Let’s start off this shoot out by stating that we initially thought this would be a one-sided battle. When we first drove the Volvo XC90 a few months ago, the overall impression was that it would take other manufacturers a few years to catch up. It really is that good.
We knew the Audi Q7 was coming and we couldn’t help but feel sorry for it. It would undoubtedly be a decent car, but it would be launched into a segment that Volvo had redefined and turned on its head.
You see, Volvo basically received a blank cheque from its new parent company and the brief was simple – build the best large SUV. One also has to consider the success of the previous XC90, which also set a new benchmark when it was launched more than a decade ago. A manufacturer cannot follow up one of the most notable automotive hits with a dud, so Volvo took their sweet time in developing this car, and produced something that will be remembered as a turning point for large and luxurious off-roaders.
It’s not easy going up against something like that, but Audi decided to do it anyway. We’ve always liked the Q7’s larger than life looks, and the fact that it could be used as an off-roader, especially in soft sand. The interior was as comfortable as they come and the cult-classic V12 TDI model was one of the most insane SUVs we’ve driven.
The new model is no different, but the styling has been toned down to create a vehicle that looks expensive, but not over the top. Only one engine option is currently available, but it’s likely to be the model of choice for most people anyway.
In terms of interior design and layout, Audi has done almost the same as Volvo. These cars were designed at more or less the same time, so there’s no way one manufacturer could have copied the other, but they came to the same conclusion as far as luxury and space are concerned. They took a minimalist approach, and the pay-off is in maximum comfort without unnecessary clutter. This is something the engineers at Mercedes, BMW and Land Rover still have to master.
The Q7 and XC90 are the latest in a long line of premium SUVs. The Volvo is a mighty impressive machine, but the Audi isn’t half bad either, so forgive us if we get a bit pedantic during this road test. With cars as good as they are these days, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to a tiny detail…
Audi Q7 TDI
Okay, so we’ll admit that the Q7 isn’t much to look at, but trust us on this one, it’s one of those cars that works “in the flesh”. With the standard suspension it looks a bit like a station wagon, but the optional air suspension allows you to raise it by a few millimetres, which improves the looks somewhat.
It has been described as generic, but we really like the direction Audi is taking with its new models. Instead of wasting money on ridiculous designs that will age poorly, Audi is spending cash on things that really matter, such as ride quality, refinement and safety.
Compared to the engine in the Volvo, the Audi’s 3,0-litre turbocharged V6 diesel seems slightly out of date, but it does put up some impressive power figures. It produces 183kW and 600Nm of torque, most of which is available from a low 1500rpm.
Push your foot flat on the lush carpet and the Q7 accelerates to 100km/h in 6,3 seconds and it will only run out of steam at around 230km/h. Audi says the car will need only 5,7l/100km on the combined fuel cycle.
The engine is mated to an eight-speed Tiptronic transmission. The lower gears have a short, sporty ratio, which allows for a quick getaway, while those higher up are aimed at making the Q7 as frugal as possible.
Our test unit had the optional air suspension, which we would recommend to anyone interested in this car.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why this shoot out isn’t as clear-cut as we initially though it would be. The Audi is a lot of car, but what about the Volvo?
Volvo XC90 D5
There’s no denying that the Volvo is the better looker of the two. Its design is beautifully executed and the perfect blend of old-school Volvo styles and a hint of where the company is going next. For the rest, the engineers started with a virtually clean slate, so they have gone in a completely new direction.
At first glance, the diesel engine is a puny 2,0-litre unit. We wouldn’t blame you for chuckling at the sight of it, but don’t be fooled by engine capacity. Remember when we used to laugh at the Amarok for having a tiny engine?
Despite its size, this engine doesn’t have to stand back in terms of power. It is rated at 165kW and 470Nm, which isn’t nearly as much as the Audi produces, but a nice amount to have on tap. It’s no slouch and can get to 100km/h in 7,8 seconds and go on to a top speed of 220km/h. The claimed fuel consumption figure of 7,0l/100km is not as good as the Audi’s, but manufacturers’ claims are seldom achieved by the average driver.
The XC90 has always done well and a big part of its success has come down to its everyday usability. The general consensus on the previous model was that it was designed by someone who actually had a family and knew exactly what people wanted from a car.
Can the same be said of the new XC90?
Styling is subjective, but we are struggling to think of anyone who would call the Audi more stylish than the Volvo. The XC90 is perfectly proportioned and portrays what a modern SUV should look like. It won a Red Dot Design Award in Germany, so there are style experts who agree with us. There has been a lot to talk about the overall design, but our favourite features are the “Thor’s Hammer” headlights and those classy alloy wheels.
The Audi is a more intimidating car. See one of these approaching in your rear-view mirror and you will definitely move over.
Both cars are extremely tasteful. Yes, there are hints of aggression, but neither will find favour with the kind of person who wants his car to shout about how much money he has spent.
If you do want to announce your success to the world, you can delve into the options list. Audi will sell you an S-line design package and Volvo has an R-line style bundle available. We wouldn’t bother with either. As standard, both these cars look exceptional, but the Volvo is in a class of one when it comes to styling.
Both cars are a study in minimalist automotive interiors, but they go about their business in a different way.
The Audi’s interior has a couple of buttons, a rotary dial, touch-pad and a select few levers next to the gear lever. The dial and the levers are the main controls for Audi’s MMI system, which gives you access to absolutely everything – from the music playing via Bluetooth streaming to the suspension settings and driving mode. The climate controls are still separate and are located on the centre console, within easy reach of the driver and front passenger.
The system is easy to understand and looks great, thanks to a large colour display that rises out of the dashboard when the car is started. You can always simplify things further by specifying the “virtual cockpit”, which gives you a colour display of where the dials are normally found. You can adjust it to your liking and control everything from the buttons on the steering wheel.
Our test vehicle was fitted with this option and we soon lowered the main colour display and just used the virtual cockpit.
The quality of the interior is exceptional. It oozes sophistication. The major touch points are covered in the highest quality materials. The gear lever and the various buttons may seem daunting at first, but it should take no more than a day to sort out where everything is and what it does.
There was one small niggle, however – the placement of the drive select button. In a left-hand drive car, it’s located right next to the steering wheel on the centre console. But it was not moved for the right-hand drive market, which means it’s a bit of a stretch to push it. We wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s annoying, but when you are playing at this level, the simple placement of a button could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Volvo takes the minimalist theme to a new level. You get an iPad-like device housed in the centre console and a grand total of eight buttons beneath it. We thought it would take some time to get used to the idea of all the functions being moved to a touch-screen interface, but it took less than five minutes to change our minds. You merely get in, mate your mobile device via Bluetooth and set off. Anyone who has any experience with a smartphone or tablet will immediately feel at home in the Volvo. And even if you are still rocking a phone with numbered buttons, you’ll soon get used to the idea of controlling everything from the centre console’s tablet.
Volvo must have spent a lot of time and effort in developing this system, because it is highly intuitive and easy to use. It looks classy, the various sections are clearly marked and you are never left wondering where you should go next.
The XC90 deserves top marks for its fresh approach in using technology to enhance the car owning experience. We say fresh approach because we’ve noticed a trend in the luxury segments recently. The manufacturers, and the Germans in particular, keep on inventing numerous features, such as self parking, so that their models stand out. While these features add value and give you something you can tell your friends about, they are usually used once and forgotten.
Volvo’s new touch-screen is a prime example of a development that makes motoring easier, and so is Audi’s optional trailer park assist and four-wheel steering. Parking a car is easy, but reversing a trailer into a parking bay is probably one of the most difficult things you can do in a car. Ask anyone with a Ventertjie…
Naturally, space is one of the main concerns in this segment. The Volvo has the upper hand over the Q7 in terms of boot space and ease of access, but only just. Both boots are cavernous and are more than capable of swallowing everything five people might need on a week-long holiday.
Both vehicles can be ordered as seven-seaters and we would recommend going this route, even if it’s just for those odd occasions when one of your kids wants a mate along on holiday.
The Volvo has the bigger luggage capacity (451 litres) with all seven seats in place. The third row can be used by adults, as both seats are the same size and shape as those in the second row.
Not that you’d struggle to get seven people in the Audi. With seven seats up it has 295 litres of boot space left. The second row has loads of legroom, but adults would soon tire of the space restraints in the third row.
As these vehicles will inevitably be used as family carriers, safety is of the utmost importance. The Volvo brand is synonymous with safety and the XC90 will continue to build on this reputation. It has won multiple awards across the globe and was recently awarded five stars from Euro NCAP. In addition to the high safety rating, Euro NCAP also gave it a maximum score for its crash avoidance and driver assistance systems.
As for the Q7, it also received five stars and a “Euro NCAP Advanced” award for its brake assist system and the Audi pre sense basic system. This technology increases the tension in the seat belts and closes the windows/sunroof when it detects that a collision is about to happen.
As a parent, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you and your family would be travelling in one of the most advanced and safest cars money can buy, whether you choose a Q7 or an XC90.
On the road
This is where things get really interesting, because Volvo has gone the downsizing route while Audi opted for the traditional big engine.
There is a major upside to using a refined smaller engine like the one in the Volvo. It produces almost as much power as the big Audi, but is more economical at the pumps.
The advantage of a bigger engine is the power and the Audi is perhaps the best example of how effective a diesel engine can be in a large SUV. It accelerates with the eagerness of a hot hatch and overtakes even faster. Whichever way you look at it, you simply can’t argue with 600Nm of torque.
While the Volvo feels adequately brisk in isolation, it is slightly underwhelming after you have driven the Audi.
“At least I’ll be spending less at the pumps than the guy in his stupidly overpowered Audi,” you might think. Afraid not. After a week of testing on the same route and in the same conditions, the Audi was averaging 8,6l/100km and the Volvo 8,4l/100km. Those are both exceptional figures for such big cars, but congratulations to Audi for building an engine that delivers massive doses of power when you want it and yet sips fuel lazily when you don’t.
This left us wondering whether the downsizing of the Volvo’s engine was necessary in the first place. With the Audi’s big diesel being nearly as frugal, what was the point? We suppose it makes sense to those who care about emissions, but if that is the concern, why not buy a hybrid?
On the road the Volvo is refined, comfortable and compliant. There’s very little turbo lag and the shifts between the eight gears is hardly noticeable. Our first thought was that the Volvo was the most refined SUV this side of a Range Rover. That was, until that Audi came along.
The Audi is easily the most refined SUV money can buy. It’s like driving around in a sensory deprivation tank. The diesel engine is hardly audible and the cabin remains quiet even when you’re whipping along at high speed. This car’s ability to crush long distances in supreme comfort is astounding. The air suspension keeps it composed and comfortable at all times. Even when a pothole or something similar disturbs your progress, the result is nothing more than a polite shuffle.
The gearbox in the Audi is a masterpiece. You simply can’t feel the gear changes, which means you have to rely on the instrument binnacle to tell you what gear you’re in. Not that it matters, because the gearbox always seems to be one step ahead of the driver.
The Q7 allows you to take control via paddles behind the wheel or by using the gear lever, while the XC90 only gives you the option of using the gear lever. This omission didn’t bother us at all, as we rarely use the paddles when the gearbox does such a grand job by itself.
The Audi is not without fault on the open road. The Volvo is equipped with a stellar radar-guided cruise control, but the Audi has to make do with an old-school cruise control system. At this level, a top system should be a standard feature, but Audi says it will become available as part of an additional techno package in the near future.
Around town, the vehicles are as good as each other. The Audi’s power advantage is barely noticeable as the Volvo gets off the line just as quickly.
Parking a big car like this is always tricky, but both come with self-parking technology and a host of cameras, sensors and the like if you don’t feel like doing it yourself.
In the rough
It’s highly unlikely that these cars will ever be used on anything worse than a well-kept gravel road that leads to a fancy lodge, but it’s nice to know they can do much more.
We have a set route we use for every test car, consisting of a main gravel road that is scraped at least once a week and a badly corrugated side road with serious washboard gravel. The nice gravel allows us to feel what a car is like in conditions most owners would encounter, while the “washboard” quickly picks up any stability problems.
Both vehicles did an outstanding job on both surfaces. The Volvo glides over gravel and is ever so slightly bouncy on a rough road. Its brakes are brilliant and the all-wheel drive inspires confidence.
While we were driving on the corrugated road, we got our first taste of Volvo’s renowned safety systems. The recent downpours had created a rut in the road, which we only saw at the last moment. We went over it at around 80km/h, but it was nothing too drastic and barely noticeable from behind the wheel. The car must have thought a crash was imminent, because it pre-tensioned the seatbelts.
You have to respect a car that puts so much effort into keeping its passengers safe, especially in a country with a high road accident mortality rate like ours.
Overall, we’d say that the XC90 is as good as soft-roaders come these days, offering more than enough ability and stability for the kind of activities it will inevitably be used for.
The Audi, however, is an enigma. It’s as smooth on a gravel surface as it is on a tar road. The only hint that you’re not driving on tar is the view through the windscreen. That air suspension takes everything in its stride, which makes this an interesting car to drive on this kind of surface.
Behind the wheel of the XC90, you soon realise where its limits are and what you can and can’t do. Audi’s quattro system inspires so much confidence that we simply couldn’t find the limit, because it was way beyond what we were comfortable with. On a gravel road you can realistically only barrel along at 80km/h to100km/h. The Volvo feels safe and obedient at those speeds, but it doesn’t like to be pushed any harder. The Audi, on the other hand, feels solid even at 120km/h and we didn’t have the guts to push it further than that. We tried catching it out by braking mid-corner and then giving it full throttle, but it simply transferred most of the power to the front wheels, which pulled the car back in a straight line within milliseconds.
Audi’s all-wheel drive heritage shines through in the Q7. It inspires massive amounts of confidence and is capable of way more than any reasonable driver will ever expect of it.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to put the Q7 through its paces on anything more severe than a gravel road, but we suspect it is capable of a lot more. The ground clearance can be increased to around 240mm in its highest setting which, when combined with 600Nm of torque, should make it an epic machine in soft sand.
Value for money
With no optional extras added to the price, the Volvo represents better value than the Q7. In D5 Inscription guise it retails for R893 900, while the Q7 costs R924 000. It’s a small gap, but even wealthy buyers are spending their money more carefully these days.
Add some options, however, and the difference becomes negligible. We used the online configurator to build an example of each vehicle.
We included a Techno Pack (all the safety and convenience features you need) and air suspension on the Volvo. The total price came to a still very reasonable R966 650.
On the Audi we specified the two things we believe every prospective owner should go for – the virtual cockpit and the air suspension. The total came to R961 600.
These cars certainly aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. Both vehicles are at the top of their game and will be a joy to any family lucky enough to own them.
This was the toughest choice we’ve had to make in years. Both vehicles are exceptional and it was a case of changing our minds every time we hopped from the one to the other. You drive the Volvo and you’re left thinking that the Audi can’t possibly be as good as this. Then you drive the Audi and you wonder why you loved the Volvo so much…
The Audi is slightly more plush, has a better engine and performance and it rides unlike anything we’ve ever driven before. The Volvo is the better choice as far as space and technology is concerned.
The Swedish manufacturer’s approach to large, luxury SUVs is fresh, innovative and deserves recognition. The motoring hacks of the world agree with us on this, because, to date, the XC90 has won around 20 international car rewards, and was recently voted as a South African Car of the Year finalist. The Audi, for the record, was launched too late to be considered as a finalist this year.