Bottom Line/Personal: What are the best luxury SUVs for 2015?

I’m Steven Kaye, Editorial Director at Bottom Line Publications, and today my guest is auto analyst Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Director. Luxury SUVs – they combine it all: looks, power, luxury, and utility. But which ones are the best? Bottom Line sorts it out for you.

Karl, thanks for coming out today.

Karl Brauer: Yeah, good to be here.

Bottom Line: Luxury SUVs are the absolute pinnacle of a vehicle for many people. Even if they could get another car for free, this is what they really want. It’s absolutely the finest choice for them, and they love them.

There are many choices on the market now, and the prices are stratospheric in some cases. So when you sort through all the choices, what are your favorite ones?

Brauer: Just like any SUV, you want to combine really good on-road driving dynamics – because that’s where most of them spend most of their time, let’s be honest – but for me, to have full respect for them, they have to at least have the potential to go off-road and not hurt themselves. And that’s what they all certainly want to claim.

The truth is, they’re mostly succeeding there. There really isn’t one of those premium SUVs out there that would be a train wreck off-road, thankfully. But even within that range, there are some that do better than others in both circumstances.

I think the most impressive brand out there, with two models that are very impressive within it, is Land Rover. They have transformed this brand over the last couple years. It really has become one of the success stories of the auto industry. Tata owns them in India; he’s a total car guy. He has invested a lot of money in Jaguar and Land Rover in the past 10 years.

And you’re seeing it now. You’re seeing the fruits of his labor and his money in the fact that the new Range Rover is just fabulous on every level. It was always capable off-road, but the kind of amenities you get in it now, the sound system, the nav system, the driving dynamics on-road – it’s a fully realized, fully formed SUV. It looks fabulous, too. They’re selling very well despite their high prices. The performance with the supercharged version is kind of unnecessary, which is the definition of great performance.

I think if you’re looking for the most premium experience you can have in an SUV and still go off-road and climb boulders better than probably anything available, that’s it. You’ve got it all wrapped into one vehicle.

Bottom Line: When Land Rover was bought by an Indian company, there was some concern about what that might mean.

Brauer: Absolutely.

Bottom Line: This was not a company that was known for super premium vehicles. Just the opposite, in fact. But it sounds like in your mind, it’s now proven that it’s not a problem, and in fact, it sounds like they’ve raised the game.

Brauer: They have. Again, I think Tata – his name is Ratan Tata, he runs the company. He’s a hugely successful businessman out of India. He’s kind of their Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. He’s just really been successful. And you know he’s got a real passion for these brands, because he’s a car guy. And of course, there’s some irony in the fact that the guy in India now owns two of the most storied British brands.

But he knows the value. He knows what he’s got, that it’s very special. He’s treating it right. He’s letting the brands continue to be British premium brands. Everyone, myself included, was wondering what was going to happen when an Indian car company took over these storied British brands, and what’s happened is they’ve become far more powerful and capable than they ever had been before.

Bottom Line: So this model, this is the Range Rover. What price range are we talking about?

Brauer: I think this one starts, you’re going to be in the seventies-plus to get the base version, and you’re going to get over a hundred easily if you start getting the Autobiography, which is the supercharged, really whiz-bang one with all sorts of crazy interior features and luxury upgrades.

What’s nice is that if you really love the styling and the capability, you don’t even have to get the Range Rover. There’s the new Range Rover Sport that was just redesigned. Yet again, everything I just said: fabulously capable on-road and almost unmatched off-road. That one, because it’s smaller and yet it comes with the same drivetrain options, this 5-liter supercharged engine, it actually is faster than the Range Rover. It also handles a little better, feels a little sportier on-road, but it still goes off-road as well as the bigger one.

If I was going to buy my wife the ultimate luxury SUV, it wouldn’t even be a question in my mind; I’d get one of these two, probably.

Bottom Line: And the people space inside the sport version?

Brauer: Still totally adequate.

Bottom Line: Still just fine.

Brauer: Plenty of space. There’s plenty of space in there for people.

Bottom Line: Price difference between the two?

Brauer: I think it starts in the low to mid sixties, and that’s the non-supercharged version. And then you can get the supercharger, and again, you’ll start heading toward a hundred grand if you load it up.

Bottom Line: But still, the difference is a nice piece of change. You can save some money with the Sport versus the Range Rover.

Brauer: Yeah, and you really don’t need that supercharged engine. It’s tempting; once you’ve driven it, you want it. But you’re not underpowered with the base engine.

Bottom Line: Okay. Your next choice is a company that is not in Indian hands; it’s in German hands, and it’s always been in German hands.

Brauer: No indication that’s going to change soon.

Bottom Line: Yes, anytime soon. Tell us about that vehicle.

Brauer: This is the Mercedes GL. What I like about the GL is that it’s, again, the vault that all Mercedes are when you get in it, but it’s monstrous. I can’t believe how big this vehicle feels inside. And yet I can’t believe how nimble and confident and maneuverable it feels outside.

Mercedes has done what all SUV manufacturers are trying to do – and most are doing with some level of success, but they’ve done it as well or better than anyone. You get three rows, you get adequate if not Range Rover level of off-road capability, but really luxurious bank vault interior ambience and confidence and quality. Plenty of performance. I think it’s an attractively styled vehicle, too.

Again, you’re trying to move around people and you want luxury and you want amenities and maybe to have somewhat of a statement that you have succeeded in life, this is a very good combination of all those things.

Bottom Line: And price range for this?

Brauer: Yeah, this one is going to be – I think you’re going to start like in the high fifties, low sixties for even a base one, and then it’s going to go up from there.

Bottom Line: Looking at the Range Rover and looking at the Mercedes GL, what should make a person choose one over the other?

Brauer: I don’t think there’s a clear winner here unless you’re down to individual tastes on British versus German heritage and styling or off-road capability. If you really were going to go off-road and do serious off-road work and wanted to depend on the vehicle to not run into anything it couldn’t handle, the Range Rover would have the advantage.

Bottom Line: I see a lot of Audi Q7s in areas where I also see a lot of these two cars. How does that compare in your mind?

Brauer: It’s another good vehicle. That shares the platform with the Volkswagen Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne, and very luxurious and upscale interior. So there’s nothing wrong with the Q7. I don’t find its exterior styling as compelling as the other two. I think it wants to be sleeker, and because it wants to be sleeker, it doesn’t have as much interior space.

Once you’re at the large SUV with premium branding on it, I want as much space as I can get, as well as luxury. And that’s where the GL and the Range Rover have more of an advantage. And I do want some off-road capability, and I don’t think I’d have the confidence in the Q7 that I’d have in either the GL, or particularly the Range Rover.

Bottom Line: More of a street car?

Brauer: More of a street car. It’s really, to me, the Q7 is a tall station wagon. Which is okay; tall station wagons are much approved by many people, and they work. But I like the more SUV functionality that you get out of the GL and the Range Rover.

Bottom Line: You’re not supposed to say “station wagon,” Karl.

Brauer: That’s right, yeah. That’s bad. They might as well call it a minivan in today’s world.

Bottom Line: All right, thank you very much, Karl.

Brauer: Absolutely.