Faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in single bound? The rapidly expanding ranks of luxury four-wheel-drives are the new super-heroes on affluent suburban streets.
It seems no serious luxury brand - not even Porsche - can afford to be without a 4x4 "lifestyle vehicle" capable of propelling its two tonne-ish bulk from standstill to 100kph in seven seconds and change, topping out at about 230km/h, delivering nearly every conceivable luxury appointment, cruising with hushed refinement, and able to conquer semi-difficult off-road terrain while barely breaking a sweat.
All in a day's multi-tasking for six-figure gleaming panzers like the Audi Allroad 2.7T Quattro and BMW X5 4.4i.
These top-of-the-range machines are aimed at luxury, safety, performance and moderate off-road ability, and hit them with rapid-fire laser-accuracy. It's really only the targets of affordability and fuel economy that are a little out of range.
The X5 and Allroad approach luxury off-road adventure from different directions.
Audi, which has made Quattro four-wheel-drive a cornerstone of its rise to prominence as a luxury brand since the early 1980s, has taken the A6 Avant Quattro from its portfolio, and addressed the issues of ground clearance and rugged styling. It's a formula already followed by two generations of the Subaru Outback and Volvo V70 Cross Country.
The result is the Allroad Quattro. The ground-clearance question is answered by a sophisticated four-level air suspension that automatically alters ride height through 66mm of travel depending on vehicle speed and providing 208mm at maximum extension.
At its lowest setting, the Allroad's stance a fraction higher than the A6 Quattro Avant. Beneath the brawny exterior with its flared wheel arches, two-tone treatment and alloy-roof rails, the Allroad offers occasional seven-seater accommodation with its rear-facing foldout third-row seat.
In contrast, BMW took a clean-sheet approach to the X5 and also decided to build it where it would prove most popular. Hence, the X5 becomes the second BMW model to roll off the Spartanburg, South Carolina manufacturing line.
In starting from scratch, BMW choose unitary body construction and adopted a familiar tall off-roader stance, incorporating Munich-styling signatures like the kidney grille. It's surprisingly short at 4667mm (the Allroad is 143mm longer) and slots more easily into city car parks than most big offroaders. But there's plenty of 5-Series influence to be found, primarily the lusty 4.4-litre V8 engine and the five-speed Steptronic auto transmission, while the rear suspension is based on the 7-Series.
The two models I've driven recently provide roughly similar performance and are the flagship models available in this country. The performance recipe follows a familiar route for each brand - BMW chooses more cylinders and big cubic capacity, and Audi taking the turbo route.
The 30-valve 2.7-litre V6 in the Allroad is a mild-tune version of the engine, which powers the sizzling S4 performance model. Maximum power is a healthy 184kW at 5800rpm, but the key characteristic of this low-pressure twin-turbo unit is the 350Nm mountain of torque accessible in all facets of driving from 1800-4500rpm.
BMW's V8 has much to recommend it, primarily its effortless power delivery. The 4.4-litre unit is compact, sounds great and delivers its linear urge from not far above idle all the way to a growling red-line just under 6000rpm. If you could choose any engine from luxury car ranks to get 2000-plus kilograms of 4x4 sheetmetal moving in a hurry, it's hard to go past this one. There is 210kW on tap at 5400rpm, while the torque peaks at 440Nm at 3600rpm. Both have five-speed automatic transmissions with the sequential manual-shifting format Audi calls Tiptronic and BMW entitles Steptronic. Neither has low-ratio transfer for serious off-road work.
But both have a full array of electronic traction and dynamic gizmos. The power transfers to the road, not only through their torque-apportioning centre differentials but there are also traction-control systems using brake application and throttle intervention, and dynamic-control systems that sense understeer or oversteer and correct it with individual wheel braking. In both vehicles, these tend to be rather intrusive and begin robbing power in some gravel road situations when you'd actually like have full response available.
The BMW goes one step further. Thanks to the German company's short tenure at the helm of Land Rover brand, the X5 utilises the Hill Descent Control automatic-braking technology pioneered by the Land Rover Freelander.
For highway driving, the braking hardware is impressive with large-diameter discs arresting the considerable momentum of these big and quick machines.
Standard specification on both models includes most features you'd expect from luxury saloons from the same brands. There are climate air-conditioning systems with separate left and right temperature control, power-adjusted front seats with driver's side memory, full-leather upholstery and wood-grain trim interiors, audio systems with six-stack CD players, trip computers, alarm and immobiliser security systems, fog lamps, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, and many other convenience features.
The more expensive BMW gets four extra air bags (10 versus the Allroad's six), an electric-steering column adjuster, multi-function steering wheel and a TV monitor.
Load capacities are similar - the Allroad offers 455 litres with the rear seat in position, while the BMW has 465 litres. Completely fold the rear seats and the score is 1590-1550 in Audi's favour. Load covers and securing nets are provided on both vehicles.
The Allroad has a conventional top-hinged station wagon tailgate while the X5 has a split design. The upper two-thirds lifts while the lower portion folds down to horizontal, probably so Americans can indulge in their much-loved tail-gate partying.
So when one vehicle attempts to perform in so many different roles, does it risk being labelled as "a jack of all trades, master of none"?
The answer in this case is "jack of most trades" with both these vehicles proving enormously versatile and only revealing compromises when pushed toward the edges of their design envelope.
The powerful engines overcome much of the weight penalty (the X5 is 2170kg and the Allroad 1890kg) to provide eager acceleration. The Allroad clocks 0-100km/h in 7.7s and the more powerful but heavier X5 is a fraction quicker at 7.5s.
Fuel economy falls to Audi with the trip computer revealing I had averaged 13 litres per 100km, compared with the X5's 16 litres/100km. If economy and running cost is an issue, both vehicles offer turbo diesel engine options.
Massive, all-weather grip from the combination of sophisticated four-wheel-drive systems and very large dimension tyres makes up for much of the compromised chassis balance that results from a high centre of gravity. The BMW has the more informative steering.
When it comes to twisty Kiwi rural roads, the Allroad feels like a slightly compromised estate wagon, with a stiff ride over corrugations and level changes. The X5 is sensationally agile for a 2170kg heavyweight and the ride feels more compliant as well, even when rolling over the road surface on the optional 19in wheels fitted to BMW's test car.
The Audi rides on 17in five-spoke alloys, with special Pirelli P6 Allroad 225/55 R17 radials that have a more aggressive tread pattern than the Bridgestone Turanzas on the X5 and are a little noisier on coarse chip surfaces.
So which of these Germans offers the best solution to the luxury 4x4 question?
In both vehicles, there's no question mark over the plush luxury, comfort and effortless performance expected of a German prestige car. The same goes for active and passive safety.
Add family station-wagon practicality, moderate to semi-serious off-road ability, useful towing capability and styling that looks as appropriate covered in mud on a forest trail as it does valet-parked outside the city's best hotel, and the packages are pretty complete.
For me, the deciding factor is revealed when the Allroad feels like a compromised car, most obviously in its ride quality. The X5, by contrast, feels much more like a car than it should. I was impressed by the agile responses from something riding high and weighing more than two-tonnes. And the effortless urgency of the Bavarian V8 tips the balance in BMW's favour.
AutoPoint road test team Words and photographs, CM