Winner: Volvo XC60 D4 Inscription
For the last couple of years, Volvo has provided genuine competition to the German and British offerings in the premium SUV market. This year, the XC60, like the XC90 before it, has taken out this prestigious class.
Think ‘SUV’ and you probably think ‘gas guzzlers’, but the finalists all have relatively fuel-efficient 2.0-litre turbo diesel engines with eight-speed automatic transmissions to make the most of the small capacities and keep them in their RPM sweet-spots to maximise responsiveness and efficiency.
Gone are the boxy Volvos of the past and both the internal and external styling of the XC60 are elegant and very much in keeping with the overall brand design shared with the XC90. The cabin has a very upmarket feel, with a mix of woodgrain panels, leather and brushed-metal accents, and intricately cut speaker grilles and shaped air vents.
A customisable, dash-mounted, tablet-like screen provides the driver with a main access point to the XC60’s systems, such as the infotainment system and driving controllers. Physical buttons are limited to demisters, hazard lights, music navigation, volume and a home button for the touchscreen.
The quality of the seats, both in their materials and comfort, is class-leading and the engine start/stop is next to the drive selector and operated via twisting a knob.
Pioneering safety technology is nothing new for Volvo, and this vehicle follows the tradition of the first-generation XC60, which was the first Volvo to get autonomous emergency braking as standard nearly a decade ago.
The new XC60 has a collision-avoidance assistant to help the driver in making evasive manoeuvres, and oncoming lane mitigation, which steers the vehicle away from a potential head-on crash. It also has intersection collision avoidance that automatically applies the brakes if the driver turns in front of an oncoming vehicle.
The all-wheel-drive system is fitted across the range and driving was surprisingly smooth. On the bitumen you aren’t really conscious that you’re driving an SUV and would swear you’re instead driving a well-behaved and competent-handling sedan.
Off-road it didn’t do as well as some in the mud and dirt undulations, mainly due to its city road tyres quickly clogging up and making traction difficult. However, even off-road you feel cossetted in the quiet, safe and comfortable cabin of the XC60.
Living with the XC60 is simple and convenient. There’s a user-friendly tailgate that opens with the swipe of a foot under the bumper. And, while not having the cargo space of the larger XC90, it does have ample storage space.
The XC60’s lower price made it the best-value package in the class. As an extremely drivable vehicle with a comfortable and luxurious interior, the judges just kept piling on the scores to have it winning ahead of its larger and more expensive sibling.
Second place: Volvo XC90 D5 Inscription
The Volvo XC90 lost by a nose to its smaller and more affordable sibling. The reality for the buyer is the decision between these two luxury family-haulers comes down to what size you want and if you can afford an additional $40,000 for the XC90.
Large and luxurious, the XC90 is a premium AWD seven-seat SUV packed with innovative design features. Powering the D5 is a 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel with an eight-speed automatic transmission and a Haldex AWD system. Although the engine is relatively small for such a large vehicle, the performance is surprisingly responsive, with the smooth-changing auto making good use of the strong torque.
Similar to the XC60, the handling and ride is at its best on the open road. The XC90 has class-leading space and easily accommodates adults in the first two rows of seats, though the third row is best left for children. The dash-mounted, tablet-like screen and soft and supportive nappa leather seats enhance its luxurious feel, while its hands-free auto tailgate is convenient and its LED headlights are auto levelling, auto bending and dusk sensing.
Although the XC60 snatched the win, there’s not much between it and the XC90, and the buying decision will come down to size and price.
Third place: Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE Luxury
Having the pedigree that Land Rover has in SUV-land and feeling the weight on its shoulders of being the smaller sibling of the iconic Discovery, the Discovery Sport didn’t disgrace itself in running a very close third to the two Volvos.
Neither did it let the team down in the premium-feel stakes and, although it doesn’t have the edgier styling of its other sibling, the Evoque, it’s certainly one of the better-looking SUVs around.
What is surprising is how well the SUVs in this category ride and handle on bitumen, despite their high centre of gravity and bulkier mass. This secure feeling is complemented by Land Rover’s signature ‘command’ driving position, which is particularly valuable off-road for better eyeing obstacles.
Land Rover’s easy-to-use and proven All-terrain Response System allows dial-up functionality, which is more user-friendly than Volvo’s screen-based menu of off-road settings.
Under the stubby bonnet, you’ll find Land Rover’s 2.0-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder engine is deceptively quiet and even better at cruising speed, when engine noise and vibrations are almost completely isolated from the cabin.
The Land Rover Discovery Sport is at the more capable end of the off-road AWD SUV spectrum and with the refinement and feel of a luxury sedan.