Pitted against each other
For around half-a-million bucks you can buy yourself a really smart four-by-four station wagon. Take these two as examples: the Volvo XC90, which will even leave you with R40 000 available for options, and the Audi Q7, which will take you R27 000 over budget
The Audi Q7 3.6 V6 and Volvo XC90 3.2 are both new on the market, adding smallish, normally aspirated petrol engines to existing line-ups. The 3.6 FSI represents the entry point to the Q7 range, while there are cheaper versions of the Volvo available in both turbocharged petrol and turbo-diesel guises.
The Volvo exists because a six-cylinder petrol engine boasts better refinement than the above-mentioned turbo and diesel units and will also have more performance (at the coast, at any rate).
But their shapes if not their drivetrains will be familiar. The XC90 has been on the market since mid-’03 and the Q7 arrived less than a year ago. Nonetheless, a quick visual recap: the Volvo is very obviously just that and exhibits all the standard trademarks – the upright egg-crate grille, tall glasshouse, clearly defined shoulder line and a sense of quiet assuredness bordering on the understated.
The Audi, on the other hand, is about as subtle as a bikini-clad babe in a nunnery.
From the front it is very much a 21st century Audi thanks to that giant “single-frame” grille which cuts deep into the front bumper. The slit-like headlights give an air of menace, while that massive domed bonnet adds to the effect.
The side view is no less understated, and there’s a huge expanse of metal. Heavily tinted windows seem entirely appropriate for a vehicle which majors in “gangsta chic” as a styling philosophy.
For good visual measure, the Audi rides on massive 20-inch smoked gunmetal wheels, shod with radical 275/45 rubber.
Features and equipment
Audi ★ ★ ★ ★
Volvo ★ ★ ★ ★
Ah, the wheels and tyres… just part of R110 000 worth of extras which pushed the Q7’s as-tested price close to the R640 000 mark, making the Volvo look bargain basement by comparison. Significant items on the long list include satellite navigation (a cool R19 770) and – crucially – the R21 850 air suspension. The wheels/tyres were the other big ticket item, at R19 040.
Under the bonnet is a 3,6-litre V6, remarkable for the extremely narrow 10,6 degree angle between banks, and low friction roller cam followers as part of a valve system which can alter both inlet and exhaust camshaft timing. The engine also boast FSi fuel control (a fancy way of saying direct injection) and makes an impressive 206 kW and 360 Nm.
For the rest it is pretty much business as usual: torque to each wheel is controlled by the sophisticated quattro system, with a 40:60 front/rear split. A locking centre differential can send up to 85% rearward or up to 65% forward depending on conditions, and in addition the brakes act as electronic differential locks, both front and rear.
The Volvo has the same number of cylinders but they are laid out in a straight line across the bonnet. It has less swept volume, and makes 175 kW and 320 Nm from its 3,2 litres. They have the same number of gear ratios – six – but the Audi has more shift options, thanks to paddles behind the steering wheel. The Volvo’s 17-inch wheel and tyre combination also looks positively dinky compared to the Audi’s gumballs.
Volvo’s option list is much shorter than Audi’s, but our car had both items listed – the sunroof (R7950) and metallic paint (R1700) – pushing the price as tested to R469 650. Significantly, air suspension isn’t available. It is the one item needed to turn the modern super-SUV into a genuine dual-purpose vehicle and overcome the inherent compromises of a high-riding 4×4.
Audi ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Volvo ★ ★ ★ ★
Try as we might, we cannot think of a brand that does interiors better than Audi. There are two reasons for this: peerless build quality and design that really works rather than just looking impressive and sounding good in print.
The Audi MMI control – which acts as a one-stop interface for sound system, climate control and in this case the air suspension and satellite navigation – works like a charm and can be mastered in hours rather than days. The tactile feel of its controls heightens the level of satisfaction, and a similar sense of well-being is created from the steering column stalks and the paddles for the gearshift.
The Audi is equipped with excellent seats, the front pair electrically adjusted. This extends to a function to tailor the amount of lumbar support. The length of the seat cushion and therefore under-thigh support can also be altered, albeit manually.
The Volvo’s seats match those of the Audi for comfort, if not quite for cornering support. Both also boast excellent headrests: they are mere millimetres from the back of one’s skull yet totally unobtrusive. Only the driver’s pew of the Volvo has a memory for its electrical adjustments, and lumbar support is altered by turning a knurled wheel.
The Volvo has clear, concise controls and the HVAC is a model of clarity. But the stalks and buttons feel ordinary, and the unsatisfactory way the foot-operated parking brake engages and disengages made a particularly strong impact in this regard.
Rear accommodation is good but not exceptionally so in either vehicle. Space for feet disappears quickly when the Audi’s seat is cranked down, and the Volvo’s legroom is merely adequate.
The Audi has an inch better cabin width both front and rear, and while 25mm doesn’t sound much, it certainly counts when there are four or more occupants. That said, we can’t quite fathom how the Audi’s 100mm of extra body width translates into just an inch more shoulder room on the inside…
But it is not just the space, but rather how the two rivals do things that sets them apart.
The Audi has great rear ventilation and cooling, thanks to four rather than two vents. It has far nicer cup-holders and the seats, while firmer, are more comfortable.
Finally, the Volvo can’t hold a candle to the Audi is terms of quality and in some cases – such as the rearmost portion of the centre console – the differences are glaring.
Boot space is where the Volvo recovers somewhat, the two-piece tailgate being a useful feature because it means there’s a lip when you need it. The luggage compartment is also very unencumbered so that when the seats are folded flat there’s excellent utility space.
Both vehicles come with sturdy nets to prevent unwanted arrival of the cargo, whether it be the Labradors or crates of Meerlust’s finest. Both also have luggage covers, the Audi item being of markedly superior quality.
Audi ★ ★ ★ ★
Volvo ★ ★ ★
The Q7 looks like a performance car on its way to some kind of off-road fancy-dress party, while the Volvo looks like a V50 wagon which has had a growth spurt in the leg length department.
The Volvo has about three less kW per tonne than its rival, even though the Q7 tips the scales at a hefty 2 400 kilograms – which is at least slightly lower than the turbodiesel tested in issue 41 of Leisure Wheels.
Coping with 2,5 tonnes may explain why Q7’s brakes look as though they came straight off a serious race car. The discs are huge in diameter and width, and are mated to some of the biggest brake callipers in the business. And boy, do they work: we have yet to drive an SUV with as much stopping power, helped no doubt by the massive tyres.
The Volvo’s brakes are of decent dimensions, too, and also ventilated front and rear, and while they’re not as potent they’re ultimately easier to live with day to day, because they’re easier to modulate in stop/start conditions.
Straight-line performance from both vehicles can best be described as satisfyingly adequate.
The Audi is able to overcome its inertia easily in standing starts, and the engine warbles pleasingly to 6750 r/min before changing gear. Put it in Sport mode and it uses only the first five. With so many gear change options you’d think it would allow the driver to fully control the shift points but that’s not the case: even in the sequential mode it is still a “semi-manual”, because it changes up before the actual limiter is reached.
It would be irritating if the engine didn’t run to 6400 – some 200 revs past its power peak – in the first place. We guess we just have to start accepting that electronics can do gear-changing better than us.
Give the Audi its head and it only runs out of steam at 222km/h. At that velocity the air suspension has automatically dropped the ride height to its lowest, Dynamic setting, aiding wind-cheating ability. Cruising the freeway at a true 120, the big six is turning over at a fairly relaxed 2700 r/min, yet still manages to sound slightly busy.
The Volvo power-plant is a crooner by comparison. The straight six sounds deeper and less menacing and takes two seconds longer to reach 120km/h. It is slightly less willing to kick down when overtaking, and will need a second longer to get from 60 to 100km/h, or from 80 to 120.
Economy honours have to go the way of the Swede though, but the big German is not disgraced. We also tended to drive the Q7 harder – it is just more enjoyable that way.
Ride and handling
Audi ★ ★ ★ ★
Volvo ★ ★ ★ ★
Getting into the Volvo is almost soothing after the Audi. Taller tyres and coil spring suspension hide the pockmarks in tarmac infinitely better, and it also rides over suburban speed bumps a little more effortlessly.
It also feels more nimble – not a word we’ve been known to use when describing the handling characteristics of any Volvo before – and it is an undemanding companion around town and in the suburbs. It is easy to see out of, the steering is light yet precise, and it rides along with a degree of decorum that is relaxing during everyday use.
The Q7 is very different. It feels big in every plane, something which is disconcerting at first. Parking is not easy, and finding the centre of a parallel parking bay is critical if all occupants are going to be able to alight without a clash of doors. The low-speed ride – even in the Comfort setting – is firm, the meagre sidewalls not being able to absorb and disperse road vibrations particularly quickly.
But drive the Q7 with a measure of intent and it feels invigorating. It doesn’t quite shrink-wrap around the driver, but it is rewarding in the way it corners with little body roll and an amazing amount of grip. Steering is decisive and allows that big nose to be kept tucked in reasonably close to the apex.
By comparison, the Volvo’s ride deteriorates as you go faster. The body eventually starts to heave and wallow on poor roads, the steering losing some of its feel along with the increase in suspension travel. Aim it into a corner at anything much higher than cruising speed and the nose starts to run wide, even though Volvo’s DSCT stability control does its best to intervene.
The Audi has a slight rearward weight bias (unusual for a front-engined SUV), thanks no doubt to a longitudinal V6 as opposed to a transverse block well over the front wheels. Off road they both impress, and the Volvo’s 218mm of static ground clearance is a good opening gambit. But pump up the air on its rival and you could fly a Cessna under it. Nothing touches – ever.
With their advanced drive systems – Sweden’s Haldex is a match for Germany’s quattro – they can both tackle more in the dirt than most owners are ever likely to throw at them. Here the Volvo’s plush ride is welcome, but once again, the impervious manner in which the Audi crosses broken ground is quite astonishing – especially on tyres with a tread pattern that would look perfectly at home on a Porsche 911.
And interestingly, despite a three-metre wheelbase and an extra 280mm of overall length, it felt hardly less adept at threading between boulders and executing sharp turns to avoid bushes and trees.
The final verdict
Audi ★ ★ ★ ★
Volvo ★ ★ ★
The issue that has to be got out of the way is whether this contest is a mismatch. On paper it could be – thanks largely to the spec fitted to the Audi, but if you take everything out of the equation save the air suspension it ends up being about R80 000 more expensive, which means we have got a fight on our hands – just.
But even if both were in their most basic spec, the Q7 would make the XC feel and look ordinary – both inside and out. The XC comes across as being old before its time.
So we’d have to say it’s a knockout blow from the Germans.