The BMW X3 has dominated the large SUV class for years, but it can no longer lay claim to being the most efficient of its breed.
That title goes the new plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV. Its blend of battery power and petrol engine keeps down CO2 emissions to just 44g/km – with staggeringly low tax bills to boot.
To find out if this is indeed the dawn of a new era, we pitted it against the recently updated X3, as well as the Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60 – all of which are compelling private buys.
**2.0 TDI 177 Quattro SE S tronic
List Price - £34,160
Target Price - £31,765
xDrive20d SE auto
List Price - £34,500
Target Price - £32,664
2.0 PHEV GX4h
List Price - £37,899
Target Price - £32,899
D4 AWD SE Geartronic
List Price - £34,435
Target Price - £29,189
All of these cars have four-wheel drive and all but the Mitsubishi pair that with a diesel engine. The XC60’s is biggest, though, and has plenty of oomph no matter what the situation. It’s just a shame the six-speed automatic gearbox is so slow to react and gets flustered when you ask for quick acceleration.
The Audi is closely matched to the Volvo for outright pace, thanks to an auto ’box that does
a much better job of assisting forward progress; it responds more quickly and generally picks an appropriate gear.
However, the X3’s new 2.0-litre engine has the most outright power of all these SUVs, so the BMW is the quickest when you really put your foot down. The X3 also has the best automatic gearbox; it rarely hesitates when you press the accelerator and always seems to pick the right gear for the task at hand.
Meanwhile, the petrol-electric Outlander is by no means disgraced by its diesel rivals, with the instant hit of torque delivered by its twin electric motors making it feel surprisingly nippy around town. In fact, it was the quickest of the four at accelerating from 30-50mph in our tests.
That said, the Outlander took the longest to stop from 70mph – its skinny energy-saving tyres are partly to blame.
RIDE & HANDLING
Any SUV has to be comfortable, but it can’t afford to have sloppy handling at the same time.
The BMW best strikes this balance. Our test car was fitted with optional 19-inch wheels (17s come as standard), yet delivered the most forgiving ride of the four. This was partly down to the optional (£940) variable dampers, which let you vary the suspension’s stiffness by pressing a button. In the most comfortable setting, the X3 glides over bumps and potholes, without letting things become too bouncy over undulations.
Switch to Sport and the BMW also has the tightest body control, gripping hard and feeling stable through corners. True, the heavy steering is a pain during low-speed manoeuvres, but it's always accurate and provides a decent amount of feedback.
The Q5 comes closest to matching the X3, with good body control and a cosseting ride that stays comfortable over all but the most battered surfaces. The Audi doesn’t grip as hard through corners, though, and its light, numb steering – while great for parking – makes driving quickly less enjoyable.
Sadly, the Volvo and the Mitsubishi fall even farther short of the dynamic benchmark set by the BMW. The XC60 is the heaviest car here, and its tall body leans dramatically through corners. Despite its relatively supple suspension, it doesn’t ride that smoothly at low speeds; rough surfaces transmit vibration into the cabin, while mid-corner bumps send jolts through the steering wheel. The steering is slow and vague, too.
The Outlander is slightly more forgiving over patchy surfaces, but potholes and expansion joints tend to send nasty shudders through the cabin. The lifeless steering also gives little sense of connection with the front wheels, and the Outlander washes wide earliest through tight corners. Its comparatively tight turning circle does help out when parking in tight spaces, though.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
Each car here has a decent amount of adjustment in its front seats and steering wheel. The Mitsubishi is the only one with electric adjustment, which helps with fine-tuning, although some might find its driver’s seat doesn’t go upright enough.
Adjusting the BMW’s seats is a comparatively fiddly process, because to change the angle of the backrest you have to pull a lever and shift your weight forwards or backwards. Still, once done, the BMW’s seats are comfortable and supportive, although the Audi’s are even better, with more lateral support to hold you in place through bends.
The Volvo has the most comfortable seats; they're extremely supportive on long trips, even if they don’t hold you in position as well through tight turns. That’s partly because the XC60 is the only one of these SUVs with adjustable lumbar support. Audi and BMW charge extra for this, while Mitsubishi doesn’t offer it all. This, combined with the Outlander’s flat seats, makes it the least comfortable.
The X3’s climate controls are clearly labelled and sit high on the dash, although the Mitsubishi’s are almost as clear. The Audi’s climate system is more fiddly and the controls are positioned awkwardly behind the gearlever. The Volvo’s are also rather confusing, with lots of unusually shaped buttons.
The X3’s infotainment system is just as brilliant as ever, but now comes with satellite-navigation as standard, whereas it cost a whopping £1775 on the old model.
The interface is wonderfully intuitive; you simply twist a rotary dial on the centre console to scroll through the various on-screen menus, then push the dial to make a selection. You can even shortcut your way to certain functions by pressing one of the clearly labelled buttons flanking the dial.
Given how good the BMW’s standard system is, there’s really no need to upgrade, although an extra £900 will get you BMW’s Professional media system. This brings a larger (8.8-inch) display, a DVD player and a built-in hard drive to store your music on.
Audi’s latest generation of infotainment systems are almost a match for the BMW’s. Unfortunately, the Q5 makes do with one of the company’s older systems that isn’t so brilliant. It’s easy enough to fathom, with a similar rotary dial interface to the one in the X3, but the on-screen menus aren’t as logical or easy to navigate.
It’s also pretty shocking that Audi charges £255 for a USB socket (you get one as standard on our other contenders), which you’ll need if you want to charge your phone on the move. A sat-nav system is
also a pricey option.
The Mitsubishi comes with as many gadgets as the BMW. Sadly, though, the touch-screen interface is very confusing. Even a simple task, such as changing the radio station, is a convoluted process, and
we found that playing music through your phone using the USB socket causes the system to freeze on a regular basis.
The XC60’s system is even less impressive. The small screen is tricky to read at a glance and the interface (a selection of small and poorly labelled buttons and dials on the dashboard) isn’t terribly intuitive at all.
With that in mind, it’s definitely worth considering the Sensus Connect upgrade (priced at a reasonable £500). You still have to make do with the same clunky interface, but get a larger (7.0-inch) display and satellite-navigation.
Screen**Sat-navDAB radioUSB socketBluetoothCD player**Audi6.5in£1695YES£255YESYESBMW6.5inYESYESYESYESYES Mitsubishi7.0inYESYESYESYESNO *Volvo5.0in£500+YESYESYESYES
- Also adds iPod dock + Part of Sensus Connect
QUALITY & RELIABILITY
The X3’s dashboard is solid and soft to the touch and most of the buttons and dials are nicely damped. There’s also an appealing gloss black finish on the centre console.
If anything, though, the Q5’s cabin is even plusher; its dashboard has a finer texture that makes it feel more premium, while the panel gaps throughout the Audi’s interior are tighter. It’s just a pity that some of the switchgear is a bit flimsy.
The Volvo impresses on quality, too, with a cabin that’s every bit as premium as the Q5’s, albeit more conservatively styled. Sadly, that isn’t the case with the Outlander, which feels distinctly low-rent, with too many hard, scratchy plastics and flimsy-feeling buttons.
The German cars aren’t so impressive on reliability. In the 2014 JD Power ownership satisfaction survey, the X3 was one of the least-dependable SUVs, and the Q5 didn’t fare that much better. The XC60 didn’t feature, although Volvo was the seventh most reliable brand in the survey, out of 26.
Predicting how dependable the Outlander will be is far harder. That’s because Mitsubishi doesn’t sell enough cars to appear in JD Power, and the PHEV also uses a great deal of complex technology that hasn’t been tested in a production model before.
All four cars come with alloy wheels, climate control, four electric windows, automatic wipers and cruise control. The XC60 is the only car to miss out on leather upholstery – it costs £900 – while Audi is the only manufacturer that charges extra for a powered tailgate.
The XC60 is alone in not getting automatic headlights and, together with the Q5, it also makes do without heated front seats. These are standard on the BMW and Mitsubishi. In fact, the Outlander also gets an electric sunroof, xenon headlights, keyless entry and start and electric front seats.
Rear parking sensors are standard on the Audi, BMW and Volvo, while the Outlander gets a camera instead. Only the X3 gets standard front parking sensors, although these can be added as an option to the Q5 and XC60, and as a dealer-fit accessory to the Outlander.
All four cars are available in white for no extra charge, while Audi and BMW also offer solid black paint, and Volvo red.
seats**Heated front seatsClimate control**Cruise
Rear parking **sensors**
SAFETY & SECURITY
All of these SUVs received the maximum five-star rating in Euro NCAP’s crash tests. However, a closer look at the results reveals that the XC60 performed best for adult protection, with the Q5 and Outlander equal-top for child protection and the Mitsubishi best for pedestrian safety.
The Outlander also has the most airbags (seven compared with six in the others), but the Q5 is alone in having the option of rear side airbags. It’s also the only car here with a fatigue-warning system.
However, the XC60 has a system that can help you avoid collisions at low speeds – including with people. A similar system (without pedestrian detection) is optional on the Q5 and X3, but is reserved for top-spec Outlanders.
Tests by security body Thatcham found that all of these SUVs performed similarly well at resisting being stolen, but the Outlander scored worst of the quartet for its resistance to being broken into.
BMW has put a lot of effort into improving the refinement of the X3’s diesel engine – and it's paid off. At a steady cruise, it’s marginally quieter than the engines in its rivals, and the BMW also does a better job of isolating occupants from wind and road noise. However, when accelerating or when pulling uphill, the 2.0-litre engine still emits a gravelly rumble.
The Q5 comes in a close second – its diesel motor is actually a little smoother and quieter under acceleration than the refreshed unit in the BMW but doesn’t fade into the background as well as the X3’s at a steady speed. There’s also much more road noise in the Audi.
The plug-in Outlander plays its one trick very well, being the quietest at 30mph. At this speed, the twin electric motors barely make a sound, although the suspension clonks and you can hear the interior trim creaking.
Try to build momentum in the Mitsubishi, and the gearbox sends the revs soaring, causing the engine to drone away loudly. Wind and road noise are constant companions at 70mph, too.
It’s the Volvo that disappoints most, though. Its diesel engine has a coarse note that’s very intrusive – even at low revs. Push it harder, and a five-cylinder thrum fills the cabin, combined with plenty of vibration though the steering wheel and pedals. The XC60 also generates lots of road and wind noise at motorway speeds.
Noise at 30mph**Noise at 70mph**Audi61.7dB66.8dBBMW60.5dB66.5dBMitsubishi59.3dB69.3dBVolvo61.1dB67.5dB
SPACE & PRACTICALITY
These cars are aimed squarely at families and people with active lifestyles, so they need to be able to carry four in comfort and still have enough space left for all their paraphernalia.
All four fit the bill well. The BMW’s limited front legroom is only likely to bother seriously long-legged drivers, while the Mitsubishi’s shortage of headroom in the front and back will be an issue only for those who are very long in the body.
The Outlander goes some way towards making up for this with rear seats that can be reclined to give a more laid-back seating position. A similar feature is available in the Audi for £175, while the BMW and Volvo’s rear seats can’t be adjusted in this way.
Officially, the X3 has the biggest boot – its 550 litres of luggage space is just ahead of the Q5’s 540 litres, and well clear of the Volvo’s 495 litres and the Mitsubishi’s 463. That said, the XC60’s boot is the widest at its narrowest point, and the longest, so is best for carrying bulky items.
The Outlander’s boot is shallower than the Volvo’s, though, and its wheelarches intrude. Folding its rear seats is also a pain because, unless you first flip up the seat bases, the seatbacks lie at a pronounced angle when dropped.
There’s no need for all that palaver in the other three, although the seatbacks in the Audi and BMW lie at a slight angle when dropped, whereas the Volvo’s fold flat. The XC60 is also one of only two cars (the other being the Q5) with rear seats that divide in a handy 40:20:40 configuration, compared with the 60:40 split in the BMW and Mitsubishi.
The XC60 also impresses with its front passenger seat that clamshells down to allow you to load seriously long items, such as ladders and flat-pack furniture, with ease. The only other manufacturer to offer this feature is Audi, but it costs £130 and can’t be combined with adjustable lumbar support.
BUYING & OWNING
The Outlander has the highest list price and, even after dealer discounts and a £5000 electric car grant from the Government, it’s still the most expensive to buy. Cheapest is the XC60, thanks to the massive discounts that Volvo dealers are offering.
The X3 and Q5 have the strongest resale values, although the BMW is ultimately worth the most after three years. The Mitsubishi loses the most value during first three years and that’s the reason the Outlander is the most expensive of these SUVs to own privately -– despite it costing the least to fuel – thanks in part to the 22.3-miles we managed on pure battery power.
Meanwhile, the XC60 is the cheapest private buy, due partly to those big discounts, but also its relatively slow depreciation and cheap servicing bills. It’ll end up around £900 cheaper than the Q5, £1300 cheaper than the X3, and £1500 cheaper than the Outlander assuming you buy now and sell after three years.
The opposite is true for company car drivers. The Mitsubishi’s tiny CO2 emissions make it the cheapest to run through work. Over three years, the Outlander will cost a 40% taxpayer £6100 less than the X3 in company car tax, around £8000 less than the Q5 and £12,500 less than the XC60. Our figures factor in forthcoming changes to company car tax over the next few years.
List price**Target PriceMonthly BIK (40%)Contract hireResale value (3 yrs)True MPGCO2 output**Audi£34,160£31,765£305£34953%37.1159g/kmBMW£34,500£32,664£252£41254%37.1131g/kmMitsubishi£37,899£32,899£63£37742%39.244g/km*Volvo£34,435£29,189£330£41248%35.8169g/km
- including £5000 Government electric car grant
1st – BMW X3
For Brilliant to drive; strong engine; superb infotainment; well equipped; fairly low CO2
Against Variable dampers cost extra; so-so real-world fuel economy
Verdict The best sub-£50k SUV is now even better
2nd – Audi Q5
For Comfortable ride; high-quality cabin; refined engine
Against Not much standard kit; numb steering; road noise
Verdict Remain a fine alternative to the X3
3rd – Volvo XC60
For Practical boot; city braking is standard; huge discounts
Against Gruff engine; ungainly handling; fiddly infotainment
Verdict Still a fine SUV, but let down by a crude diesel engine
4th – Mitsubishi Outlander
For Seriously cheap company car tax; loads of kit
Against Below par ride and handling; cheap-feeling cabin
Verdict A very tempting option for company car drivers
The X3 has been our favourite SUV at this price point since its launch in 2011, so it’s hardly surprising that this updated model remains top of the pile.
Subtle but significant improvements to its engine and the addition of more standard luxuries (including sat-nav and a powered tailgate), only serve to enhance the BMW’s appeal, and easily make up for its modest price hike. In fact, the new X3 really has no major weaknesses, because it scores above average marks in every area.
Second is the Q5. It rides well, has a plush cabin and has the smoothest and quietest engine fitted to any of these SUVs. Its infotainment system isn’t as user-friendly as the BMW’s, though, and you pay extra for a USB socket and sat-nav, which should be standard.
The XC60 remains a very fine SUV, with a high-quality cabin, a practical boot and its standard city emergency braking system. However, two-wheel-drive D4 versions make a lot more sense, because they get a 2.0-litre diesel engine which is just as powerful but much cleaner and more refined.
The Mitsubishi finishes last, but that’s no disgrace in the face of such talented competition. The Outlander offers seriously attractive company car tax bills courtesy of its tiny CO2 output, and it also comes loaded with standard luxuries. In fact, if the Mitsubishi were a bit better to drive and had a higher-quality cabin (two things that really count against it) it may well have edged the Volvo for third spot.