The face of war has changed. The fight no longer takes place on open ground over great expanses of land. Combat in the 21st century is fought in confined spaces, building to building. The only reasons to leave the security of the home compound are excursions to the tight constraints of strip malls, or, worse, urban combined-use properties, for artisanal cupcakes and organic frozen yogurt. Three-ton war machines don't intimidate combatants; the winners of conflicts must be fast and agile. A three-row SUV is not so much a luxury as it is a burden. The answer is the smaller, more efficient and carlike CUV, and we invited three of the best to battle it out. The oldest of these is Motor Trend's 2012 Sport Utility Vehicle of the Year, the Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. Despite the king-size name, the Evoque established a new benchmark in small premium CUVs. It wraps an efficient four-cylinder drivetrain in fashion-forward sheetmetal. The BMW X1 arrives hot on its heels for 2013, despite having been on sale in Europe since 2010. Smaller and sportier than the X3, it is also the first BMW SUV to be offered in rear drive. Last is the Audi Allroad, the slightly hiked-up replacement for the departed A4 Avant wagon. All our test vehicles are equipped with 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 engines, automatic transmissions, and all-wheel drive. While the Land Rover name certainly carries the best off-road pedigree, none of them is a serious rock-crawler. That's appropriate for the market, as 99 percent of these will never see an unbeaten path. For singles, couples, and small families, this type of vehicle often makes more sense than a full-size SUV. It's aimed at buyers who need more space than a sedan, but want something more rugged-looking than your average hatchback or wagon.
3rd Place: Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
With the Motor Trend SUV of the Year Calipers strapped to its roof, you might think the Evoque would have an easy time walking into this competition. But our expectations are higher for a vehicle we've previously deemed the best in the business, and both the Allroad and X1 had an extra year of training before this showdown. In our SUV of the Year competition, we look at a very wide range of vehicles and requirements. A vehicle is not judged against the other vehicles present, but rather on how it stacks up against its performance of intended function. In comparisons like this, vehicles are evaluated with very specific missions in mind. They are fighting against each other. Two years ago at our SUOTY competition, we were bowled over by the Evoque's edgy styling and aggressive driving dynamics. It looks and feels futuristic, but with a classic Land Rover flair. Some of that translates into compromises in usability. Rearward visibility is just about nonexistent through the mail slot-sized rear window. To compensate, there are oversized sideview mirrors, which associate editor Benson Kong remarked "definitely affect how quickly you want to turn left and right."
The sporty dynamics also lead to a rough and choppy ride. The other two vehicles here practically float over broken pavement compared with the Evoque. For its tire slap and road and wind noise, the Evoque was judged the loudest of the group. Yes, it was the loudest of a quiet group, but this is a comparison. The vehicle with the most off-roading ability unsurprisingly also exhibited more lateral movement on the highway. Finally, the quick steering needed constant attention on the highway, which, all things combined, made for a tiring experience on the highway loops. The Evoque's 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 matches the BMW's 240 hp, but has the least amount of torque at 251 lb-ft. The bigger problem in acceleration and fuel economy might be the six-speed transmission being down two gears on the other competitors. While the transmission is good, the other two are great examples of a modern automatic. With the highest weight and least amount of torque, it's not surprising that the Evoque's straight-line performance lags behind the other two -- it shows up a half-second later to 60 mph and in the quarter mile. We still love the Evoque's interior design and unique high-quality materials. The inside looks like a designer's vision went straight to production without stopping along the way in the accounting or ergonomics departments. The width of the vehicle is apparent from inside. The low seating position forces your legs straight out in front of you, requiring the front seats to be positioned further back, which eats up some backseat space. When fitting our Recaro child seats in the vehicles, the rear-facing seat was noticeably tight in the back of the Land Rover, requiring the front passenger seat to be moved forward. While we appreciate this vehicle as a benchmark in design and crossover off-road capability, it has too many compromises to win as an urban warrior.
2nd Place: BMW X1 xDrive 28i
The X1 is without a doubt the driver's choice in this comparison. It feels light and nimble. The small BMW cuts through traffic and darts through alleyways with such ease, we had to double-check the tailgate for a Cooper badge. In the same way the Evoque shocked us with its handling two years ago, the X1 is resetting the standard for small CUVs. Kong and I agree that the steering in the X1 may be the best of any current BMW product in response and linearity. The downside to its eagerness to change directions is slightly less stability at highway speeds. While the X1 is by no means uncomfortable, it doesn't project the same planted feeling of the longer and lower Audi.
The X1 is the lightest vehicle here, weighing 3797 pounds. That's a mere 64 pounds lighter than the Audi, but a full 185 pounds lighter than the Land Rover. Despite the lighter weight and highest combination of power and torque, the X1 just matches the Allroad in acceleration, with both taking 6.4 seconds to sprint from 0 to 60 mph and 14.9 seconds for the quarter mile. Needless to say, the BMW's power never feels inadequate. At lower rpm, torque is always available to scoot for an opening in traffic, and a bigger dip into the throttle results in a quick downshift to go from scoot to shoot using the higher rpm power on boost. Although the BMW is only 5 inches longer than the Evoque at 176.5 inches, its interior feels far more spacious, because the seats sit much higher off the floor, like bar stools. As with the 185.9-inch-long Audi, the BMW uses a longitudinal drivetrain layout that naturally stretches things out. This also is the only vehicle in this comparison available in rear drive or with an optional six-cylinder engine. Feelings were mixed on the BMW's design. Kong noted the interior is "high and narrow, as if you're sitting in a phone booth." Associate editor Allyson Harwood commented that she definitely was aware of the seat height, but doesn't consider it a negative. Kong also noted the BMW doesn't appear to be intended for Americans, since it has but one integrated cupholder and one modular unit that plugs into the center console. This is clearly the entry-level BMW. Many of the pieces you may expect to be vinyl-over-foam are hard plastic, but the dash is easy to use, and buttons are front and center. The best review iDrive received from the group was from Harwood: "It's OK, and I could adapt over time." The high greenhouse and squat stance make the X1 look anything but aggressive, but the outward visibility difference between it and the Evoque is night and day. The X1 did seem to suffer the most with a car seat in the rear, with Harwood noting that visibility out the passenger rear quarter went from above average to near that of a panel van. It doesn't have the same presence as its bigger X-brethren, but the X1 still manages to look pricey, but it's definitely more designer skinny jeans than Armani suit. The cheapest BMW money can buy may suffer somewhat in terms of material quality and luxury, but it offers one of the most entertaining drives of anything wearing a Roundel.
1st Place: Audi Allroad
The Allroad is admittedly not much more than an A4 Avant in hiking boots; however, it's tough to argue with the adage about the right tool for the right job. In this category, most buyers aren't going to do more than soft-roading. They'll forge a manicured dirt driveway on the way to their cabin or unintentionally drive through a flowerbed after missing the Starbucks driveway before their cappuccino fix. The Allroad with its lifted suspension and skidplates is more than capable of tackling these tasks. Its obvious sedan roots also make it the best all-around traveler of the group. It inspires the most confidence on the road, feeling planted at speed and exceptionally predictable in corners. It doesn't have the quick reflexes of the BMW, but long stretches of highway are easier on everyone inside the car. Audi has dialed in a bit more comfort at the expense of some lower-speed performance. Harwood noted, "The steering isn't as precise as the BMW's; the handling's not as sharp, but it isn't a significant drop-off." Kong followed up with "good weighting and predictable steering at speed." That sums up the Audi dynamically. In handling, the lifted wagon is rewarding and extremely capable. And although it may not be quite as much fun to drive as the BMW, the passengers may prefer the Audi.
On paper, the Audi is way down on power compared with the other two. The Allroad's 2.0-liter turbo is rated at a mere 211 hp, but performs right alongside the 240-hp BMW. The transmission received praise from both Kong and Harwood: "Shift habits and response time are excellent." "Power delivery and transmission are terrific." While the engine supplies equal thrust, it also returned significantly better fuel economy during testing. Our observed mileage for the lower-slung Audi came in at 24.4 mpg in combined driving, while the X1 managed 22.8 mpg and the six-speed Evoque returned a somewhat disappointing 19.8 mpg over the same route. Again, being car-based does have its advantages. The Allroad's cockpit was judged the most comfortable of the group, with library quietness, the most usable space, and the best ergonomics. Harwood called it "friendlier and more accessible," while Kong noted it was "uninteresting to look at, but all the controls work in a way that helps you imagine you're in a futuristic car." Audi's MMI infotainment system was also deemed the easiest and most intuitive. Harwood commented that the click wheel is a great way to toggle through options, and everything in the menus is exactly where you expect it to be. The addition of the four buttons below the click wheel makes jumping from screen to screen quick and efficient. The only thing that takes some work is learning which way the wheel twists for up and down -- it seems backwards from how it's done in the rest of the industry.
The Audi's overall packaging is superior to that of the other two, offering the most back-seat comfort for adult passengers. Despite smaller dimensions on paper, it offered the most space for rear- or forward-facing car seats. While the rear seats in BMW seem too far reclined and felt awkward, the Land Rover's simply lacked headroom. The Audi provided plenty of headroom and the feeling that you could actually fit three normal-size humans in back for shorter trips. Because of its station-wagon rear end, the Audi had the most usable trunk, and with the seats folded down, almost looked like we could've driven the BMW into it. As an overall package, you can't deny the Allroad comes out on top in this fight, with more elan, comfort, and efficiency, and it's still very rewarding to drive. For a fashion statement, the Evoque is the clear choice. If you have ever given any thought to auto-crossing your CUV, you might want the X1. But if your intention is to run the kids around before and after work on the weekdays and escape on adventurous road trips on weekends, the Allroad is your choice.