On-Road

With the XC having a ride height identical to the Land Rover Discovery and greater than a BMW X5, it was fully expected to give a wallowy ride, rendering it not very fun to drive on a twisty road. Quite frankly, this taller suspension was surprisingly agile and didn't leave the driver wanting for better control and stability, as most sport utilities tend to do. We attribute much of this to the torsional rigidity of the car's frame and lower center of gravity than other SUVs, though it is clear Volvo spent much time honing the suspension for on-road prowess despite the tall stance.

No matter how good the Volvo is, the allroad's capability of lowering the center of gravity to practically below a road-going A6 Avant gave it the upper hand on the road. In its lowest setting, the allroad's adjustable suspension is clearly more tossable than the Volvo, and almost sportscar-like. While the XC is not bad, the allroad at lowest setting is exceptional. Someone yearning for both a sport utility and a sportscar can find both, albeit a softcore version, in the Audi allroad.

Both Tiptronic and Geartronic transmissions performed well. It's nice to see these enthusiast-inspired automatics coming to market as standard equipment on almost all cars in the luxury segment. For the enthusiast, it's the next best thing to a manual, and it offers a degree of safety when driving in snow and foul conditions. Under hard turning, like one might find in truly spirited driving, both the Audi and the Volvo shifters would be knocked out of the manual shift gate as the driver's body shifted left, or the shifter would be knocked into the manual gate by a knee under hard left turning. Some sort of release between the two modes on both cars would be a welcome addition.

If on-road handling is the biggest difference between the cars, accelleration is probably the second largest. With a fifty horsepower expanse between the two, the advantage is clearly Audi's. Were the new 3.0-liter V6 from Audi to find its way into the allroad, or Volvo's silky biturbo V6 from the S80 to go into the XC, the acceleration comparison would be a lot more close.

Acceleration was better than average for both cars, but the allroad was the clear winner. Both cars were smooth, and this smoothness caused the Audi to be deceptively fast, surprising the driver on several occasions that such high speeds had been reached with such composure. Many other motorists we encountered seemed not to expect such acceleration from a station wagon and few if any sport utilities would be able to keep pace with the Audi, even in a straight line.

One problem we did find with the Audi's acceleration was starting from a stop. The allroad lurched somewhat roughly, taking a little time to get used to the touchy pedal. While a nice feature in a stoplight race, this problem is not really befitting this type of car and is probably a matter of adjustment for the drive by wire system.

Gas mileage for the two cars was very close, with a slight advantage going to Volvo. The XC is rated at 17mpg city and 22mpg highway. The allroad slots in just below with 15mpg city and 21mpg highway. Though the Audi could hunker down for better aerodynamics than the XC, the allroad's larger engine seemed thirstier and the all-time all-wheel-drive nature of quattro most likely had some effect.

Off-Road

While most of these cars will realistically see little more than an unpaved driveway, both obviously flaunt their supposed off-road prowess to the inner Indiana Jones in all of us. So, we chose to let Volvo and Audi put their money where their mouth is and immerse the cars into an environment that would test just how serious these cars were in their ability to tackle tough terrain.

Volvo's new ownership by Ford gave us a unique opportunity we couldn't pass up. We made a call down to Land Rover's corporate headquarters in Largo, Maryland to beg the use of their off-road test track. In Largo, Land Rover had built this model off-road test course that many Land Rover dealerships have mimicked in an effort to teach new owners just how capable their British sport-utilities are. With sights like the Washington, DC Beltway in the background, the course is hardly the Rubicon Trail or Moab, but for those of us located in the Nation's Capitol, it's the most convenient and most technical off-road course around.

With comments like "be careful" and "I'm not too sure about this" coming from both Volvo and Audi, conservative testing of the cars was definitely in our heads as we arrived at Land Rover North America in Largo. The folks at Land Rover were also concerned about potential problems we might have with these hybrids on such a hardcore test course. However, they were able to verify that their new Freelander offering was able to traverse the course, and a quick look at the clearances of some pre-production Freelanders eased our concern to some degree.

Mark Schirmer from Land Rover was kind enough to first give us a once-through in his company car. His Range Rover handled the course with much ease, making it look deceptively easy. We obviously had our work cut out for us at this point.

The moment of truth came shortly after our test ride as the automatic gates to the course swung open and the two hybrids slowly creeped over the rough rock entrance. With all concerns for scraping waved aside, both cars descended effortlessly into the course and over surprisingly large crevices.

Halfway down the course, a small bridge that was far from flush with the road took a concerted effort to cross. The long wheelbase, entrance angles and departure angles of the two cars were a major concern being decidedly different than the Range Rover that we had just waltzed through the course in . Even though the overhangs of the cars cleared, we weren't completely positive that the two hybrids would not rub the bridge inside the front and rear wheels. Surprisingly, they just barely cleared, as with most of the course. Perhaps this was a coincidence, but with identical clearance to the Discovery, we think it may have been a bit more than that.

The allroad's touchy throttle due to the drive by wire characteristics hampered it in this environment to a great degree. While a minor nuisance on the road, this was particularly annoying while trying to give just enough gas so as to climb a particular barrier and not go crashing down the other side. The XC was much more polished in this regard perhaps due to the more conservative nature of the tuning of this engine and drivetrain combination. This would be of major consideration to someone towing personal watercraft or other boats and having a need to extract a boat off of a seaweed and water-soaked ramp.

Though both cars performed flawlessly, the advantage off-road seemed to go to the XC. The allroad's 17-inch wheels didn't seem very well suited for climbing jagged rocks, and there was concern that the low profile tires would either puncture or allow a wheel to become bent. Neither happened of course, but this did hamper our speed across the course and require us to tread much more carefully. The obvious response to full off-roading in either of these vehicles or any of a number of SUV's is to consider the trail very carefully before plunging headlong into a rocky road that would do some very expensive damage to the vehicle.

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