by Louis Cordony
Within metres of each other, there is over half a million dollars worth of cars travelling through thick clouds of dust. The speeds aren’t stupid, but the unsealed gravel road makes grip scarce as my hands grasp the leather tiller of Munich’s ultimate mum mobile, the BMW X5M. In front of me is eminent photographer Thomas Wielecki in Jeep’s brand new Grand Cherokee SRT8. Behind me are the Porsche Cayenne GTS and Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG. They round out the four-car convoy en route to Wolgan Valley and the five-star Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort situated on the doorstep of the Blue Mountains.
Getting there takes us 180km north-east of Sydney, passing through Richmond on to Bells Line of Road all the way to Lithgow. I keep my right foot above the brake pedal, waiting for the Jeep to colour the dust clouds red with its brake lights. Thankfully, after photographic requirements has been fulfilled, Thomas gives the signal to slow down. Pebbles and loose rocks ricochet off the wheel wells as the engine whirr down to idle revs.
Underneath the all-season tyres of the four cars, the clay road littered with jagged rocks and crumbling edges forms an outback setting, much less familiar than the suburban playgrounds the glittering cars are used to.
Let’s start with the Mercedes – it would look more at home under a palm tree on Hollywood Boulevard than next to the dry farmland and rusting fencing of Wolgan Valley. Its three-pointed star is complemented by chrome roof racks, door sills and front diffuser. Amidst all its sparkle, the only hint off the colossal grunt underneath its bonnet is its brakes. They’re huge – six painted red pistons guide 390mm cross-drilled discs between the pads – and exist to slow the performance pack optimised twin-turbo V8 producing 410kW and 760Nm.
Porsche’s Cayenne GTS was the first super-luxury SUV debutant. And despite relying on the atmosphere’s pressure to churn out the lowest output 309kW and 515Nm, it exudes a leonine menace. Covered by a thin sheen of dust, it is impossible to ignore its beautiful carmine paint. Behind its glossy black 21” wheels are another set of huge red brakes. Look at it from the rear and you’ll notice a silhouette similar to a 911 – voluptuous hips that bulge wide, set off by flashy LED lights where its shape starts to tighten at the bottom of the D-pillar.
It’s the evocative one of the bunch. Where the other three cars have the chunky profiles of an endomorphic prop, the Porsche is a fly half with the brightest boots.
Step inside the Porsche and you’re greeted by the best seats of the four cars. Enough hug for lateral giggles while Alcantara lining endows them with luxury and comfort. I strap myself in with the GT3 RS-style red seatbelts, switch the damping to ‘sport’ and PDK gearbox to paddle shift.
The first left-hander is blind, barely wide enough for two cars. All that separates me from a drop into acres of dry bush is a thin Armco railing. Hugging the corner, the GTS remains taut, sticking to its line with assuring neutrality and little roll. I push a littler harder. Although the GTS is not as precise as a Lotus, considering its two tonnes, understeer is noticeably kept in check. It feels nimble, impervious to the tight corners. Its high power delivery at 7900rpm also means you can be more liberal with its VarioCam V8, which is an absolute treat to downshift, tractable around town but raucous when stretched to its 8000rpm limit. It gives the Cayenne an atmo charm its German rivals lacked.
If anything dynamically matches the Cayenne it is the BMW X5M. Its presence is marked by flared rear guards that house staggered 20-inch Bridgestone hoops (315mm at the rear and 275mm at the helm) and a prodigious engine that swaps fog lights for gaping air intakes to feed the angry air from its twin-turbos.
The BMW would have no problems tracing the Cayenne’s lines on a racetrack and then devouring it on the straights or long bends. But on the mountain roads, the Porsche is the pick. The heavy BMW feels like a giant Golf R in such tight confines. Less is the actual chassis getting the car through the bends, more is the Haldex all-wheel drive system shuffling 408kW and 680Nm fore and aft to get the right equation of speed. Also, by placing the turbochargers within the cylinder heads, the X5M almost eliminates turbo lag. Downhill, its rapid response combined with 2305kgs means its point and squirt ability is blunted by the caution you had to exercise with the throttle.
Although Mercedes’ ML63 AMG is 70kgs lighter than the X5M and endowed with 80Nm more, the numbers didn’t add up on the hill pass. When it comes to pulling up for corner, its brake pedal travels further, the variable electromechanical steering feels heavier (and artificial when it lightened up at parking speeds) and the body rolls harder, consequently making it a lot less involving than the BMW, and comparably like an lumbering elephant to the Porsche. Although, on the wide-open country road with flowing bends and endless potholes, it feels more planted than the BMW.
Where the BMW feels skittish on anything but perfect tarmac, the Benz feels sure-footed and confident to demonstrate its mammoth power thanks to its active adjusting roll bars and air suspension that lowers or raises the vehicles height according to speed. And when you get on the loud pedal, hold on, this performance pack equipped ML63 AMG charges towards the horizon with relentless a disregard for its 2235kgs.
So, does the SRT8 contribute anything spectacular? Well to be honest, not really. It is nowhere near as rapid as the BMW (despite claiming the same 0-100km/h time), or agile as the Porsche, or luxurious or powerful as the Mercedes-Benz, and the Sat-Nav seems like monkeys had programmed it. But it stands out from the rest in two areas that are undeniably very important, and that may be why it’s so impressive.
First of all is the ride. The Jeep has a credible chunk of tyre around its wheels, 275mm wide with a 45 percent aspect ratio, helping it absorb bumps and creases better than the others. It also means it has an assuring composure on b-roads or conditions that unsettled the BMW’s tight damping. One of the reasons buyers decide not to sign the dotted line for a tight, low-slung sports car is because they want something comfortable and spacious.
So, despite the performance variants of their respective gene pools, all four are essentially chosen for a practical reason, therefore a comfortable ride is not given enough credit where it’s due.
The second area the Jeep scores big points is the price; it is the cheapest here by a mile, and the fact it is capable of keeping up with the other three makes it even better value. The second-generation of the Jeep SRT8 isn’t visually out of its depth either. Bright red Brembo calipers peer through a set of tough looking 20” gunmetal alloys while the bulged bonnet hiding the 351kW 6.4-litre Hemi looks as if it incubated the Incredible Hulk. But the main highlight of its exterior are the finishing touches; it’s a lot handsomer and more refined than the previous model after it’s dropped the bug-eye look.
I’m dismissing the X5M and ML63 AMG as possible winners; both are astonishing with their monumental power deliveries but fail to stand up against the cases of the new comers. The Jeep could do everything the rest could, whether it is charging through a flowing creek bed or tracing a windy gravel road, and then the Porsche makes you want to do it again.
I want tell you the pick is the Jeep. I do. Employing all rational thought, it’s the winner. It’s just as fast as the Cayenne, just as practical on or off-road and as loud or angry while half the price. But it lacks the intimacy of the Porsche, the overall sense of occasion and egotistical flair; it also lacks the engineering depth the Cayenne uses to remove itself far from its Volkswagen derivative. You see, after jumping out of the GTS, you’d be convinced you just bought a Porsche. Hopping out of the Jeep, I couldn’t avoid seeing it as an Mercedes-Benz ML platform and with all the hills, gravel and corners that were left on the journey home, thinking also who I’d have to kill to snatch the Porker’s keys from his hands.