Jeep Grand Cherokee vs. Mercedes-Benz ML350 vs.Porsche Cayenne vs. Volkswagen Touareg
“My father always used to say that when you die, if you’ve got five real friends, you’ve had a great life.” — Lee Iacocca.
We just missed the five-friend cut, so would having four real chums make us eligible for a very good life? Gathered before us is a collection of diesel-powered midsize SUVs that manages to strike an even keel between capable off-roader, luxurious long-hauler, and excellent all-weather family transporter/urban warrior. It’s quite the specific niche. Two newbies lead off: The Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel and Porsche Cayenne Diesel are the fresh faces whose base vehicles debuted in 2011 but didn’t deliver a diesel engine for a few years. Then there’s the Volkswagen Touareg TDI, the pack’s longest-running contender. Its current model also came out in ’11. Rounding out the bunch is the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec, an associate of the vaunted M-Class that helped spur the luxury SUV market’s expansion upon its release in 1998.
Like a tight-knit group of friends, the foursome enjoys a common bond: They all possess 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 torque monsters producing an identical 240 hp and drive all four wheels through 265mm tires, but each has its own background, pedigree, and personality. Naturally, the Porsche and Volkswagen arise from a shared family lineage nearly 10 years old. They both have their own set of high expectations: The first Touareg was Motor Trend’s 2004 SUV of the Year, while the second iteration of the Cayenne was the 2011 winner. Yet they couldn’t be more dissimilar. The original M-Class was our ’98 Truck of the Year (the award predated the first SUOTY by a year) and is presently in its third generation (’12 and forward). Likewise, the Grand Cherokee was the ’93 TOTY. More than a decade after the honors, Jeep experimented with a different diesel for a grand total of two years. It was known as CRD, for Common Rail Diesel, from 2007-2008. We predict Jeep will stick with its EcoDiesel for more than two years.
With four vehicular friends in town, we did what any pals would do. We went out. We stumbled around Southern and Central California and saw some sights. We took pictures. We ended up at the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area for off-roading. There may have been yelling and shouting. And after spending lots of quality time, we believe we’ve come up with four friend archetypes that relate to the ‘utes. Mr. Iacocca may have tagged the great life at five friends, but these stout-hearted four will follow you through thick and thin.
The Ones Who Couldn’t Make It
Let’s settle the issue right off the bat and explain the absence of the Audi Q7 TDI and BMW X5 xDrive35d. The Q7, as a seven-passenger SUV, competes in a different category, and the X5 is entering its new F15 generation, meaning it wouldn’t make sense to include a challenger that already has one leg out the door. We hope to see both again sometime soon.
The Ambitious One
Some of your ambitious friends set high but attainable personal goals, and others get waylaid by pipe dreams. The VW Touareg TDI is the former.
Truck Trend executive editor Allyson Harwood declared, “That such a competent vehicle placed fourth in my order says a lot about the quality of the SUVs in this comparo.” That’s the truth, and we’d expect many consumers to be immensely satisfied with the Touareg. It rides on the stiffer end of the luxury spectrum, but not uncomfortably so, a consequence of its steel-spring suspension — it’s the only ‘ute here without air springs. Selectable Off Road mode features exceptionally well-programmed Auto Hill Descent Assist, and the 6.9-second 0-60-mph time lands it in a three-way, first-place tie with the Mercedes and Porsche.
With a long list of features and an easy-to-use interior, the Volkswagen ticks the right boxes for a $50,000 SUV. And after a 900-mile group driving adventure, the observed 26.7 mpg ranked it second in fuel economy behind its Cayenne cousin. A 4992-pound vehicle achieving that figure is a testament to the power of diesel.
Our primary problem with the Touareg TDI is that we remember its predecessor. The 2004-2010 Touareg was a truly remarkable performer with 4Motion four-wheel drive and available air suspension and adaptive shock absorbers, making it more of a one-stop shop than the present-gen model. The VW didn’t stand out in any way in this company, driving and feeling as anonymous as its loud engine note, which has a soundtrack seemingly burned from the “Generic V-6 Engine Noises, Compilation Volume 1.” (Is it any consolation that the Cayenne has the same sound?)
For $54,595 as tested, the Touareg TDI didn’t represent a must-buy value. Our more petite evaluators felt the driver’s seat base cushion needs to be shortened so their legs would hinge less awkwardly over the edge. Associate online editor Karla Sanchez logged, “I kept shifting positions to try and find a sweet spot, but it was just impossible to get comfortable.”
Ambition can be a potent tool, but trying to live up to a past SUOTY victor calls for an even greater helping of agility.
The Reserved One
This is the friend who always has more on his mind than he lets on. He’s outwardly shy, analytical, and always has some random, out-of-the-blue factoid that makes you go “huh.” The vehicle equivalent is the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec.
Like our nonchalant human friend, the ML350 doesn’t feel it necessary to shout its piece. Its all-aluminum V-6 offers the most torque in the test — 455 lb-ft — but the real eye-opener is how it sounds. The Mercedes’ engine is by far the most muffled, sounding like a distant direct-injection gasser only when being wrung out from the driver’s seat.
While it stands the tallest among the four (1.4 inches higher than the Jeep at normal ride height), Sanchez judged it the best to drive on-road: “It was my favorite on the curvy roads and highways. Felt light on its feet, and was the most effortless to maneuver.” Part of its road behavior can be attributed to the standard Agility Control self-adjusting dampers, $1610 Airmatic air suspension, and $2910 Active Curve System (a set of adjustable anti-roll bars that disengage for straight-line driving and engage when cornering to limit roll).
The thinking buyer who craves refinement will be extremely satisfied with this M-Class, savoring everything from the gargantuan cargo space (38.2 cubic feet expands to 80.3 when the backseat is lowered) to the classy, airy cabin to the dignified, calming ride.
The ML350’s all-aluminum V-6 offers the most torque in the test — 455 lb-ft
As well as the ML350 BlueTec drove on paved roads, we considered it the most out of place on the Hollister Hills trails. Not that it did poorly. Associate online editor Nate Martinez said, “It’s no hard-core off-roader with multiple modes and cool screens to look at, but it is a very capable soft-roader.”
The thinking buyer who craves refinement will be extremely satisfied with this M-Class
Harwood elaborated, “The Mercedes really never felt comfortable on the trail, and while it did what it was supposed to, it complained and made odd noises while it worked.” The “odd noises” would be the ABS pulses we occasionally heard and felt when the hill-descent control system was active. The ML350 was the only SUV that groaned off-road.
But the biggest disappointment was the fuel economy. According to the EPA numbers, the Benz’s 20/28 mpg city/highway (impressive in its own right for a 5109-pound lux ‘ute) is enough for third-best in the closely rated pack. The second-“lightest” SUV systematically generated the lowest observed mpg over the three distinct legs of our 900-mile romp, finishing the journey with 25.3 mpg.
The Well-Bred One
Bless their hearts, but friends who come from better-off backgrounds sometimes just don’t get you. They might be the most well-meaning people in the world, but their perspective on things doesn’t sync with yours. This brings us to the Porsche Cayenne Diesel.
Without an imposing naturally aspirated or twin-turbo V-8 in the engine bay, the athletic Cayenne could be expected to lose some of its luster, right? Wrong. The second-thriftiest Cayenne on sale today is a magnificent sport/utility vehicle, replete with the familial, 406-lb-ft turbodiesel V-6 found in the Touareg TDI, smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission, beautifully appointed innards, and bump-conquering air suspension.
If the 911 were a sport/utility, it would be the Cayenne
And did we mention the fuel economy? With an observed 29.2 mpg, the Leipzig, Germany-assembled ‘ute effectively stole the other three’s lunch money before shoving them to the ground in this metric. To ensure we hadn’t made a calculating error, we checked the numbers twice, noting the Cayenne categorically elevated itself in the mpg order in all three drive loop sections. So either we had a freakishly efficient Porsche, or it really is that good.
Matched to the efficiency are the innate handling reflexes dialed into every Porsche. Harwood: “If the 911 were a sport/utility, it would be the Cayenne.” It’s a hoot to blast around on winding roads, plus the Cayenne reminds us more of what the Touareg used to be than the current Touareg with regard to off-road worthiness. Your senses meld with the vehicle, creating too much fun for something of this size.
Interior ergonomics issues, the least spacious confines, and narrow outward visibility knock the functionality rating down several notches, the effect amplified by the fact that the Cayenne is an SUV and should at least try to act like one. “The central driveline tunnel is populated by a mesmerizing amount of buttons. Quickly finding what you’re looking for usually doesn’t happen — even after four days living with it,” noted Martinez.
It stole the others’ lunch money in fuel economy
Speaking of lunch money, a prospective purchaser will need a lot of it to get into a Cayenne Diesel. The Jeep is essentially loaded to the gills at its base cost of $56,990, but the Cayenne Diesel doesn’t have its $3980 air suspension with height adjustment and Porsche Active Suspension Management or $1330 off-road underbody protection at its $57,575 starting price. The chosen options on our Porsche outnumbered the other three SUVs combined, bloating the as-tested price to eye-popping levels. Not that we think your average Cayenne customer is swayed much by pricing in the first place.
The Right Hand
You may as well call this one your bestie. Your best friend “gets” you in every way and isn’t judgmental. You trust this person. You’d also trust our Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel.
Its full legal name is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 EcoDiesel, and it’s here to set a new standard for all Grand Cherokees. The latest GC is technically still in the same generation (2011-now), but has been considerably refreshed. Apart from the all-new powertrain — a VM Motori-sourced diesel engine paired with a gem of a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic — the cabin received the most prominent revamp. Open-pore wood trim on the topline Summit model complements the inspiring digital gauge cluster (with a screen dedicated to wheel articulation!) and infotainment touch-screen display. The previous arrangements looked like something the better part of 10 years old. Harwood: “The real difference was inside, though, where the materials and the color scheme are much more upscale and the interface is downright intuitive. Things are within easy reach, easy to learn to use, and work as they’re supposed to.” There are quality leather and plastics, too. Years of interior suffering make the transition even sweeter.
This one is here to set a new standard for all Grand Cherokees
The Grand Cherokee is the lone wolf here with true four-wheel drive, as evidenced by its two-speed transfer case that features a 2.72:1 low-range ratio. It felt perfectly at ease roaming Hollister Hills and still had plenty of off-road capability to burn. There might be some differences in assumed on-road performance because differing brand perceptions, but our critics found the Jeep held its own against the premium German marques just fine.
Martinez thought the GC “had one of the most comfortable interiors of the quartet.”
Negatives? The Jeep was the heaviest in the comparison, weighing 279 pounds more than the next-closest diesel-slurping sled. Yet the GC found itself trading fuel-economy punches with the ambitious Touareg, closing the test cycle at 26.4 mpg, 0.3 off the VW’s. Let’s not forget the GC is carrying more dedicated off-road hardware. The extra poundage endows the Jeep with a disadvantaged weight-to-power ratio that results in the slowest acceleration (7.8-second 0-60 mph). But if speed is your game, perhaps you’re reading the wrong story.
Furthermore, the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel undisputedly produces the most audible diesel clatter at idle, adding noise and character to the mix. Fret not, for the engine is quiet and vibration-free during normal running. With 3.5 turns needed from lock to lock, it requires you to put in more steering input than do the other ‘utes. The steering feels slow on the streets, but you realize the benefit in the dirt. It’s a good trade-off.
For a segment-friendly $56,990, you get world-class equipment and world-class on- and off-road performance with loads of space for the family and all of your junk. As Iacocca once said, “If you can find a better car [SUV, in our case], buy it.”
4th: Volkswagen Touareg TDI
A generally good SUV, but it simply doesn’t feel as good as it once was.
3rd: Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec
Perfect for the diesel luxury SUV buyer who also abhors the idea of diesel.
2nd: Porsche Cayenne Diesel
It’ll burn up back roads more quickly than it’ll burn though a single tank.
1st: Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 EcoDiesel
Capability, character, class, and content. The hallmarks of a winner.
|2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4×4 EcoDiesel||2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTec|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, 4WD||Front engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbodiesel 60-deg V-6, iron block/aluminum heads||Turbodiesel 72-deg V-6, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||182.3 cu in/2988 cc||182.3 cu in/2987 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||240 hp @ 3600 rpm||240 hp @ 3600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||420 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm||455 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm|
|REDLINE||4500 rpm||4250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||22.5 lb/hp||21.3 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||7-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, anti-roll bar||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, adj anti-roll bar|
|POWER STEERING TYPE||Electro-hydraulic||Rack-assist electric|
|STEERING RATIO||15.7-18.9:1||18.9:1 (on center)|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.9-in vented disc; 12.6-in disc, ABS||13.0-in vented disc; 12.8-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum||9.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES|| 265/50R20 107T M+SB
Goodyear Fortera HL
| 265/45R20 108H M+S
Continental CrossContact LX Sport
|WHEELBASE||114.8 in||114.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||63.9/64.1 in||64.7/65.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||189.8 x 76.5 x 69.3 in||189.1 x 84.3 x 70.7 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.7-11.3 in||7.7-10.4 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||25.6-35.8/25.3-29.6 deg||26.0/25.0 deg (at minimum clearance)|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.1 ft||38.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||5401 lb||5109 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||52/48%||54/46%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||7200 lb||7200 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||39.9/39.2 in||40.4/38.5 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||40.3/38.6 in||40.3/38.4 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||58.7/58.0 in||58.5/58.4 in|
|CARGO VOL BEHIND F/R||68.3/36.3 cu ft||80.3/38.2 cu ft|
|PAYLOAD CAPACITY||1399 lb||1395 lb|
|GVWR||6800 lb||6504 lb|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.2 sec||2.0 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.8||4|
|QUARTER MILE||16.0 sec @ 83.3 mph||15.3 sec @ 87.8 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||122 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.74 g (avg)||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.8 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)||27.0 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||1600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$56,990||$64,585|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/100,000 mi||4 yrs/50,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 mi||Unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||24.6 gal||27.7 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||21/28 mpg||20/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||182/137 kW-hrs/100 mi||191/137 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.94 lb/mi||0.97 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||26.4 mpg||25.3 mpg|
| ||2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel||2013 Volkswagen Touareg TDI|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, AWD||Front engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbodiesel 90-deg V-6, iron block/aluminum heads||Turbodiesel 90-deg V-6, iron block/aluminum heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||181.1 cu in/2967 cc||181.1 cu in/2967 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||240 hp @ 3500 rpm||240 hp @ 4000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||406 lb-ft @ 1750 rpm||406 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm|
|REDLINE||4500 rpm||5000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||21.3 lb/hp||20.8 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||8-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|POWER STEERING TYPE||Belt-drive hydraulic||Belt-drive hydraulic|
|BRAKES, F;R||14.2-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS||13.0-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum||8.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||265/50R19 110V M+S<br/.Michelin Latitude Tour HP|| 265/50R19 110H M+S
Goodyear Eagle LS2
|WHEELBASE||114.0 in||113.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||65.2/65.8 in||65.0/65.7 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||190.8 x 76.3 x 67.4 in||188.8 x 76.4 x 68.2 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||7.5-10.5 in||7.9 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||25.5-29.5/24.0-27.5 deg||26.0/26.0 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.1 ft||39.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||5122 lb||4992 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||52/48%||53/47%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||7716 lb||7716 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.6/38.9 in||39.6/38.9 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.0/36.5 in||41.4/36.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||59.1/56.1 in||59.8/56.7 in|
|CARGO VOL BEHIND F/R||62.9/23.7 cu ft||64.0/32.1 cu ft|
|PAYLOAD CAPACITY||1161 lb||1313 lb|
|GVWR||6283 lb||6305 lb|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.0 sec||2.1 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4||3.9|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 87.7 mph||15.3 sec @ 88.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||116 ft||124 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)||0.82 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.1 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)||27.3 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||1600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$92,840||$54,595|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 mi||10 yrs/100,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/50,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|FUEL CAPACITY||26.4 gal||26.4 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||19/29 mpg||20/29 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||201/132 kW-hrs/100 mi||191/132 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.99 lb/mi||0.95 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||29.2 mpg||26.7 mpg|