Which is the best family SUV? Audi Q7 vs Volvo XC90 vs Mercedes GLE compared

SUV triple test composite image - from left, Audi Q7, Mercedes GLE and Volvo XC90

As we start to think of a life beyond coronavirus, the depressed UK car market will be a hunting ground where only the very best – or perhaps the cheapest, in the case of used cars – will find favour with buyers who may be wary of a significant financial commitment at such a time.

But we predict that the market for premium family SUVs will remain strong. And these three are our pick of an exceptional group.

Seven seats, luxurious trimmings, and efficient diesel engines – large SUVs such as these definitely do it all. No wonder they’ve grown so popular in recent years. But which is top dog?

On test

Audi Q7 S line 45 TDI – £57,465

A recent facelift has brought up-to-the-minute engine tech – but is that all the Q7 needs to maintain its place at the top of this class? 

Mercedes-Benz GLE 300d AMG Line 7 Seats – £57,460

The newest car here is also the cheapest – but strong opposition here means the GLE will need more than just value on its side.

Volvo XC90 B5(D) AWD R-Design – £56,275

The XC90 has spearheaded Volvo’s resurgence with its winning blend of versatility and opulence. Can it take on these two rivals and win?

Looks and appeal 

Audi: 3/5 Volvo: 4/5  Mercedes-Benz: 5/5

If you’re looking for a luxury SUV with a prestigious badge, there’s no question the Mercedes has this round licked. Audi and Volvo are well and truly premium marques in their own rights these days, but that three-pointed star still holds an awful lot of sway; what’s more, the new GLE looks smart and smooth from every angle. 

The XC90 is getting on a bit now, but its utilitarian profile and more restrained nose and tail will appeal to those who like their SUVs less garish. This is a car for drivers who want the luxury and space of a big SUV, but don’t want to shout about it too much. 

The Volvo XC90 scores for Scandi coolness, although it can't quite match Germany's finest

The Audi falls somewhere between the two and, as a result, is arguably the least memorable of the three, blending an angry nose with an uninspiring side profile and a heavy rear end. 

Happily, the Audi’s interior is much better, with solid, expensive-feeling materials and an intuitive layout. You get Audi’s virtual gauge cluster, which is the best in the business, as standard, as well as a great infotainment system, though the fiddly touch-sensitive ventilation controls are a misstep. 

The Volvo’s interior isn’t quite as solidly built, and neither its infotainment system as intuitive, nor its virtual gauge cluster as flexible. It’s still a very welcoming place to be, though, and for the most part easy to use; some of the materials choices are very pleasing, too. 

Mercedes' GLE is a smooth operator, inside and out

It’s the Mercedes that has to take top honours inside, though, with its gorgeous sweep of open-grain wood and vast, glossy twin-screen display set-up. The only downside is that the infotainment system is a little fiddly in places. 

Space and comfort

Audi: 5/5 Volvo: 4/5 Mercedes-Benz: 2/5

All of these cars come with seven seats, but the Mercedes’s are the least usable, with very little leg room on offer. The Audi’s are much better, but the car with the most space in that crucial third row – just – is the Volvo.

The Volvo's third row of seats, seen here folded flush into the boot floor, just about wins the space race

The Audi pips the Volvo for middle-row space, though, with the Mercedes again languishing in third spot; all three are much of a muchness up front. In the Audi’s favour, too, is that Isofix fixings come on every seat except the driver’s; the other two only offer them on the two outer rear seats and the front passenger seat. 

The Audi isn't quite so roomy in the very rear, but has the most space in the centre row of seats

All three of these cars’ drivers’ seats have a wide range of adjustability so it isn’t hard to find a good driving position. The Volvo’s pews are the most welcoming, but the Audi’s are the most supportive on a long run.

On the road

Audi: 5/5 Volvo: 3/5 Mercedes-Benz: 2/5

This latest Q7 comes with air suspension as standard, and that puts it head and shoulders about the other two cars here. While Volvo will let you add air suspension to the XC90, it’ll take the car’s cost way above that of the Audi; Mercedes, meanwhile, doesn’t offer air suspension on this entry-level version of the GLE.

Air suspension as standard gives the Q7 an advantage in this category

As a result, neither of the latter two cars can match up to the Audi’s standards of comfort or, indeed, handling. What’s more, the Audi surpasses them in terms of outright performance, while its engine is the sweetest-sounding of the three, beating the more clattery four-cylinder units in the Volvo and the Mercedes, the latter car especially suffering from too much engine noise.

The XC90 is the pick of the trio when it comes to cruising - but, again, it's very close

The Volvo is a quieter cruiser, mind you, with a remarkable lack of wind and road noise on the motorway. The Audi isn’t far off, though; either way, the Mercedes is once again at the back of the pack here. 

The GLE just about makes up in off-road ability what it lacks in on-road refinement

Safety

Audi: 4/5 Volvo: 5/5 Mercedes: 4/5

It’d be remiss to describe any of these cars as anything less than extremely safe. All of them have the latest important safety technology, including automatic emergency braking, as well as a smorgasbord of additional driver assistance technology and, of course, a welter of airbags. 

All of these cars will keep you safe, but the Volvo's marginally better adult occupant protection wins the day

But it’s the Volvo that manages to pip the other two to the post thanks to its near-perfect ratings for adult occupant safety and assistance technology, as awarded by Euro NCAP, the European benchmark for crash testing. 

Costs and equipment

Audi: 3/5 Volvo: 4/5 Mercedes-Benz: 4/5 

As you’d expect from a group of luxury SUVs, all of our contenders are very well equipped, and indeed comparing their standard specifications reveals they’re much of a muchness, with all of the essential bits of equipment you’d expect coming as standard.

Over and above these, the Volvo offers adaptive cruise control as standard whereas the others don’t; the Audi gives you ‘Matrix’ LED headlamps, which adapt the high beams to fit around other road users so that they’re never dazzled; while the Mercedes comes with adjustable ambient lighting and USB ports in the third row. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

Let's face it, few are going to be disappointed with the standard equipment of any of these three

Despite its mild hybrid technology, it’s actually the Audi that’s the least economical here at 33.2mpg (under the WLTP); it also has the highest CO2 emissions, which means it’s the car that’ll cost you the most to run either as a private purchase or as a company car. It’s the priciest to buy, too. 

The Volvo is also a mild hybrid, but by contrast, it can boast the best efficiency here at 39.2mpg, while the Mercedes – which is a conventional diesel – manages 36.7mpg. 

Verdict

Audi: 5/5 Volvo: 4/5 Mercedes: 3/5

The GLE scores highly on looks, but that's not enough in this exalted company

The Mercedes GLE is the first to fall here. It’s just about the most appealing in terms of image and looks, and its interior is a delight, too. But its noisy engine, so-so ride and handling, and lack of space in the back hold it back to third spot.

Splitting the other two is tougher. The Volvo is safer, cheaper to run and looks better, both inside and out. But the Audi is more comfortable, better to drive, and comes with a more clever interior and better infotainment.

We’ll give the nod to the Audi, with the caveat that it is an expensive choice to buy and run – and note that, were you to choose the Volvo for its alternative blend of talents, you wouldn’t be doing yourself a disservice. 

A cut above: the Audi Q7 shades this contest
Alternatives

BMW X5 xDrive30d M Sport 7st, from £62,530

It’s the sportiest car in the class to drive, but this seven-seat X5 is ludicrously expensive, and not particularly spacious either, and it rides rather too firmly, too. 

Land Rover Discovery SD4 HSE, from £62,860

Another expensive choice, but at least the Discovery’s space and wafty air suspension go some way toward justifying its price. Shame about the noisy diesel engine though.

Mercedes-Benz V300d AMG Line, from £56,690

A left-field choice, but if you need luxury and versatility in one package, the V-Class fits the bill better than anything else. If you can live with driving a van with windows, that is.

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