The right cars for the times

Both the Volvo XC60 and the Audi Q5 are brilliant cars. They are both representative of the very latest automotive thinking and it’s tough to separate them. How could you possibly choose one over the other? Don’t fret, it’s easy.

Sometimes older brothers are big, bossy pains in the arses. First in line, their achievements can cast a long, dark shadow that makes life for the siblings that follow rather unpleasant.

And that certainly could’ve been the case here. The bigger Audi Q7 and Volvo XC90 certainly made their presence felt on South African roads. As both these marques’ first forays into the luxury SUV segment, they impressed the hell out of all and sundry with their seven-seater functionality and six-digit price tag. Ja, they were kind of large, but so was the economy back then and it helped to disguise their bulk somewhat.

But oh, how quickly times change. As the recessionist mindset takes hold, it’s slightly embarrassing to be a big car these days. They all look a little sheepish, don’t they, driving around with their C-pillars hunched and wheels tucked into their arches? Indeed, disparaging remarks can be heard of the Q7 and XC90. Nautical metaphors are among the most popular — “land yachts”, “needs a berth not a parking space”, and “HMS Q7” have done the rounds.

And so it’s come about that instead of living in the wings of their older siblings’ glory, the new Q5 and XC60 have emerged as the right cars for the times. You still have yourself a quality, urban-biased SUV (that crucially, unlike an X3, actually looks good); you still have the kudos offered by the Audi and Volvo badges; and these two will actually fit in the garage.

So which one should one go for?

Usually that’s a tough question to answer. Comparing apples with apples across all the motoring price brackets, most cars are pretty samey. Within a segment, one similarly priced model might do this slightly better than another does that, but inevitably it all evens out and you have your typical “six of one, half a dozen of the other” scenario.

It’s not the case here. In fact, it’s seldom one sees two cars competing for the same customer, yet offering such markedly different characteristics. It’s quite refreshing, actually, and it all boils down to one asking oneself a simple question: how much do I like driving?

Answer: “I love it — I really do”
Then the Q5 is your car. If you love the actual nitty-gritty of driving, if you relish the sensory feedback a well-tuned chassis provides and enjoy the challenge of controlling a sophisticated piece of automotive machinery, then get the Audi. The Q5, you see, doesn’t know it’s an SUV. Yes, it does have hill descent control and the requisite ground clearance, but I suspect it’s conveniently forgotten about all that, choosing instead to subliminally urge you into pressing the “Dynamic” button on the dash and flick down a gear or two on the paddle shift.

Dampers instantly firm up and, thanks to a 40:60 front/rear torque spilt and the gargantuan 255/45R20 rubber the test car came shod with, you’ll find yourself piloting something closer to a rally car than a family runabout. With 176kW on tap and 500Nm standing surety, the 3.0TDI has more than enough go to make all your fantasies come true.

And, by the way, don’t get spooked when you look in the rearview mirror and discover you’re sporting a tartan cloth cap and an impressively bushy moustache. It’s weird, yes, but just go with it.

Answer: “Actually, it’s more of a necessity than a love”
That response may well trigger a sharp intake of breath from the crowd above, but it is an equally legitimate point of view. For many car owners, the vehicle they’re driving is really just a convenient transportation device. And the important considerations in purchasing one are focused on how comfortable, safe and entertaining said car is able to make a journey. If this is you, then the XC60 is your car.

That’s not to say it’s a little lacking in the trouser department — the 2.4-litre turbo diesel is good for 136kW and 400Nm — but performance isn’t really its life’s work. It is, after all, a Volvo and that means issues of safety and comfort are its distinguishing factors. The car is packed with a host of new technologies designed to keep the death and destruction that is our national road system at bay. Of course, it has airbags from here to Stockholm, but its techno scoop is an array of sensors that make sure those airbags never need to go pop.

Let’s start with “Distance Alert” — designed for use on the highway, it’s like an early warning radar system that beeps and flashes if you get too close to the car in front (you can set the perimeter distance). If things do get a little sketchy, the “Collision warning with Auto Brake” system primes the brakes for rapid stopping and, if you still haven’t tried any evasive manoeuvres, will actually start braking for you.

Then there’s “Lane Departure Warning” that uses a camera to scan the road markings and will beep if you drift outside your lane, and of course, the party piece, “City Safety”, which should prevent those little rush-hour traffic mishaps. Only active at speeds up to 30km/h, the system uses a laser to keep an eye on the car in front and should it suddenly stop while you’re SMSing whoever it is you shouldn’t be SMSing, the car will actually stop for you. (I never had the balls to test this.)

So there you have it. Should you be in the market for a mid-sized SUV and you’re willing to fork out in the region of R481 000 (for the Volvo) to R536 000 (for the Audi) — and remember, especially in the Audi’s case, there are a whole bunch of optional extras that cost a whole bunch more money — you have two very different cars to choose from and one fundamental question to ask yourself: how much do I like driving?

Audi Q5 3.0 TDI Quattro

3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel, 176kw, 500Nm

Performance (claimed)

Top speed: 225kph

0-100kph 7.58 sec

Fuel consumption 7,5 litre/100km (combined cycle)

Transmission 7-speed S tronic, Quattro

Warranty 1-yr/unlimited distance with 5-yr/100 000km maintenance plan

Base price R533 500

VOLVO XC60 D5 Geartronic

2.4-litre turbodiesel, 136kW, 400Nm

Performance (claimed)

Top speed 200kph

0-100kph 9.9 sec

Fuel consumption 8.3 litre/100km (combined cycle)

Warranty 5-yr/100 000km, with 5-yr/100 000km maintenance plan

Transmission 6-speed auto, AWD

Base price R481 000

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