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Rivals: Acura MDX vs. Audi Q7 vs. Volvo XC90

When it comes to maximum comfort for up to seven passengers, we look to the upper end of the automotive spectrum, both in brand and size. Tech meets elegance in these distinctive SUVs from Acura, Audi and Volvo, but which one is the best?

SUVs have become the people carriers of choice in the US, good for family and friends with their upright seating positions and roomy cabins. Add a third row and you can cart six of your friends around town. At the same time, upscale automakers bring many elegant and high-tech features to their SUV offerings, combining comfort and convenience with carrying capacity.

And where big sedans previously sat at the pinnacle of automotive luxury, these days you might prefer the practicality of an upscale seven-passenger SUV over a flagship sedan.

With this in mind, we pitted three representatives of this new executive class against each other. The 2016 Volvo XC90 and 2017 Audi Q7 are two technology juggernauts that recently entered the market, while the 2016 Acura MDX represents a stalwart of the seven-passenger class, and a less expensive option to boot.

For these three SUVs, we evaluated them in three areas, looking at driving quality, cabin technology and driver assistance features.

Third place: 2016 Acura MDX

2016 Acura MDX

The 2016 Acura MDX benefits from Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, which incorporates active torque vectoring to aid handling.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Acura MDX meets the goals of an upscale seven-passenger SUV without going much beyond. Its LED headlights come standard, which is a high point, as is its torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. As with much of the Acura line, the cabin design is nice without quite carrying the idea of luxury.

When it comes to driving character, the MDX's direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine and nine-speed automatic transmission work well, delivering easy, uncomplicated acceleration and a combined city-highway fuel economy of 22 mpg. You might be thrown by the push-button transmission, but it grows on you, and the absence of a shifter opens up the cabin space. The result is a quiet and reasonably comfortable ride that will satisfy most buyers.

The MDX has the technology you'd expect, coming with a navigation system, digital audio inputs and driver assistance features. However, its cabin tech suffers from a poor, confusing interface using two screens with divergent inputs. More importantly for the modern driver, it offers only limited connected technology, with no easy means of conducting online searches for destinations. Adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance in the MDX combine to take much of the stress from long road trips, at the same time contributing extensively to safety.

At our as-tested price of $58,000, the MDX is the least expensive of our trio, but the features and quality don't quite push the value equation up enough to make this the winner.

Second place: 2017 Audi Q7

2017 Audi Q7

Audi gave its Q7 a huge redesign for the 2017 model year, making the third-row seat standard and giving it excellent handling.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Audi Q7 enters its second generation with a bang, as a completely redesigned SUV that represents Audi's strengths in driving dynamics, cabin electronics and driver assistance systems. Its Quattro all-wheel-drive system improves handling and helps out in low-traction situations, while Audi's new Virtual Cockpit interface gives you an unparalleled informational display.

Clearly the handling champ of these SUVs, the Q7 made use of its adaptive suspension, all-wheel drive and traction control electronics for cornering performance far beyond what a car of this type should be able to do. Its supercharged 3-liter V-6 engine produces 333 horsepower, making it the most powerful of our rivals and getting it to 60 mph in the shortest amount of time. At the same time, its EPA combined fuel economy of 21 mpg is only one below the others.

Audi's Virtual Cockpit puts navigation, showing Google Earth-sourced maps, right in front of the driver.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Virtual Cockpit is truly extraordinary, presenting high-resolution digital gauges and a large map on the instrument cluster, right in front of the driver. The cabin electronics benefit from a built-in 4G connection, putting destination searches and other services, such as parking garage availability, at your fingertips. That data connection enables Google Earth satellite imagery for the navigation system. As a bonus, the Q7 supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The Q7 is a bit of a star when it comes to driver assistance systems, making use of cameras and radar to provide adaptive cruise control and lane departure prevention. Both combine to nearly let the Q7 drive itself down the road, although you will have to keep your hands on the wheel for now. Other safety features include automatic braking to prevent you from taking a left turn into oncoming traffic, and a warning to keep you from opening the door into passing traffic or cyclists.

Looking at all these features, the Q7 came out as our favorite car of the test, although at over $70,000 as tested, it is also the most expensive. However, the superiority of its parts didn't give it our category win, as we had to consider what buyers in this class really want.

First place: 2016 Volvo XC90

2016 Volvo XC90 T6

The Volvo XC90's elegant design and superior ride comfort make it the best choice among upscale SUVs.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Despite a few advantages from our second-place contender, we settled on the Volvo XC90 as the best among premium seven passenger SUVs due to its elegance and ride comfort. The new XC90 exhibits a black-tie grace that fits its demographic, while the quality of its features came in a close second to the Audi.

The XC90 gets its power from a 2-liter four-cylinder engine, uniquely employing both a supercharger and a turbo to make 313 horsepower. That, combined with its eight-speed automatic transmission, gets the XC90 22 mpg in combined EPA ratings, equivalent to the other two cars here. More importantly, all-wheel drive ensures traction while an air suspension gives it the most comfortable ride of this set of rivals.

2016 Volvo XC90

The XC90's "Hammer of Thor" LED light treatment adds character.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Volvo's new Sensus infotainment system in the XC90 presents you with a portrait-style screen and a tiled interface, while the LCD instrument cluster includes a map display, almost as interesting as that in the Audi. And although Apple CarPlay and Android Auto weren't available at launch, Volvo promises this functionality for later in the year.

Matching many of the advanced safety features we saw in the Q7, the XC90 offers adaptive cruise control and lane departure prevention, along with automatic braking to avoid collisions. The XC90 will even hit the brakes if you are about to turn left into oncoming traffic.

Although its base price of $43,950 is remarkably low for such a nice-looking SUV, options brought our example up to $66,705, putting it in the middle of the pack. Our XC90, however, was more fully optioned than the Q7, and includes a 19-speaker Bowers and Wilkins audio system.

After driving each car and trying out its toys, our judges concluded that, while the Audi Q7 is the most dynamic driver, most people who want a luxury seven-passenger SUV aren't going to be taking the corners at speed, and will prefer the more comfortable ride of the Volvo XC90. And although the Q7 had a slight edge in cabin electronics and assistance features, the XC90 came extremely close feature by feature, so that when we considered the value, the XC90 came out on top.

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