Mother Truckers

Remember the Lamborghini LM002, the Italian firm’s attempt at a supersonic 4WD from way back in 1986? Seemed ridiculous didn’t it? – shoving a whopping great V12 into a whopping great lump of a thing wearing the raging bull logo that admittedly originated from farm machinery.

At that precise moment, I’m pretty sure the earth sighed and Ferrari laughed, as did the rest of the world’s population. But it planted a seed that would sprout on-masse some time later.

The 2000 Mercedes ML55 AMG grew first – a lumbering separate-chassis 4WD with rubbish dynamics but a rip-snorting 255kW 5.4-litre V8 to make up some time on the straights. And people bought it – too many of them, actually – which prompted the likes of Porsche (Cayenne Turbo), BMW (X5 4.8is) and even Land Rover (Range Rover Sport Supercharged) and Jeep (Grand Cherokee SRT8) to follow suit. Again, the earth sighed.

But “you can’t stop progress”, to quote Bill ‘The Battler’ Heslop from Muriel’s Wedding, and the whole fast-4WD cycle is well and truly mobilised, and now into its second phase. The awful ML55 has become the rather good ML63, the blown Rangie Sport (along with big-brother Rangie Vogue) has just copped a new-generation supercharged V8, and BMW has, controversially, badgered its iconic M division to create the twin-turbo-V8-powered X5 M.
Porsche unveiled its second-generation Cayenne Turbo at Geneva in March (though it won’t reach Australian shores until July), Volkswagen did likewise with its Touareg cousin, and Jeep’s all-new Grand Cherokee SRT8 (with a 6.4-litre Hemi V8) is due in 2011. But fresh off the cargo vessel for this comparo of gigantic proportions is the wildcard of the entire fast-4WD field – Audi’s intriguing Q7 V12 TDI – complete with 1000Nm and room for seven. VW’s now-discontinued Touareg R50 got us used to the idea of a fast diesel 4WD, but with two more cylinders, a litre extra capacity and another 110kW/150Nm, Audi’s mothership takes that to a whole new level.

Indeed, it seems to be a bit of an unofficial VW/Audi policy to make their fast 4WDs drink sticky fuel, and there’s no arguing with that reasoning once you experience the uber-Q7’s performance. Its 5934cc common-rail-injected V12 diesel employs every trick in the book – four valves-per-cylinder, double overhead cams, direct piezo injectors and two variable-vane turbochargers – to achieve 500 metric horsepower (368kW) at 3750rpm and a deeply impressive 1000Nm from 1750 to 3250rpm. That’s enough to punch Audi’s elephantine 4WD to 60km/h in just 2.6sec and to 100km/h in 5.65 – surging on the crest of a delicious wave of mega-diesel torque.

Being a V12 means the gun Q7 is as smooth and refined as a diesel is ever going to get, but it also means little in the way of acoustic eroticism. Instead, it whooshes and wafts along effortlessly, its laid-back manners doing a sterling job of disguising its serious progress, just like an old four-speed Bentley Arnage. Foot buried in Drive Sport, the Q7’s six-speed auto shifts up from first at just 4000rpm before making a very leisurely transition from second at 4300rpm – presumably to protect the transmission from that continent of torque. But deception is the Audi’s forte. Nail the throttle on the move and, following some momentary turbo lag, this 2635kg beast rams you gently in the slats while demolishing 80-120km/h in just 3.1 seconds.

To put the Q7’s rolling muscle into perspective, only one other truck here can match that time – BMW’s twin-turbo-petrol 408kW X5 M. But the Munich mauler has several of its own accelerative aces stuffed up its puffy sleeve – not the least of which is a searing 0-100km/h time of just 5.02sec. That’s on par with numbers we’ve clocked from M3s, M5s and M6s, and its standing-400 number of 13.07sec (at 176.12km/h) is equally on the money. Make no mistake, the M division’s first-ever 4WD upholds the brand by being seriously, addictively ballistic, with superb throttle response and luscious torque, but we kind of expected that. What we weren’t prepared for is the sound made by the X5’s twin-turbo 4.4-litre V8 – all half-dozen of them.

Sneakily, BMW has hidden a ‘Power’ setting inside the M-Drive button on the steering wheel that acts as a loud-haler for the exhaust, without actually delivering any more of what it says on the tin. Without it turned on, the X5 M is an incredibly demure beast – almost sounding like a refined diesel at kick-over, and then a previous-generation X5 3.0i cruising around carparks. Nail the throttle, though, and she bursts into life, whizzing the tacho needle to just below the 7000rpm redline before grabbing the next gear and blurting out its rear end. Yep, the X5 M does a fabulous DSG-style, ignition-cut ‘blatt’ at every upshift under full throttle, and if you want to hear it in surround sound, you simply hit the steering wheel’s ‘M’ button.

With ‘Power’ on, the X5 M’s character turns sinister. There’s bass at idle that wasn’t there before, and plenty of intrusive exhaust meat under load at middling revs – particularly up hills at 120km/h on freeways. Disengage the noise button and the drone instantly vanishes, but then so does the X5 engine’s personality. You want to hear that twin-turbo V8 rasp and blurt, but in something this fast (and, it must be said, BIG), you just can’t drive around everywhere with your foot to the floor in an attempt to regain that high. Yes, the hard-charging X5 M has a drug-like effect, but the hit is also nothing like what you were expecting, because at no time does this monster-truck sound like a V8. Instead, imagine a Golf GTI with surround-sound cranked to 11, mixed with some five-pot warble and direct-injection snarl, backed by some seriously cool exhaust blurting. It’s unusual, but it’s also intriguingly addictive.

The other three V8s – the ML63 and the Rangies – are far more traditional bent-eight, though when one revs to 7350rpm and the other two wear superchargers, what is normal these days? The ML’s thumping 375kW 6.2-litre AMG V8 turns five this year, but it remains a stunner – burbly around town, beautifully progressive in its power delivery, and symphonic when your right foot’s buried and she’s ripping through the gears. It’s a more satisfying V8 than the BMW’s twin-turbo in many ways because it feels more natural around town and it loves to rumble. But it’s also just as quick. To 100km/h, the BMW is 0.07sec ahead, and by 160km/h that margin has stretched to just 0.45sec, while over the standing-400m, it’s 13.07sec (X5 M) versus 13.26 (ML63). Call it a bee’s dick of difference.

The ML is bang on for rolling punch, too (80-120km/h in 3.2) and like the BMW’s six-speed ZF, the Benz’s seven-speed 7G-tronic upshifts with impeccable smoothness. Thing is, the M-truck also throttle blips on downshifts, whereas AMG’s tank doesn’t, and the Beemer’s soft rev-limiter at 7100rpm is far more pleasant to nudge against than the Benz’s alarmingly abrupt curtain-call at 7350. And just so you heard that properly, here’s a BMW automatic that will finally hold a manually chosen gear. Not coincidentally, it’s also the first M-badged auto…

Both Range Rovers, large and extra-large, share identical drivetrains, meaning Jaguar’s new supercharged, direct-injection 375kW 5.0-litre V8, tied to the same six-speed ZF auto as the Audi and BMW, with each running 3.54:1 final drives. Constructing the smaller of the two out of steel and the larger one with a fair bit of aluminium means the weight difference is a scant 45 kilos, in favour of the 2590kg Sport, but the Vogue’s taller mud-and-snow Continentals mean it’s also taller-geared than its sportier sibling, though not by a huge margin. But whatever. With 625Nm on their side, these Land Rovers haul serious arse – beyond what you’d expect from reading their spec sheets.

In fact, both Rangie’s obliterated their performance claims. Land Rover reckons 6.2sec to 100km/h for each, but on a sunny and fairly warm 25-degree morning at Sydney Dragway, the Sport clocked triple figures in just 5.41sec, while the Vogue, nose pointing skyward, wasn’t far behind at 5.63. Yep, five-and-a-half seconds to 100km/h for a frigging Range Rover! In the Vogue in particular, it feels dramatic because there’s so much weight transfer, but both sound as great as each other, with a nice mix of induction burble and metallic exhaust woofle.

The Sport ultimately eclipses the Vogue, however, and we’re not talking about straight-line numbers here. It’s the transmission. Both upshift with lovely smoothness and each blips the throttle on manually requested downchanges, but only the Sport has wheel paddles, and it’s also the only one to hold gears to cut-out, though only when its aluminium suspension dial is turned to the twisty-road symbol (Dynamic). The Vogue is far too posh to bother with such tedious details as flappy paddles and switchable suspension damping, so it instead counters with a heated steering wheel. And a heated and fan-cooled, perforated-leather back seat.

The simple fact that the blown Rangie Vogue doesn’t have multiple on-road suspension modes puts its point-of-being into sharp focus. It might do a 13.8 quarter and pack 500 old-school horsepower, but this exquisite wedge of 4WD isn’t meant to be a sports car … as we soon discover on our fast-car test roads. Here, the Vogue is, well, hilarious. It’s essentially quite well-balanced, but there’s so much roll through high-speed sweepers that it seems to squat onto its outside rear while leaning well over in the front, alerting a stability-control system that refuses to stay asleep. ‘DSC-off’ in the Vogue means ‘DSC mostly on’, though who’s to say just how wide the Vogue would wander in on-the-limit cornering through 75km/h country-road corners without electronic assistance.

Or how much quicker it would be with some active anti-roll tech and a firm damper setting. It’s best to leave the hard-worked 255/50R20 Continental Cross Contact rubber alone, ease back and enjoy the view, because the Vogue’s front end is (intentionally) about as sharp as a mink coat, and its sweet spot is somewhere around six-tenths, not nine.

Then there’s the Q7. At 2635kg, it weighs exactly the same as the Vogue, and at 5086mm, it’s even longer, but you couldn’t ask for a more different experience. Simply put, its balance is staggering for its size and weight. In the air suspension’s ‘Dynamic’ mode (there’s also Comfort, Auto, and Lift), you’d never believe the Audi has a massive V12 diesel filling its nose because its turn-in could actually be described as keen. Indeed, you could even call the Q7 chuckable! It uses its 60-percent rear drive bias to great effect, relying on all that torque to make the nose really point, and simply massive 295/35ZR21 Dunlop SP Sport Maxxs to claw the tarmac. Even at highly illegal speeds, the Q7 remains composed, balanced and supremely confident, and that even applies in ‘Comfort’ mode, though with quite a lot more body roll to contend with.

Its steering is even pretty decent for an Audi – precise, with reasonable meat in its weighting, minimal kickback, and nice response either side of centre.

The ML63 shares the Q7’s abundance of grip and it has a really wide, planted stance, making it feel solid and surefooted, even car-like, on the road. In an urban setting, the AMG gives the impression of being a more well-rounded open-road car than the firm Q7, but experience proves otherwise. Compared to the Q7, X5, and Rangie Sport, the ML’s steering feels a bit slow and disinterested, and it loads up and kicks back through bumpy corners, though whether the test car’s optional 21s exacerbate this is anyone’s guess.

On a smooth road, the bahnstorming Benz demonstrates plenty of neutral balance and cornering talent – as shown by its second-place Wakefield Park lap-time – but introduce surface imperfections and it rocks around on its suspension, regardless of what mode the dampers are in. Surprisingly, the 400kg-heavier Q7 has better body control than the ML, but it’s also more compliant (despite its firmness) and is much more accomplished at handling varying surfaces. The ML is also crying out for an AMG electronics upgrade. At present, it’s stuck back with the old-generation E63, lacking an ESP-Sport setting to let its balance and power-down ability shine.

Considering the ML’s questionable off-road credentials, and the Range Rover Sport’s undoubted talent in that department, it’s a big call to say that the baby Rangie is more fun to drive, but for the most part, it is. The Sport has a much heavier body riding on a substantially smaller footprint, but its active anti-roll bars do a Herculean job of keeping the Rangie’s shit together. It doesn’t have the Q7’s front-end bite – preferring a slow-in, fast-out approach – and it moves around more in corners, but it’s also far more supple in its suspension. Where the Audi relies on firmness and AWD torque split to help it corner, the Rangie Sport employs active anti-roll tech, and it’s brilliant.

For something so tall, it barely rolls, has plenty of poise and tucks its nose in promptly. If you get over-exuberant, there’s some power understeer exiting a corner, but the AWD system attempts to dissolve it by subtly transferring more drive to the rear while leaving the disabled DSC well alone. And besides, there’s something perversely entertaining about the way the Rangie Sport alters its attitude.

Turn the ‘Dynamic’ setting off and the Sport maintains its balance, but the increased roll tends to activate the DSC, and the transmission will override manual gear selections if you touch the rev limiter. But in either mode, the steering on this facelifted Sport is welcome improvement, with much better weighting to complement its inherent sharpness than the over-light old model.

If you want a fast-4WD that really handles, though, it’s the X5 M that takes the prize. It really is amazingly agile for 2305kg, regardless of whether its EDC electronic dampers are in ‘Normal’ or ‘Sport’ mode, and if you can imagine how an oversized, neutrally balanced AWD hot-hatch would corner, then you’ve nailed the X5 M’s flavour. Like any of these trucks, its steering typically requires more lock than a regular performance car to tip into a bend, but its turn-in is really sharp, and its grip and balance are both fantastic. If you trail-brake the nose in before gassing hard out of a tight corner, you can feel the BMW’s AWD system transferring drive to the rear for slingshot corner exits, with an occasional hint of oversteer.

And you can keep repeating the process again and again because its massive brakes are well up to the task of containing all that weight and stonk – as you’d bloody well hope! Indeed, nothing could out-brake the X5 M, not even the hugely effective ceramic numbers of the Q7, though the Rangie Sport’s and ML63’s are amply man-enough. Only the Vogue showed any signs of significant fade, and then only after two hot-laps around Wakefield Park, though its massively intrusive and overworked ESP system might have had something to do with that.

With its Sport dampers activated, the X5 M doesn’t like bumps much, though again, like its engine, that’s speed and aggression dependant. In the city, leaving the dampers in vanilla mode delivers a much better ride than the spicy setting, but out on Australia’s undulating highways, where the other monster-trucks feel comfier in their comfiest settings, the X5 M pitches up and down. The only way to stop the irritation is to select ‘Sport’, because even a sizeable load won’t calm it. That said, none of the really sports-focused 4WDs here ride with any great sense of serenity, and the one that does (the Vogue) has moments of knobbliness before turning floaty if you really get up it.

Back in a classy suburb in the urban jungle, nothing cuts a swathe (or fills a parking space) better than a blown Range Rover Vogue, though its facelifted baby brother on optional diamond-cut 20s is the more athletic and modern-looking of the two – particularly after its recent facelift.

The ML63 has been around since 2005, and hasn’t been altered since early 2008 when it copped toughened styling, a few interior tweaks and larger wheels, but the AMG Benz has aged remarkably well. On the sexy start-spoke 21s fitted to the test car, the black ML63 is arguably the looker of the entire group, and certainly puts BMW’s rather clumsy effort with the X5 M to shame. Front-on, the gappy-vented X5 has little of the ML63’s class, and instead seems bulky and dorky. And no one liked its uninspiring wheels, either, despite their undisputed size (the rear 20s wear enormous 315/35R20 tyres). Still, it’s better than an X6 M, though praise doesn’t come any fainter.

Considering how frequently the stock Q7 has been panned for looking like an oversized whale, the truck-on-steroids V12 version is a welcome visual relief. In typical fast-Audi fashion, it’s the detail finesse that makes the whole thing work, like its sparkly-lit, neatly imposing front-end and its fat 21-inch charcoal five-spoke rims. With its aluminium mirrors and techy new LED lights, it looks expensive … and at $255,400, it is.

But all that size and expense doesn’t quite translate into a first-class experience inside. Its Audi-generic dashboard and sporty carbonfibre trim inserts are unquestionably class, and it offers generous seating up front, but the back two rows leave a bit to be desired.

The middle pew, which will surely be the one used most, scores plenty of look-at-me gadgets (four air vents, dual-zone climate control, two 12-volt outlets and a glass roof), as well as adjustable backrest rake, but the seat cushion is short and quite flat, and there’s limited toe-room under the front seats. Jump back another row and adults won’t be impressed, and neither will anyone else if they intended bringing along luggage, but then the Q7 is the only truck here to provide seven pews.

Of the five seaters, the ML63 has easily the best back seat – at least for the outer two bodies – with great under-thigh support and really plush padding, but its front pair are the least impressive of the lot. Despite miles of adjustment, the cushions are too short, there’s not enough thigh or side support, and the electric lumbar/bolster adjustment is a protruding lump at the front-left of the driver’s seat that fouls your leg. Much of the time, you just want it to piss off. The BMW’s a better bet than the Merc, at least for the front pair, but its back seat is too flat, forcing passengers to sit with splayed legs, and the middle position is hard and unforgiving. Not much flair on the dashboard front, either, though the old Z4 M roadster’s woven carbonfibre-look leather makes a return, and the huge sunroof makes the X5’s cabin feel very light and airy.

For vision, though, nothing can match either Range Rover. Rangie’s are known for their hip-height window line and this pair continue the trend. The Sport doesn’t offer as much front seat side support as the X5 M, or as much rear legroom, and its rear bench is similarly deprived of cushion length, but its new dashboard is a gorgeous, high-class piece of work and there’s character in here, as opposed to clinical precision. But nothing can match the Vogue’s super-lux interior.

In terms of design, it’s eight years old and you’d never know it. The flagship Rangie is more like a five-star hotel than a 4WD, and it even has leather headlining, as well as a full electric back seat that includes lumbar adjustment. Its techy LCD instruments don’t look as good as the regular analogue dials in the Sport, but you can’t argue with the imperial view from inside this supersonic tank.

As far as being a sporting 4WD, though, the Range Rover Vogue Supercharged Autobiography (deep breath) doesn’t really cut it, despite being indecently rapid in a straight line. But you know what? It was never meant to – that’s the Supercharged Sport’s job – and in that respect, it’s hard to criticise the Rolls Royce of 4WDs. The Vogue is all about ambience and presence – two things it succeeds at brilliantly. No 4WD on earth makes you feel as special as the Vogue, on or off road, and its ludicrous turn of speed is a genuine eye-opener. But true petrolheads will miss the Rangie Sport’s handling balance, its active anti-roll bars and its unobtrusive stability control. The wildcard Vogue is just not that type of girl. Not even for an as-tested price of $249,250.

The other four are surprisingly hard to separate because they’re all flawed in their own unique ways. For something so expansive and expensive, the $255K Q7 should offer better rear seating and better packaging. It doesn’t do the seven-seat thing particularly well. But it looks tough, it corners with amazing aplomb and its massively torquey TDI V12 has refined thrust by the warehouse-load, while drinking easily the least fuel. However, it’s hard to see the point in such a decadently narrow-focused 4WD. For character and kudos at a quarter-mill, the Vogue eats it.

Of the ‘cheap’ $180K offerings, it’s the ML63 that comes off third-best. It has a fabulous drivetrain, its muscular styling has aged gracefully, and there are moments of brilliance – like its superb back seat, its planted stance, and its standard-setting grunt and growl. But there are also several moments of disappointment, and ultimately the ML63 fails to offer the great driving experience that its styling and sound promise.

Which leaves the BMW X5 M and the Range Rover Sport Supercharged. Where the Beemer is a spectacularly focused sports truck that annihilates both corners and straights, the Rangie Sport is a more well-rounded proposition. The X5 only really comes alive when having its bottom spanked, at which point it thrills like no other, whereas the Rangie delivers tingles and satisfaction at any speed. It’s also better looking, has a classier interior and way more character, as well as the ability to head off road without beaching itself. But then you’re also more aware, more of the time, that the Rangie Sport is a voluptuous, 2.6-tonne land yacht (as opposed to a 2.3-tonne land power-boat).

Of the two, the X5 M comes closest to being a lust-worthy, MOTOR-style fast 4x4, though it’s easier to justify the Rangie’s copious use-of-resources because it’s more than a just one-trick pony. But on the right road, loud-exhaust on, igniton-cut blurting, huge sunroof open, it’s the darting, snarling X5 M’s drug-like attraction that keeps coming flooding back.

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