Thursday, July 9, 2009

Comparison: Luxury SUV's Offroad

Sport Utility Vehicles. They are supposed to be all things to all people. Original examples evolved from 4WD vehicles that were capable of creating their own trail through rough terrain. Today, this segment has branched out into several different genres. The standard soccer mom SUV, the proper 4x4-geared SUV, the crossover and mini-SUV and finally, the luxury sport SUV.


This latter species is an odd one. Manufacturers who build these vehicles know that their wealthy owners will be much too scared of a little leftover winter sand on the road, let alone take them off-road. So the builders design these SUVs to handle like cars, and carve up tarmac corners instead of washed-out back roads. But they still build these luxury liners with AWD systems and even the most sports-oriented versions give the owner approach and departure angles in their spec sheets.


The whole train of thought behind an SUV is that these vehicles offer safety in adverse conditions. Many manufacturers also market these vehicles as passports to outdoor adventure, but will they actually survive in the wild? We got four different examples of these luxury SUVs and took them out into the great outdoors to see how they stand up against mother nature. Our trusty steeds in this experiment would be the Volvo XC90 R, BMW’s new diesel-powered X5, Infiniti’s FX50 and finally, the Land Rover LR3 HSE. All high-performance rides with the looks to match.


Infiniti FX50

Lets start with the highest performance version of these vehicles, the FX50. This is a truck that in reality is a high-performance sports car in SUV clothing. Its on-road abilities are truly amazing, and it could very likely make a couple of performance coupes look foolish on a track. However, the designs that make it a beast on the road should hinder the vehicle once the safety of tarmac is lost. The biggest weakness is the 21-inch wheels that are wrapped with 45-series all-season tires. When it comes to rough roads, this setup is a definite risk. Despite this, Infiniti lists the FX50’s approach and departure angles in the specs for the vehicle, and for a something so low to the ground (another hindrance in the back country) the angles are respectable.


The driving test proved the FX50 quite confident on gravel roads,  looking out for rocks and large potholes, and Nissan's great “RWD first” AWD system makes it a blast on clean winding gravel roads. It is clear that the suspension is tarmac oriented, so the FX50 does not feel like it is firmly planted on loose surfaces. If you decide to leave the beaten path, caution needs to be maintained, and only light off-road driving can be accomplished due to the vehicle's low ride height. Another problem we ran into was the strength of the centre differential. Under heavy load or when wheelspin began to be a factor, the centre viscous diff would overheat, leaving you with only RWD. Also, the absence of any underbody armour proves again that any off-roading in the FX50 should be kept to light terrain.


Volvo XC90 R

The XC90 is marketed much more to the adventurist than, say, the Infiniti or even the BMW. The name itself stands for Cross Country, so the ride height is higher, approach and departure angles are increased and there is even some skid plating mounted underneath, even if some is more for show. In terms of visibility and seating, the XC90 ranked top of our list. However, as Volvo prides itself on the on-road sportiness of the XC90, the 20-inch wheels mounted on our “R” version are risky, although our tester was set up with snow tires, giving us much more traction.


On the driving test, it had excellent driving characteristics on gravel roads, and the fear of damage from debris was not as high as the other vehicles, making for a more stress-free drive. It did tend to understeer when it got slippy. Off the beaten track, the XC90 proved remarkably confident despite its low height. The increased grip from tires and manoeuvrability of the XC itself had us heading into terrain we didn’t think was accessible. However, much like the FX50, the centre viscous diff proved to be a weak point as it, too, required cooling, leaving us with only FWD while in the field. All in all, we were quite impressed with the Swede, as it is capable of handling light-to-medium terrain, while being a sporty on-roader. Using the smaller 17-inch wheels available would make the XC an even more competent soft roader.


BMW X5 35d

BMW says that the X5 is just as good as handling a corner as the 3-series sedan. Having had an X5 on a racetrack, I can attest to this fact, as it is a force to be reckoned with. BMW has now released the turbo diesel version of the X5 in Canada, something I am ecstatic about as it now adds great fuel efficiency to the X5’s equation. But what about its off-road abilities? At 18 inches, the wheels are the smallest of the group and offer decent protection in a 55-series tire, which also turned out to be a snow tire on our tester. Like the Volvo, the X5 has some underbody protection, although its low plastic overhangs similar to the FX50 will have drivers keeping the approach and departure angles to a civilized level.


On our test drive, the Bimmer soaked up the gravel road with absolutely no problems, and remained neutral handling. It did have some of the stiff suspension float like the Infiniti produced. While the vehicle height had us on edge through the rough stuff, the Bimmer's low-range capability, and the strength of the diffs, meant that the drivetrain never experienced any problems no matter how sticky things got. While it was ideal to keep travel to mostly flat terrain, its capabilities were truly impressive, while the diesel always meant we had a good range of torque on demand.


Land Rover LR3 HSE

Now here is a special case. Land Rover has been the epitome of off-roading since the sixties, and the icon of any adventure expedition on any continent. With the Series Landies not in production, and very few Defenders making it to our shores, Land Rover has gone from farmyard worker to Military Recce vehicle, now ending up as a luxury vehicle driven by soccer moms and hockey players. So the question has to be, has Land Rover lost its off-road abilities that made the brand the most famous of any adventurer? NO!


While the LR3 looks more at home at the end of a red carpet, it still possesses the ability to get muddy. What makes it different from the others is its drivetrain. While the Volvo, BMW and Infiniti all use a standard clutch pack centre differential, the LR3 features a two-speed transfer case utilizing both high and low gearing, with locking centre, and optional locking rear, differentials. Land Rover has also added airbag suspension to raise the ride height for better ground clearance. Match this with a plethora of off-road-based electronics, and it is instantly apparent that Land Rover has not forgotten where it came from.


As you would expect, light and medium terrain come at ease with all these options. When it comes to hard terrain, the LR3 still remains competent, even if its limits are now being challenged. At this point, the same trouble of body overhangs and ground clearance begin to hang up the LR3. So, impressive off-road skill for such a luxury SUV to be sure. However, for these abilities, the Land Rover falls far behind the on-road abilities of the other three. 



After looking at four different luxury SUVs representing four different manufacturers built in four different countries, our conclusion may come as a bit of a surprise. The single biggest disadvantage to traveling off-road with these vehicles is the bodywork and tires. Taking these SUVs into the wild is like asking a painter to go to work in a tuxedo. You have to be willing to sacrifice scrapes down the doors and gouges in the bumpers, and if the size of the brakes permit, a smaller set of wheels and larger tires that will protect against punctures.


The truth of the matter is that for those who want to get out and explore the great outdoors, the terrain traveled is usually considered light if not just a gravel road. While the off-road capabilities of these vehicles are mostly medium-to-light, they are more than adequate for getting to 90 percent of the destinations that most outdoor enthusiasts desire. Obviously, if you are a dedicated wheeler, a more single-purpose, modified vehicle that won’t have you in tears when it rubs up against a tree, will be ideal. But for those who need to get back to work on Monday, and enjoy a luxury environment and sports car-like performance, then we found that a luxury SUV is well capable of doing it all.



The Specs

Infiniti FX50

Engine:  5.0L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,885/1,680 mm

Ground Clearance:  187 mm

Approach Angle:  28.8 degrees

Departure Angle: 20.9 degrees

Final Drive:  3.538

AWD System: Viscous Centre Differential-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,075 kg

Tires:  265/45R21

Electronic Aids: Only on-road safety aids

Price Base/As Tested:  $51,800 (FX35)/$59,900




Volvo XC90

Engine:  4.4L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,857/1,634 mm

Ground Clearance:  218 mm

Approach Angle:  28.0 degrees

Departure Angle: 25.0 degrees

Final Drive:  3.33

AWD System: Electronically-controlled multi-plate wet clutch-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,053 kg

Tires: 255/40R20

Electronic Aids: Only on-road safety

Price Base/As Tested: $48,595/$68,295




BMW X5 35d

Engine:  3.0L I6 Diesel

Wheelbase/Track:  2,933/1,650 mm

Ground Clearance:  210 mm

Approach Angle: 25.0 degrees

Departure Angle: 23.0 degrees

Final Drive:  4.44

AWD System: Electronically-controlled multi-plate wet clutch-based full-time AWD

Curb Weight: 2,370 kg

Tires:  255/55R18

Electronic Aids: Hill Descent Control

Price Base/As Tested:  $58,200/$62,200




Land Rover LR3 HSE

Engine:  4.4L V8

Wheelbase/Track:  2,885/1,613 mm

Ground Clearance:  240 mm

Approach Angle:  37.2 degrees

Departure Angle: 29.6 degrees

Final Drive:  3.73 – Transfer case Low/High: 2.93/1.00

AWD System: Two-speed electronic transfer gearbox, shift-on-the-fly capability with electronically-controlled variable-locking centre and rear differentials

Curb Weight: 2,629 kg

Tires: 255/55R19

Electronic Aids: Terrain Response System, Traction Control, Hill Descent Control, All-terrain dynamic stability control.

Price Base/As Tested:  $53,900/$64,200


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