On Autos: Luxury crossovers offer varied flavors

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The 2017 Land Rover Discovery delivers a convincing luxury experience despite some practical imperfections. (Brady Holt/The Current)
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There are two main types of consumers who will likely consider upgrading from a mainstream seven-passenger crossover to a model from a premium brand.

One type demands a drastic upgrade — an all-out luxury experience fitted into the boxy shape of a big crossover, with something in its character that truly stands out from ordinary transportation. But other buyers are seeking the familiar flavor of family-friendly comfort and utility, just with an extra dose of style, interior quality, premium features and driving refinement.

Two recently tested models fit these respective market niches: the all-new 2017 Land Rover Discovery and the updated 2017 Infiniti QX60.

The 2017 Land Rover Discovery’s interior is heavily coated with supple leather upholstery. (Brady Holt/The Current)
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Some of today’s mainstream crossovers, such as the Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9, already deliver a level of comfort, refinement and optional equipment that helps them rival luxury brands. But no one could ever mistake this Land Rover for a Honda. While it’s more conventionally styled than the boxy LR4 it replaces, the Discovery wears the proud face of other modern Land Rover models; shares their sumptuous interior decor, which includes a dashboard practically slathered with white leather; and boasts similarly outstanding off-road ability. Prices start at $50,985.

Land Rover’s history of building luxury SUVs spans nearly five decades, and the British automaker continues to bring modern innovations to the segment. For example, the driver can now use the in-dash touch screen to fold or unfold the middle- and third-row seats, or even drop all of the rear head restraints to improve visibility when the seats are unoccupied. And the optional third-row seat delivers respectable legroom for a crossover, capable of squeezing in an adult without too much fuss. (Don’t confuse the Discovery with the much smaller Discovery Sport, which has a barely usable third row.)

The 2017 Land Rover Discovery is boxy for a modern crossover, but the styling is still more conventional than the LR4 model that it replaces. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The 2017 Discovery also boasts an excellent new V6 diesel engine, which delivers lively and surprisingly quiet acceleration, along with an impressive EPA-estimated 23 mpg in mixed driving. The tested Discovery’s trip computer reported an outstanding 26.4 mpg over its last 1,800 miles of driving. The standard V6 engine also delivers strong acceleration and costs about $2,000 less, but it’s rated for just 18 mpg.

However, although the Discovery boasts a convincing luxury flavor and unique character, it doesn’t always excel on a purely objective level. Some of the controls can prove annoying to use or even decipher. The ride quality isn’t pillow-smooth by luxury standards, and handling can feel ponderous. There’s almost no cargo space behind the third-row seat; consequently, it can seat seven passengers only when everyone’s belongings are in their laps, around their feet or on the roof.

The 2017 Infiniti QX60 is visually indistinguishable from the Nissan Pathfinder on which it’s based. (Brady Holt/The Current)

For a more practical experience — though a less emotionally satisfying one — the Infiniti QX60 delivers more interior room for a little less money. Starting at $45,895, this luxury version of the Nissan Pathfinder features gracefully flowing curves to distinguish itself from the Nissan’s chunky boxiness. The cabin is dressed up with additional woodgrain trim and richer leather upholstery, and the suspension is tuned for slightly more agile handling.

Compared to the Discovery, the QX60 has nearly 67 percent more cargo room behind the third-row seat: 15 cubic feet instead of 9. While neither model can carry bulky suitcases back there, the Infiniti — unlike the Land Rover — can accommodate a decent volume of groceries or backpacks before folding the third row. The QX60 also edges out the Discovery for total cargo space, and a clever middle-row seat design also makes it easier to wriggle back into the third row.

The 2017 Infiniti QX60 interior is well-finished but less breathtaking than some other premium models. (Brady Holt/The Current)

However, the QX60’s luxury isn’t much more than skin deep. It’s an ordinary car that’s been made fancier — not a purposely built luxury cruiser. It doesn’t have the off-road chops or exquisite cabin of the Discovery. Nor will you find the superb ride and handling of an Audi Q7.

This Infiniti competes most directly with the Acura MDX, an upgraded version of the Honda Pilot. The MDX sells at a similar price point to the QX60 and has similar strengths and weaknesses. Between the two, the Acura has the richer interior and the smoother ride, but the Infiniti has the superior third-row seat and slightly better gas mileage (22 mpg with all-wheel-drive instead of 21 mpg). Tastes will also vary regarding the Acura’s light steering versus the Infiniti’s extra heft.

There are several other outstanding models in this segment as well. The Audi Q7 has a small third-row seat and can get expensive, but it otherwise dazzles with outstanding driving dynamics and splendid interior quality. Meanwhile, the more family-friendly Volvo XC90 doesn’t have the Audi’s extra-solid feel on the road, but it offers additional interior space and a stylish cabin. A redesigned 2018 Buick Enclave, due soon, promises generous interior space and a smooth, quiet ride, along with a modernized dashboard and additional safety features.

And, depending on your priorities, even a well-equipped mainstream model might be worth considering — in particular, the roomy and quiet Honda Pilot, or the sleek and sporty Mazda CX-9.