20 Cars That Are Way Better–and Cheaper–Than the Tesla Model X

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Test-driving 20 cars in two days, back-to-back, from $27,000 to $147,000–and comparing them all to the Tesla Model X. How did the new SUV stack up?

For all the differences between the world’s automakers, they have one thing in common: They all have engineering facilities in the broader Detroit area. Why? Because that’s where U.S. emissions testing takes place, and that’s where most of the U.S. automotive engineering talent resides.

I drove the following cars back-to-back over two days. Each drive was approximately 30 minutes in most cases (some a little longer) and almost all drives had the same “base component” of the first 30 minutes being on the same winding and hilly country roads, with only a few red lights and stop signs. They also included passing through a small suburban shopping mall. In most cases, I jumped from one car to the next with anywhere from a two minute to a ten minute break. Almost all of the drives took place between 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on two weekdays.

The point? To compare them to Tesla‘s new Model X.

I have driven variants of several of these cars for much longer periods of time, in some cases both before and after these two days. What makes this compressed “20 cars in 2 days” so special, is that the immediate back-to-back experience distills the comparison in a most brutal way, not allowing the driver to be charmed by “wearing down one’s objections” or forgetting about some aspect of the experience. It’s about the contrast in initial driving impressions, and those are simply not as effective if not conducted back-to-back.

This year, the “odd man out” which I had in mind as the reference object was the Tesla Model X, because it’s so different. Also, the Tesla Model X is much more expensive than any of the other cars in the test at over $147,000 — compared to the others between $27,000 and $127,000, before dealer discounts (which can often be more than 10%).

Before you ask, yes I know: These are very different cars at very different prices. Some are minivans, some SUVs, and some are sedans. Some are large, some are small. Some are front wheel drive, some rear and some all-wheel drive. They are not traditional competitors, and I’m not interested in any grief from the peanut gallery pointing out the obvious.

Rather, this is indeed about getting a feel for a wide spectrum of cars — from $27,000 to almost $150,000 — when driven immediately back-to-back for the “gut feeling” where the differences are felt right away. One benefit of this, is that it puts to the driver a hard question: Is the extra money worth it? Is a $60,000 car twice as good as a $30,000 car? Can a car priced at $90,000 (or above) be worth it at all? And so forth.

With that out of the way, first the quick take on each car — and then the verdict of how they all performed at the very bottom:

1. Volvo XC60

This is Volvo’s smaller of its two SUVs sold in the U.S., and it starts below $40,000. It has the most comfortable seat in the industry, combined with perhaps the best seating position and an outstanding steering wheel — which Tesla mostly copied on the Models S and X. Every time I get into a 60-series Volvo (S, V or XC), I ask myself: “Seeing as this is the most comfortable car on the market today, why would I buy anything else?”

The XC60 has entered its last two years of production before an all-new 60-series Volvo arrives. In the meantime, it continues to set the standard for sheer driver comfort, edging its larger/newer brother and the BMW X5 — despite its considerable age. The Volvo 60 series is like that rarest 48 year old athlete who keeps winning gold medals against competition from 18 year olds.

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