The days of black smoke and diesel ruckus are behind us. Because the level of refinement is so much better than it was in the past, these engines are right at home in luxury sport/utilities. In the case of trucks and sport/utilities, diesel power gives you the fuel efficiency of a V-6 and lets you enjoy the effortless torque -- its peak at low rpm -- that is the same or better as that of a V-8. Diesel engines are tough. They are reliable. They are clean-burning.

Which brings us to this comparison story. We assembled four two-row midsize luxury sport/utilities: the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, the Porsche Cayenne, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Volkswagen Touareg.

All four are powered by 240-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesels that use common-rail fuel injection and SCR with DEF. All four have four- or all-wheel drive. All four have base prices in the $50,000s for the trim levels we tested. And three of the four have won our Sport/Utility of the Year honors. We took this group on the highway, on twisting side roads through spectacular countryside, and off-road through Central California to see which of the new breed of oil-burner SUVs is best.


4th Place: Volkswagen Touareg TDI

Don't let the Touareg's fourth-place finish make you think any less of it. That it came in fourth should give you an idea of how tough this comparison was, and how good all four SUVs are. The Touareg proved competent and capable in everything we asked of it during our evaluation. It has the lowest as-tested price and tied for first in towing capacity, and its 26.7 mpg combined was the second-best fuel economy of test.

But the Touareg didn't rise above being competent. Associate online editor Benson Kong noted, "The coil-spring suspension does not have the level of body- and wheel-control adaptability of the other three, and the effects are obvious on-road," and it felt tippy and tall through the curves.

Though antiseptic in the traditional VW way, it's replete with everything you'll need.

It was the only one here that didn't come with air suspension -- in fact, air suspension isn't even available -- so handling suffered on twisty roads. We also noticed plenty of tire, wind, diesel, and road noise on the drive. No air meant we couldn't increase the VW's ground clearance off-road. However, it still wasn't bad on the trail.

Judges also felt the vague steering feel was the worst of test. The transmission was good, but in Sport mode, it shifted hard and at times seemed confused as to what gear it should be in. One judge noted that the chassis bounces off bumps rather than absorbing them.

The Touareg's interior impressed us. Said associate online editor Nate Martinez, "The interior's airiness is the Touareg's strong point. Though antiseptic in the traditional VW way, it's replete with everything you'd need. The materials are nice and nothing is off-putting." The navigation system is fairly intuitive, and cabin controls are easier to learn than in past Touaregs. But there were issues with the seats. The seat bottom is long, and anyone who is on the shorter side has to scooch forward. They are also hard, flat, and extremely unsupportive after a couple hours of straight driving.

Another thing we took into consideration here is value. Sure, the Touareg was the least expensive of the group, but our tester didn't come as well-equipped as the others. If you factor in the cost of air suspension in the other three, the VW is the least expensive, but not the best value. It is competent, but forgettable.


3RD PLACE: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec 4Matic

The diesel-powered SUV for those who aren't diesel people, Kong said, "It probably delivers the most civilized approach to the diesel-powered midsize SUV. The least obvious diesel of the bunch, the ML350 sounds like a quiet gasoline engine throughout the rev range."

Everyone came away thoroughly impressed with the M-Class. It was without question the most refined of the group, combining a smoothly shifting transmission with excellent power from the diesel engine, and the most torque. Associate online editor Karla Sanchez wrote, "It was my favorite to drive on the curvy roads and highways. Felt light on its feet, and the most effortless to maneuver of the bunch. Easy to toss around turns without feeling body roll." She continued, "I was amazed at how quiet the cabin was. You wouldn't even know you were driving a diesel." We agreed the Benz's diesel exhibited the least turbo lag. That plus the whisper-quiet engine earned raves, and after the drive loops, placed this SUV at the top of the list for many judges. One key highlight was the size of the cargo area. With the rear seats down, you can fit 80.3 cubic feet of gear. That was the most, by far, of this test.

The Mercedes probably delivers the most civilized approach to the diesel-powered midsize SUV.

As impressed as the judges were with the fun of driving the Mercedes, doubts crept in. The ML's fuel economy was the worst of the four.

We know most people who buy luxury SUVs aren't going to take them off-road. However, there'll likely be times when you'll want to go to the cabin or drive through snow, and there is a presumption that an SUV will be able to tackle those tasks better than a car will. That's why we took these vehicles on trails, which was where we discovered the Mercedes was just not as confident in mild ruts and dirt as the others. Kong: "Off-road, even in its raised position, the ML350 felt indifferent yet fragile. It didn't have much trouble with any of the tasks, but felt more stretched out on the harder stuff than the others. Experienced a couple of odd ABS pulses when using the hill descent control."

That shortcoming is probably fine for most SUV drivers, but that, the worst fuel economy, and the lower value compared with some of the others here kept the ML350 in third place.


2nd Place: Porsche Cayenne Diesel

For a sport/utility vehicle, this is a helluva sports car. Praise was heaped on the Cayenne Diesel right from the start. Gushed Martinez, "It simply does not feel its weight or size with Sport Mode engaged and when pushed on twisty sections of pavement. As such, it's absurdly fun. Mix the Cayenne's long-standing athleticism with a torquey diesel and smooth eight-speed gearbox, and you get one lovely sporty SUV that lunges from corners and sets up better than some sports cars, bend after bend. Driven in a civil manner, the Cayenne's air suspension soaks up nastiness and provides a nice, comfortable ride. It also had little trouble conquering the soft-road paths, hill climbs, and rocks we put in its way."

Kong noted, "Responsive steering and a predictable engine/transmission powertrain: plenty of torque off the line, and it takes to the curves as you'd expect from a Porsche." We drove the Porsche as you would drive a Porsche, and the resulting fuel economy was something we still haven't been able to figure out: It generated the best mpg of the test, 29.2.

The fuel economy was something we still can't figure out. It was the best of the test -- 29.2

The interior was also very Porsche-esque. High-quality, attractive black leather is draped over the seats and much of the cabin. The wall of buttons and switches on the center stack seemed intimidating at first, but the controls are grouped logically and are easy to learn. It was easy to put the Porsche in off-road mode, and it did well in the dirt. Sound isolation was excellent, and there were wonderful touches, such as the traditional compass at the top of the dash, the altimeter, and bolstered seats that seemed to offer infinite adjustment choices.

The Cayenne ties for best towing capacity of test (7716 pounds), but has less cargo volume than the rest with the rear seats up or down, as well as the least rear-seat shoulder and legroom.

There's another problem with the Cayenne: the as-tested price, which was more than $93,000. However, the one we tested was beyond fully loaded, and it would be relatively easy to omit a few style features to significantly bring down the price. That aside, if you like to tow and go off-road, the Porsche shines.

As good as it is, though, there is one sport/utility here the judges felt was better all around.


1st Place: Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel

For 2014, the Jeep has crisp new styling inside and out, plus a diesel option for the first time since 2008, backed by an eight-speed automatic. Yes, the $56,000-plus as-tested price may seem alarming at first, but this Jeep is all grown up. As we discovered, it's comfortable going against the likes of Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Porsche.

This was not the fastest SUV of the four. In fact, it was the slowest. That's not a small difference, but it can be explained by its 400 additional pounds of mass -- it was the only one with low range. And it was by far the most confident on the trail, easily conquering the Hollister Hills trails with confidence. Yet that didn't keep the Grand from being fun on-road.

Martinez liked his introduction to the Jeep. "Whoa, there, torque. Nice to meet you. There's a huge dose of it at around 1500 rpm. It's not unpleasant. Rather, it comes into play in a smooth, linear way. Highway passing is stupid easy." Everyone was blown away by the refinement and smoothness of the eight-speed automatic transmission. But this was the noisiest engine. Its diesel sound noticeable at idle but much more pleasant at speed.

Whoa, there, torque. Nice to meet you. There’s a huge dose of it at around 1500 rpm.

Sanchez "really liked the open-pore wood trim, which made it look rugged yet classy. It didn't look cheap, and was a nice touch. The instrument cluster was simple, the graphics were crisp, the colors vibrant. Using the infotainment screen came naturally; no brain teasing going on there." Martinez agreed. "I found it had one of the most comfortable interiors of the quartet. Its seats were cushy; visibility was excellent. Off-roading-specific menus like the real-time wheel articulation animation made it stand out even more."

We were also impressed by the amount of features you get for the money -- and the Jeep came equipped with more of them, such as push-button start, blind-spot detection, xenon headlamps, and keyless entry -- than some of the others had, for a lot less money.

It is fun to drive on road, excels off-road, and has a comfortable, luxurious interior and the most payload capacity of test. Its fuel economy was just shy of the Touareg's -- and that's while carrying around significantly more weight. It offers a lot of value for the money. How could we not pick the Jeep as our winner?


  Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel Mercedes -Benz Ml350 BlueTec 4Matic Porsche Cayenne Diesel Volks- wagen Touareg TDI
DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD Front engine, AWD Front engine, AWD Front engine, AWD
ENGINE 60-deg turbodiesel V-6, iron block/ aluminum heads 72-deg turbodiesel V-6, aluminum block/ heads 90-deg turbodiesel V-6, iron block/ aluminum heads 90-deg turbodiesel V-6, iron block/ alumheads
BORE X STROKE 3.27 x 3.60 in 3.27 x 3.62 in 3.27 x 3.60 in 3.27 x 3.60 in
DISPLACEMENT 182 cu in/3.0L 182 cu in/3.0L 181 cu in/3.0L 181 cu in/3.0L
COMPRESSION RATIO 15.5:1 15.5:1 16.8:1 16.8:1
VALVE GEAR DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
POWER (SAE NET) 240 hp @ 3600 rpm 240 hp @ 3600 rpm 240 hp @ 3500 rpm 240 hp @ 4000 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 420 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm 455 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm 406 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm 406 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic 7-speed automatic 8-speed automatic 8-speed automatic
1ST 4.97:1 2ND 2.84:1 3RD 2.11:1 4TH 1.67:1 3RD 1.92:1 4TH 1.37:1 3RD 1.86:1 4TH 1.44:1 3RD 1.86:1 4TH 1.44:1
5TH 1.21:1 6TH 1.00:1 7TH 0.84:1 8TH 0.67:1 7TH 0.73:1 7TH 0.83:1 8TH 0.69:1 7TH 0.82:1 8TH 0.69:1
REVERSE 3.30:1 3.42:1 4.07:1 4.07:1
AXLE RATIO 3.45:1 3.27:1 3.27:1 3.27:1
FINAL-DRIVE RATIO 2.30:1 2.39:1 2.26:1 2.26:1
LOW-RANGE RATIO 2.72:1 N/A N/A N/A
CRAWL RATIO (1ST X AXLE GEARS X LOW RANGE) 44.1:1 N/A N/A N/A
DIMENSIONS/CAPACITIES
WHEELBASE 114.0 in 114.8 in 114.0 in 113.9 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 189.8 x 76.5 x 69.3 in 189.1 x 84.3 x 70.7 in 190.8 x 76.3 x 67.4 in 188.8 x 76.4 x 68.2 in
TRACK, F/R 63.9/64.1 in 64.7/65.2 in 65.2/65.9 in 65.0/65.7 in
TURNING CIRCLE 37.1 ft 38.7 ft 39.1 ft 39.0 ft
APPROACH/ DEPARTURE ANGLE 25.6-35.8/ 25.3-29.6 deg 26.0/ 25.0 deg (base height) 25.5-29.5/ 24.0-27.5 deg 26.0/26.0 deg
GROUND CLEARANCE 8.7-11.3 in 7.7-10.4 in 7.5-10.5 in 7.9 in
CURB WEIGHT 5401 lb 5109 lb 5122 lb 4992 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 52/48% 54/46% 52/48% 53/47%
PAYLOAD CAPACITY 1399 lb 1395 lb 1161 lb 1313 lb
GVWR 6800 lb 6504 lb 6283 lb 6305 lb
TOWING CAPACITY 7200 lb 7200 lb 7716 lb 7716 lb
SEATING CAPACITY 5 5 5 5
HEADROOM, F/R 39.9/39.2 in 40.4/38.5 in 38.6/38.9 in 39.6/38.9 in
LEGROOM, F/R 40.3/38.6 in 40.3/38.4 in 41.0/36.5 in 41.4/36.9 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 58.7/58.0 in 58.5/58.4 in 59.1/56.1 in 59.8/56.7 in
CARGO VOLUME, BEH 1ST/2ND ROW 68.3/36.3 cu ft 80.3/38.2 cu ft 62.9/23.7 cu ft 64.0/32.1 cu ft
CHASSIS
CONSTRUCTION Unibody Unibody Unibody Unibody
SUSPENSION, FRONT/REAR Control arms, air springs, anti-roll bar/multilink, air springs, anti-roll bar Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar, multilink, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar, multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar Control arm, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
STEERING TYPE Electro- hydraulic Electro- mechanical Belt-drive hydraulic Belt-drive hydraulic
RATIO 18.9:1 (on center), 15.7:1 (full lock) 18.9:1 (on center) 12.5-15.9:1 12.7:1
TURNS LOCK-TO-LOCK 3.5 2.9 2.5 2.5
BRAKES, F/R 12.9-in vented disc / 12.6-in vented disc 13.0-in vented disc / 12.8-in disc, ABS 14.2-in vented disc 13.0-in vented disc, ABS 3.0-in vented disc / 13.0-in vented disc, ABS
WHEELS 8.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum 9.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum 8.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum 8.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum
TIRES 265/50R20 107T M+S Goodyear Fortera HL 265/45R20 108H M+S Continental CrossContact LX Sport 265/50R19 110V M+S Michelin Latitude Tour HP 265/50R19 110H M+S Goodyear Eagle LS2
TEST DATA
ACCELERATION TO MPH
0-30 2.2 sec 2.0 sec 2.0 sec 2.1 sec
0-40 3.7 3.4 3.3 3.3
0-50 5.6 4.9 5 5
0-60 7.8 6.9 6.9 6.9
0-70 10.8 9.3 9.4 9.3
0-80 14.6 12.4 12.4 12.4
0-90 18.8 16.2 16.3 16.1
PASSING, 45-65 MPH 4.8 4 4 3.9
QUARTER MILE 16.0 sec @ 83.3 mph 15.3 sec @ 87.8 mph 15.3 sec @ 87.7 mph 15.3 sec @ 88.0 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 122 ft 121 ft 116 ft 124 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.74 g (avg) 0.83 g (avg) 0.85 g (avg) 0.82 g (avg)
TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH 1600 rpm 1600 rpm 1600 rpm 1600 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
BASE PRICE $51,990 $52,175 $59,725 $48,320
PRICE AS TESTED $56,990 $64,585 $93,035 $54,595
AIRBAGS Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
FUEL CAPACITY 24.6 gal 27.7 gal 26.4 gal 26.4 gal
EPA CITY/HWY ECON 21/28 mpg 20/28 mpg 19/29 mpg 20/29 mpg
AS-TESTED FUEL ECON 26.4 mpg 25.3 mpg 29.2 mpg 26.7 mpg
RECOMMENDED FUEL ULSD ULSD ULSD ULSD
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