This week Volvo showed off its new S60 saloon. We liked it. In 1997 Volvo put its S70 into the fray, up against the 528i SE and the Audi 2.8 3.0V.
Car magazine ran a giant test. Let’s take a look back and see what’s the same and what’s different and see if we can find some interesting resonances.
For a start, the Volvo’s rectilinear styling didn’t offer more headroom than the other two cars: 945 mm versus the Audi’s 1015 mm and BMW’s 995 mm. Audi won the rear knee room battle as well: 690 mm versus BMW’s 895 mm and Volvo’s 885 mm. And Volvo came last in the battle of the boots: 427 litres against Audi’s 550 and BMW’s 460.
Volvo and Audi offered front-wheel drive versus the BMW’s rear-driven set-up. The engines show pleasing diversity: Audi provided a 2.7 litre 30 valve four cam V6; BMW installed a 2.8 litre 24 valve dohc in-line six and Volvo saw fit to give their car a 2.4 litre 20 V dohx turbo in-line five. Despite the difference in architectures, the power-outputs were comparable: 193 bhp for all of them at similar rpms, though the Audi worked hardest: 6000 rpm versus 5000 for the others. Volvo pulled ahead with the power to weight ratio: 141 bhp per tonne against 136 bhp and 17 bhp for the Audi and BMW respectively.
Car judged the Volvo to be the champion on real roads, “thanks to its overtaking capacity”. If you left traction control on, the three cars each behaved in a very similar fashion. If you were able to find the off switch, a different picture emerged. The Volvo’s steering proved communicative and the wheels could be made to spin easily along with clear understeer at the limit. On sweepers the Volvo was “poised and stable” but it was a car to steer with the wheel not the throttle.
With its nose-heavy arrangement the Audi understeered more. Both the BMW and Audi lacked road-feel from the steering wheel and the BMW’s body movements were not as well damped. However, Car considered the BMW brilliantly balanced meaning that throttle adjustments could change the cornering vector (thanks to the double wish-bone rear suspension).
After all that, Car declared the A6 the winner, the BMW second and the Volvo 3rd. The Volvo lost out on quality, style and ride comfort. They also said it was Volvo’s best ever interior. The BMW was “covetable but a touch conservative but fell short as a package”.
The Volvo, said Car, was an “old car trying to feel young”: rough ride, sticky or juddery major controls, imprecise panel fit and untidy detailing. On the plus side, it was quick. Lots of power can really help improve things yet this is not something you use all the time.
The Audi, said Car, was stealing the lead from BMW, especially with regard to the styling inside and out. Twenty years later it is still fresh and attractive. Quite possibly Audi have not made a better looking car since. The BMW remains clearly out of time. Unlike Volvo’s Swedish squareness (I find it attractive) and Audi’s high-concept, the BMW is actually rather banal in a vernacular way. It’s tidy and crisp but lacking a strong message – pretty much the same kind of thing Ford and Opel tend to do, only costing more.
Since 1997, Volvo have changed the style of their cars a few times and BMW has been through revolutions and back. Audi has steered a clearer course, only now, in recent years succumbing to the tempations of styling instead of design. Of the three, only Volvo has a strong family identity alongside fuss-free design that the others can’t match.