“The estate car market will never be quite the same again now that the Range Rover has been introduced. It is, after all, just as much an estate car as anything else…” – LJK Setright, Car, February 1971
WHETHER you like it or not, the SUV is the modern evolution of the wagon. Resist the temptation to aerate this messenger in a hail of bullets and consider that for a moment. Buyers have voted with their wallets and wagons now sit a little higher and can go a little farther off the beaten track. Leonard Setright, a cranky, British facsimile of Peter Robinson, had this figured out almost half a century ago but, for most of us, it’s taken that long for the penny to drop.
Indeed, it took until 2004 for Wheels to anoint an SUV with its Car of the Year gong and that year’s winner, the Ford Territory, has belatedly been joined in the past two years by two more of its ilk; the Mazda CX-9 and the Volvo XC60. Our reigning champ swept the board in the final round of voting, and the Swede has imperiously batted aside anything in its path since. It cleaned up in its first Wheels comparo, is reigning World Car of the Year and, by my reckoning, is likely the most extravagantly awarded vehicle in history. Everything to lose, then.
The arrival of Alfa Romeo’s Stelvio was the catalyst for this test. Its sedan counterpart, the Giulia, landed a podium spot at the XC60’s COTY win and we were curious to see whether elevating the Alfa’s Giorgio platform genes a few centimetres would detract from the formula. We’re scratching our heads a little here and wondering when the last time we pitched the philosophical poles of Alfa and Volvo into a comparison together, so to tie the two together and act as a median point of reference, we’ve also included BMW’s X3.
All three wagons are diesel powered and drive goes to all four wheels. In price order, we have the $67,900 Alfa Stelvio Q4 diesel, followed by the $69,900 BMW X3 xDrive 20d with the Volvo XC60 D5 R-Design weighing in at $75,990. But then things get a bit more convoluted. We’ve always recommended that you spend an additional $2490 on air suspension when specifying an XC60, but this one’s running on steel springs and, to compound the issue, huge 21-inch alloys. Add the optional Lifestyle Pack which includes a glass roof, heated front seats and metallic paint and this one runs out of the showroom at $80,840. The Stelvio we have here includes the First Edition pack, a $6000 bag of tricks that adds 19-inch wheels, adaptive suspension, a 14-speaker Harman Kardon stereo and a whole host of other bits.
You’d be mad not to tick this box, but the as-tested price gets lifted to $75,200. Then there’s the BMW which adds, well, everything. An M-Sport package, a glass roof, metallic paint, Vernasca leather, the Driving Assistant Plus package, a navigation upgrade and the Innovations Package, which lifts the price to an eye-watering $88,650.
Most of these optional inclusions are nice-to-haves, which we can effectively ignore, but the Alfa and BMW ride on cost-plus adaptive suspension systems while the Volvo, which needs to, doesn’t. And as soon as you drive them down a road, you notice the fact. The XC60 never quite settles into the sort of serene glide path you expect. It’s never harsh nor does it feel as if it’s running out of answers at sensible speeds, but there’s a tiring nerviness to its ride. Switch the BMW and Alfa into their soft suspension settings and they’re both more confidence-inspiring. The Alfa feels supple and limber while the X3 is wonderfully serene.
Although buyers who prioritise handling and performance tend not to make their next search criteria ‘diesel’ and ‘SUV’, there’s also a marked difference in how these vehicles tackle a demanding road. The Alfa is an unmitigated joy. No, it’s not as sharp as a Giulia, with additional roll and pitch, but it’s the only one of these three that you’d take for a drive just for the fun of it. Everybody who drove it emerged shaking their heads in admiration and then wondering what the hell the 375kW Stelvio Q is going to be like. In Q4 form the Stelvio already has a monster front end and a supremely responsive gearbox.
Read next: 2018 Volvo XC60 D5 R-Design review
Should you scruff it up a road in manual mode, it’s the only one here that will sit on the redline before you click up on one of those delicious fixed aluminium paddles. The hypersensitive brakes take some getting used to. Most of the time you can modulate them with just a gentle flex of your big toe, but anything more than that requires a sensitive caress with the clog. The 2.1-litre four is vocal when stretched but it’s punchy, carrying 250kg less up the road than the XC60 and delivering 100Nm more than the X3. In terms of straightline grunt to 100km/h, the X3 is to the Stelvio what the Alfa is to a Porsche 911.
Dynamically, the BMW and the Volvo are an intriguing pairing. The BMW is markedly the slowest, and while it can’t match the laser focus of the Stelvio, nevertheless does a tidy job on a challenging road. The steering is actually better in Comfort than Sport, the latter introducing an inconsistency that always requires half a hand more lock mid-corner, resulting in disappointing apex authority. Switched to Comfort, it’s far easier to scribe a clean line and feed what power you have. Body control in both modes is probably the finest of the bunch, but it rewards a disciplined driving style. Try to bully it into a corner on the brakes, as you would with the Alfa in Dynamic mode, and the X3 lapses into understeer earlier than you’d like.
The Volvo makes good on its 37kW power advantage over the German SUV, relentlessly reeling it in on straights, but the XC60’s weight, remote steering and pattery front end sees the BMW distance it on corner entry. Refinement at freeway speeds is close to the X3 with the Alfa introducing a little more tyre roar and engine noise into the cabin. The Stelvio’s superstructure also has a curious propensity for long-decay thrums as it hits expansion joints, harmonic frequencies ringing through a chassis that clearly suffers a transient acoustic damping inadequacy.
What the Volvo loses in dynamics it claws back with perceived quality. Put bluntly it feels far more expensive inside than the BMW and in a completely different class to the Alfa. You’ll need to invest some time getting to learn the touchscreen control system, but once you’re up to speed with it, you’ll be flicking through it like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. The quality of fit and finish, the boldness of design, the depth of considered thinking inside the vehicle and the sheer presence of the XC60 make it a lovely thing to live with day in day out. Just ask editor Inwood, who’s suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress from having to hand back the keys to his XC60 T8 long-termer.
Read next: 2018 BMW X3 xDrive20d review
The BMW’s cabin looks like a design trope that’s reaching pensionable age by comparison. My teenage nephew would doubtless describe it as ‘normie’, but here’s the thing: it all works, beautifully and without that level of opacity that you’ll initially experience in the Volvo. The biggest door bins, a wireless phone charger, physical buttons for all the key functions, a tactile input system, the list goes on. Only the overly chubby steering wheel, poor legibility of electroplated button typefaces and the lack of steering wheel adjustment range detract from its functionality. It’s also easily the biggest inside, with acres of space in the rear, an agreeably low rear window line and the largest boot.
Then there’s the Stelvio. Pluses? It has a classically handsome twin-cowled instrument panel, great seats and a biggish boot. Stacking up the minuses is depressingly easy. The most perplexing fact about the Stelvio is that it takes the chassis of the Giulia, a compact sedan for the thrusting single buck, and in transforming it to the sort of vehicle that might be deemed family-friendly, reduces the length of its wheelbase. It’s far more cramped in the back, and the rear door aperture is pinched if you’re shoehorning kids into child seats. It also lacks the head-up display and adaptive cruise control systems that have become standard fit on almost all of its rivals. It’s no hyperbole to say that it feels more akin to a Hyundai Tucson than a Volvo XC60 inside.
Arriving at a verdict here presents us with a dilemma. As-tested, the vehicle with the most rounded set of skills is the BMW X3 xDrive 20d, but much of what makes this particular car feel so good comes from the liberal sprinkling of optional fairy dust and the hardly negligible effect of the adaptive damping. It’s also hard to overlook the fact that, for an engineering-led company like BMW, the X3 is the slowest and thirstiest on test. By contrast, the only notable minus on the Volvo’s ledger is the omission of its brilliant but optional air-sprung ride. Were we to specify these cars as we’d recommend them, the Volvo would comfortably win, so to decide this test on the vagaries of a press office box-ticking exercise seems invidious in the extreme.
The Alfa clearly comes third albeit with some caveats. It’s a delightful thing to pedal but an average SUV and the criteria for success here is as a versatile family-friendly oil-burner. If you fancied a Giulia but want something that you can fling a bike or camping gear inside, the Stelvio earns a solid recommendation. It’s an easy thing to love as long as you don’t expect it to excel at the utilitarian, and we can’t help but admire its intransigent refusal to play to established rules.
Despite Volvo doing its best to hobble its car for this review, the least convincing XC60 we’ve tested squeaks in by a nose. The BMW X3, a car we’ve pigeonholed as a perennial underachiever, almost managed a Bradbury here and in the process has won a serious measure of respect. While the Volvo wins on a theoretical tot-up, if there was a spiritual winner’s award on offer it’d be winging its way to Munich.