as a matter of choice — a lifestyle shift required a move away from an M5 and there was only one car for me back then — the second generation X5.

Something has slipped
That car was mighty — both as an SUV and as a driving tool — so much so that it made a mockery of the rest of its early, flabby and feelingless SUV rivals. It most definitely earned its self-acclaimed Sport Activity Vehicle tag. Roll on ten years and a couple of generations and I am afraid it is all change…

A few lines up, I called the 2009 X5’s rivals 'flabby and feelingless’. Those roles are now reversed — on the road, the Volvo, which was once second best of these three, stays second best — it’s not quite as pointed as the new leader, but it now finds itself better than the Beemer on the road. True, this X5 wore that stupid off-road rubber — what the hell — why bother? But it was not much worse than the X5 M50d I already complained about a month or three ago.

I scratched my head for a while as to why, but it all became crystal clear when the Volvo rolled up on our driveway and I hopped aboard. This specification Volvo had a crystal gearknob and starter switch in its previous generation — a Swarovski kind of a deal. Now it has a normal leather clad aluminium lever, while the BMW, which always had a leather and alloy stick, now has it all in crystal.

So the penny dropped. It seems instead of consolidating and building on its significant old SAV advantage — one that made it stand head and shoulders above the rest to us as so unique and special, Munich has been so concerned about its market share, what its shareholders need and what its rivals are producing, that it has lost the plot. 

Advantage squandered 
No, seriously — as far as driving dynamics go — or let’s call that ‘sheer driving pleasure’, BMW has squandered its once heady X5 advantage and X5 has eroded to become an average-driving 'flabby and feelingless’ SUVs like its rivals once were. And those rivals are now the better ‘driver's’ Sport Activity Vehicles…

So quite honestly, the boss is not back — the BMW X5 has slipped from its throne as a quite unique ’Sport Activity Vehicle’ to become a sloppy and soulless thing, while its rivals, which once chased it so hard, suddenly find themselves at an advantage in that respect. The tragedy is not just because those cars are so much better (they are), but BMW has also lost its X5 mojo, which has made it so much easier for them to beat it.

In this case, both Mercedes and Volvo have gained ground, while BMW has lost it. And it took a crystal gearknob to help us  figure out why. — Michele Lupini

Images - Giordano & Michele Lupini