13 July 2007

New Things in Smaller Packages

OUTthere 39 – All Torque

The motoring industry is witnessing the birth of a new genre of motor vehicle: the Premium Compact SUV.

The emergence of this new type of vehicle is not such a surprise and several prevailing factors are driving, excuse the pun, this development. Buyers are arriving at dealers with more money and higher expectations, but they are also sensitive to grandiose expressions of carbon-belching transport. Consequently, manufacturers are finding ways of packing high end accoutrements into smaller vehicles, in particular the SUV.

BMW are credited with leading this reverse charge with the 2004 introduction of their X3, offered as a kind of mini X5 for 3 Series buyers looking for a garage mate for their 325 or 330. But the exercise began awkwardly with critics identifying compromises like brash plastic interior trim and space-saver wheel coupled to a $65k (base) price tag. They were, however, unanimous in their praise for the X-drive 4WD system, which the little X3 shares with the full-size X5.

BMW revamped the X3, addressing some of the issues, with a new model in late 2006 offering three upgraded engine variants; a petrol 2.5 litre six, a sizzling 200kW 3.0 six and a very competent 3.0 turbo diesel. For the enviro-conscious, this economical and powerful (160kW) straight six is gaining lots of attention despite the $75k price tag.

In a much anticipated counter attack, iconic 4WD brand, Land Rover, recently launched their completely reworked Freelander, dubbed unsurprisingly, Freelander 2. The evocative TV campaign features a shiny 4WD transporting the young Gen Y male into a world of fantasy and adventure after an appointment with a stunning Asian clairvoyant. Despite this predictable marketing attempt, the new Freelander 2 reveals itself as an honestly impressive vehicle.

Land Rover endured years of biting criticism for their original Freelander which was victim to build quality issues and engine and transmission failures that had the warranty department working overtime. Their response was to start with a completely clean slate for Freelander 2, right down to the redesigned grille badge.

OUTthere was able to test this compact SUV much harder than any of its competitors under the scutinising eye of Land Rover executives. We can report it is a genuine off-road 4WD with much more capacity than 95 per cent of owners will ever ask of it. Our only reservation was the occasional underbody scuff due to a ride height not ideal for the heavy off-road work we subjected our test vehicles to.

Benchmarked against the leading vehicle in this class, the X3, Land Rover pitched the UK-built baby 4WD into the category at just under $50k. Even the high spec HSE 2.2 litre diesel tops out at $58k. Despite dismissive scoffs from the German marque, if the new little Land Rover can live up to claims of improved reliability and build quality, it is a genuine competitor in this new category of vehicle.

So who else is training their sights on this new arena?

Volvo signaled its intentions to compete with the XC60, a scale model of the well-received XC90 full-size 4WD. Currently in concept, the XC60 is slated for production in 2009, putting the Ford-owned Swedish marque off the radar for now.

Audi, again acknowledging what appears initially to be a European trend, have heralded the Q5 as a miniaturised version of their acclaimed Q7. Due to begin production in Germany next year, the Q5 will meet the X3 head-on, but Audi are also planning the Q3 to slot in one layer down.

Mercedes-Benz, predicably enough, are not about to be left out. Journalists were taunted recently in Austria with a cloaked prototype that stayed cloaked and instead were treated to display of strictly embargoed concept images. To be marketed under the label MLK, Mercedes-Benz promise to remove the covers at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September. MLK is likely to be powered by the 3.0 and 3.5 litre V6s and spy shots indicate it will appear in a 4-door version.

Honda, who can claim some credit for launching the compact SUV category ten years ago with CR-V, upped the spec for their new model to knock on the door of the premium segment at almost $42k for the fully tricked model. CR-V, however, falls considerably short in the off-road stakes when compared to X3 or Freelander 2. But for those who live on the tarmac, it’s worth a test.

Jeep upset purists of this stalwart 4x4 marque with their release of Compass. It has many critics scratching their heads with this new, pint-sized Jeep. Looking for all the world like the baby brother of the big boy family, Compass brings everyday driveability and comfort to a brand known for rugged, outdoorsy looks - and commensurate ride and feel. Sure, it’s a softy, but it may be a Jeep that Mrs He-Man won’t mind jumping into. Fully sauced, the little Jeep just tips the $40k price point and boasts leather seats, CD-stacker, electronic stability control, airbags and intelligent 4WD.

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