Road report: Luxury SUVs

In our tests, the Porsche Macan dethrones the BMW X3 as the king of luxury

Published: November 2014

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Anyone who has held that diminutive sky-blue box knows that luxury definitely can reside in small packages. So too with the blossoming “entry level” luxury SUV segment. Here, we are seeing prestige automakers race to distill their brand essence into versatile, price-sensitive vehicles. The segment is filled with zingy, small-displacement turbocharged engines; active safety systems galore; coddling cabins—and elevated ownership costs. The European brands tend to shine brightest in our tests, with the veteran BMW X3 being the best at achieving the delicate balance of sport, utility, and indulgence. Here’s how the new Porsche Macan and Lincoln MKC fared against it.

Click on the model name in the write-up for each car to read the comprehensive road test and get Ratings.

Porsche Macan S: The most fun SUV, ever

Consider the Macan a Porsche 911 that got comfortable in middle age and sprouted a passable backseat, a higher ride height, and usable cargo room. The base 340-hp, turbocharged six-cylinder engine—which slings the Macan to 60 mph in a mere 6.4 seconds—is more powerful than competitors’ optional engines. A 400-hp engine is available starting at $73,295—so much for “entry level”—for those who need even more grunt. And though SUVs tend to miss the “sport” part of the equation when it comes to handling, the Macan is the most agile and fun-to-drive SUV we’ve driven. Its all-wheel-drive system inspires dreams of Le Mans lap records but stumbled in our avoidance-maneuver test. The interior is formally luxurious, with firmly supportive seats. For a sporty SUV, the Macan is com­fortable as a daily driver. And Porsche is notorious for loading its cars with options, driving up the price quickly. But if your priority is performance, the Porsche is the answer. P.S. For newbies, it’s pronounced POR-shuh muh-CONN.

Price $50,895-$73,295
Fuel economy 19 mpg
Engine 340-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged V6

BMW X3: German expressionism

With the X3, BMW has managed to deftly balance sporty driving dynamics with an accommodating, sumptuous cabin. The base turbocharged four-cylinder engine is surprisingly energetic and returns an impressive 23 mpg overall, although it concedes some refinement compared with the optional 300-hp six cylinder. At idle, the direct-injection engine pings and tinkles like a subdued piano. The X3 suspension has an eager feel, although it can be jostling on uneven roads, and its run-flat tires are stiff. Access to the well-appointed cabin is eased with large door openings. The driving position is formally upright. Some testers found the seats to be a bit firm, but the seats’ ramrod-straight posture will prepare you for a meeting with your bank’s loan officer. Many controls can be awkward and confusing, proving German ergonomics engineers do have a sense of humor. Niggles aside, the X3 is the smart choice in a segment overflowing with attention-grabbing competitors.

Price $39,450-$47,900
Fuel economy 23 mpg
Engine 240-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

Lincoln MKC: Merely adequate

With its first small SUV, Lincoln turned to the mass-market Ford Escape for a head start, adapting its mechanicals and powertrain from the sharp-handling stablemate. But in the effort to craft a more luxurious model, Lincoln fell short on several fronts, in the end creating a compromised vehicle. Performance is ample from the upscale, 285-hp four-cylinder engine, yet acceleration is on par with less powerful competitors. At 19 mpg, fuel economy is akin to that seen with larger SUVs, and the small gas tank results in a short cruising range. A fussy, dash-mounted push-button shifter controls the six-speed automatic. The ride comfort is even more disappointing, being unsettled and rocky, despite a fancy adaptive suspension system. Any agility was lost in translation from its corporate cousin. At least the cabin is quiet, with luxurious soft-touch materials. But the Lincoln falls short, with a driver’s seat that feels askew and whose comfort is debatable. In a segment defined by excellence, the MKC is merely adequate.

Price $33,995-$40,860
Fuel economy 19 mpg
Engine 285-hp, 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cyl.

Best overall

Although the Porsche Macan is our top scorer, its rapidly escalating price puts it well out of the “affordable luxury” discussion. Rather, the BMW X3 shines, with its peppy powertrain, nimble handling, comfortable cabin, and attainable entry point. The Bimmer’s stinginess with standard features—offering a seemingly necessary rearview cam­-era only as an option—is a disappointment, though. Audi competes well with the Q5, defined by a polished interior and a dynamic, well-tuned suspension that makes it fun to drive and comfortable to ride in. Mercedes-Benz’s Cubist-styled GLK is entertaining to drive, with a 3.5-liter V-6, responsive handling, and wicked-quick acceleration. But its appeal is hampered by a tight rear seat, challenging access, and limited cargo space. The Volvo XC60 provides plenty of Swedish luxury touches and great seats, but its ride is stiff and uncomfortable. The Land Rover Evoque scored too low to be recommended.

Best value

For those looking to get the most luxury for their hard-earned dollar, the $36,605 Acura RDX rises to the top with a relatively roomy package that is well equipped for the money. Beyond the modest purchase price, the RDX excels with 22 mpg overall. Though it’s based on the Honda CR-V, the RDX comes with a standard 273-hp V-6 that the CR-V does not offer. The RDX is a safe recommendation, and it would satisfy many would-be luxury seekers—although it makes do without many luxury creature comforts. Other lower-priced alternatives include the Infiniti QX50 and Volkswagen Tiguan. However, the Infiniti rides on an ancient platform, is tiny inside, and though its 325 hp is plenty powerful, it chugs gas. With responsive steering and confident handling, the Tiguan’s driving experience is more rewarding than that of several upmarket SUVs costing far more. The top-trim Tiguan SEL approaches the price of its Audi cousin, so why scrimp?

Most luxurious

When considering the factors of ride quality, cabin execution, and interior quiet, the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Mercedes-Benz GLK rank highest. All three isolate the driver from road imperfections with bump-absorbing suspensions that still provide confidence-inspiring handling—an elusive combination, especially in high-riding SUVs. The luxurious minimalism of German design delivers comfortable seats, soft-touch materials, and clever details, but also some compli­cated controls. Road noise and wind roar are effectively hushed for all of the German SUVs—an impressive feat for small, boxy vehicles that can get boomy inside. Base models can be sparse on trim details, though deep option rosters can outfit the SUVs regally (just check your wallet at the door). Among these leaders, the Q5 most properly channels the modernist design aesthetic that will appeal to the iPhone 6 user who hangs out for fun at Design Within Reach.

Available soon

Photo: Courtesy Lexus

Derived from the popular Toyota RAV4, the Lexus NX is distinguished by extroverted anime styling that’s aimed at younger buyers. The base engine is a 235-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (a Lexus first, but adopting the German and domestic doctrine), with an optional hybrid torn from the mainstream Camry. Those looking for a smaller cousin to the successful Lexus RX should note that the NX is sportier, edgier, and less plush. But the NX’s play to fashion dictates that the NX concede passenger and cargo space, along with visibility. Arriving in the spring, the Land Rover Discovery Sport will have a turbo four-banger and boast 8 inches of ground clearance and a Terrain Response system that dials in distinct settings for weather and trail conditions. The Disco’s real trick is an added third row that allows it to squire seven Hobbits. Looking further out, Infiniti will introduce a QX30 as a sequel to the aged QX50.

Arriving now

Audi Q3

Even smaller luxe SUVs

Just below the compact luxury-SUV segment, a string of small hatchbacks-cum-crossovers are arriving—combining compact-car underpinnings, prestige branding, and upscale amenities. On the surface, those plebeian platypuses may appear to be parts-bin profiteering, but they do offer unique appeal in an era when shoppers are looking for more amenities while being sensitive to cost, size, and fuel-economy concerns.

The ladybug-cute subcompacts excel at urban parking, and their elevated ride height and upright seating may appeal to older drivers seeking a model that is easy to get into and out of. But their proportions bring compromises, often seen in limited passenger and cargo space, and occasionally in ride comfort.

Testing how far down-market its brand can go is the Mercedes-Benz GLA, spun off from the less-than-laudable CLA sedan. Fortunately, the GLA is better in all ways than its source material.

BMW has been splitting its product line into genre-bending variations and led the way with the compact X1. Based on the old 3-Series platform, the sporty-handling X1 seeks to offer the best of both sedan and crossover worlds, but it clearly feels less refined and finished than its bigger brother.

Buick’s take is derived from the subcompact—and unabashedly proletarian—Chevrolet Sonic. Yet the Encore boasts great maneuverability and a surprisingly more comfortable ride than many larger and higher-scoring SUVs. But the quiet, well-equipped cabin is snug, and the powertrain is meager.

Audi has just rolled out its Q3 in the U.S., a Mini-Me interpretation of the stunning Q5.

We’ve added the GLA and Q3 to our test fleet and will report on them soon.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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