This paper introduces the project on ‘Assessing the impact of land use change on hydrology by ensemble modeling (LUCHEM)’ that aims at investigating the envelope of predictions on changes in hydrological fluxes due to land use change. As part of a series of four papers, this paper outlines the motivation and setup of LUCHEM, and presents a model intercomparison for the present-day simulation results. Such an intercomparison provides a valuable basis to investigate the effects of different model structures on model predictions and paves the ground for the analysis of the performance of multi-model ensembles and the reliability of the scenario predictions in companion papers. In this study, we applied a set of 10 lumped, semi-lumped and fully distributed hydrological models that have been previously used in land use change studies to the low mountainous Dill catchment, Germany. Substantial differences in model performance were observed with Nash–Sutcliffe efficiencies ranging from 0.53 to 0.92. Differences in model performance were attributed to (1) model input data, (2) model calibration and (3) the physical basis of the models. The models were applied with two sets of input data: an original and a homogenized data set. This homogenization of precipitation, temperature and leaf area index was performed to reduce the variation between the models. Homogenization improved the comparability of model simulations and resulted in a reduced average bias, although some variation in model data input remained. The effect of the physical differences between models on the long-term water balance was mainly attributed to differences in how models represent evapotranspiration. Semi-lumped and lumped conceptual models slightly outperformed the fully distributed and physically based models. This was attributed to the automatic model calibration typically used for this type of models. Overall, however, we conclude that there was no superior model if several measures of model performance are considered and that all models are suitable to participate in further multi-model ensemble set-ups and land use change scenario investigations.