On Your Radar: Luxury Utilities

On Your Radar: Luxury Utilities

By Randy Lioz, Editor, Car-ED.com | December 2017

Luxury brands really helped to kick off the crossover SUV craze of the 1990s. What started with the Mercedes M-Class and Lexus RX quickly blossomed into a full-scale invasion of utilities that has continued to this day.

The onslaught began with mid-sized 2-row vehicles, but eventually spread outward to longer 3-row crossovers and compact utilities that offer an entry into these premium brands. Several of the vehicles that bowed last month at the LA Auto Show offer an illustration of these trends. Since they’re adding choice to what are some of the most popular luxury segments, we definitely think you should know about them, so here’s a roundup of the latest entries into the upscale utility fray.

Luxury Crossover Utilities

What are they?

 These SUVs from premium brands are built on car platforms—without a separate underbody frame—meaning they offer car-like handling and fuel economy, but generally still have a ride height advantage for a more commanding view of the road, and offer either standard or optional all-wheel drive.

Who is it for?

Luxury buyers have just as much desire for all-weather and cargo-hauling capability. Many buyers have reported appreciating the height advantage of a utility vehicle, especially with the other SUVs and trucks on the road. Families also enjoy the many flexible seating options, and the choice to include rear-entertainment systems common in minivans.

Why is it important?

 It may have taken several years, but utility vehicles are now outselling cars in the luxury sector, and there’s no sign of that trend reversing. As the choices continue to proliferate in these segments, there are indications that some car segments will begin shedding entries, which will further skew sales towards SUVs.

Infiniti QX50 – Farewell to the Tall Wagon

Infiniti’s original QX50—née EX35 and EX37—was a wagon-ish utility based on the brand’s G35 sedan. Its non-traditional proportions limited its curb appeal, and it soon fell to the bottom of the segment. It’s been a long wait for Infiniti in such an important segment, but it appears that the Japanese luxury brand finally has the goods to be fully competitive.

Unique specs and content

In the process the QX50 has switched from a RWD platform to FWD, lining up directly against its Acura RDX and Lexus NX competition. Like the NX, the new Infiniti uses a 4-cylinder turbo engine, which steps in the for the V-6 of the previous model. Power therefore drops for the new QX50, but Infiniti has actually baked in a brand new technology to this engine called “Variable Compression,” which helps to ensure that drivers will be very happy with its performance. In fact torque actually rises, and fuel economy leapfrogs the competition, going from 20 mpg combined to 27 for the 2WD model—the base Lexus gets 25 mpg.

The QX50 also marks Infiniti’s introduction of its ProPilot Assist technology, which uses autonomous technology to take some of the load off the driver on the highway, though it’s restricted to single-lane cruising and stop-and-go traffic. In these situations, though, the vehicle can regulate its speed and steering without driver input. Infiniti thinks its drivers have a “desire to remain a key element in the driving equation,” so the company suggests that it may not go all in on autonomous vehicles, but this is a nice start to offload some of the more tedious aspects of driving.

Pricing and availability

Infiniti hasn’t released pricing yet, but you can expect it to be in line with the Japanese competition, both of which have prices starting with a 36. The QX50 will appear this coming Spring as a 2019 model.

Volvo XC40 – New Model with a New Deal

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Volvo’s XC40 is not the vehicle itself, but the new way in which the Swedish brand is making it available. This model marks the debut of Care by Volvo, a new subscription service that bundles all of the vehicle’s expenses—minus fuel—in a single monthly payment. Volvo has partnered with Liberty Mutual to secure insurance for the subscribed vehicles. It’s a 24-month agreement, with the option to switch to a new vehicle after a year, and is modeled after cell-phone contracts. Monthly payments start at $600.

Unique specs and content

The new Volvo takes many of the highly attractive elements of Volvo design introduced on vehicles likeXC90 and XC60 and adapts them to a smaller package, including the “Hammer of Thor” LED headlight elements and vertical interior touchscreen, but adds youthful design touches like adjustable interior lighting colors and a contrast roof on the R Design trims.

And of course being a Volvo it has a full complement of safety technologies, like City Safety to automatically brake to avoid collisions, and Pilot Assist, which will help keep the vehicle centered in its lane under 30 mph.

The XC40 lines up with the smallest competitors among compact luxury CUVs, those from the Germans, like the BMW X1, Mercedes GLA and Audi Q3, with a length almost identical to the Mercedes. But the AWD version’s 248 hp beats the Germans by at least 20.

Pricing and availability

Volvo will still sell the XC40 with traditional options, and pricing starts at $35,200 for the AWD T5—just below the GLA 250—which launches in the Spring as a 2019 model. In the Summer a FWD T4 model arrives that drops $2,000 from the price.

Lincoln Nautilus – Leaving its Mark

Lincoln continues leaving behind its MK-based naming structure—having kept the Navigator name and dropped MKS in favor of Continental—by replacing the MKX with the new Nautilus. The new model also marks the culmination of the brand’s shift away from its recent winged grille motif, which began with the Continental’s new, more traditional face, and spread across the lineup.

Unique specs and content

The Nautilus embraces lots of technology that puts it among the most well-equipped in the segment, like wireless cellphone charging, a fully digital cluster and advanced driver aids. Plus, the new model now has a fully turbocharged engine lineup, with either a 2.0L I-4 or 2.7L V-6, the latter making 335 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque.

Lincoln makes a further play for new customers with unique ownership benefits, especially for those who upgrade to a Black Label trim. Those buyers get free maintenance and car washes, an annual vehicle detailing, and exclusive dining experiences. And all Lincoln buyers get access to a concierge service, free pickup and delivery for any vehicle service, and even a free membership in CLEAR, which lets them speed through security lines at the airport or sporting events.

Pricing and availability

The MKX currently undercuts the Lexus RX by $5,000, and don’t expect that price to go up much for the Nautilus, which means that when the 2019 model launches in the Summer, its combination of features and perks will offer a great value.

Lexus RXL – the Same, but Bigger

Left: RX, right: RXL; photo credit: Toyota

Until now, Lexus has been somewhat less competitive in the 3-row utility game, with only the truck-based GX and super-expensive LX serving those who needed way-back seating. That changes for the 2018 model year, with the brand extending its highly popular RX nameplate, hitting the market as the RXL. The new family hauler rides on the same wheelbase, but its rear quarters have been stretched by over 4 inches to accommodate the new riders, with a more upright rear window.

Unique specs and content

The new models get standard power-folding seats and power tailgate, and even a dedicated climate zone and cupholders, so the third row isn’t second-class. And the longer model gives buyers the same choice in powertrains, including the standard V-6 good for 290 hp, and the hybrid option in the RX 450hL, which offers a modest bump in power to 308, but a big bump in fuel economy, especially around town. (Fuel economy hasn’t been published as of this writing, but the 2-row hybrid model gets an 11-mpg bump in the city versus the gas engine.)

Pricing and availability

The third row brings the opening ante for the RX up by $4,400, with the RX 350L FWD model starting at $47,670, and since it’s a 2018 model it should be in dealerships soon. You’ll have to wait until the Spring to snap up a hybrid model, however.

Segments and Competitors

Luxury crossovers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and their segmentation can be somewhat less straightforward than other types of vehicles, but there are some clusters of competitors that can help make some sense of what’s out there, starting from the smallest and least expensive.

The little guys:

Subcompacts similar in size to non-luxury equivalents, dominated by the Germans

  • BMW X1
  • Mercedes GLA
  • Audi Q3
  • Buick Encore
  • Infiniti QX30
  • Volvo XC40

The semi-little guys:

Compacts from Japanese and other brands

  • Acura RDX
  • Lexus NX
  • Infiniti QX50
  • Lincoln MKC

Euro (mostly) compact entries:

These used to be the lux SUV entry point

  • BMW X3
  • Audi Q5
  • Mercedes GLC
  • Volvo XC60
  • Land Rover Discovery Sport
  • Buick Envision

Midsize 2-Rows

Spacious, but without the extra seating

  • Lexus RX
  • Lincoln Nautilus
  • Cadillac XT5
  • Mercedes GLE

Midsize, Purpose-built 3-row vehicles:

The largest crossovers on the market; only truck-based SUVs have more room

  • Acura MDX
  • Audi Q7
  • BMW X5
  • Infiniti QX60
  • Volvo XC90
  • Land Rover Discovery
  • Buick Enclave

There are plenty of other entries out there, including versions with coupe rooflines from BMW and Mercedes (and soon Audi), but these lists offer a rough starting point to help you think about competitive sets.

2018-01-18T01:13:31-05:00Dec 2017|Car Reviews, News|