Four wheel drive estates slug it out

Audi Allroad or Volvo Cross Country? Andrew Pearce and David Cousins decide.

DESPITE the fact that GB is hedged about with speed cameras and other manifestations of Big Brother, we — the great car-buying public — have never had it so good. Not convinced?

Then look at these two bruiser-class estates. Secure and safe as a pair of bank vaults, thanks to all-wheel drive and enough airbags to float the Titanic.

Able one minute to trundle down a farm track, the next to whisk you and a whole clamour of grandfather clocks to 130mph in warmth and serenity.

And courtesy of diesel power, still capable of cracking 30mpg on a run. Scribble a cheque for £35,000 and either’s yours.

But which? Set aside the small inconvenience of finding the money and take a look.

One the one hand, sober Swedish conservatism in the shape of Volvo’s XC70. On the other, glittering German technology packed into Audi’s A6 Allroad 

Neither is serious about bog-frolicking — these are just jacked-up roadsters with limited clearance — yet they still make good sense in the country.

At this price you expect high levels of kit and fine quality. The Allroad has both and in spades. Cabin: all stainless steel and pushbuttons. Materials: high on sophistication. Fit and finish: almost flawless.

Alongside the swish, faintly menacing German, the XC70 looks a little dowdy and not quite as convincingly put together. It’s been around for several years where the Audi is spanking new.

But probe a little deeper, and you’ll find the Swede isn’t quite in the old folks’ home yet. 

Load luggers

These cars set out to blend load-carrying with performance, so the accommodation is a fair place to start. If your family’s big then the Volvo’s the one — it seats three in the back and can take two extra rear-facing chairs in lieu of cargo.

The Audi’s more about front seat travel, putting two rear passengers in sharply-angled seats and posting a luckless third across its wide transmission tunnel. Leg space is OK in both rear sections, though the Audi is a little harder to get out of. 

Moving back, grandfather clock lovers (or those keen to move their collection of fence posts) will beam at the Audi’s slab-sided load bay which, with the back seats flat, out-stretches the Volvo and even an old-shape Discovery Commercial by a handsome 200mm.

But the Volvo is wider at minimum, taller at the back door and — critical for packing stuff in  — has roomier rear quarters.

What it doesn’t have is the Audi’s capacious underfloor compartment or slightly gimmicky sliding hooks/divider, but its standard swing-down dog guard is a quicker, simpler way to separate pooches from people than the German’s pull-up net.

If you tow regularly you’ll love the Audi’s optional reversing camera, which lets even the spatially challenged place the towball right under a trailer hitch. And you’ll haul more too – 2100kg against the Volvo’s 1800kg. 

Front row

The Audi is a technological tour de force and never lets you forget it. In fact it’s a relief to find a small area of dash not taken up by a cryptically-labelled switch or button, while the multi-function MMI controller and its swish screen display is a driver-distracting wonder to behold.

Volvo packs a phone keypad into its less radical centre panel and, like the opposition, hijacks the steering wheel for more buttons; in this case including an awkward nest of the things for the satnav, which rises majestically from the dash like an old-time cinema organ.

Below such froth neither neglect the basics. Generous adjustment in the seats and steering column sort out a good driving position.

Volvo sticks with a well-placed conventional handbrake, Audi uses a little tab switch which is easily overlooked.

On comfort the Volvo comes out best, getting the thumbs-up for its softly supportive front pews; the Audi’s are bum-beaters by comparison.

Not so convincing is the Swede’s heating — volcanic, yes; controllable, no.

Mile munching

Horsepower is not in short supply. Six cylinders and 180hp for the German play five cylinders and 185hp from the Swede, with common rail injection confined to the newer Audi.

Low-profile rubber and a more aggressive stance make the Audi look quick, yet the unassuming Volvo beats it in a sprint — the clock stops at 8.5sec against 9sec. Top speeds are around 130mph.

As things stand the Audi’s 2.7 engine wins on refinement and response. Its silky whisperings make the 2.4 Volvo seem gruff; crude even, although in reality the Swede is never noisy. And the Audi’s razor-keen throttle response fools you into thinking you’re driving the faster car, even though it ain’t so.

Both squeeze six ratios into their autoboxes, adding tiptronic-style manual control and, in the Audi’s case, a sport mode plus the option of rather pointless shift paddles on the steering wheel.

Both boxes are smooth shifters for the most part, though the Volvo can take too long over the first-second change and feels generally less on the ball.

Not surprisingly there’s no low-ratio set but there are tall top gears, which cut noise at speed and take economy beyond 30mpg. In normal running, expect a less impressive 26-27mpg.

Round the corners

Audi’s relentless technology hooks deep into the Allroad’s air suspension, producing three ride options (dynamic, comfort, auto) and five height settings. Lift mode can push clearance up to 185mm when speed is under 22mph. 

Against this the Volvo’s fixed (though higher) 209mm-clearance setup looks a bit limp, and that’s how the car feels to drive until you stab a little button marked Four-C: at which point the electronics wave their wand over the dampers and away goes roll and wallow.

Granny’s old bones may not like the transformation, but suddenly the Volvo develops an appetite for corners you didn’t know it had.

Welcome though that transformation is, the Audi has more breadth of ability. Park the Allroad’s suspension in auto and you’ll be rewarded with a fine blend of body control and compliance, with ride height and response constantly tailored to the way you’re driving.

Yes, the steering is too light and it handles small bumps with less panache, but on twisting tarmac the Audi is the sharper tool by some margin. You can blame the Volvo’s height for some of that.

Traction isn’t an issue on the road or (at least inside the narrow limits set by road tyres) away from it.

Clever centre diffs and traction control maximise whatever grip there is, but neither car sets out to give Land Rover sleepless nights.

Off-roading is not what they do. Medium ruts and flat slippery fields? Bring ’em on. Deep ruts or wet banks? Drive quietly by.

Verdict

Volvo’s XC70 gives 90% of the Audi’s abilities without requiring a diploma in button-pushing. It’s a marginally more capable load-carrier, is a little quicker than the 2.7-engined German and can be a better people carrier.

It’s also cheaper. But if you’re bowled over by electronics and prefer a sharper, more focussed drive, take the Audi.

KEY FACTS
Volvo XC70 2.4 litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel. 185hp/295lbf ft, 26mpg on test, 0-60mph 8.5sec.  Insurance Group 14E, CO2 (auto) 224g/km, towing capacity 1800kg, warranty 3 year/60,000 miles. Cost as driven £37,159.

Audi A6 allroad 2.7 litre, six-cylinder turbodiesel. 180hp/280lbf ft, 26mpg on test, 0-60mph 9sec.  Insurance Group 14E, CO2 (auto) 227g/km, towing capacity 2000kg, warranty 3 year/60,000 miles. Cost as driven £40,460.

Update: April 30 2007.

New Volvo XC 70 is due to go on sale later this year and a review will appear as soon as we can get our hands on it! In the meantime, check out the new Volvo XC70 four wheel drive estate on Volvo’s own website.

To see more info on the Audi A6 Allroad, check out Audi’s website

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