We may be deep in the heart of Wales, but the Discovery is the only car we bother doing any off-road stuff with. After all, who buys an SUV for its off-roading ability? Only people with a penchant for those khaki vests with all the pockets, as far as I can work out. However, if you genuinely are a green-laner, horsebox-towist or adventure-traveller and those activities are your absolute priority, buy the Land Rover Discovery. That’s it, end of story, read no further. Ladies and gentlemen of an outdoorsy persuasion, you have your winner.
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Triple test: Volvo XC90 vs Audi Q7 vs Land Rover Discovery
Volvo's new seven-seater takes on the best of Britain and Germany in a Welsh shoot-out
But we all know that most Discovery owners have never so much as twiddled the Terrain Response dial beyond grass/gravel/snow. Because it’s not what matters to them. What they like is the reassurance that only mass and height can bring. They want a big, safe car because the lives of the people they care about are at stake (and yes, I do appreciate the irony of buying an inherently less stable car for safety reasons). SUVs are where you put the things you want to keep safe and out of harm’s way. Precious stuff like kids and dogs and other breakables. They’re automotive bubble wrap, secure transportation cells for concerned parents.
Volvo makes safe cars. We all know that because it’s been ramming it down our throats for years. But even Swedish safety wasn’t cool until the XC90 came along. Think about all those 440s and 740s: driven by crash test dummies in adverts, beloved by the antique-moving masses. No one without a tweed affliction would be seen dead in one. Even the 850 T5 didn’t manage to upset the balance quite enough.
Then, back in 2002, the XC90 arrived and overnight Volvo became a different company. Here was a car with all the people-carrier smarts of a Renault Espace, but built into an SUV, a car that people actually wanted to be seen in. And by Volvo, too, so you knew your bairns would be safe. That’s basically the holy trinity for families.
It was by no means the first seven-seat off-roader, but it was the best executed. Well-heeled buyers flocked to its banner, and no one cared that it was a pudding in corners and couldn’t pull the skin off one in a straight line. So Volvo sat back, raked in the profits and, every so often, gave the car a gentle tweak. It kept this up for 13 years. Still basically the same car, still selling well.
And now a new one. And it turns out Volvo wasn’t wasting those years. Everything is new. New chassis (which will go on to underpin all new mid-size and upwards Volvos), new engines (both petrol and diesel use a common engine block), boron steel safety cell, and “the most comprehensive and technologically sophisticated standard safety package available in the automotive industry”. It may be only a fraction bigger, but it’s a lot cleverer.
The Audi Q7 used to be one of those slightly objectionable SUVs that the Germans built simply because they needed something in this sector, knew it would sell on the strength of its badge, and didn’t have the willingness (or maybe ability) to give it the capabilities of the Discovery or the packaging of the XC90.
This is the new one. You can tell because it now looks like an estate car. It, too, is built on a flexible new platform that will underpin everything from the Audi A4 to the Bentley Bentayga, contains elements of the Audi TT’s technology and interior design, claims to have lost 300kg and comes across as a much more tightly knit and thoughtfully conceived product. A brave one, too, given its roofline is a whopping 200mm nearer the ground than the Disco’s.
Ah yes, the Discovery itself: 2.6 tonnes (or thereabouts – it seems almost rude to ask) of pedigree off-roader with a rugged family car attached. A new one is coming – should be here before the end of the year, in fact – but in the meantime, this is still the familiar 3.0-litre diesel version of Land Rover’s phenomenally successful block of flats.
The Audi’s also stoked along by a 3.0-litre diesel, but in line with Volvo’s forward-thinking policy, the XC90 can call on the support of only two litres and four cylinders. That’s the biggest capacity Volvo will offer. I know, I was surprised too. And then staggered. Because it’s hard to believe only two litres can have this much effect on two tonnes.
Relatively speaking, the XC90 is perky and responsive, and has a turn of pace far beyond anything the old one was capable of. Far beyond the Discovery, too. There’s less inertia in the engine so it pretty much matches the Q7 for initial reaction, just doesn’t have the continuing in-gear pace. At low speeds it’s detectably a four-cylinder, the cultured smoothness of its rivals notable for its absence, but once up and running? No complaints.
Well, it would be nice if the gearbox was a bit more alert – the Audi’s is more polished. In fact, the whole Audi driving experience is very well sorted. The lowering of the car seems to be a physical as well as visual trick – the centre of gravity appears to have dropped, so the Q7 moves easily and reassuringly. The steering is light, it gets about smoothly and moves with reasonable grace. It might roll a bit, but not nearly so much as the Disco, and any movements are progressive and well controlled. And it’s so quiet. No wind noise, no tremors from the suspension, just relaxing progress and hushed engine. And it rides with real panache, soft and cosseting with not a trace of external noise.
Both the Q7 and the Disco come with air suspension as standard. On the Volvo it’s a £2,150 option. You must have it. Must. I drove three separate XC90s, and on standard suspension it’s just too busy. Too much road noise, rather wriggly and restless at low speeds and generally not as refined, silent and comfortable as either the Audi or the Land Rover. Bit of a miss. Adding air suspension makes a decent difference, but is not transformative. It still feels a little grumbly in comparison with the Q7.
The flip side of this is that the XC90 handles well. No, it’s not something that should prick the senses of driving enthusiasts, but how Volvo has made something this big drive with such ease and dexterity is impressive. Turn the small-diameter steering wheel and the XC90 responds promptly and corners flatly. It’s easy to place on the road, it demands no compromise, no amendment of driving style. It’s the widest car here, yet feels the smallest and most wieldy. It’s so good-natured – schoolrun mums are going to love it.
Or will they? What the XC90 doesn’t have is the same air of unstoppable progress as the Discovery. It feels less massive and substantial, and so arguably less reassuring. There’s a lovely cadence and pace to the Disco. There’s no sense of rush; it’s a very unhurried car. And an unhurriable one. The steering is heavy and the whole car rather cumbersome.
But sat up this high, you feel so well protected from the world outside and there’s a thickness to the driving experience that’s a direct result of the weight involved. It gives the Discovery momentum and helps make the ride silent and soothing.
Inside, though, the Disco has now badly lost ground to its rivals. Well, that’s if you view the utilitarian vibe as a bad thing. Drinks will be spilled in these cars, there will be mud, and sandwich crusts and apple cores will be rediscovered years later. You won’t mind in the Discovery. You will in the others. They look and feel pretty in comparison.
As the driver, you’ll like the Audi best. I know, not the Volvo despite its portrait centre screen. It’s touchscreen only, which means the screen smears (Volvo actually supplies a cloth to clean it with) and you’re forever jabbing the wrong buttons. It’s still comfortably the best touchscreen I’ve ever used, but the Audi is a real step on as well, with its touchpad control and copycat TT configurable dash screen. Both are lovely things with great driving positions, fabulous seats and a frankly pointless range of micro-control over every aspect of their systems.
It’s the Volvo’s ambience that gives it a marginal edge. Where the Disco is rugged and plasticky and the Audi is self-consciously stylish, the Volvo generates a real sense of wellbeing. It’s just fresher and more soothing for the soul.
And so well designed and packaged where it counts. Here’s the difference between them all. The Audi’s rearmost seats flip up and down electrically. It’s standard on S line versions. The Disco’s are a fiddle, with lots of levers and all the mechanisms exposed ready to pinch fingers. The XC90? Sublime. Beautifully thought out single-lever adjustments. It’s the only one with a tilt/slide middle row to aid access to the back, where the headrests flip down automatically and where seat comfort has been thought about in all seven perches. You might not notice all this initially, but I guarantee you’ll come to appreciate it. It’s not like Audi has merely gone through the motions with its seat design – it’s better than that, but the rear row is dark and cramped, and it doesn’t make you coo with wonder at the little things like the XC90 does. The Disco is good – light and spacious with cleverly tiered rows, but it’s all a bit clunky to operate.
The Disco also has easily the biggest boot on paper, but that’s because it has the highest ceiling. It’s the Volvo that has the widest and deepest load space – in whatever seat configuration you choose. With all three rows up, it has very nearly twice the boot depth of the Disco. It’s so well packaged.
One thing bugs me, though. For weight and cost reasons, Volvo has done away with the split tailgate. Yes, the flip-down part makes it more awkward to reach the back of the boot, but they’re so useful for sitting toddlers on, having impromptu picnics or aiding loading without scratching the back bumper.
The Audi is by no means cramped or impractical, either – it just lacks the sheer attention to detail that sets the Volvo apart here. It actually runs the XC90 close in the safety stakes. Where Volvo has IntelliSafe, Audi has Pre-Sense. Both are systems that can spot hazards and intervene, plus, of course, there are the usual array of lane-keep, radar cruise and blind-spot warning technologies to keep you on the straight and narrow.
Being half a tonne lighter, both Q7 and XC90 are also a good deal more economical than the Disco, which managed about 27mpg over 600 miles and three days, while the Audi hovered around the 33mpg mark and the Volvo 34mpg.
None is a cheap car. The popularity of the class has enabled the manufacturers to charge more, meaning a decent family SUV is now upwards of £50,000. That’s a hill of money, but then these are probably the ultimate family cars, the best, most comfortable and safest way of ferrying those you care about. Without the cutting-edge tech and cabin design of the other two, it’s the £54,500 Disco that looks the least attractive deal on paper. Lower-spec versions make more sense. Watch the options cost on the Audi, as the S line isn’t as well equipped as the XC90 Inscription as standard. Daft name, Volvo.
It takes a long time for my thoughts to crystallise on this test. All the cars do a very good job and do it individually enough to make them all the best choice here depending on what your priorities are. Take the Q7. It’s a much better car than I expected, is the best to drive and has that lovely driving environment. The XC90 hits the nail on the head for families, but even with air suspension, its ride and refinement mean that it’s not quite as outstanding as I’d hoped. And if we go back to where we came in, you have the unstoppable Disco. Quite honestly, I’d be happy with any of them, and ideally you’d want an amalgam, but for me the Q7 falls first as its greatest strengths aren’t in the conventional family SUV areas. The Disco is out next. I still adore it for its astonishing range of capabilities, but the XC90 feels cleverer, fresher, better packaged and more innovative. Winner, by a hair’s breadth.
This feature was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine