Three isnt crowd Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes ML320 all three are swish and have the performance and credibility no luxury saloon can match. Solidly built and brilliantly engineered, theres a lot common among these cars

The Audi Q7, BMW X5 and the Mercedes ML320 are the ultimate luxury SUVs money can buy in India at least. But which one is most worthy of your fat wallet?

First the X5. Its shorter than the Q7, has smaller wheels and doesnt have the menace that the Audis nose musters, but its no weakling. This is the refreshed X5. Beyond the larger headlamps and sculpted bonnet, the biggest change is the X5s growth spurt, its overall length increasing by 187mm to 4854mm, wheelbase by 113mm and width by 17mm. The MLs the shortest SUV here, but in no way does it look any smaller. Like the X5, this is the face-lifted version. Its also the only one with a tailgate-mounted spare wheel a chip off the traditional SUV. The ML, like the other two, isnt built on traditional SUV underpinnings like a body-on-frame chassis.

Drive system

All are built on monocoque chassis, none have dedicated 4WD transfer cases as standard and all rely on electronics and full-time 4WD systems to get them through off-road patches. The ML holds a slight advantage with the off-road settings for the suspension, ESP and 4WD system. Mercedes-Benz also gives you the option of ordering your ML with a four-wheel-drive transfer case, which the others dont. All use double wishbone independent suspension up front and multi-link suspension at the rear the layout is more Sport than Utility. Oh, and the Audi and Merc come with an adjustable air suspension system, which the BMW doesnt have. And given their size and supreme highway abilities, its only fitting that their massive fuel tanks and diesel engines give them fantastic continent-munching ability. The BMW and the Audi come with run-flat tyres, while the Merc has a full-size spare on its back. Audi provides a space saver with the Q7.

The Audis cabin makes you feel extra special. The seats feel like armchairs. Theres fantastic space for the front and middle row passengers. Its got the most usable third row too and if you need boot space, the last row can be folded into the floor to make a flat loading area. Its the most practical too, with plenty of cubbyholes and thoughtful features such as the net in the boot to tie luggage down. The middle row can seat two (there is a seven-seater version though).

The BMWs dash is of high quality, but doesnt have the sense of occasion that the Q7 has. Mostly black, with wood inserts, it looks like a business suit in comparison to the Audis livelier design. The X5s seats are good too, the front seats have proper bolstering and are comfy, if not as accommodating as the Q7s. The rear seats are a bit short on thigh support but, like in the Q7, the seat back angle can be adjusted. The X5s got seven seats and while it may not have the length of the Audi, the third row is more usable than it looks. Like the Q7, dropping the rear seats is an easy option.

Design aspect

Its the Mercs interiors that look a little out of place in this company. While it is well-built and of decent quality, the design is good but is traditional when compared to its rivals. Theres no iDrive or MMI system either. Visibility out of the ML is just decent. This is especially scary when you brake hard the nose dives and the tail rises, blocking any view you had of low-slung hatchbacks with brakes that are nowhere as good. Even worse is the tiny left rearview mirror. The Merc also has the disadvantage of not offering a third row and the other seats, while spacious, are a tad too firm. Still, its a pretty practical cabin. The boot is big and well-shaped, but you have to swing the heavy spare wheel carrier out of the way to access the boot.

The Q7s performance is in no way slow. Itll sail past the 100kph mark in 10.6 seconds, and while it doesnt snap to throttle inputs like an X5, it does a pretty good job of hustling its bulk. Still, overtaking manoeuvres do need a bit of planning. It doesnt have a paddle-shift function and has an irritating tendency to upshift mid-corner, which is exactly why it isnt the best engine-gearbox combo in this group.

The Q7 is overshadowed by the X5 in a race. The BMWs 2993cc aluminium six-cylinder turbodiesel, already in service in the 530d, is a gem in the way it responds. This new X5 has a six-speed automatic gearbox with an improved torque converter. It operates with less slip to increase efficiency and gearshift speed in a manner that is obvious in the way the X5 bolts away from the Audi and the Merc. With 235bhp, the X5s diesel gives this 2180kg SUV a healthy power-to-weight ratio and an even healthier 0-100kph time. Theres a broad spread of power throughout the 3.0ds rev range and peak torque of 53kgm is developed at 2000rpm, so response from low revs is excellent too. Add to this a willing gearbox and an engine that has a petrol motor-like top-end and you have your winner.

Though bettered by the Q7 in terms of absolute refinement, the 320 CDi has that typical Benz V6 smoothness and punch. The only time it gets vocal is when you rev it. Still, its seven-speed gearbox allows for lower engine revs at higher speeds, adding to the Mercs superb refinement levels. Its the only car here with paddleshifts, though you will rarely find reason to override the smooth and linear power delivery of this engine. The smooth-shifting gearbox, the gearshift maps and the engines power delivery characteristics are more suited to cruising on highways than making regular visits to the redline.

As for fuel efficiency, the ML came out on top. We got 6.1kpl in the city and 10.5kpl on the highway. The X5 fared slightly better than the Q7 we got 5.7kpl versus the Q7s 5.5kpl in the city. On the highway, the difference is as marginal. The X5 gave us 9.8kpl to the Q7s 9.1kpl.

Verdict

These SUVs are solidly built, reek of quality and are brilliantly engineered. Road behaviour and comfort are of a high order as well. They cost Rs 64 lakh and upwards, so price is not an issue either. Equal as they are, its the finer points and differences in their characters that separates them.

Many will like the Merc for its all-round ability. The way it transports its passengers in an unfussed manner is so typical of a car wearing the three-point. However, some essential equipment are missing in ML and it feels a touch smaller.

The Q7 on the other hand comes brilliantly equipped and has a sumptuous interior with seats that are the most comfortable. Its practical, refined and has greater road presence (important for SUV owners). However, its not dynamically the best and the overall driving experience didnt delight us much.

The X5 may not be as big or spacious as Q7 and the engine too isnt as quiet as the Audis. However, the Bimmers ride and seven-seat practicality give it the edge. The engine and gearbox are phenomenally responsive. Every trip in the X5 is sheer joy. The X5 is a car you can buy with your heart as well as your head.