Luxury SUV makers in the country are having a bit of a hard time right now, what with the raised import duty on both the luxury segment as well as a new tax on SUVs. And of course, the weak state of the rupee right now has seen price hikes all round. But still, we love our SUVs here in India and manufacturers know that full well, doing what it takes to make sure we stay interested.
A good example of this is the Mercedes-Benz GL-class. The previous GL was a bit of a latecomer when it was launched here, and its full import status did give it a bit of a price disadvantage. This new one, however, has come here just a few months after its global debut and Mercedes is assembling it in India. That means it’s actually cheaper than the car it replaces.
Audi was clever enough to nip the local assembly advantage in the bud late last year, when it started assembling the 3.0-litre Q7 at its Aurangabad facility. It certainly has made the price tag more attractive, and the good news is that the V8 version will also be locally produced very soon, which will further enhance the value proposition of Audi’s flagship SUV. It’s the reason we have this version with us today.
The other two cars in this test, unlike their German counterparts, have really been beaten with the taxation stick, as they are full imports – both cost upward of Rs 1 crore. However, they each have a unique appeal and desirability that could just be enough to make you look past the exorbitant price if you’re shopping in this segment. The monstrous Toyota Land Cruiser LC 200 is unbeatable when it comes to road presence and there’s a pure, old-school off-roader underneath all that luxury. The Land Rover Discovery 4 is also luxurious and very capable off-road, but it adds to the equation a regal British charm that is unique in this company.
Of course, these are full-size luxury SUVs and all come at equally steep prices. It's what you want out of your luxury off-roader that'll determine your choice.
Few cars can make a Q7 look compact, but that’s exactly what the GL, Discovery and LC 200 do. It’s the Q7’s height that makes it look dwarfed –1,737mm is pretty tall, but it’s still considerably lower than the others. The flipside to this is that the Q7 looks the least intimidating to drive from the off.
As for the others, the LC 200 sitting on a stout ladder frame is the tallest, while the GL is the longest. The Merc also has the longest wheelbase and, at 2,455kg, is the lightest as well. Thanks to these ocean-liner proportions, there’s no denying that all have huge (no pun intended) presence. Looking under their square exteriors, the LC has the hardiest off-road specification, with its body-on-ladder-frame chassis, while the GL and the Q7 use a more road-biased monocoque construction. The Discovery uses a hybrid chassis – the engine bay and passenger compartment are built as a monocoque, and are mated to a ladder frame chassis holding the gearbox and suspension.
All these leviathans come with air suspension at all four corners, but only the LC has a live axle setup at the back – the others are all independent. It’s unlikely, but should you go off-road, it’s the Discovery, with its low-range transfer case and intelligent Terrain Response system that seems the most capable. Even the Toyota offers a low-ratio transfer case, but leaves it to the driver to decide how best to tackle terrain. The GL and Q7 don’t have the extra off-road toys and rely on their full-time four-wheel drive and electronic differential locks to help them get out of sticky situations. Interestingly, for all their go-anywhere looks, neither the GL nor the Q7 comes with a full-size spare wheel.
Interiors and equipment
The Merc’s cabin makes you feel really special, and the high-quality surfaces and solid build give it a long-lasting feel. The seats are the comfiest too – they feel like armchairs – and the sculpted steering and spacious cabin make you feel like you’ve spent money well. Thanks to its length, there’s fantastic space in the front and middle rows. It’s got the most usable third row too, and if you need boot space, the last row can be folded into the floor to make a flat loading area. It’s also the most practical, with plenty of cubbyholes. The steering column-mounted gear shifter helps free up space in the centre console and there are bottle holders all around the cabin. The interiors of this Launch Edition (a special trim for the first 100 GLs; it’s now sold out) we’re driving feels extra special with particularly nice wood trim, but regular GL cabins won’t be too far behind this one.
The Q7 has started to show its age and it doesn’t feel as modern as the Merc. The dashboard is now a little too old-school and Audi won’t update it to the new family look until the next-generation car comes along. The Q7’s seats are good though – the front seats have proper bolstering and are comfy, if not ultimately as accommodating as the Merc’s. And while the Audi may not have the sheer interior volume of the Merc, the third row is, surprisingly, more usable than the Toyota’s. Even the middle row is quite comfy, with good support, and the generous width of the car means three can sit in decent comfort. The massive sunroof, though a nice touch, unnecessarily soaks up the sun because its translucent sun shade traps heat inside the cabin like a greenhouse. Of the four, climbing into the Q7 is by far the easiest, thanks to its lower ride height, but third-row access is the most difficult because the middle row only slides forward and folds down, but doesn’t flip; the lower roof doesn’t help either.
Compared to the Germans, Land Rover has chosen to use some hard, durable plastics in the Discovery’s cabin alongside the soft-touch stuff. Some buyers might find these a bit too utilitarian, but they work superbly, lending the Discovery a hardy, long-lasting image. Unlike in the others, you sit high up and are surrounded by big windows. The visibility that this affords makes the Disco easy to pilot in traffic, despite its size.
The dashboard design is very different from the others as well, with a big focus on functionality. The oversized air-con and music system knobs and the door levers are chunky and intended for use with off-road gloves on. While most Disco owners will never use off-road gloves, the controls are still super easy to operate while on the go. Irritatingly, however, the touchscreen system is a bit slow to respond, the centre console layout is a bit complicated, and it’s a shame the speedometer is hard to read. The Discovery offers enough space, quality and comfort, and very few people will find cause to complain in this department. The three ‘individual’ seats in the second row have excellent support, and the foldaway third row, though not as comfy as the GL’s, is brilliantly executed, simple to erect and big enough for adults.
It’s the Toyota’s interiors that look a little out of place in this company. While they are well built and of decent quality, the design (although smart looking) seems a bit traditional when compared to its rivals. There’s no driver interface system, and there are small irritants, like the fact that the text printed on the buttons looks a bit low-rent. This is a Rs 1.15 crore car, after all.
You won’t complain about the space and comfort though. The front seats are big and accommodating and even the middle row is very comfortable. But the high floor means third-row seating is too knees-up, and as a result is the least useable. The tall ride height of the car also means getting in and out of it is not the easiest task.
As is befitting their segment and price tag, all these cars are pretty well equipped, but the GL has the most features. It comes with lots of safety kit, like nine airbags, Neck Pro whiplash protection, Pre-Safe – which detects an impending collision and primes the car for it, and Attention Assist, which can detect when the driver is drowsy. The car also gets adaptive bi-xenon headlamps, three-zone climate control, cruise control, parking sensors, 360-degree cameras, a sunroof and sat-nav. Some of the trim from the Launch Edition will be missing on the standard car, like the AMG wheels and body kit, the Designo leather upholstery and the special ‘unpolished’ wood grain, but going by other Mercedes models, the standard car should be pretty well trimmed too.
The Discovery comes in two trims – SE and HSE. The only things missing on the lower SE variant are the keyless go system, cooled centre box and adaptive headlamps. Electronic air suspension, eight airbags, the Terrain Response system with low-range, hill descent control and all-terrain ABS are standard on any model. Satellite navigation,
a sunroof, a Harman-Kardon sound system and a rear-seat entertainment kit are part of a Rs 7 lakh option pack available for both variants.
The Q7 4.2 TDI is pretty well equipped too. It gets a Bose sound system, eight airbags, a four-zone climate control, reversing camera and Xenon headlights, among other things. But it does miss out on paddle shifters and a lot of other equipment has to be optioned seperately– like rear seat entertainment, adaptive headlamps and electric steering adjustment.
The LC 200 is the most expensive car here and it comes with a decent amount of equipment. It gets a 14-speaker JBL audio system, a DVD player, keyless go, ten airbags, four-zone climate control,◊ ∆ cooled front seats and heated front and middle row seats.
The GL 350 CDI BlueEfficiency is powered by the same 3.0-litre common-rail, direct-injection V6 diesel engine as the ML 350 CDI. At 255bhp, it’s the most powerful six-cylinder motor here and is mated to the latest version of Mercedes-Benz’s silky 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, complete with automatic stop-start and brake energy recovery functions, and a permanent four-wheel-drive system. The Merc V6 may not be as creamy as Audi’s 4.2-litre V8 but it still revs smoothly and sounds sweet too; you could easily mistake it for a petrol. There’s no hint of diesel motor rattle, there’s little vibration, and it’s only when you rev it that you get a distant drone from the engine.
With 63kgm of torque, the GL makes light work of its substantial kerb weight. Normal driving conditions need only a gentle dab on the throttle, and even that is good enough to have you scooting forward effortlessly. The greater flexibility of the motor also means that the gearbox, in Comfort setting, can shift up gears much earlier, so progress is relaxed but adequately rapid. On part-throttle loads, the big Merc cruises in a serene manner. Thanks to the especially linear power delivery of the engine, the GL feels easy to drive in town. The gearshifts are smooth, but on the slow side, and can’t match the alert nature of the eight-speed auto in the Audi. It also helps that you are given paddle shifters which, in both Sport and Comfort settings, are nice to use. However, the gearbox sometimes refuses to downshift unless you coax it by lifting off the throttle before pulling the ‘down’ paddle.
Still, performance is strong, with 100kph coming up in 8.91 sec. Performance continues unabated further up the powerband and, despite the GL’s girth, 160kph comes up in 23.47sec.
Central to the Q7’s appeal is its engine. It’s the same direct-injection, 4.2-litre turbodiesel V8 that’s in the A8, and it is hardly short of grunt with 335bhp and a huge 81kgm of torque from 1,750rpm. With this larger-capacity motor, the Q7 decimates the other three cars here on performance. It drives through the excellent eight-speed auto, which has the ability to ‘lock-up’ and behave more like a manual transmission, eliminating the characteristic slushy feel of a conventional auto ’box.
With locomotive-like bottom-end torque, the engine is never short on grunt. The tremendous thrust this engine musters instantaneously is so addictive that you have to make a conscious effort to stay at prudent speeds. 0-100kph is dispatched in a scarcely believable 6.69 seconds flat, and it will cross 200kph in under 25 seconds. Keep your foot down and it will close in on its limited 250kph top speed with consummate ease, all the while covering ground at an incredible pace. The gearbox is quick and very obedient, downshifting almost every time we asked it to.
The Toyota and the Land Rover, on the other hand, are more relaxed animals. Both their engines make upward of 200bhp, but while performance is adequate, neither will get your pulse racing. The first five minutes behind the wheel of the LC 200 sets the tone for the whole driving experience. With its 4.5-litre V8 mated to a six-speed automatic, the Land Cruiser slurs off the line when you feed it some throttle. It gathers speed gradually, the gearbox upshifts at the earliest possible moment to save fuel, and gearshifts are lazy, drawn-out affairs. Get to speed, however, and the engine’s torque characteristics and the tall fifth gear gives it a long-legged, unflustered gait.
It’s not a particularly alert powertrain and depends more on the torque of the motor than downshifting gears to get moving in a hurry. You do get more control over the power delivery if you slide the gearlever into manual mode, but
it still retains its old-school slushbox feel. Flat out, the Land Cruiser posted a leisurely 13.1sec 0-100kph time – aided by the all-wheel drive traction off the line, but in most driving conditions you will need to learn to drive around the lethargic throttle response.
In contrast, the Discovery feels more on the ball. It responds readily to taps on the accelerator pedal, and even though it’s not as responsive as the Merc or the Audi, it feels more eager to downshift than the Toyota. It’s also noticeably quicker than the Land Cruiser at swapping cogs.
Ride and handling
The Mercedes and especially the Audi feel the most car-like in this test. The Q7 turns with little body roll and changes direction without protest. It steers accurately and there’s fantastic grip from the four-wheel-drive system. But where it suffers the most is in the way it rides. The Q7 runs into trouble with small- to medium-sized intrusions. The combination of stiff spring rates and damper settings doesn’t allow enough suppleness over less extreme bumps. As a result, the Audi’s ride is always fidgety over town roads. It gets better at speed, but the rough edge never disappears.
The GL on the other hand, despite its girth, shows impressive composure over a twisting road. It is not as composed as the Q7 – it feels marginally less agile and not as rewarding – but is pretty decent nonetheless, given its sheer size and supposed off-road capability. Though the GL’s ride quality isn’t great either, it’s better than the Q7’s, but that’s not saying much. The big GL doesn’t deliver that utterly flat and consistent ride you expect of a Merc. It doesn’t feel settled over uneven surfaces and when you hit a sharp bump there’s a shimmy through the body.
If it’s a plush ride you are after, nothing here beats the Land Rover Discovery. The manner in which the Disco casually dismisses the worst patches of road makes it a more comfortable drive than any of the others. The suspension always goes about its business in a quiet manner, sharp bumps like expansion joints are easily filtered out and your passengers won’t be able to tell the size of the crater you just drove over. Even at highway speeds, the Land Rover remains very composed, and only very sharp potholes catch it off-guard. You will, of course, have the characteristic wallow of a big, heavy SUV – but for most, this will be quite acceptable and not an annoyance.
Ultra-light steering and sloppy body control define how the Land Cruiser drives; it's obvious Toyota has opted for soft suspension settings to suit Indian driving conditions. So you will find plenty of wallow over undulations, some pitching under braking and an unusually tilted horizon when you take turns even at moderate speeds. You would expect the soft suspension to improve the low-speed ride, and it does to a certain extent, but it’s not hugely better than the Merc or the Land Rover. Like most ladder-frame SUVs, the LC 200 does feel lumpy over certain surfaces and never settles down to a flat, composed ride. That said, the Toyota’s higher-profile tyres and soft suspension do
take the edge off sharper bumps a bit better than the Audi.
In town, the Audi is by far the easiest to drive. The 12-metre turning circle is respectable for this class, and the driving position affords good visibility. The Land Rover, thanks to its huge glass area and superb visibility, is a close second. But the Merc and Toyota are tricky to thread through small gaps or park in anything other than large spaces. It’s hard to judge where metal stops on both these mammoths, though the reversing camera and the big mirrors help. The Audi and the Land Rover feel compact in comparison.
Among the V6-engined SUVs, the GL 350 CDI returned slightly better figures – 6.5kpl in the city and 10.5kpl on the highway, to the Discovery’s 6.5kpl in the city and 9.5kpl on the highway.
The GL has a much larger 100-litre tank than the Disco’s 82 litres, so it will go further on each fill-up. Although we didn’t get a chance to test them, expect the V8 diesels of the Audi and Toyota to return even less than these, as they are both big, heavy cars.