we knew we had a battle on our hands before we even palmed the first key fob. The last time we did a test like this ("Dune Devils," July 2008), the segment consisted of just five vehicles, of which we chose to compare four -- Acura RDX, BMW X3, Land Rover LR2 HSE, and Lincoln MKX. When it came time to select the contenders for this go 'round only two years later, we drew up a list twice as long. So we exorcised the demons from that story -- including the formerly winning RDX -- in deference to the latest in six-cylinder luxury. With the Cadillac SRX not yet available, we chose to cut the decidedly carlike Infiniti EX35, launched last year, in favor of an all-new foursome: Audi Q5, Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GLK350, and Volvo XC60.

So what gives? Why has this category become one of the most hotly contested segments in the industry? Call it Marketing 101. As boomers tire of truck-based SUVs and the upwardly mobile outgrow sedan life, auto manufacturers are betting on replacements that offer the sporting capability of an SUV in a package not much bigger than a full-size sedan. Hence, this growing small luxury crossover niche.

On paper, these crossovers could be tracings of one another. All seat five and come with six-cylinder engines and all-wheel drive. Niceties including satellite navigation, backup cameras, and poshly trimmed cabins are on offer as well. Of course, there are variations in powertrains and configurations. Volvo's XC60 uses a turbocharged 281-horsepower, 3.0-liter inline-6 while the Audi Q5 employs a normally aspirated, 270-horse, 3.2-liter V-6. Mercedes and Lexus chose larger 3.5-liter V-6s, but the GLK350 mounts its 268-horsepower engine north-south for a RWD-based AWD system, while the 270-horsepower RX 350 sticks with an east-west layout (allows for a lower-priced front-drive model as well as this AWD version). All, except the seven-speed GLK, use six-speed automatic transmissions.

The tape measure reveals one of the few meaningful dimensional differences. While the height and width of all four vehicles fall within 1.1 inches of each other, the Lexus seems to have benefited from ads in the back of this magazine. At 187.8 inches long, the RX 350 has 5.6 inches on the XC60 and Q5 and is a whopping 9.5 inches longer than the GLK350.

Testing shows size isn't everything, as precious little separates our quartet at the track. In the sprint to 60 mph, a mere two-tenths of a second differentiate the quickest (Audi/6.6 seconds) from the two slowest (Volvo and Benz, 6.8). In the quarter mile, the Audi again bests the Volvo by two-tenths. The difference in lateral acceleration is even smaller; just 0.07 g distinguishes the stickiest (Audi/0.85 g) and most slippery (Lexus/0.78 g). Though the Audi has the largest disc brakes, braking honors go to the lightweight Benz. At 118 feet, the GLK stops two feet shorter than the Q5 and a full 13 feet ahead of the heavyweight RX.

Even a close exam of pricing yields only a slight advantage for the Benz. With a base price of $36,775, the GLK350 starts off roughly $1200-$1500 cheaper than its rivals, but all quickly head into the $40,000 range once a few options are tacked on.

So with each manufacturer's shot so tightly grouped on target, how do we tease out a winner? We head for the hills and then down into the desert -- in this case, Anza Borrego State Park, the largest in California. Coming along for the ride are Editor-at-Large Arthur St. Antoine, Road Test Editor Scott Mortara, and Senior Editor Ron Kiino.

If you're thinking lush, wooded meadows and cool mountain breezes, forget it. Anza Borrego is low-desert territory, bordering on the Golden State's largest, saltiest lake, the Salton Sea. It's accessible from the west via Highway S-22, a ribbon of curvy, smooth asphalt that descends from over 6000 feet to just 150 feet above sea level. Since the majority of our selected crossovers will serve off-road duty no tougher than the occasional dirt parking lot, we put extra emphasis on road manners. In this test of driving etiquette, Lexus and Mercedes reveal themselves to be highly uninteresting corner-carving conversationalists.

"There is no steering feel at all; you feel completely disconnected from the road," says Mortara of the RX 350. "The GLK's chassis is easily one of the best -- poised, controllable, grippy -- but all the enjoyment of exploiting it is ruined by the worst steering in the group. It's as lifeless as King Tut," avers St. Antoine.

Kiino concurs, "Even with the sport package, the RX is not meant for twisty roads. Way too sloppy, offering too much mass, too much roll, and linear but numb steering feel. Plus, the stability control cuts in really early." As for the GLK, "Steering feel is way too light, sloppy, and uncommunicative -- the worst I've experienced in a Benz," he says. One is numb, the other lifeless. How then might the XC60 fare?

"They usually feel gluey, but this steering rack imparts a nicely weighted sensation and is probably the best I've experienced in a Volvo," says Kiino. Overall handling is impressive from this high-riding Swede; despite nine inches of ground clearance, the XC60 corners flat and holds on tight. St. Antoine is more impressed with the Volvo's giddyup, "Where did all this go come from? Engine pulls really hard; perhaps not as smooth as the others, but the power is really compelling," he continues. Mortara notes the willing engine, but wishes for smoother delivery: "Plenty of power and torque, but it's very non-linear. The turbo spools and drops off very quickly, which makes for a jerky drive."

As for the Q5, after romps up and down S-22, all editors breathlessly inquire about the availability of paddle shifters (which can be had as part of a $2950 S-line option package that includes trick bits like racier bodywork, 20-inch wheels, and summer tires). Why? Credit the willing V-6 and hardened chassis, but the real secret is Audi's Drive Select system, which provides four distinct and delectable driving modes -- auto, dynamic, comfort, and individual (user customizable).

While the GLK offers sport and comfort modes and our RX 350 came equipped with the aforementioned sport package (19-inch wheels, stiffer suspension, and Vehicle Dynamics Integration Management electronics), neither go as far as Drive Select. Its dynamic mode not only serves up quicker gear shifts and snappier throttle response, it tightens the Audi's steering and shock dampening. The Benz and Lexus systems tweak transmission and throttle settings, but don't touch ride or handling. The Volvo allows for no increased performance, unless you count manually toggling the gearshift (which ain't bad either). At $2995, Audi's Drive Select doesn't come cheap, but it's well worth it, say our panel.

"I like dynamic mode a lot on twisty bits; does a nice job keeping the revs up and the steering weights up nicely. Probably the best of the bunch at relaying what the front tires are up to," says Kiino. Even when left in auto (the default for those who pass on the option) or set to the softest comfort setting, the Q5 still manages to humble the other three on S-22. "The only SUV in this group with real steering feel -- and it's not just good, it's excellent. Chassis hangs on with exemplary grip, never puts a wheel wrong, and returns a fine ride in comfort mode," notes St. Antoine.

After our canyon blasts, we take our quartet out for some light off-roading on a couple of Anza Borrego's silted washes. Considering the lavishness of these crossovers, this may seem like asking soccer moms to actually play soccer, but all in our foursome are game -- even the low -- riding Lexus. With only 7.3 inches of ground clearance, the RX 350 occasionally skirts the soft hillocks of sand that accumulate in the center of the trail. No such schussing noises are heard from the high-rolling Volvo; its nine inches of ground clearance and best-in-test power-to-weight ratio send it wafting over all manner of pebble and stone. Audi's dirt solution is simple: a drum-tight chassis and quattro all-wheel drive.

"Off-road, the Q5 feels right at home. The structure is solid and secure as the rig climbs through the rough stuff, quattro adeptly metering out torque," says St. Antoine.

The Benz, with its G-wagen-inspired angles, looks built for the really rough stuff, though its 7.9 inches of clearance (same as the Q5's) says otherwise. Navigating around obstacles, rather than over them, is recommended and aided by the large windows of its upright greenhouse. The low speeds required for such rocky negotiations allows the chassis to shine and minimizes steering inadequacies. "GLK feels solid off-road, and indeed generally does its job very well. Engine isn't one of the stronger ones, but it's gutty nonetheless. The seven-speed cuts up the torque well, too-the GLK never felt out of breath," notes St. Antoine.

With driving evaluations out of the way, our judges take on the equally important issues of styling and cabin comfort. After all, these are essentially Swiss Army knives for status seekers. The weak-chinned and awkward Lexus takes the most shots for styling, but regains ground with its high-tech cockpit, laundry list of amenities, and spacious cabin. The organic LED displays and a trick "mouse-ball" Remote Touch multimedia controller dazzle up front, while the large door openings, flat, tunnel-less floor, and wide rear seat lead Mortara to proclaim that the RX 350's rear cabin is "simply in a different league," one that apparently allows five normal-size adults to ride comfortably.

Not so the GLK. Kneeroom isn't the issue. The scalloped front seatbacks and deeply contoured rear seats mean that legroom and overall comfort are excellent-as long as only two adults sit in back. Add a third, and the airy, though austere, cabin quickly becomes cramped. To make things worse, the rear seats in the GLK don't slide, and the small door apertures are made even less accessible than the optional side sills. These lengths of rubber-dotted aluminum are evidence of questionable engineering, as they're as high as the doorsill itself, which means ingress or roof loading isn't any easier. In fact, all they seem to do is make exiting the vehicle a hamstring-stretching, pants-soiling affair.

Audi and Volvo split the difference between these two extremes. The Q5 offers more rear legroom than the GLK does-thanks to it's sliding rear seat-but can't challenge the RX 350 for comfort supremacy due to its huge transmission tunnel. Middle-seat passengers need to adopt a "wide stance." Our Q5's Ibis White paint amplifies the already smooth and sterile styling, but no one can knock the execution. LED headlights and tight panel gaps define Audi's modern and clean styling, while the light-colored, wood-and-aluminum-trimmed cabin offer a refreshing change from the competition's darker treatments.

High rear windowsills and small door apertures make the Volvo feel safe, but a bit claustrophobic -- a tradeoff all our judges would gladly take for such a sharp-looking ride. The XC60's dramatic front end and rising beltline create a rakish, aggressive stance, while the deep draw of its shoulderline, and striking, high-visibility taillights make for one delicious posterior. Inside, the deeply grained leather panels, floating center stack, and classy control layout (including steering-wheel-mounted navigation controls and a remote control for the passengers) draw raves from our judges.

So after days in the desert with these closely stacked competitors, does a clear winner emerge? Surprisingly, yes. With all so evenly matched, small blemishes become colossal warts. Numb steering and Spartan digs doom the comfortably competent GLK350 to fourth place while unwieldy styling and soulless performance relegate the loaded RX 350 to third. The XC60 offers surprising on- and off-road prowess and breathtaking good looks, but can't quite match the overall refinement of our winner. Though its as-tested price is over $6000 more than the runner-up, the Audi Q5 takes first position by returning the most compelling drive. It's not even close.

FIRST PLACE: AUDI Q5 3.2 QUATTRO TIPTRONIC
If you love flogging your sport sedan but want more utility, this one's for you. From styling to performance, the Q5 is unmatched. The investment is high, but so is the return.

SECOND PLACE: VOLVO XC60 T6
Test-leading power and torque back up the broad shoulders and aggressive off-road stance. A safe yet stylish value statement but with less of the Audi's refinement and driving flair.

THIRD PLACE: LEXUS RX 350
For the list-checkers, it has almost everything-smooth ride, air cooled seats, a roomy cabin, and a future proof infotainment system. All it lacks is a soul-stirring drive.

FOURTH PLACE: MERCEDES-BENZ GLK350
A compact, comfortable four-seater with excellent chassis dynamics, which is completely betrayed by indifferent steering. Shame the striking looks don't match the handling.


  2010 Audi Q5 3.2 quattro Tiptronic 2010 Lexus RX 350 AWD 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK350 4Matic 2010 Volvo XC60 T6
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, AWD Front-engine, AWD
Engine type 60 deg V-6, alum block/heads 60 deg V-6, alum block/alum heads 60 deg V-6, alum block/heads I-6, alum block/head
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 195.1 cu in/3197 cc 210.9 cu in/3456 cc 213.5 cu in/3498 cc 180.2 cu in/2953 cc
Compression ratio 12.5:1 10.8:1 10.7:1 9.3:1
Power (SAE net) 270 hp @ 6500 rpm 275 hp @ 6200 rpm 268 hp @ 6000 rpm 281 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 243 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm 257 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm 258 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm 295 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm
Redline 6800 rpm 6400 rpm 6000 rpm 6500 rpm
Weight to power 16.0 lb/hp 16.4 lb/hp 15.7 lb/hp 14.9 lb/hp
Transmission 6-speed automatic 6-speed automatic 7-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
Axle/final-drive ratios 4.22:1/2.91:1 4.40:1/2.67:1 3.67:1/2.68:1 3.75:1/2.57:1
Suspension, front; rear Multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs anti-roll bar
Steering ratio 16.3:1 14.8:1 14.7:1 (est) 16.0:1
Turns lock-to-lock 2.3 2.8 2.8 2.8
Brakes, f;r 13.6-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS 12.9-in vented disc; 12.2-in disc, ABS 13.0-in vented disc; 11.8-in disc, ABS 12.9-in vented disc; 11.9-in vented disc, ABS
Wheels 8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum 7.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum 8.0 x 19-in, cast aluminum 7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum
Tires 235/60R18 103H A/S Dunlop Grandtrek Touring 235/55R19 101V M+S Michelin Latitude Tour HP 255/50R19 107H M+S Bridgestone Dueler H/L 400 235/60R18 103H M+S Pirelli Scorpion Zero M+S
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 110.5 in 107.9 in 108.5 in 109.2 in
Track, f/r 63.7/63.5 in 64.2/63.8 in 60.1/62.5 in 65.2/65.7 in
Length x width x height 182.2 x 74.0 x 65.1 in 187.8 x 74.2 x 66.3 in 178.3 x 74.3 x 66.9 in 182.2 x 74.4 x 65.8 in
Ground clearance 7.9 in 7.3 in 7.9 in 9.0 in
Approach/depart angle 25.0/25.0 28.6/24.9 21.8/17.6 22.0/27.0
Turning circle 38.1 ft 40.0 ft 37.7 ft 38.1 ft
Curb weight 4310 lb 4497 lb 4200 lb 4249 lb
Weight dist., f/r 53/47% 56/44% 52/48% 59/41%
Towing capacity 4400 lb 3500 lb 3500 lb 4409 lb
Seating capacity 5 5 5 5
Headroom, f/r 38.1/37.7 in 39.1/37.7 in 39.0/39.7 in 38.0/38.1 in
Legroom, f/r 41.0/37.4 in 43.1/36.8 in 41.4/35.1 in 41.2/36.4 in
Shoulder room, f/r 57.7/56.4 in 58.0/57.6 in 55.2/55.4 in 56.7/55.2 in
Cargo volume, behind f/r 57.3/29.1 cu ft 80.3/40.0 cu ft 65.9/35.0 cu ft 67.4/30.8 cu ft
TEST DATA
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.2 sec 2.1 sec 2.2 sec 2.5 sec
0-40 3.6 3.4 3.6 3.7
0-50 4.9 5 4.9 5.2
0-60 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.8
0-70 8.7 8.9 8.7 9.1
0-80 11.1 11.2 11.5 11.4
0-90 13.8 14.7 14.4 14.1
0-100 17.3 18.6 17.9 17.9
Passing, 45-65 mph 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5
Quarter mile 15.0 sec @ 93.6 mph 15.1 sec @ 91.0 mph 15.1 sec @ 91.8 mph 15.2 sec @ 93.9 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 120 ft 131 ft 118 ft 120 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.85 g (avg) 0.78 g (avg) 0.80 g (avg) 0.81 g (avg)
MT figure eight 26.9 sec @ 0.65 g (avg) 28.1 sec @ 0.61 g (avg) 28.1 sec @ 0.60 g (avg) 27.3 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 2050 rpm 1900 rpm 2000 rpm 1900 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $38,025 $39,025 $36,775 $38,025
Price as tested $48,275 $46,928 $45,625 $42,250
Stability/traction control Yes/yes Yes,/yes Yes/yes Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee Dual front, front side f/r curtain Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 4 yrs/50,000 miles 6 yrs/70,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles 4 yrs/50,000 miles
Roadside assistance 4 yrs/unlimited 4 yrs/unlimited Unlimited 4 yrs/unlimited
Fuel capacity 19.8 gal 19.2 gal 17.4 gal 18.5 gal
EPA city/hwy econ 18/23 mpg 18/24 mpg 16/21 mpg 16/22 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.97 lb/mile 0.96 lb/mile 1.08 lb/mile 1.06 lb/mile
MT fuel economy 17.8 mpg 17.6 mpg 16.9 mpg 15.6 mpg
Recommended fuel Unleaded premium Unleaded premium Unleaded premium Unleaded regular

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