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Motors

Volvo and Audi hot SUVs provide fruity performance

Wednesday, 18th March, 2020 1:05pm

Both of our test cars this week are expensive, premium-badged, luxurious, and sporting SUVs, but both approach their performance in very, very different ways. Both are also hybrids, technically, but again, the way in which they are hybrids could not be at greater variance.

Let’s start with the Audi, because on the surface, it’s the simplest. Take Audi’s mid-size luxury SUV, the Q5, and simply stuff in a big, hefty, high-powered diesel engine. Job done, right? Well, not quite. While this SQ5 does indeed follow the classical big-engine route to big performance, it’s actually rather more subtle than it seems.

You see, it’s 3.0 litre TDI diesel has twin turbos, but one of those is an electrically driven compressor. This is designed for maximum responsiveness at low rpm, and can spin up from asleep and dormant, to its 50,000rpm operating speed, in less than one second.

That, combined with a conventional exhaust-driven turbo for higher-end power, results in some deeply impressive figures. Figures such as 347hp, and a whopping 700Nm of torque (as much as a Mercedes C63 AMG’s mighty 4.0 litre twin-turbo V8 petrol can manage).

But it’s no dumb grunter, this. The SQ5 is actually a mild-hybrid. The clever 48 volt electric system is not only there to power and control that electric turbo, it also helps to quell fuel consumption a little.

This it does by activating the engine stop-start function earlier, and keeping it on longer, when you’re in traffic, and by allowing the SQ5 to coast under light throttle loads when cruising on the main road. Performance? It’s brisk — 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds.

The Volvo’s performance is remarkably similar — 0-100km/h in 5.4 seconds — but is all the more remarkable for how it achieves this. The XC60 T8 Twin Engine is a plugin-hybrid. There’s a 2.0 litre petrol engine driving the front wheels, and a 65kW electric motor driving the rears. In the middle, there’s an eight-speed automatic gearbox (just like the Audi’s) and a whole load of electronics carrying out the complex calculations to keep everything pulling in the right direction.

Polestar is both Volvo’s new electric car spinoff brand, and it’s high performance division, and so this XC60 comes with not only lower, stiffer suspension (and massive 22 inch wheels, as compared to the Audi’s 20 inch rims) it also gets specially crafted shock absorbers, from Swedish firm Öhlins.

These shocks essentially form the XC60’s party piece, because instead of being controlled electronically, by a switch on the dash, you can adjust their stiffness by stopping, getting out, popping the bonnet, and actually twisting a little brass adjustment knob on the top of the suspension mount (the rear shocks are adjusted by, rather messily, reaching your hand into the wheelarch).

Now, this is clearly both daft and silly, but for a car enthusiast of a certain sort (yes, that’s my hand up) it’s also massively appealing, in a deeply nerdy way. In an age of computer-controlled-everything, it’s a refreshingly tactile way of getting back in touch with your car (albeit you’ll probably just dial everything to the softest setting and leave it there ever after).

The Audi definitely feels like the more traditional vehicle. For all its technical advancement in terms of that electric turbo and the 48 volt mild hybrid system, it’s an old school muscle car.

That diesel engine makes some deeply appealing noises (assisted by some artificial enhancement via the stereo speakers in Dynamic mode) and while there is a faint touch of turbo lag, the way this big, heavy car picks up and goes is massively impressive. Performance, of the kicked-backwards-down-a-lift-shaft variety, is never more than the merest flex of a right foot away.

In handling terms, it’s very much like the standard Q5 — exceptionally competent and sure-footed, but perhaps lacking a little in the thrill department. You’ll never find a road which the SQ5 can’t deal with, indeed totally dominate, but you’ll only occasionally get a whiff of actual driver engagement and enjoyment.

The Volvo is very different. In many respects, it’s worse. The ride is very, very firm (although it never devolves into being crashy or uncomfortable) and the petrol engine, in spite of some pleasing supercharger shriek when you’re pressing on, just doesn’t have the aural chutzpah of the Audi’s V6.

It also lacks the SQ5’s instant response, instead building its big thrust more gradually, like a jet ‘plane gathering speed at takeoff. Oh, and its brakes are terrible — they do ultimately stop the car, of course, but they never feel as confidence-inspiring as the Audi’s anchors.

For all that, though, it’s the XC60 that comes away from this test as the more appealing car (although I accept that’s an entirely subjective judgement). Its steering has only about as much real feedback as the Audi’s (i.e. none) but its weighting and speed are better, and the sheer body control of those expensive Öhlins shocks takes some beating.

The Volvo’s interior is also nicer. The Audi has the edge on outright quality (it feels properly hewn from granite inside the SQ5) but the XC60’s cabin layout is more pleasing to the eye, and it has the superior seats.

Neither is especially economical. The XC60 is, of course, a plugin-hybrid and if you charge it up constantly, you might (just) see the claimed 3.2l/100km figure, but I doubt it.

Spend any time on the motorway, beyond its electric-only range of 45km, and you’ll probably get closer to 9.0l/100km.

The Audi will do 8.0l/100km all day, every day, as long as you’re not too generous with the throttle, and doesn’t mean you’ll need your own driveway and external charging point.

For me, though, it’s the Swede which is the tastier one of the two.

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