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Old 08-22-2011, 07:57 AM
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Arrow 2011 BMW X5 M vs. 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 vs. 2011 Porsche Cayenne Turbo

Three Heavyweights. Three Rounds. One Brawl to Settle it All. This Trio Puts the Super in SUV.

August 22, 2011 / By Nate Martinez / Photography by Michael Shaffer, Wesley Allison

These days, defining a sport/utility vehicle is hard. Just about anything top-heavy that necessitates the slight lifting of a passenger's leg for entry usually qualifies, thanks in part to the introduction of car-based crossovers. There are still a handful of vehicles that combine sport and utility to the fullest extent imaginable, clearing up any confusion when these three letters come to mind. We've rounded up three of these -- the 555-horsepower BMW X5 M, 500-horsepower Porsche Cayenne Turbo, and 465-horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. We'll call them Super SUVs -- SuperUVs for brevity -- due to their massive amounts of power, high top speed, surefooted stick, and excellent utility.

Not one SUV in this matchup takes more than 4.6 seconds to get to 60 mph from rest. Braking to a dead stop from the same speed happens in less than 115 feet for all three. They haul five passengers and cargo, and tow at least 5300 pounds. Every engine corrals more than 450 horses; the same goes for pound-feet of twist.

Five-, six-, and eight-speed automatic transmissions delegate power to all four wheels via blandly labeled all-wheel-drive systems (BMW xDrive, Jeep Selec-Track, Porsche Traction Management). A bit of soft-roading is well within their limits. If you told me these statistics a decade ago, I would have smiled politely and pressed the little red button under my desk. Security will be here shortly...

At a minimum price tag just under $61,000 for the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, and with a best EPA-rated highway fuel economy rating of 22 mpg produced by the Porsche Cayenne Turbo, the players are neither cheap, nor efficient. We wanted find out if these top-tier SUVs can comfortably travel at entertaining and demanding velocities with hefty loads and all seats filled, so we packed our helmets, hooked up flatbed trailers, and drove into the blazing Mojave Desert toward Willow Springs International Raceway.

The Plan
Before fleeing Los Angeles's clogged arteries, we outlined three evaluative rounds of our SuperUV title fight. Round 1 is the liveability test. We wanted to see how well each functions as a daily driver for commuting and errand-running. During this test, towing and canyon carving were strictly verboten. Thanks to Recaro North America and its ProSeries child seats, we saw how well the SUVs copes with a (faux) kid onboard.

Round 2 was all about testing the SuperUVs' proclaimed towing skills. We scheduled a pickup of three 2210-pound vehicle transport flatbeds, and loaded each with a sporty convertible from each vehicle's respective brand. The Cayenne Turbo got to haul a 2011 Boxster Spyder; the X5 M a 2011 Z4 xDrive35is; and the SRT8 a 2012 Fiat 500C. (Chrysler/Fiat doesn't have a sporty drop top...yet.)

The third and final round was unquestionably the most fun. Since all three love running fast, and given that Jeep proclaims its new GC is "Track Rated" (a play on the brand's usual "Trail Rated" label), our in-house hot shoe and road test editor, Scott Mortara, set lap times on the 1.8-mile Streets of Willow course. Track time in an SUV? Yes, please.

DING! DING! DING! Let the brawl begin.

Round 1: The Rise of the Supermarket Sleepers
The "sleeper" label applies to the $121,000 Cayenne Turbo and $92,000 X5 M. Despite their exuberant MSRPs, both don barely modified guises that attract few second looks from passersby. They look just like their non-turbo counterparts.

The Cayenne's modern Stuttgart snout and sleek profile are too passé and common in L.A. Aside from the italicized Turbo plate, subtle hatch spoiler, and Gatling gun LED headlamps, there is hardly anything aesthetic that makes the Porsche stand out. Although the BMW sports an intake-laden front end, a beautiful Monte Carlo Blue hue, and a squatter stance with extra-wide 315/35-20 rear tires, the specialness of this SUV isn't obvious.

The $61,000 Jeep SRT8, on the other hand, is of a different mentality. One fleeting look is all it takes to understand its gravity. While the Germans were conservative in adding flair, the Americans from Auburn Hills bolted on a heap of LOOK-AT-ME stuff, including fat 295/45-20 rubber at all four corners, extra-bright LED DRLs, and a scooped hood. Nothing else in the Grand Cherokee lineup - or the entire Chrysler range, for that matter -- looks as different, or as sinister, as this SRT8. It attracted plenty of gawking mouths and gas station interrogations, and since the Jeep is rated at 12/18 mpg city/highway, it stops at the gas station happen more often than you think. Some call it gaudy. I call it "bitchin'."

If Johnny Comfort were on the SuperUV bittyball team, he'd play second string. But with tauter suspensions employing traditional coil springs/non-adjustable dampers (Jeep), adaptive dampers (BMW), and self-leveling air "springs" (Porsche), each was livable over multiple commuting days. We preferred BMW and Porsche's distinctly German method of suspension calibration, which combines adequate cushiness and surprising responsiveness, to the Jeep's slightly jarring one-dimensional, non-adjustable Bilsteins. Our numerous passengers did, too.

Porsche's engineers poignantly kept the twin-turbo 4.8-liter's rumbling from permeating the leather-lined cabin at abhorrent levels during normal cruising, yet its muffled purr constantly reminds drivers why it's a good idea to keep a lawyer on retainer. Forgetting the worries of the world beyond its laminated glass is as easy as cranking up the theater-crisp $3990 Burmester audio system. As contributing editor Mark Williams noted, "This interior is most like a sports car and most unlike an SUV."

To that point, most of the Cayenne's interior attributes are geared toward an athleticism uncommon in the segment. Its tight, leather-wrapped, multi-way-adjustable seats hold your body close. The visually alluring dash and central tunnel swathed in supple Alcantara up the elegance and motorsport antes. Associate online editor Benson Kong liked the gauges best. "The cluster is one of the best I've experienced in any vehicle and makes a lot of the center screen and its accompanying switchgear redundant. I love that you can control navigation, sound system, etc. via the panel's third gauge using the steering wheel buttons."

The Porsche falls short in a few places, such as the rearward visibility, especially with the rear headrests standing upright. Kong found it "atrocious, bordering close to Ray Charles 'I Can't See Sh*t' territory." Williams faulted the side mirrors, which he thought to be "tiny and misshapen." Williams also brought to our attention that Porsche commands a $655 premium for a rearview camera. Our tester came only with the standard radar parking sensors, whereas the Jeep and BMW include a camera as standard equipment. Then there are the ever-confusing forward upshift/backward downshift steering wheel paddles that take time to get used to. Strapping in a baby seat took the longest in the Cayenne because of its hidden LATCH clips. And once the seat was securely in place, rear passenger elbowroom shrunk considerably.

BMW piped a tad more of the delicious 4.4-liter twin-turbo whine and burble into the X5's white leather abode. To Kong, the M's carbon-fiber clad interior was the best of the group. "The simplest interior offers the most comfortable and spacious surroundings, both front and back," he wrote. "Jumping in and out of the first and second rows was the easiest in the BMW and there was noticeably more shoulder and legroom compared to the other two-and my build isn't even that big. With the Recaro planted smack in the center seat, there's still space to get your own seat belt clicked in, and breathing room for the shoulders. The X5 M won't make young children or adult passengers feel like they've been put in a dungeon."

Williams put it this way: "I like the interior of the X5 M and how it shares all the BMW design cues with all the other BMW sedans. However, I'm not a fan of the heavy reliance on the center iDrive control dial for access to all sorts of info, entertainment, and performance data." Indeed, not much comes close to the feeling of BMW hides and the optimal thickness of an M-designed steering wheel. As for paddle shifters, this Bavarian brute with its aluminum examples has some of the best.

The Grand Cherokee SRT8 doesn't care if you're in the mood or not - its gigantic naturally aspirated 6.4-liter HEMI heart is going to roar and buck no matter what. This unapologetic, self-assured personality is immensely cool, especially when compared directly to the hyper-engineered, almost sterile Germans.

It's hard to tell what Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology team did, but in the SRT8, plastics don't necessarily look like plastics; leather and its white stitching yearn to be touched; and carbon-fiber trim adds tons of racing luster.

"Outward visibility was second-best for me," said Kong. "Love that you can watch over engine coolant, engine oil, and transmission temperature vitals as you're driving along. It introduces peace of mind if you obsess over details." Williams added, "I like the 120-volt inverter capability, but wish it were three-prong. And the backup camera is, by far, the best of the group at making single-operation trailer hitching a snap -- great screen and guidelines."

Baby seats are a cinch to cinch in the Jeep, and in terms of rear elbow space with a little one onboard, it ranks second behind the Bimmer. As for gripes, the extra-large American-size front seats, which lacked the support and adjustability of their German competition, and the outdated user interface were the source of a lot of complaints.

Of course, selecting any of the SUVs' respective Sport, M, or Track drive mode buttons balloons each cabin's attractiveness twofold. Press them once and you'll never want to unbuckle. Not only do the switches quicken many pertinent performance actions like steering feel, throttle response, gearbox shifts, and suspension dampening, but they also turn up the raucousness of the SUVs' growls. Again, the Jeep undoubtedly wins this contest with its angry, no-holds-barred "Track" mode engaged.

Round 2: Towing 101
Towing involves many variables and requires a lot of expertise to get it done without a hitch (pun intended), which is why we called upon the services and knowledge of the aforementioned Mr. Williams. The main ingredients to the towing cocktail are a hitch, a ball mount, and a wiring harness to control the trailer's lighting and hydraulic brakes. Setting the ideal tire pressure is critical as well. The other necessary element is the calculation of various weight measurements and capabilities.

The combination of a 2210-pound trailer plus a car needed to fall within the SUV's towing capacity. For the BMW, Jeep, and Porsche, that's 6000, 5000, and 7716 pounds, respectively. Fortunately, all gross trailer weights made the cut. The Z4, with trailer attached, tallied a combined weight of 5694 pounds; the Fiat weighed in at 4726 pounds; and the Porsche at 5163 pounds.

With the cars loaded and balanced according to prescribed limitations, Williams reminded us of some towing basics. Among them: Be mindful of your trailer's girth, go slowly, and take turns extra-wide. With that primer, we began the 96-mile journey into the desert.

North of L.A.'s urban ugliness is State Route 14, which leads first to the desert cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, then Rosamond, home of Edwards Air Force Base and the Willow Springs complex. Usually the road is a boring piece of pavement strewn with a steady flow of commuter traffic, but on this day, strapped into these performance machines, the word boring was quickly banished from our vocabulary.

The blue and red BMWs led our convoy. At 11,007 pounds, they were the heaviest pair by nearly 733 pounds. Their bulk immediately became clear when we needed hasty acceleration to achieve cruising speeds. The X5 M's six-speed automatic gearbox struggled to hold gears and deal with the added load on minor grades. We frequently had to count on manual shift mode to get the ideal amount of consistent thrust.

The BMWs' rear air springs did wonders in leveling the load and compensating for the tongue weight. Although they lacked as many clamping pistons (four up front, one out back) as the Jeep and Porsche (six front, four back), the giant 15.6/15.2-inch front/rear brakes revealed no signs of stress throughout the towing experiment. "Good luck with trying to monitor how it's doing when towing a trailer in the Bimmer," Kong said. "There are no special menus or screens or dedicated tow mode."

On the other hand, the Jeep's antiquated five-speed coped well with the load, but the SRT8 nevertheless felt as if was lugging an overweight elephant. Interestingly, the Chrysler/Fiat rig was the lightest at 9949 pounds. Hooking a trailer to the Jeep couldn't have been simpler. With the optional Class IV tow package installed, it arrived with both four- and seven-pin connections. There was also a dedicated tow setting -- the only one in the group.

Neither the Jeep nor the BMW felt as comfortable with an extended tail as the Porsche. Though its eight-speed gearbox had trouble getting used to the added resistance and was at times confused, with 516 lb-ft of torque available at 2250 rpm, it was quick to hunker down and pull ahead. At the same time, the silent air-filled dampers modulated weight transfer and produced a compliant ride.

The Germans further showed how well their force-fed legs could pull in our two instrumented 45-65-mph acceleration runs with a 4726-pound trailer attached. The speed range represents a common street-to-highway transition. (The Jeep's 5000-pound maximum towing capacity determined our standardized trailer weight.)

The first run began at a standstill and lasted until the 65 mph hash. The time it took to get to 65 mph from 45 mph was our recorded number. The second began as a rolling start. Again, the time it took to get up to speed was the result. Both runs served as key evaluators of a vehicle's throttle, shift, and acceleration responses while under load.

The better-geared, torque-strong Porsche Cayenne dominated the first category with a 4.4-second time. Having eight cogs allowed it to get up to speed more efficiently than the lot. Next came the BMW at 5.0 seconds, then the power-deficient Jeep at 6.4 seconds.

On the subsequent run, things got more interesting. The Porsche's time dropped to 5.3 seconds, which the BMW easily matched with its responsive turbos at full spool. The 4.8-liter's considerable turbo lag elongated the Porsche's time. The Jeep continued to bring up the rear with a 6.6-second attempt.

Round 3: Track Blast
First, I must divulge our usual instrumented findings, where the BMW shined. To 60 mph from a stop, the clock spun for only 4.1 seconds. A quarter mile got decimated in 12.7 seconds at a terminal speed of 110.1 mph. Braking from 60 mph took just 112 feet. Line this X5 next to an Audi RS5 (4.3 seconds), Shelby GT500 (4.2 seconds), or Aston Martin DBS (4.2 seconds), and it will win the sprint to 60 mph every time. The Jeep is just as impressive, recording 4.6 seconds; 13.3 seconds at 103.2 mph; and an astounding 106 feet in the braking category. Porsche's largest Turbo secured itself a mid-pack position with 4.3 seconds; 12.8 seconds at 107.9 mph; and 108 feet. Brembos and Pirellis did much for the Jeep's braking, but when it came to speed and stick, the twin-turbocharged Germans had the upper hand.

As you can imagine, hooning while hauling is spectacular fun, but since track testing with a trailer attached is highly dangerous, we set out on our full "time attack" challenge atop the 14-turn Streets of Willow sans cargo and mock family. It also takes time to get used to an SUV's mass on a relatively small and tight track such as Streets. Throw in these specimens' lust for speed, and you get a whole lot of stress on chassis, braking, and human components. With all that in mind, Mortara buckled into the X5 M.

Hunting a corner while riding a 5313-pound behemoth is a technical affair. Indeed, Mortara felt more push in the X5 M than he expected, but he noted that the ideally weighted helm, responsive chassis, and intuitive all-wheel drive programming produced an amazing sense of control and stability.

Williams observed a downshift hesitation from the six-speed when it was his turn to charge hard on track, likely an automatic "safe mode" response that preserves the engine's longevity. Upshifts, on the other hand, were as crisp, smooth, and quick as some dual-clutch units. He praised them as "preternatural" and loved the aforementioned M mode for "making him feel like Macho Man or Monster Man or Mega Man. The single button lets you know you have something special and you were pretty damn smart to make this purchase," he noted. All said and done, Mortara and the BMW posted a best time of 1 minute, 31.9 seconds.

Mortara then got into the Grand Cherokee SRT8. "This thing is a total surprise, in a good way, that is," he revealed once he got out and immediately began rattling off observations. "Its Hemi is extremely lively because it's all motor. Its gearing is just OK, and is matched decently well to the mill. But then again, the engine is so responsive that you soon forget about its weaknesses and lack of speed when compared with the others. The Bilsteins aren't tuned as well as they could be, so grip is just good, not great. I want more feedback from the steering - it's light and needs to better relate what's going on below. I would say the Jeep is as fun to drive as the BMW, but for different reasons. It's trippy to feel the tail wag in an SUV."

Williams concurred and elaborated on Mortara's last thought, saying, "(The Jeep) for me is definitely the most fun to drive because it is always letting you know there is pent-up monster power and that the chassis isn't always able to keep it under control. The rearend, with its simple coil spring setup, likes to wiggle both in and out of hard cornering. Even though the suspension is lower than a normal GC, there are still times when it feels like it's standing on its toes when lightly or heavily touching the brakes. You definitely have to be the most careful with this one when braking on the track."

The Jeep is a brash brute compared to the gentlemanly Porsche and the technically precise BMW. It requires total driver concentration and involvement and near-professional skills to master on a demanding course. However, for slightly over half the sticker price of the Cayenne, the Jeep is a no-brainer when it comes to performance and entertainment bang-for-your-buck value. Mortara's best lap time: 1 minute, 33.9 seconds.

After finishing his laps in the Cayenne, Mortara described it as "the most fun drive of them all, by far." It excelled on track with its unrivaled Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality. To no other SUV on the planet can the age-old idiom of "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" be applied so well. Engaging Sport mode has never been as rewarding as in this Porsche.

Williams hit the nail on the head. "I'm not sure enough can be said about the engine and transmission and their ability to throw power at the wheels. It wouldn't surprise me if this AWD system is smarter than anything NASA has ever seen. The seamless transfer of power through the driveline into the wheels, especially on hard cornering, is an absolute mystery to behold.

"Where the SRT8 is impressive in its ability to accept so much power, the Cayenne's transfer case instantly distributes tremendous power with what seems like no losses in response...touch the pedal and you feel the tires gripping, pulling, grabbing, catapulting you up the next hill or deep into the next turn." Mortara was able to push the Cayenne to a best lap of 1 minute, 30.2 seconds, nearly 2 seconds better than the BMW and almost 4 seconds ahead of the Jeep.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner
Boiled down to pure numbers, these machines are impressive examples of modern performance engineering. Never mind how little fuel they conserve or how much coin they command, the trio unequivocally puts the Sport in Sport/Utility Vehicle.

The Jeep does it in the most vociferous, unashamed way. Though down 35 horses compared with its next closest competitor, and was the slowest, least sophisticated of the group, it evoked the most emotional responses from our drivers. It was also the cheapest by a hefty $30,000 margin. Tossing it around a bend meant working extremely hard to maintain a proper set; incorrectly judge a corner, shift-point, or braking zone, and the Jeep will make any driver pay for their sins. In terms of utility, the GC didn't like the relatively heavy loads we bolted onto its butt.

The blue BMW traced corners with a steering communication many sports cars would envy. Match that skillfulness with more than 550 angry turbocharged horses and a suspension that transforms the large SUV into something that feels a quarter of its size, and you get a roomy, versatile vehicle that is as much at home on a serpentine path as it is in the Whole Foods parking lot with three kids aboard. That said, the BMW lacked a certain lustrous personality. Sure, it cornered well, scorched the dragstrip, and accommodated everything we shoved inside its doors, but so did the Jeep and Porsche.

The Porsche has more of an addictive split-personality. Restrain all impetus to feed its hungry V-8 and it'll purr like a kitten. Push it ever so slightly and it quickly reveals its Nürburgring training. When you do go fast, you're not inexplicably beaten up -- the leather-filled Porsche wants you to end your fantastic voyage in one piece with a smile on your face. The Cayenne Turbo does many things - towing, cargo carrying, canyon carving, circuit slaying - with an extraordinary skill set, whereas the other SUVs simply shine in certain areas.

There is no question the Jeep gives you a lot for a relatively small entry fee. Or you can throw down another $30,000 or so for a BMW that's a little better on all fronts. But for the enthusiast not concerned with cash who has a burning desire to have an incredible all-arounder, look no further than Stuttgart for the best example of the SuperUV.

FIRST PLACE: 2011 Porsche Cayenne Turbo
No other SUV takes as many people and things to extraordinary velocities as this luxurious Porsche.

This surefooted Bavarian bomber offers plenty of go, stow, and tow -- but not quite at Cayenne levels.

THIRD PLACE: 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Loud and proud, the mighty Jeep is one of most enjoyable Michigan-bred rides, but falls short of the 500-club Germans.

Read more: 2011 BMW X5 M vs. 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 vs. 2011 Porsche Cayenne Turbo - Comparison - Motor Trend
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Old 08-22-2011, 10:07 AM
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Nice catch!

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Old 08-22-2011, 10:33 AM
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Good read. I'm sure the ~600lbs weight advantage of the Pepper Turbo makes the difference...the Turbo S will be

As a fam' hauler/hooliganmobile, prefer my SUV's on the heavy side though.
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Old 08-22-2011, 12:08 PM
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The Cayenne should be relegated to 3rd place on looks alone.
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Old 08-22-2011, 02:19 PM
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For a fair comparison it really comes down to the price though. As such GC>X5>Pcar, for ballers the reverse is true
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