Among The Humans The Lichen Stands Tall

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.

1997 Volvo S70: source

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.

1996 Audi A6: source

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.

1997 BMW 528: source

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.

Plenty of legroom and velour for everyone: 1997 Volvo S70 2.4 litre 5 cylinder.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

21 thoughts on “Among The Humans The Lichen Stands Tall”

  1. This is a strange comparison – the right sized Volvo for this would have been the 960/S90. It’s no surprise that it was found to be smaller inside than the other two. If they’d chosen the D-segment equivalents from Audi and BMW, it would have been them that were cramped.

    I can confirm the rather crashy ride of this Volvo. My dad had one for a test drive – it could have been the same engine, a turbo with a rather ‘sporty’ setup which was neither comfortable nor really suited for fast movement.

    Design-wise, I’d probably prefer the Audi out of the three. This, together with the A4 that followed a few years later, were the best Audi designs ever. Clear, modern, with acceptable proportions (still a bit short on wheelbase for my taste). It all went wrong when they started adding these silly large grilles, additional folds and fussy lamps.

    1. These Volvos aren’t about driving dynamics, they’re about durability and practicality.
      My sister has an 850 estate with a non turbo five pot engine which now must be over twenty years old with zillions of kilometres and apart from disintegrating door trim is still going strong if stodgy. I particularly like the HVAC panel with a pictogram where you push on the figure’s head or feet to direct the air there, a brilliant development of the idea in old French cars which used a hat and a shoe to indicate the air’s direction.

      For me, the Audi A8 D2, A6 C5 and A4 B6 aren’t just the best looking Audis, they’re also the ones with the best build quality, too (even if the A6 needed extensive reworking to get there). The A4 and A8 in particular are built like tanks and last forever.
      I had a B6 with the big V6 diesel, a car with true seven mile boots if ever there was one. After fifteen years and more then half a million trouble free kilometres it still looked like new inside and apart from inevitable stone chips the paint looked very good and it was completely corrosion free.
      Newer Audis aren’t just ugly, they can’t match these for material or build quality with much bigger panel gaps and lots of nasty cheap stuff used on the interior. On the current range of Audis even corrosion reappears as a serious problem after they reduced galvanising to a minimum. BMW and Mercedes are following the same route of slow de-contenting so you can’t escape as a customer.

    2. My dad had a non-turbo version of this car. I really liked it apart from the dull colours. It had super seats and I find the report´s criticism of the legroom rather hard to credit. The reason he got rid of it was the fuel consumption wore him out. It was upsetting to see it sold for 900 euros too. Both family Volvos were the best cars that ever parked outside our house.
      So, where does one go for deep-down quality these days?

    3. Depends on how you define deep down quality.
      When you’re looking for durability as in longevity and robustness then the best time is definitely over.
      Downsized engines with start-stop systems and high thermal loads from all kinds of emissions treatments together with computer assisted design lives of no more 200,000 kms put an end to any long life concepts. The re-introduction of corrosion as a means of getting cars off the road isn’t particularly helpful, either.

      Material quality and standards of fit and finish also have slipped alarmingly over the last couple of years. Just get into a current A8 and tap on the door trim – what you’ll hear is a hollow clonk where in the old model there was a solid thud. You’ll also find panel gaps that would have been inacceptable a couple of years ago (Fugen Ferdl wasn’t dubbed so for nothing) and front wings that are pop riveted to the car like in my A4 aren’t a sign of particularly high quality, either – at least not for me.
      All you get are cars that offer lots of superficial bling bling and cheapo electronic nonsense trying to get your sight off their quality glitches while they aren’t particularly long lived anymore, either.

      I don’t see any cars that are still built to the standards of a W124/126 or an A4 B6/A8 D2.
      Maybe it would be a clever ideal to get one of those as long as there are decent examples available. A first hand pensioner’s C124 300 with little kilometres would be an absolute dream and would easily last as long as I’m still able to drive a car.

  2. On top of decreasing quality of materials and standards, the huge increase in onboard electronics over the past years, will probably be the death toll for many of today’s cars.
    Looking for electronic modules in breaker yards might not be the solution, as I believe most of them are increasingly coded for the VIN of the original car…

    1. “None of the above”. What’d your second preference be?
      It’s Volvo versus Kappa?
      What’s wrong with the BMW? Or the Audi? It’s a beautiful car. The styling is a masterwork.

  3. Dave is probably right in that the electronics is becoming the number one car killer. The electronics of an e39 BMW may still be manageable for a hobbyist, however i do not think one could reasonably expect that to be the case on something newer (For instance, you need an external 100A stabilized power supply to be able to code/upgrade the firmware on an F01, or you might brick them all 😦 )
    And yes, i want a good C124 coupé as well

    1. At some point DTW has addressed this matter of future classics – will there be any. My view is that fewer and fewer cars made after 2000 will be amenable. On the one side the simpler cars at the small end of the spectrum are simply not interesting, with a very few exceptions such as oddities like the Smart, Twingo, BMW i-thingy, and maybe some cute kei cars. The rest are mostly white goods, driven and junked. On the other end, the larger the car the more complex digital components will be involved. So, even if some the bigger cars are appealing in some way (few are) they will be really, really hard to maintain. As I have said, the classic car era (the period when cars could be future classics) ended gradually towards the end of the 90s and early 2000s. That is a sobering thought. Those technofest Mercedes and Audis (A8, S-class) and BMW (the 12 cylinder 7s) won´t in all likelihood exist outside of museums where they will be on stands with perhaps cement in the tyres to stop them deflating.

    2. Audi has something they call ‘component protection’. Everything electronic has to be registered in a central database in Ingolstadt and only after that registration can it be activated in a car. If you retrofit a sat-nav or sound system it won’t work without that procedure which of course can be done only by official dealers.
      As the car has a multiplex wiring you need lots of control units – in my car there’s nearly a hundred of them and it’s a rare moment when none of them produce any error messages, mostly without reason.
      My car already feels more like a video game on wheels than an actual car and this will become worse with every new model generation. The drive for ever more assistance systems on the way to autonomous driving will see for that but these cars will run reliably only for the length of a corporate lease contract. The second owner already will have to care for all kinds of electronic gremlins and after a couple of years when the electronic infrastructure of the car is going haywire the car is no longer safe for use on the road.

      I bet that manufacturers are already lobbying regulation makers to legally give them ultimate control over your car.
      When you have your car officially serviced on a regular basis the manufacturer will set a timeout until which you can use your car. If you don’t have it serviced it you won’t be able to drive. If your friendly manufacturer detects any severe error messages from the electronics you will be either forcibly directed to the next dealership or they will switch off the car by remote control. It’s all done for the sake of road safety, of course.

      Manufacturers need some mechanism like that because emission control standards have come to a useful end as means of forcing people out of unwanted old cars. Being able to actively control the usability of a car is a wet dream of every manufacturer.

  4. The Audi A6 was great for design and build quality, but not much else. I’m surprised they thought it was a worthy winner over the E39 528i.

    Volvo S70 was basically a five year old car when this group test took place. It’s little surprise it did not fare as well. I cannot disagree with the criticisms regarding the panel gaps and brittle ride.

  5. All three looked pleasant-enough cars, although having a much older Volvo was hardly a fair test. The 5-series is deliberately conservative: at that time it was BM’s bread and butter, unlike now. The A6’s only fault is the unnecesarily acute angle on the rear lamp cluster, out of character with the rest.

    I mentioned the kappa because its doors shut solidly, its 3.0 V6 is fast, it has a bigger boot and is comfy and roomy inside. There’s bump-thump, and economy is woeful. The paint doesn’t scratch easily, if at all. But the alloys corrode.

    But, yes, with today’s electronics which will cost megabucks to replace, we’ll not see their like again.

    I’m wondering whether to buy in advance the gizmos that might fail on a Lybra or a Delta 3….

  6. Comparing the S70 to two newer models from a class (and price bracket) above launched 5 years later means that it isn’t really a surprise that it is found lacking. What a fruitful time in improvements to the automobile the first half of the 90s were too. That said it is a testament to how poorly the S70 rode that it lost out in even those stakes to the crashing ineptitude of the Audi A6 C5.

    Interesting that some posters here consider the C5 to be the height of Audi quality; I have read and seen first hand that they represent the start of the modern VAG strategy of providing very high quality where your average consumer and moronic car journalist/shill can see it (panel gaps, rubbery trim) while actually being riddled with design faults and penny pinching where the eye cannot see.

    They certainly don’t seem to have lasted well, they have become a rare sight and are usually looking very down at heel compared to a BMW E39.

    I’d argue that the Audi A4 B5 represents the high point in cockroach robustness from Audi, when they were still working hard to build image and market share with their odd combination of poor dynamics, dreary cabins, and indestructibility.

    1. When you look at my postings you will see that I mentioned the A4 B6 and A8 D2 for quality, not the A6 C5.
      The first production run of the C5 was known for being extremely unreliable and was ridden by all kinds of absurd defects. Air filters getting soaked with rain water and then strangulating the engine, killing the air flow meter at the same time, an anti slosh bag in the fuel tank made from a non-fuel-resistant material that dissolved very quickly and ruined the injection system, a defect prone front suspension with fast wearing ball joints were typical for these cars. Audi reacted and heavily reworked the relevant parts, giving the car a completely new front suspension made from aluminium instead of steel and many other improvements. These newer C5s were quite good. There are still enough of them on the road and most of them have large numbers on their odometers. The big diesels regularly do 800,000 kms and more, which is impressive considering that most of these kilometres are done at supersonic speed.
      The A4 B5 initially also suffered from severe build quality problems that were only fixed after the second facelift. The B6 basically was just a massive facelift for the B5, eradicating all quality problems once and for all. A4 B6s from the first production run were cars that were built very well and were made to last. When Audi reduced the number of galvanised panels from 2003 onwards the B6 started to develop a corrosion problem.

      Tight panel gaps aren’t just done for optical impressions. Fugen Ferdl introduced them to force tinwork engineers to not only make sure their cars were produced to tight tolerances but also to create bodywork that was stiff enough to keep these panel gaps on uneven surfaces and over long term use.

  7. Dave, you’re quite right that Volvos are not about driving dynamics – safety, design, copious amounts of power (at the given price point), relative practicality and some form of luxury has always been their thing. But its not for lack of trying… Volvos either drive well and ride terribly, or ride well and drive terribly. Till this very day, I don’t think they’ve managed to shake this off. Their inability strike a good balance is disappointing, but hopefully with new help from Lotus their future models will.

    Richard, the seats truly are wonderful. Journalists don’t often talk about seats in their ‘car reviews’ these days, but orthopedic seats in Volvos really do make difference. Its these little things that are hard to quantify (and often are completely missed out).

    David, from the day this car launched (originally as the 850) the suspension system was already of the borderline rudimentary sort, especially when compared to the independent rear systems of the two other cars. I believe the less powerful/expensive variants of the S70 would have rode well with thicker rubbers, though they definitely would NOT have drove well in that configuration (see my earlier comment about their driving dynamics)

    Almost two decades on, the E39 and E46 are still considered benchmarks for driving dynamics, and still are the quintessential 5 and 3. BMW has certainly come a long way from those lofty heights. The 850/S70 was not a dynamics challenge to the E34, let alone the E39. Incidentally, do you guys prefer the look of the 850 or the S70?

    1. Looking at the exterior, I definitely prefer the 850 over the S70. If you do a brick on wheels it might just as well be an angular one. As the ultimate brick, it obviously has to be the 850 estate.
      Regarding the interior I prefer the S70 because the 850’s interior is shouting ‘US export’ too openly for me.

    2. You have left a wide open goal. I can talk now about the excemplary seats of the Peugeot 205 and the 406. The 205 seats were feather light and upholstered with nylon that could make awful tights. They worked really well though. I drove the length of France in them (tough) and across Ireland (even tougher) and emerged entirely fit and limber. The same goes for the 406´s seats though they are strongly constructed and covered in a superb cloth. Ford have, in my experience not managed seats so well. They are often too flat. The Volvo´s seats are broad but supportive too, front and back. I suppose journalist don´t spend enough time in one car to really be able to judge the seats or else forget they are literally the most important point of contact with the car.

    3. Totally agree about Volvo and their ride/handling issues. I have had a 2004 V70 T5 that handled well but had very poor ride quality, a 2008 C70 that rides well but absolutely no fun to drive hard, and a 2016 XC60 that is an absolute hoot to drive for such a pointless vehicle but has terrible ride quality.

      The only exception was a 2003 C70 T5 that neither rode nor handled well. Handsome car in dark blue with a blue roof and linen leather though, and most entertainingly unruly when you gave it the beans.

      There does seem to be something very satisfying about them as a long term ownership prospect though; I’d never had thought I’d own one, let alone several of them. As you say the seats in all of them are truly exceptional which is one of many characteristics that you only really appreciate over time.

  8. Didn’t the 850 have a unique suspension called Delta Link? It was a semi independent type of suspension that was basically an advanced solid axle.

    1. the 850’s rear suspension at first sight looks like a torsion beam design but actually consists of semi trailing arms with the transverse links connected to each other via rubber elements. This gives a nearly independent suspension geometry when only one wheel is moving but avoids camber changes when both wheels move simultaneously or when the car is carrying a load.

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