All three SUVs feel a bit unsettled on our potholed roads. The Mercedes ML 250 CDI uses steel springs for suspension. It does feel a bit firm at low speeds, but gets progressively better as you go faster. In true Merc fashion, the ML feels brilliant at highway speeds. You’ll also like the way the steering weighs up and goes from being very light at parking speeds to weighty and confidence-inspiring at high speeds. There’s also a nice fluidity with which the Merc changes direction. It’s not sporty by any means, but it doesn’t feel out of place in the bends like many SUVs of this size would. Unfortunately, the brakes aren’t very reassuring.
The X3, on the other hand, feels a lot sportier than the ML. It is agile, quick to change direction and relatively fun to drive on a twisty course. The steering also feels very well weighted at all speeds and, along with the suspension, can be fine-tuned to your liking. For most of the driving, we preferred to keep the X3 in Normal mode, where the steering feels light and the suspension is at its most absorbent. But even in this setting, the X3 tends to thump through bumps. This only gets worse when you switch to Sport or Sport+.
The Volvo XC60 also comes with three settings for its suspension and steering. In Comfort mode, there is some stiffness at low speeds, but on the whole, the ride is still pliant. Advanced and Sport modes do aid handling with better body control, but even then it doesn’t feel quite as entertaining as the X3. For its part, the steering feels well weighted on the move, but is heavier than the BMW’s and Merc’s at crawling speeds.
Off-road abilities on the three SUVs are quite limited at best. All three get all-wheel drive and hill-descent control, but the ML goes one step extra with an off-road mode that tweaks the ABS and ESP settings for rougher terrain.
However, none of them gets a full-size spare wheel – the ML 250 and XC60 feature space-saver spares and the X3, which uses run-flat tyres, comes without a spare wheel at all.