Station wagon or SUV?
It's almost a moot choice today since so few wagons remain after the SUV tsunami. But in the luxury class, European automakers continue to bring sleek, powerful wagons popular across the pond. They are a reminder that such four-wheeled dinosaurs once ruled North America before a regulatory meteor from Washington in the 1970s rendered them virtually extinct, ushering in the SUV Age.
I took two of the finest examples of the modern European SUV and station wagon — the Volvo XC90 an Audi A6 Allroad, respectively — on the road to ponder the existential question.
The A4 Allroad has been the only Audi wagon to grace U.S. shores in recent years as the German brand swarmed the SUV market with its popular Q5 and A7 utes. But outdoorsy Allroad fans (like Subaru Outback and Jeep Wrangler cultists) are rabidly loyal. So Audi is offering to slake their thirst with the mid-size, 2020 A6 Allroad.
I grew up in wagons and generally prefer them to utes for their lower center of gravity and sleeker looks. But, honestly, the A6 Allroad is not a head-turner. Cruising up north on I-75 to Charlevoix, Mich., a Cadillac CTS wagon and a Buick Regal Tour X filled my windscreen. I trailed them both for a few miles, admiring the Caddy's bold angles — ogling the Buick's lovely flanks.
Utilitarian and gorgeous. What SUV gives you that?
Yet the Audi left me cold. On road-side stops the A6 didn't turn heads. Perhaps it's the big, busy face — its criss-crossed grille bars resemble lattice work on an apple pie. Audi innovated the big front grille (even BMW is belatedly following the trend with grotesque M4 kidneys), but it now swallows the face like a medical mask.
Volvo makes a gorgeous fascia on its V90 wagon. The Audi? Meh.
But you'd be hard-pressed to find a Volvo wagon, so popular is the XC90. It kick-started Volvo sales in the States in 2016, and for good reason. It's an elegant piece of work. Eschewing grille-zilla, the XC90's face is a modest, horizontal sculpture. The A6 grille juts outward, like a bulldog's jaw — XC90 is scalloped like a Maserati and punctuated by that classic Volvo logo.
Volvo continues to separate itself from its German peers with signature, Thor's hammer headlights in front — big, boomerang-shaped taillights out back. Its one of my favorite SUV designs right there with a Mazda CX-9 which, ahem, is $20,000 cheaper while offering the same amenities and BMW-like handling (a comparo for another day).
I took a family trip last fall in the XC90 across the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin's Road American race track, and the SUV lived up to its utilitarian reputation.
There's no denying the creature comforts of the XC90. Loading the big ute is easy. Its hatchback rises to expose a cargo bay at waist level — the load floor is about 2.5 feet off the ground.
The XC90 has a cramped, third-row option, but we used the full space behind the second row seats to fit baggage for three: oversized suitcase, two carry-ons, briefcase, cooler, tennis bag, iRacing game pedals and steering wheel, groceries and a kitchen sink (kidding about that last one).
My 6'3" son and I (6'5") took shifts at the wheel — slipping laterally in and out of the Volvo's raised seats as we cruised Route 2 along Lake Michigan's north shore. Both race car drivers, we're used to bending down to get into low-slung sports racers. But I've also become used to the exclaims of SUV-pampered friends when they encounter a wagon these days:
"It's so low! It's hard to get into!"
But not hard to drive. The Audi chassis makes for superb handling.
After a monotonous Friday cruise up I-75 to Gaylord in the Audi, the spaghetti-shaped curves of M-32 were a welcome diversion. At 4,486 pounds the Allroad is a big car, but its stiff bones and Quattro AWD system are eager to hustle — pushed by the 48-volt-battery-assisted, 335-horse turbo V-6 under the hood.
Despite a load of luggage in the boot, I put the A6 in DYNAMIC mode and danced across miles of country roads — occasionally tugging on the paddle shifters to wind the engine out of corner apexes.
In my 366-mile journey through the U.P. to Wisconsin, I never felt a similar temptation in the Volvo.
The big, 5,105-pound ute is a comfortable ride, its high center of gravity built for lakeshore views. With an 87-horsepower motor (plug it in and the ute will go 18 miles on electricity alone) mated to a supercharged, turbocharged 4-banger, the Volvo puts out an impressive 400 horsepower and launches to 60 mph 0.3 seconds quicker than the Audi. But it's a drivetrain built for fuel efficiency, not performance. The 27 mpg Volvo will travel 520 miles on a tank of gas, the Audi 505 miles averaging 22 mpg.
The Volvo is 11 inches taller than the 4'8" high Allroad, but otherwise our testers have similar dimensions, a reminder that SUVs are just raised wagons. Similar length, headroom, legroom.
The Volvo may be the SUV, but it's the Audi that carves out more cargo room: 30 cubic feet behind the second row compared to XC90's 24. The Volvo's space advantage is with third-row seats.
Up front, the XC90's interior exhibits typical Volvo charm with its crystal shifter, rotary starter button and simple, Scandinavian design. But its infotainment tech pales compared to Audi, which has long been a leader in digital tech.
While I generally recommend ditching in-car nav systems for superior Apple CarPlay/Android Auto navigation, Audi is an exception.
Displaying my route via Google Earth in both the center and instrument displays, Allroad enhanced my scenic trip with its own, beautiful satellite views of the Lake Michigan coastline. The Volvo system is pedestrian by comparison, and I used Apple CarPlay for reliable navigation.
Both Audi and Volvo use touchscreen controls — a new twist for the Audi faithful who have used remote dials in previous generation cars. With its crisp, haptic touch response, the Audi is easy to use and a generation ahead of the Swede.
Crowned 2016 North American Utility of the Year, the lovely XC90 continues to impress as a worthy option in a German-dominated segment. But for those who want the added dimension of performance in their utility vehicle, Audi's good ol' station wagon is my preferred long-distance tool.