Used test – winter warmers : Audi Q5 vs BMW X3 vs Land Rover Freelander vs Volvo XC60 Comparison

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These upmarket SUVs are reassuringly high-and-mighty and come with cosseting interiors, making them perfect for winter – but which makes the best used buy?

The Contenders

*** Note : £1 = $1.40 (correct at time of post)

Audi Q5 2.0 TDI 170 SE S Tronic
  • List price when new £33,115
  • Price today £15,000
  • Available from 2008-2012

The Q5 offers sharp looks and agile handling, while the Audi badge helps make it desirable

BMW X3 xDrive20d SE auto
  • List price when new £32,660
  • Price today £13,950
  • Available from 2011-present

The second-generation BMW X3’s smart looks and sharp handling have won it plenty of fans

Land Rover Freelander 2.2 SD4 190 XS auto
  • List price when new £31,845
  • Price today £11,995
  • Available from 2006-2014

Incredibly comfortable on-road, and accomplished off it, the Freelander is a brilliant all-rounder

Volvo XC60 2.0 D3 SE Geartronic
  • List price when new £31,765
  • Price today £11,495
  • Available from 2008-present

It’s the cheapest car here, but the Volvo still has a classy interior and feels good to drive

Price today is based on a 2011 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

Audi Q5, BMW X3, Land Rover Freelander & Volvo XC60 in snowy climes

When the weather outside is frightful, knowing you’ve got a warm, safe SUV parked outside to get you home is truly delightful. The reassurance of having something so substantial, combined with a comfortingly high-quality interior, has made upmarket SUVs like these enormously popular, especially during biting cold snaps like the one we’re currently experiencing.

The current BMW X3 is one of our favourites of the breed, and in early pre-facelift form it’s now possible to get hold of a tidy, average-mileage example for less than £14,000, making it surprisingly accessible. But it doesn’t have the market to itself. Audi’s Q5 is pricier to buy, but perennially popular thanks to its blend of smart looks and crisp driving dynamics.

Then there’s the Land Rover Freelander, whose rugged reputation suggests it’ll get you up hill and down dale, whatever the weather. And with prices undercutting the two German cars in this test, it looks like pretty good value.

Not quite as good value, mind you, as the Volvo XC60 – the cheapest car here was once our favourite SUV, thanks to its smooth drive and beautifully-designed interior. But it’s the only one without four-wheel drive, so will that count against it? Time to head for the hills to find out. Let it snow.

What are they like to drive?

All of these cars came with muscular turbodiesel engines, but the Land Rover’s is the biggest and strongest. For a start, it’s a 2.2 where the rest have 2.0-litre engines. It also has the most power, with 188bhp, and most torque, at 310lb ft. That oomph is available from low revs, too, so whatever the circumstances, there’s always plenty of go.

Despite all that power, the Land Rover can’t keep pace with the BMW. The X3 isn’t far behind on power with 181bhp, and there’s also a healthy 280lb ft of pull. Importantly, it’s much lighter than the Freelander, so the X3 feels a good bit perkier. The eight-speed automatic gearbox helps, too, because it’s quicker to respond to a prod of the accelerator than the Freelander’s six-speeder. In fact, the X3 will outsprint all of our contenders from a standing start, and it’s quickest to pick up pace on the move.

The Audi’s engine has lots of mid-range pull, so once you’re up and running, the Q5 doesn’t hang about. However, the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox takes its time in sending the torque to the wheels, and that can make the Audi feel a little reluctant to move off from a standstill. On the plus side, the ‘box is great when you’re accelerating through the gears, because the changes are seamless.

The Volvo has more torque than the Audi (295lb ft to the Q5’s 258), but trails it for power (161bhp vs 168). There’s very little between them for weight. However, the Volvo is quite a bit slower. It never feels particularly brisk, even at peak power, but it’s not so lazy that you’ll get frustrated with the performance. You may lose patience with the slow responses of the six-speed automatic gearbox, though.

What about in the corners? Well, the X3 has always been great fun in bends, but older models suffered from an incredibly hard ride. This version, though, is a lot less jiggly – although our test car was fitted with Variable Damper Control, which was a £930 option when the car was new. In our experience, though, the standard X3 rides perfectly well – as long as you choose this SE version with its smaller wheels and softer suspension.

The X3 handles brilliantly, too. Body control is always tight, there’s plenty of grip, and although the steering doesn’t offer the feedback you might expect from a BMW, it’s well weighted. What’s more, it’s the quietest overall. There’s some wind noise around the door mirrors at motorway speeds, but road- and suspension noise are extremely well suppressed. The engine makes itself heard when you increase the revs, but once you’re up to speed it’s perfectly quiet.

The Audi is the real entertainer of the bunch. The Q5’s steering is just as fast and well weighted as the BMW’s, but it grips more strongly, and rolls less in bends. This agility does come at the expense of ride comfort, mind you – you feel a tad too much of the surface beneath you, and big bumps can give you a real jolt.

The Q5’s engine is the most civilised here when you’re accelerating, but it isn’t as hushed as the BMW’s at 70mph, and you feel more vibration through the pedals. The Audi isn’t as good as the BMW or Volvo at shielding you from road noise, either.

Wind noise is the main disturbance in the Freelander, however. Our test car wasn’t helped by its glass sunroof, but the upright front end also generates some sound. There’s a bit of road noise to be heard, too, and the engine has a distinctly agricultural tone.

The combination of all these noises means the Freelander is the least refined of the four, which is a shame because it’s otherwise so relaxing to drive. The suspension is set up for comfort above all else, and it does a cracking job, too, wafting you along serenely. Of course, the soft suspension means the body leans dramatically when you come to a bend, and the Freelander runs out of grip earlier than its rivals, too, making it the least sporting here to drive. The light steering is also a little disconcerting, though it’s useful when parking.

The XC60 is neither particularly sporty nor soft, but it strikes a brilliant balance between the two. The ride is comfortable on any surface and the body control is strong enough to keep the car composed in corners.

It’s also reasonably quiet, mainly because it’s great at isolating road noise from its occupants, though there is some wind noise from the bottom of the windscreen, and it suffers from a grumbly engine whether you’re accelerating or cruising.

The steering could offer more weight and feedback, too, and it’s worth noting that the XC60 is the only car here without four-wheel drive, which was only available as an optional extra when it was new. The standard two-wheel-drive car tested here isn’t as capable off-road, and nor will it get you up icy hills as convincingly as the others.

What are they like inside?

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The interior of the BMW X3 will look instantly familiar to anyone who’s been in a contemporary BMW. Most of the switches and controls are shared with – or are all but identical to – those in the company’s other cars of the same era. That’s a good thing, because they’re clearly labelled and easy to use.

BMW’s iDrive system comes as standard, allowing you to control most functions easily via a rotary dial and a handful of buttons next to the gearlever. You can even programme shortcuts using the centre console switches.

That switchgear has a precise, built-to-last feel, and elsewhere the materials and build are as you’d expect from a BMW of this era; in other words, they’re hard to fault. Everything appears durable yet luxurious, while supportive seats add further appeal to the X3’s user-friendly cabin.

Climb aboard the Audi Q5, and the first thing you notice is that its pedals are quite offset, though the problem is less noticeable in an automatic than in models with manual gearboxes.

Audi has a reputation for classy interiors, and the Q5 more than lives up to it. The combination of plush materials, smart design and attention to detail give a truly upmarket ambience. Tight panel gaps and slick controls are the icing on the cake.

All Q5s came with Audi’s MMI system, which works in a similar way to iDrive, although it’s not as intuitive, with a smaller controller and more complex menus to navigate. The air-con controls are a bit fiddly, but the front seats are well shaped and there’s a huge range of adjustment for the steering wheel.

You can’t fail to be impressed by the Volvo XC60’s interior. With a stylish dash – complete with ‘floating’ centre console – and first-rate fit and finish, it’s every bit as swish as those of its German rivals. The materials are top-notch, too. It’s a shame, then, that if you’re buying a car that wasn’t specified with the optional sat-nav, you’re left with a piece of unattractive black plastic in the middle of the dash, where the screen would be.

What’s more, the air-con and stereo controls are on the small side, as is the digital display at the top of the dash. And while the large, well-padded seats make long journeys pain-free, taller drivers may feel that the seat doesn’t go low enough, or that the steering wheel won’t move far enough away.

You sit high in the Land Rover Freelander, but that adds to its conventional 4×4 character and excellent all-round visibility. The Land Rover’s controls are mostly user-friendly, but there are a lot of similar-looking switches on the centre console which can make it confusing to use.

What’s more, the Land Rover’s dashboard feels the least high-quality here, with a few controls and pieces of trim that don’t have the high-tech sophistication of the others’. The front seats could be better, too; they’re relatively small and flat, and the retractable armrests don’t fold completely away, which may annoy. That said, the Freelander is still a good place to be, with sturdy materials and classy details.

What will they cost?

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The BMW X3 is, by quite some margin, the cheapest car here to own. That’s thanks in large part to its superb fuel economy; it gets 50.4mpg, which compared with the 41.5mpg of the Volvo and the 40.4mpg of both the Land Rover and Audi, is frankly in a different league.

That low fuel consumption equates to low tax rates, too – just £145 a year, compared with the £230 a year any of the other three will cost you. What’s more, the BMW can also boast the lowest servicing costs of our quartet. All of which should mitigate against the fact that the BMW is the second most expensive car here to buy.

It is, however, considerably less expensive than the Audi Q5. The Audi’s purchase costs are head and shoulders above any other car here. Granted, you will see proportionately more of your cash back when the time comes to sell it on – but in real cash terms, you’ll actually lose about as much as you will on the BMW, and more than on the Land Rover and Volvo, purely because they’re starting from a lower initial price.

At least the Audi has the second-lowest servicing costs after the BMW. By contrast, it’s the Land Rover that’s the most expensive to service, with the Volvo filling the gap between the two.

Land Rover finished first from last in our most recent reliability survey; however, neither Audi nor BMW fared much better. And while the Freelander doesn’t fare all that well in the survey, it actually scored better than the other three cars here overall. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Audi Q5 performs the worst, with a reliability score far below those achieved by the others. The BMW X3 finished second of this group in the survey, while the XC60 finished just behind in third place.

All of which means that if cost is a factor, it makes the most sense to choose either the Volvo for its low purchase price and reasonable reliability score, or the BMW for its cheap running costs and decent resale values. It’s a toss-up between the Audi and the Land Rover as to which will be the most expensive to own, but thanks to its disastrous reliability score, we suspect the Q5 would edge it.

Verdict

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In our recent group test of bargain used SUVs, the Land Rover Freelander fared pretty well, finishing second only to the Hyundai Santa Fe. Here, though, it’s a different story – up against its more upmarket rivals, it doesn’t quite pass muster.

It’s still not a bad SUV, mind you; it’s the most comfortable car here by a long chalk, it comes with a lusty engine and it comes with plenty of equipment. It also looks the part, and if you plan to do any serious off-roading it has the best credentials of the four.

But that soft ride translates to a slightly sloppy driving experience; what’s more, the Freelander isn’t as spacious as its rivals here. Throw in its high running costs and a purchase price that isn’t far off that of the BMW X3, and it becomes a hard car for which to make a case.

The Audi Q5 is an awful lot more fun to drive, and that fact, together with its sturdy dashboard, supportive seats and spacious interior, gives it the edge over the Freelander.

The Q5 is a good car, then, but you don’t half have to pay for the privilege. It’s the most expensive car to buy here, and a poor reputation for reliability suggests it’ll be the most expensive to run, too. What’s more, its firm ride means it isn’t all that comfortable – all of which means it slides into third place.

That leaves the Volvo in second. You do get an awful lot of car for your cash with the XC60, and even though it’s the cheapest, it’s no poor relation. The interior’s spacious, its seats are wonderfully comfortable, and its chassis strikes a great balance between comfort and composure.

But of course, the Volvo is the only car here that doesn’t come with four-wheel drive as standard, meaning you’ll have to seek a 4WD example out if that’s what you want. You also have to live with more noise from the diesel engine than you might like. If you can live with those flaws, though, and you fancy a stylish, comfortable SUV with a top-class interior, it should be on your list.

But it’s the BMW X3 which takes a resounding first place here. Not only is it great to drive, with a gutsy engine and involving handling, but it’s also comfortable enough for most people – in this SE form, at least – and endowed with a beautifully finished interior. Throw in stylish looks and quiet cruising, and it’s already looking like a winner.

There’s more, though, because the X3 is also the cheapest car here to run, and not by a small margin. That should go some way toward mitigating its second-highest purchase price, and even if it doesn’t, the benefits the X3 brings to the table make it worth the additional outlay. Winter motoring has never looked quite so appealing.

1st – BMW X3

  • For Exceptionally low running costs; sensational performance; handling
  • Against Quite pricey to buy
  • Verdict One of the most satisfying used SUVs out there
Specifications: BMW X3 xDrive 20d SE Auto
  • Engine size 2.0-litre petrol/diesel
  • List price when new £32,660
  • Price today £13,950
  • Power 181bhp
  • Torque 280lb ft
  • 0-60mph 8.3sec
  • Top speed 123mph
  • Fuel economy 50.4mpg (Official average)
  • CO2 emissions 147g/km
2nd – Volvo XC60

  • For Spacious cabin; great seats; comfortable cruiser
  • Against Short of pace; engine is gruff when pushed; 4WD optional
  • Verdict Excellent all-round family car majoring on space and comfort
Specifications: Volvo XC60
  • Engine size 2.0-litre petrol/diesel
  • List price when new £31,765
  • Price today £11,495
  • Power 161bhp
  • Torque 295lb ft
  • 0-60mph 12.3sec
  • Top speed 112mph
  • Fuel economy 41.5mpg (Official average)
  • CO2 emissions 179g/km
3rd – Audi Q5

  • For Exceptional agility; swanky image; strong resale values
  • Against Expensive to buy and run; poor reliability reputation; firm ride
  • Verdict Smart-looking 4×4 that’s great to drive, but expensive to run
Specifications: Audi Q5 2.0 TDI 170 SE S Tronic
  • Engine size 2.0-litre petrol/diesel
  • List price when new £33,115
  • Price today £15,000
  • Power 168bhp
  • Torque 258lb ft
  • 0-60mph 10.9sec
  • Top speed 119mph
  • Fuel economy 40.4mpg (Official average)
  • CO2 emissions 184g/km
4th – Land Rover Freelander

  • For Smooth ride; strong performance; plenty of standard kit
  • Against Too much body roll; cramped cabin; poor resale values
  • Verdict Well equipped and comfortable, and unbeatable off road
Specifications: Land Rover Freelander 2.2 SD4 190 XS auto
  • Engine size 2.2-litre petrol/diesel
  • List price when new £31,765
  • Price today £11,995
  • Power 188bhp
  • Torque 310lb ft
  • 0-60mph 8.9sec
  • Top speed 117mph
  • Fuel economy 40.4mpg (Official average)
  • CO2 emissions 185g/km

(whatcar.com, https://goo.gl/U1qSW7)

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