Most people don't realize that Earth Day started way back in 1970. Conceived by politician Gaylord Nelson, it was intended to demonstrate concern about rising environmental issues as well as educate people about conservation. Earth Day celebrations have had their ups and downs through the years; 2007, however, was recognized as one of the biggest ever and arguably the most successful.

Predating the celebration of Earth Day are two things we hold dear at european car-irony and sarcasm. Both have been around since, well, probably the beginning of sentient life itself. This in mind, we set out to compare a collection of European SUVs on the most inappropriate day possible: Earth Day 2008.

Those of us who live in Orange County take solace in the fact that we can drive over 100 miles without running into the untamed wild. At the end of the civilized world, we find the California High Desert. This particular area of barren emptiness is full of varied environments from flat dirt to piled dirt to rocky dirt and even dirty dirt. Unlike most real-world SUV drivers, we decided to use these massive road warriors how they were intended: Cutting out the middle man of global warming from air pollution and using their massive tires and brutal combined torque to rip up plants, soil, and associated wildlife.

Vehicles were first evaluated for on-road manners, then off-road behavior. Even if someone were maverick enough to use their off-road vehicle off-road, they would certainly have to use some paved roads to get there. We then spent an afternoon retooling the Earth's crust, careening across serene dry lakebeds polished smooth by decades of gentle rain and steady winds. In the mountains, we manicured soil that had laid undisturbed for hundreds of years with the graceful arcs of tire tracks, punctuated by the occasional accent gouge from a bumper or skidplate. Then, like natural selection, we picked favorites based solely on qualitative measures.

BMW X6 - On-Road Pick
Face it, 99.9 percent of SUV buyers don't get them for their off-road ability. Most have no interest in what they can tow or how much stuff they can carry. People like SUVs because they want to make a statement about themselves. And the BMW X6 makes the biggest statement. It's by far the best-looking of the vehicles in this test, it's great on-road and even decent off.

It only seats four and gives up a little cargo room to the coupe-like sloping roof, but will anyone care? The seating position is phenomenal, more sport sedan than family hauler. Even the rear seats are comfortable and the center console in the back gets rid of the 'Griswald family vacation' feel of a bench seat.

We all expected it to handle well with that huge amount of rubber under the car, but were surprised that it feels more nimble than the Cayenne, which is touted as the ultimate in SUV handling. The steering is typical BMW, lots of feedback and precise movements. Unlike most BMWs, however, it feels over-damped and sluggish at low speeds.

We love the twin-turbo six in every other BMW platform we've tried and are especially impressed with the big 535i. It doesn't let us down in the X6, either. The big powerband provides a smooth pull at just about any speed. There's a little hiatus right off the line, though. It's tough to tell if this is turbo lag or just the transmission.

Another complaint stems from the ride quality. The vehicle rides well as a whole, but seems to have really stiff antiroll bars. It makes for flat, predictable cornering, but hitting bumps on only one side of the vehicle at freeway speeds causes the entire body to suddenly buck left or right. We expect this sort of thing in an older sports car, but not in a passenger vehicle like this. Higher-spec vehicles with active suspension systems certainly won't have the same problem. They will most likely have adjustable ride height as well, which is strangely missing from the X6. Every other vehicle tested has the ability to raise and lower-either for off-road clearance, ease of loading, or just for looks.

Even at the standard ride height, the X6 turns heads. The other vehicles roll through traffic without a glance. Everywhere the X6 stomps, it starts conversations. The most common lookers seem to be women in other pricey SUVs, furious that someone had something, newer, shinier, and cooler. Their Lexus needs to be traded in immediately at the nearest Bimmer dealer.

Off-road manners are on par with any soft-roader, although the lack of an off-road setting becomes obvious on rocky terrain. The bottom line is that the X6 will do everything and more than even the most adventurous of four-seat sports activity vehicle buyers will ever expect.

Land Rover LR3 - Off-Road Pick
The LR3 impresses by being the only vehicle in the group that doesn't seem embarrassed to be an SUV. It's clearly an off-roader and is unapologetic about it. Next to the LR3, the rest of the competition seems like station wagons with big tires. As soon as you mount the barstool-height driver's seat, you feel unstoppable. You want to take short cuts through shrubs and gardens; paved roads seem useless and pedestrian.

With all its off-road ability, it's still good on the pavement. It doesn't have a sport mode for the street, but that isn't particularly missed. Even with a torquey V8, the urge to go fast and run over the plebs driving mere cars isn't there, like in the other vehicles. The LR3 feels the least urgent of the bunch, but that's not a negative thing.

The panoramic 360-degree view out of the giant windows and the amazing light from the sunroofs (one over each of the three rows of seats) are absolute delights. More impressive is the fact that average-sized adults can fit in the third-row seats, not just small children or hobbits. Every row comes equipped with dedicated stereo and vent controls. Not only is the stereo the best of the group, some commented that it was the best stock system they had ever experienced.

The LR3 comes with a center console refrigerator, ideal for mineral water and anti-venom during globe-trekking wilderness expeditions. Also adding to the adventurous feel are control surfaces in soft, tactile rubber. All the knobs, buttons, and even the dash vent sliders are covered in it. One of the testers made a comment on how peculiar the wood dash trim looks. It does appear different than in most other cars, mainly because it's real.

The downside to all this off-road greatness is that the LR3 is the only one that feels as though it could be put it on its side with little effort. I'm sure this is illusory, based on the off-road-friendly narrow track and high center of gravity, but it's still there. And under hard braking, there is so much dive that those giant sunroofs nearly become useful for forward vision. Speaking of which, the windshield has an electric defroster, which is amazingly effective, but the thin wires make every light "halo" at night.

If you're buying an SUV for off-road ability and aren't just trying to impress the other PTA members, then the LR3 is the one. The other 90 percent of SUV buyers just hoping to deal with low self-esteem must look elsewhere. They won't like the sacrifices required on the streets in order to leave the road.

Mercedes-Benz ML550
Automotive writers are seldom at a loss for creative quips or snarky asides. With that said, the most interesting thing in the ML's notebook was: "Well, it is better than the previous model." OK, so that wasn't the snarkiest comment, but it sums up the overall impression of the ML.

There's little to get excited about in this particular SUV. The driving experience could best be described as yawn-inducing. It's smooth and uneventful. Power is decent but not invigorating, the transmission operates without calling attention to itself and the buttons to shift manually are hidden behind the spokes of the steering wheel, with no outward indication of their location. Mercedes must feel that the type of person who changes their own gears probably won't be behind the wheel of an ML, but it looks good on the spec sheet.

The suspension has selectable comfort levels (like most vehicles in the class), but sport seems to fall short of most expectations and luxury is for putting rambunctious child passengers to sleep. This setting is so soft that, over extremely choppy freeway sections, it almost feels as if the front dampers have blown.

The exterior is equally anticlimactic. The steep, sloping hood, slab sides, smallish wheels, and proportions add up to something more closely resembling a mid-'80s micro-sport van rather than a modern SUV. One member of our team commented on the aggressive-looking running boards: while nice, they take up even more of the little ground clearance the ML has for off-roading.

Speaking of minivans, the interior appears to be lifted straight from a Chrysler in both material quality and design. The ergonomics are decent; drivers and passengers find themselves comfortable overall, but there's no feeling of sportiness or even luxury.

On the plus side, it is extremely quiet. Engine, road, and wind noise are virtually absent. It's quite possible that was Mercedes' goal. We wouldn't be surprised to find out that ML stands for mobile library.

Dyed-in-the-wool car enthusiasts can't get excited about the ML. Perhaps it's too far off our radar to appreciate a vehicle like this. It seems that maybe buyers of the ML get them simply to impress other people who have the same (low) level of car enthusiasm as themselves. The snarkiest comment is this: "Wanting one of these is as much a clichd soccer mom's fantasy as George Clooney."

Porsche Cayenne
If we were giving an award for sexiest-sounding SUV, it would go to the Cayenne, hands down. None of the others come close to the aural satisfaction generated by Porsche's V8. Arguably the first real European sports/luxury SUV, the Cayenne arrived with something to prove. We expected real grunt in a straight line, excellent brakes, and almost sports car-like handling. For the most part we weren't disappointed.

The engine feels strong and ballsy, but aside from bellowing, "Look how fast we're going" out of the tailpipes, there isn't necessarily a real sensation of speed. Everything feels heavy and solid, like an unstoppable German tank. This was probably Porsche's intention, but doesn't do much for sportiness.

The steering is nice and heavy, yet doesn't feel quite as slow as some of the others. We prefer the heft, but have a feeling that the majority of Cayenne drivers will have difficulty hustling through corners trying to hold a mobile phone to their ear with their right hand while simultaneously using three fingers of their left hand to hold a half-caff, triple non-fat cappuccino and steering with the remainder of their digits.

The interior is a bit of a letdown for our staff. It almost looks as if Porsche took a 996 dashboard and steering wheel, and blew them up to fit the Cayenne's size. Even the grain of the synthetic dash looks odd. It appears to be covered with elephant hide, the swath from its backside. While the dash itself seems enlarged, Porsche appears to have left the vents, door handles, and switchgear in the old size, so they look out of scale. The switches, dials, and sliders all seem to have been made by the same company that built them for the Snow Speeders in Star Wars. They have a 1980s sci-fi feel to them that, while cool, seems somewhat out of place in a modern car.

The brakes feel great. Plenty of feel and solid, linear pedal travel. The pedal, however, is enormous. It was either meant for drivers with three average-sized feet or clowns. The suspension is quite good. The switchable modes and ride heights make major differences both on- and off-road. The Cayenne is hard to upset on the road and takes freeway ramps with remarkable ease, especially given its considerable mass. Off-road, it always seems well planted and never struggles for grip, like you could make real time across semi-smooth dirt trails and the desert, but those speeds decrease considerably once the trail gets rocky.

We have no doubt the Cayenne can turn some serious lap times on a paved track, but we wonder how much fun it would be. It has all the numbers to compete with the X6, but doesn't deliver the same driving satisfaction.

Volkswagen Touareg
To walk up to the Touareg is to set yourself up for disappointment. You know it's the Cayenne's underachieving stepbrother and expect as much. Once inside, though, it's quickly apparent how much nicer the interior is, impressing not only with fit and finish, but it also looks classy and inviting. The Cayenne could have looked much nicer with a little more effort in material selection and ergonomic design. The seats are a little on the flat side, lacking support, but they make entry and exit easier. The dash layout is straightforward and easy to use, while suspension and drivetrain controls make selection obvious for different conditions.

The V8 is smaller in the VW than in the Cayenne and suffers at the low end because of it. But it doesn't feel that far behind if you're willing to use a few more revs. The downside to the peakier power is having to kick down two gears to pass on the highway. Luckily, the transmission is fairly quick, so it's a minor annoyance.

The Touareg vehicle feels better off-road than most of the competition. Low-range gears and locking differentials make it feel as though you could get out of almost any situation if need be. The steering is well weighted and provides good feedback without being overly active off-road.

Overall, it's a comfortable ride, it just feels like everything was stopped at 80 percent. Maybe this is deliberate, so as to not compete with the Cayenne, or perhaps VW is trying to keep costs down. It's good and has the potential to be great. The upcoming diesel version may be just that. More torque and better mileage could well make this the SUV to watch out for.

Volvo XC90
Volvos have always been known as the vehicles to buy if you want to protect your kids. Several automakers have made great strides in equaling Volvo on crash safety, but things like blind spot warning indicators, anti-rollover gyro systems and bumpers designed to be extra safe in impacts with smaller, lower vehicles keep the company one step ahead. The XC90 has been criticized in the past for interior fit and finish, but it's average among this group, falling just short of the VW.

The driving experience is adequate. Ample power, but somewhat vague steering. Surprisingly, the engine note is judged second only to the Porsche, something we didn't expect from the reserved Swede. Another surprise are the metallic blue instrument dials that polarize opinions. Some found them to really set the interior apart, while one tester thought they would look more at home in a Kia.

Everyone is impressed with the front skidplate, though. Unlike the running boards on the Mercedes, a skidplate is useful for off-roading, so it has less of a poseur connotation. It's the feature we're most surprised to find missing from the other vehicles. Another attribute unique to the Volvo is the split rear tailgate. It proves to be easier to manage than the others and requires less space behind the vehicle to open and close.

Breaking It DownAfter Nature surrendered and the dust settled, we chose our winners. It was appropriate to pick two, one for people who actually need off-road capability and one for the majority. If it were us, we wouldn't buy an SUV unless we spent a considerable amount of time off-road. With gas prices rising constantly, we think more and more drivers will finally see it our way.

Make and Model BMW X6 xDrive35i Land Rover LR3 Mercedes ML550 Porsche Cayenne S VW Touareg 2 Volvo XC90
Price (base/test) $52,500/$63,675 $54,025/$58,350 $52,400/$67,800 $57,900/$81,105 $48,320/$55,750 $49,870/$59,232
Seating 2+2 2+3+2 2+3 2+3 2+3 2+3+2
Layout Front engine, longitudinal,
all-wheel drive
Front engine, longitudinal,
all-wheel drive
Front engine, longitudinal,
all-wheel drive
Front engine, longitudinal,
all-wheel drive
Front engine, longitudinal,
all-wheel drive
Front engine, transverse,
all-wheel drive
Dimensions
Length/Width/Height (in.)
Wheelbase
Curb Weight
192.1/78.1/
66.5
115.5
4,894 lb
190.9/75.4/
74.5
113.6
5,796 lb
188.5/75.2/
71.5
114.7
4,795 lb
188.9/75.9/
66.9
112.4
4,950 lb
187.2/75.9/
68
112.4
5,300 lb

189.3/74.7/
70.2
112.6
4,826 lb
Engine
3.0-liter inline six, 24-valve, twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter, V8, 32-valve 5.5-liter, V8, 24-valve
4.8-liter, V8, 32-valve
4.2-liter, V8, 40-valve 4.4-liter, V8, 32-valve
Transmission
Six-speed automatic Six-speed automatic Seven-speed automatic Six-speed automatic Six-speed automatic Six-speed automatic
Wheels and Tires 20-inch
275/40 (f),
315/35 (r)
19-inch
255/55
19-inch
255/50
20-inch
275/40 (f),
315/35 (r)
19-inch
275/45
18-inch
235/60
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