It's long been known that the fastest vehicles on the highway are rental cars, but lately I've been noticing a lot of minivans filling up my rearview mirrors as well. Behind the wheel of every minivan is an angry parent who still hasn't come to terms with the fact that they had to sell their beloved 3-Series coupe because there simply wasn't enough space in there for all the junk that generally accompanies children. They're on a mission to prove that they've not given up on life, even if they're going to get themselves killed in the process, and you'd better get out of their way.

 

It needn't be like this, folks. Somewhere along the line people got it into their heads that bland, bulbous minivans were the way to go while perfectly useful wagons sit rotting on dealership forecourts. For the price of an MPV you could have a very perky wagon indeed and for the price of two MPVs you can get something that's GTO-fast, but as practical and upscale as a downtown condo.

 

The Volvo V70R and the Audi S4 Avant are perfect examples of these dual-purpose machines. At first glance they look like ordinary wagons but closer inspection reveals subtle spoilers, sexy wheels, chunky rocker panels and a splattering of little badges here and there. The Audi has two little red-and-gray S4 tags at either end (and two rather tasteless V-8 patches glued to the fenders) while the V70 just has a pair of chrome Rs and some R indentations on its 17-inch wheels. In isolation, I like the look of the boxy and stealthy V70R, but the Audi is the matinee idol of this pair even if it can't disguise its sporting intent as successfully as the Volvo. The 18-inch wheels pour out of the wheelwells while the quad tailpipes let everyone in your wake know they've been passed by something very serious indeed.

 

European furniture

 

When viewed from the inside it's clear neither car is enjoying its first flush of youth. The four-year-old Volvo is plasticky and awash with buttons and knobs like an old fashioned hi-fi, but at least it's bright and comfy in there with a spacious feel to it. The recently facelifted Audi, by comparison, is very dark and businesslike with absolutely nothing frivolous or moderately interesting to lift the gloom. The Recaro seats take the job of holding you in place very seriously, giving you the same cozy sensation you get from a fresh pair of tighty-whities. The Volvo seats are sporty too, but broader and with more room to squirm about in, more like a pair of boxer briefs. We men usually have a preference for one or the other and for me it's the snug Recaros all the way.

 

Indeed, the Audi's interior is, by and large, a better place to be than the Volvo's because of its higher-quality materials, more natural ergonomics, and better driving position. The Volvo's interior is bigger, though, particularly in the back where the Audi lacks legroom and the seats are a little too snug for family use.

 

When it comes to trunk space, it's no contest. The Volvo's concert-hall rear end is much more versatile than the narrow and shallow cargo area the Audi has to make do with and the V70R also comes with protective netting to keep the dog and/or luggage out of the cabin in an accident.

 

Euro thrash

 

And so to the hardware! The Volvo is powered by an unusual, five-cylinder engine that's actually so potent it's been borrowed by parent company Ford for use in its brilliant, new, European Focus ST . The 2.5-liter, turbocharged and intercooled engine produces a heady 300 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque - good enough for a 0-60 mph time of 5.6 seconds (6.5 for automatics) and a top speed limited to 155 mph. Power is directed to the ground through all four wheels using a computer-controlled, Haldex center differential that's capable of instantaneously directing the engine's torque to whichever end needs it most. The system maintains a constant 59 lb-ft of torque in reserve for immediate deployment rearwards, so it never really feels like a front-wheel-drive car and there's no steering fight or torque steer like the fast-but-furious Volvos of old. The steering itself has a relaxed feel to it, with a bit of dead-ahead slop and not a lot of feedback through the turns.

 

Flick the dynamic chassis switch to Sport and up the pace a little bit, however, and the V70R comes to life. Initial turn-in is still a little numb, but once you're committed the steering starts to talk to you about what the tires are up to, while also letting you place the car more accurately in corners. It grips fairly ferociously, too, cornering much harder than I had anticipated and it actually requires insane provocation to break into understeer in dry conditions. Body roll is well suppressed and throttle steer is easy to muster up, too, so it's actually very inspiring and makes the Volvo much faster point-to-point than anything this size and shape has any right to be. The engine might be unusual, but it's light and torquey and suits the Volvo's chassis to perfection.

 

The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, but for 2006 there's a new six-speed Geartronic automatic option with a manual mode operated by slotting the lever into a separate channel. I'm not normally a fan of automatics but this one isn't too bad, to be fair, and feels right at home in the Volvo because despite what I (and the brochures) say, it's not really the kind of car you're going to fling around too much. When you're really pressing on it's a good idea to use the manual mode to keep the engine on boost because otherwise the whole kick-down/spool-up process doesn't happen until you're half way round the corner. In most circumstances, though, the V70R feels plenty perky and eager with the lever in D. Brake power is courtesy of large 13-inch rotors with four-pot Brembo calipers and again, we find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the power with which they operate. All told, it's a solid dynamic package that belies the V70R's size and can actually be fun for serious drivers.

 

It's not all champagne and confetti for the Volvo though. It has one serious flaw that absolutely ruins the driving experience - its ride quality. Even with chassis set to comfort mode and the active dampers at their least aggressive setting, the V70R crashes into potholes and thumps its way along the highway, making plenty of noise and upsetting its occupants in the process. It's not that it's firm - firm I can deal with just fine. It's sloppy and crashy and it sometimes sounds like it's about to lose an axle. The ride quality is so bad, in fact, it would seriously put me off buying one and that's a shame because otherwise I quite like the V70R's driving characteristics and particularly enjoyed catching boy racers off guard at traffic lights.

 

What's the diff?

 

The Audi's forward momentum is courtesy of two diagonally opposed banks of four cylinders - otherwise known as a V-8. Unlike the Volvo there's no forced induction. Instead, Audi uses good old-fashioned displacement - 4.2-liters of the stuff, to be precise - to achieve its 340 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. Again, an all-wheel-drive system is used to put the power on the ground and S4s with manual transmissions use a Torsen differential with a sporty 60:40 rear-drive bias. Sadly, our Audi was an automatic so the torque split was set at a more neutral 50:50 so, unsurprisingly, the car felt rather neutral under normal conditions, turning in with greater urgency and feeling more chuckable than the Volvo at moderate speeds.

 

However, when you really leaned on it, that hefty V-8 pushed the nose wide and it became much more ragged than the V70R (or the manual S4, for that matter). On wide-open sweepers where the car is in a four-wheel drift the S4 feels wonderful, but in sharp, tight stuff it's a bit of a pig. The steering is sharper than the V70R and offers more mid-corner feel as well, but because its wheelbase is some four inches shorter and that great big V-8 is slung out over the front axle, the automatic Audi S4 doesn't feel anything as composed as the Volvo when you really push it. It's amazing the difference the set up of the differentials can make.

 

And yet despite the powerplant overkill the S4 only has a slight edge over the V70R in straight-line performance. The 0-60 mph sprint takes 5.4 seconds (5.7 with the auto) but because the cars produce almost the same torque and the Audi weighs 223 lb more, the S4 simply doesn't peel away from the Volvo - be it off the lights or on the open road - as you might have expected. The turbocharged Volvo takes a moment to get going, but once it's on boost it can live with the Audi all day long. Who would have thought it?

 

The transmission in our Audi was, as I mentioned, a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic override and steering-wheel shift-buttons. The little switches definitely make the manual mode more fun to use and the shifts themselves are smooth and fairly quick so it's easier to set the S4 up for corners than it is the V70R. The ride quality is much better than the Volvo's also, so it's a better car for long distances and small kids, while brake power is provided by 13.6-inch front and 11.8-inch rear rotors with massive single-piston calipers, which do a fine job of hauling the S4 down from big speeds.

 

Boxing champ

 

To be honest, I was kind of expected the Audi to annihilate the Volvo because I recently twin-tested the manual Audi S4 sedan and the BMW M3 for a European magazine and I found myself preferring the mature Audi to the hopping-mad M3.

 

But the automatic S4 Avant doesn't have the same balance and isn't nearly as much fun as the clutch-equipped sedan. The Volvo, on the other hand, was something of a revelation, cornering with surprising vigor and feeling much more composed than the Audi through the tight stuff. I don't know if it's necessarily faster than the Audi on tight roads but I definitely felt more comfortable throwing it around.

 

That said, on-limit driving isn't something you do a lot of in wagons, even if they do have performance pretensions and for most driving situations the Audi's more intimate steering, nicer transmission, and distinctive V-8 growl make it a more enjoyable machine to pilot, while its better quality, higher residual value, sportier seats, and vastly superior ride quality place it firmly ahead of the Volvo in this comparison.

 

The Volvo's bigger cabin, better on-limit balance, surprising pace, and stealthier appearance just aren't compelling enough reasons to choose it over the Audi, even if it is more than eight grand cheaper. The S4 Avant wins this bout, so now you know where to trade in your minivan. Or two.

 

2006 Volvo V70R

Base price: $39,545

Engine: Turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder, 300 hp/295 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 185.4 x 71.0 x 57.6 in

Wheelbase: 108.5 in

Curb weight: 3646 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/25 mpg (auto)

Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability control; active damping; tire pressure monitors; anti-whiplash headrests

Major standard equipment: Dual-zone climate control; power seats; leather trim; 17-inch alloy wheels; bi-xenon lights; CD player

Warranty:  Four years/50,000 miles

 

2006 Audi S4 Avant

Base price: $48,120

Engine: 4.2-liter V-8, 340 hp/302 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed Tiptronic automatic, all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 180.5 x 70.1 x 57.2 in

Wheelbase: 104.4 in

Curb weight: 3869 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/24 mpg (auto)

Safety equipment: Dual front, side, rear side, and head airbags; anti-lock brakes; stability control

Major standard equipment: Six-CD audio system; climate control; 18-inch alloy wheels; power Recaro seats; leather and wood trim; bi-xenon lights

Warranty:  Four years/50,000 miles

 

COPYRIGHT © 2006 BY THE CAR CONNECTION™. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
THE CAR CONNECTION IS A TRADEMARK OF DA ACQUISITIONS, INC.

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