SUV shoot-out

In a UK exclusive, Audi’s new Q5 and the Volvo XC60 meet Land Rover’s Freelander for compact SUV class honours.

In these turbulent economic times, the word ‘downsizing’ is becoming a part of our everyday vocabulary. But in the world of the SUV, it isn’t only the financial pinch that is driving the current trend towards smaller models.

High fuel prices, CO2-based taxation, plus environmental issues and the question of whether they’re socially acceptable all mean that large luxury off-roaders are no longer as fashionable as they used to be. It’s no wonder, then, that leading car manufacturers are racing to launch smaller all-terrain models. These new compact machines are designed to offer the same high quality and premium image as their bigger brothers, but are more efficient and promise to deliver sharper car-like handling.

Leading the way in the expanding premium compact SUV segment are the latest newcomers from Audi and Volvo. These two companies took their first steps into the SUV market with large seven-seat models –the Q7 and XC90 respectively. However, both makers are ready to react to changing demands. In an exclusive test of UK-spec models, we have brought the new Q5 and XC60 together for the first time and lined them up against our current class benchmark – the Land Rover Freelander.

All three contenders are closely matched on price and performance, but which has the best blend of quality, practicality, comfort and image?

Verdict

All three compact SUVs in this test prove that unless you need seven seats, a smaller 4x4 can have all the premium appeal of larger and less efficient alternatives.

But which is the best? Volvo’s XC60 looks great and shares the cabin style and family friendliness of the bigger XC90. Unfortunately, the ride is unforgiving and the handling unresponsive, while the five-cylinder engine is gruff. The optional auto is sluggish, too, so the XC60 finishes third here.

Picking a winner is a tougher call. If you want genuine off-road ability, refined on-road manners and a truly versatile SUV, then the Freelander should remain your top choice. It’s not a cheap option, though, and poor residuals make it a costly ownership prospect.

The Q5’s styling, classy cabin and excellent quality are exactly what you would expect from Audi, yet it’s great to drive, too. The sharp handling means the Q5 stands out in this class, while the refined engine, strong performance, low emissions and composed ride complete the package. It carries a considerable price premium over the similarly spacious A4 Avant, but if you simply must have an SUV, the new Q5 is a winner.

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