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Head-to-head in $100,000 SUVs

KYLE CASSIDY - NZ AUTOCAR
Last updated 12:39 19/10/2011

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Most people, if they trace the origins of the luxury SUV, will find themselves back at the Range Rover. But any Jeep aficionado will loudly decry this claim, and point instead to the 1966 Jeep Super Wagoneer, which beat it to the ''honour'' by four years. Back then, these 4x4 beasts were bought by well-to-do rural folk who actually needed such a vehicle, but nowadays they are a matter of status rather than need.

Until other manufacturers realised the sales potential in luxury SUVs, particularly in the US, Jeep and Range Rover were the only real players. Now the market segment has boomed, no more so than in New Zealand (unfortunately, some may say!).

While the Rangie sits way above the rest in terms of luxury and price, there are still plenty of options in the $100k area, including the new Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's been around for yonks but only now, with its latest model, can it confidently be measured against offerings from Europe. As the market has proliferated, some of the species have evolved to fill different niches. The Volkswagen Touareg has developed down the lines of a large crossover, though has enough metal to be classified an SUV and is also luxurious. Both vehicles will be on the radar for someone with ''a hundy large'' burning a hole in their pocket.

Price/Equipment

While the VW lists for $92,000 and the Jeep is $96,990, if you compare the spec sheets, the Jeep's runs to many more pages. Jeep's top dog is more Overload than Overland, as it comes packed with just about everything: sat-nav with voice control; a booming audio system featuring a 30GB hard drive; a DVD player in the rear; radar adaptive cruise control; blind spot eliminators; auto-dipping high beam; powered seats, steering column and tailgate; a sunroof; heated seats front and rear (the fronts are also cooled); a rear-view camera; and keyless entry and go. If forking out even more cash for optional extras goes against the grain, stop reading now and just buy the Jeep; you won't be disappointed.

This Touareg, the TDI V6 150kW, is the entry-level model, and though it has a fairly comprehensive spec list in terms of safety items, and a few niceties thrown in like leather, dual-zone air, auto lights and wipers, parking sensors, and the desired connectivity option, as for extras, forget about it: to match the prolific list of goodies offered by the Overland, you'd need to spend over $39,000 on options.

Design/Engineering

It's pretty hard to stand out in the SUV crowd, and like most of the breed, these two have strong shoulder lines and bulging wheel arches. The Jeep, with its all-conquering looks, is generally more preferred. By contrast, the softer lines of the Touareg seem almost apologetic.  If you are buying an SUV, it's best to go the diesel way. The abundant torque is better suited to moving heavy mass, and the promise of lower fuel bills, even after factoring in RUCs, is always welcome. Both vehicles here are powered by a 3.0-litre TDI V6. In the case of the Jeep, its Italian-made donk produces 177kW and 550Nm, but VW has dumbed down its V6 for the base model, only allowing it to make 150kW and 400Nm. A few electronic tweaks later, the same motor makes 180kW and 550Nm in a more expensive V6 model in the line-up.

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Each machine runs full-time four-wheel drive with a variable-torque split, and both offer only an automatic gearbox. The Jeep continues to uses a five-speeder, so is effectively a generation behind the competition. Most players, including the Touareg, run an eight-speed auto (here rigged with a start-stop system) for increased efficiency and refinement.

The Touareg has ditched its heavy off-road mechanicals in the second generation, but if you still yearn to wallow in mud, the Touareg V6 180kW model can be optioned with a $4500 pack consisting of a rear diff lock, a reduction ratio and extra under-body protection; air springs can be added for a further $6000.

The top-model Jeep has stuck to the brand's trail-rated legacy, and so features adjustable air springs to jack up the ground clearance, a reduction gearbox, and a variety of settings for the traction control systems to keep things moving over the rough-and-tumble terrain.

The Grand Cherokee also has gained a newfound ride decorum, the result of independent suspension all round, which is used by the Touareg as well. The particular Touareg we borrowed rode on standard steel springs and 17-inch wheels, and while this combo made it look a little too much like a Hyundai Santa Fe, the ride was brilliantly judged.

Performance

Despite a healthy lead in both the power and torque stakes, the Jeep fails to convert its dominance into a clear advantage on the go. The Grand Cherokee carries more weight because of all the spec onboard, and it lacks gears. Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of the eight-speed auto, the VW engine stumps up with enough poke to get the job done. This transmission shifts more seamlessly than the Jeep's five-speeder, and the steps between gears are much closer, spinning the engine at 1500rpm at 100km/h, compared to just below 2000rpm for the Jeep. Slipping the VW into Sports mode extracts a tad more performance when needed, while the Jeep sometimes requires a manual approach. The other side of performance is refinement, and here the VW engine proves less coarse and quieter. Rated at 7.0L/100km to the Jeep's 8.3, it also wins on economy. On the day, the trip computers read in the 10's and 12's, respectively. 

Dynamics

Having a model co-developed by Porsche has its advantages, and so the Volkswagen takes honours here. The lighter, second-generation Touareg feels lithe next to the big Jeep and is more car-like to drive, with less of a propensity to roll in the bends and more accurate steering, all allowing smoother progress. You can drive the VW quite briskly without getting that ''I think you're going too quick'' nudge in the arm from the missus. The Jeep's steering is slow, requiring 3.7 turns lock-to-lock. It may be off-road friendly (the wheel won't twirl about in the ruts), but the result of this is a laboured turn-in compared to the VW, the helm of which feels more directly connected to the front wheels.

The Jeep's Terrain Select system offers a Sport mode - and it'll take all of two corners before you reach for the dial to access a lowered ride height and lessen the body roll, creating a much happier Jeep. Its big, 20-inch tyres have to do a lot of work, and though both SUVs do eventually give in to understeer, the transition is more gradual in the VW.

Comfort/Convenience

Jeep has gone to huge lengths to lift its game in terms of interior quality, and it's paid off: the Grand Cherokee leaps two generations in design and feel. It's an enormous improvement for the brand, but up against VW, which is at the top of the pile in this regard, it still has a way to go yet.

The Touareg's interior is all class: the hard plastics are hidden away, the design is sharper, the switches and knobs feel more substantial. But the Jeep's overload of spec helps you forget its shortcomings, especially when you're nestled into those comfy, heated - or cooled - front seats.

In the rear, both provide generous room, affording the interior space you'd expect from such big vehicles. The VW is a little wider across and offers a smidge more legroom, and its seat both reclines and slides whereas the Jeep's just does the former. Neither offers seven seats.

The cargo holds are respectable, each the same in length and floor height, although the VW's is wider at its narrowest point. Both offer a one-touch folding system for the rear seat, which splits 60:40 in each. While the Jeep presents a fully flat load space, the Touareg's isn't quite level but does include boot-mounted levers. Chrome strips on the boot floor of the Grand allow things to slide around, not a clever idea. But along with tie-down points, power outlets, speakers and a removable rechargeable torch, it has a full-size spare, while the VW has a space saver that requires inflation.

Though these two are similarly priced and compete in the same segment, they are quite different beasts. In most regards the VW is the superior vehicle. More dynamic, it's easier to manoeuvre in urban environs and it's also lighter on juice.

But when compared with the spec-laden Jeep, it's expensive. In contrast, the Jeep is a bona fide 4x4, a LandCruiser type of machine that trades some on-road finesse to tackle the wilderness.

Personally, I'd go for the Touareg, as I prefer its wieldier nature and greater refinement, but anyone wanting a boldly styled and fully loaded SUV should look no further than the Grand Cherokee: it's a value-led prospect, and a fine steed to boot.

MODEL: Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland.
PRICE: $96,990.
ON SALE IN NZ: Jul 2011.
ENGINE: 2987cc, 
V6, 177kW@3600rpm, 550Nm@1800rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed auto, all-wheel drive
.
VITALS: 
8.38sec 0-100 km/h, 8.3L/100km, 218g/km, 2374kg.
RATING: 
8/10.

MODEL: Volkswagen Touareg V6 150kW.
PRICE: $92,000.
ON SALE IN NZ: Nov 2010.
ENGINE: 2967cc, V6, 150kW@3750rpm, 400Nm@1400rpm
.
TRANSMISSION: 
8-speed auto, all-wheel drive.
VITALS: 8.74sec 
0-100 km/h, 7.0L/100km, 184g/km, 2179kg (claimed).
RATING: 
8/10.

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