Ask me if I consider luxury crossovers to be vital to the human experience, and I’d say probably not.

Ask me again on icy roads, in the middle of a blizzard, on an interstate in the middle of Colorado, while being massaged in my seat? Different answer. Luxury SUVs have a time and place and sometimes that place is called Vail.

Crossovers like the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class and 2019 Audi Q8 probably aren’t vital to the human experience, but they do make it better.

The same could be said for a lot of things—like ketchup. What makes these two crossovers special? Like ketchup, there’s a lot of flavor under the surface.

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The best and brightest at both automakers clearly worked on each. The Mercedes-Benz bends toward comfort, with a trick suspension that does more than do the robot on command; it also rides smoother. The Audi Q8 lives under a comparative shadow cast by the smaller, but more technologically advanced A8. Its suspension and handling steer toward comfort, too, and the big crossover ushers in the newest version of Audi’s touch-based infotainment and vehicle control system. I put both through their respective paces in and around Colorado to determine what came out on top for buyers in comfort, quickness, and even luxury livability.

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

My best life is lived in luxury, I’ve determined. My bank account disagrees.

The price disparity, on paper, is substantial at first blush. The new GLE costs $54,695 to start, while the Q8 runs $68,990. Apples-to-apples, the gap narrows—then it heads to the hills in shocking quickness. The Q8 is only available with a 3.0-liter turbocharged V-6, while the 3.0-liter inline-6 in the GLE450 nudges its price above $62,000.

As tested, the Q8 I drove cost $79,340—a whopping 18 grand in features—and the GLE450 4Matic I drove cost about $80,000 (pricing for the GLE hadn’t been set during my test drive), which is even more in features. It’s not hard to get either crossover to cost more, too.

Although the existences of the 2020 GLE and 2019 Q8 aren’t vital, their showroom showdown most certainly was.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

Deep sixes

Audi plucked its stout turbo-6 from its sedans for the new Q8, ahead of a hotter SQ8 that we’ll soon see. The 335-horsepower V-6 churns happily when the road is unbroken, humming along at near-silent revs toward the left side of the tach. That’s due in part to the 8-speed conventional automatic that also dictates one of Audi’s other key decisions for the Q8: Quattro regular vs. Quattro Ultra.

The decision to go with the full-time, all-wheel-drive system instead of the disconnecting front-wheel-drive setup for the Q8 shows in its rear-wheel bias and sure-footed sprints up dusty, dirty, and snowy roads.

The Audi can go further off-road than its drivers will ever dare thanks to that decision, but its tall 20- and 21-inch tires will make any owner think twice. They’re hardly diggers, and the big, heavy wheels require low-profile tires that don’t allow for much sidewall flex.

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The use of a full-time AWD system also shows in fuel economy. The EPA rates the Q8 at 22 mpg highway, which isn’t impressive, but I was able to achieve it after more than 300 miles behind the wheel.

The GLE450 rates up to 24 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA, and in my drives, I managed fuel economy in the mid- to high-20s. Mercedes-Benz’ all-wheel-drive system, 4Matic, shuttles power to the front and rears more readily—up to 100 percent in either direction compared to the Q8’s max of 70 percent up front. The GLE offers one more cog in its transmission too, which likely showed up on my more-efficient long highway trots because weight certainly isn’t the culprit for the disparity. The GLE450 weighs 4,991 pounds, while the Audi Q8 tips the scales at 5,004 pounds; 13 pounds is the difference between Tuesday and all-you-can-eat-wings Wednesday—at least it feels that way to me, sometimes.

The GLE450 takes 5.5 seconds to sprint up to 60 mph, while the Q8 takes 5.6 seconds.

Yet, it’s the Benz’s new turbocharged inline-6 that feels more thrilling. The revs build quickly and willingly. Both comfortably sprint toward triple-digit speeds, and although the GLE is a little louder about passing duty, it’s seemingly more comfortable about doing so.

That didn’t stop me from unwinding the Q8 on a dusty road south of Interstate 70, near the Utah and Colorado border. Sometimes I forgot I was driving an SUV, at all.


2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

Return to pavement and exit reality

Moore’s Law doesn’t just apply to computers and analyses in the New Yorker, it also applies to luxury crossovers—except they’re still not cheap.

Comparing the 2020 GLE to the outgoing GLE isn’t just unfair, it’s probably against the law. It felt like a mistake for Mercedes-Benz to let the GLE wither for as long as it did—the 2019 model still had a nine-key dial pad on the dash in case you’d like to call 1996 in your new car—but the wait paid off.

Between long gulps of amber-colored can’t-remember schnapps three years ago in Stuttgart, I asked a duo of off-duty Mercedes infotainment engineers from New Jersey what the future would look like inside new Benzes.

What it looks like, they said, won’t matter. What it talks like, will.

The schnapps made blurry the long walk to Mozartstrasse, back to a cramped flophouse near the red-light district, but those guys talking about talking to a car sounded drunker than I was.

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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

And yet, here we are.

The GLE’s talking infotainment system has an ace among competitors, it’s internet connected. Asking Mercedes to find me lunch not only netted curated results, but it also served up spicy Twitter rejoinders that gave it life.

“Hey Mercedes, what should I have for lunch that’s around me?”

“Something light?”

Sucker punched right in my love handles.

The warming glow from the wall of screens in the GLE is lovely, but it’s the voice recognition that will be the lasting tech that we’ll admire in 10 years. Like a nine-key dial pad, the dual 12.3-inch screens splayed across the GLE’s dash will be dated by the time the world moves on from IMAX-ready infotainment; voice recognition and smart-speaker features are Netflix to the touchscreen’s Betamax.

Like Mercedes, the Audi Q8 expends more effort in its interior, screens and all. But its approach is subtler. When the Q8 is off, the dash skips the Graceland TV room look with flat black trim that blends in the 10.3-inch upper and 8.6-inch lower touchscreens. It’s a more elegant look, even if it places the Q8 in the rear seat among on-trend crossovers.

The bad news? The Q8’s infotainment can’t serve up native answers from the internet, it offshores that to connected smartphones like the rest of us. I’ll comply, Audi, but getting Apple Maps to listen to voice-destination entry is harder than getting my grandparents to understand that the internet won’t dribble out of the cord if it’s not connected from the wall to a computer.

But it’s little things like the Q8’s red-light timer, and virtual cockpit display that win the day. It’s not in-your-face, it’s just near the front of your face. Where you want to look at it. Lovely.

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2019 Audi Q8, Park City to Telluride

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class

Third act

Which brings me to my last point. The 2020 GLE and 2019 Q8 are lovely things, carefully and thoughtfully positioned in front of luxury buyers who don’t need any of it—but want it all.

In the way the first M-Class revolutionized luxury crossovers, and the last generation refined it, the new GLE PowerPoints the state of luxury into one slide: If brands are judged by their full-size sedans, then replace the judges.

Same for the Q8. Despite its relative new-ness in the Audi stable, it’s far from original. It takes its cues from the Q7 and A7 Sportback; it’s an evolution of both. If it's not the Audi flagship, it should be.

Ask me today which to buy, I’d say the GLE. Tomorrow’s answer could be the Q8.

That is, assuming today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter, I’m in Vail. That’s where it’s really lovely every day.