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Volvo XC60 vs Land Rover Freelander 2 vs Audi Q5 - Stuck in the middle

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Wannabes. They like attention. They also like their badges. And wannabes would like to be seen in one of these vehicles for sure. The smaller siblings, they also are cheaper and sometimes with lesser seats, but no less luxurious. In terms of numbers, the larger ones sell more, but this segment is just starting to mature.

Now, there’s a new vehicle to enter the segment, probably the most significant since the Audi Q5 in mid-2009. Volvo’s new XC60 has a two-fold agenda. One is to help resuscitate Volvo’s innings in the country, which so far has been less than exciting. The other is to help grow this market enough to sustain leadership position in this segment, until something new comes along. So far, the Audi Q5 has had a pretty decent run, while the Land Rover Freelander 2 has been quietly notching up the numbers. There is more excitement expected when the new X3 lands on Indian shores, and the 2011 Freelander 2 makes its debut as an Indian-assembled Land Rover at some very delicious prices. Wannabes then, should be ready for some nail- biting action.

 

Looks

If you were to ignore the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG for a wee bit, I’d say that the Volvo XC60 is possibly the best looking car/SUV to go on sale in the country in 2010. Go on, say it, I’ve lost my marbles, but you will agree that you will give this one a double take. All right, so this one was a green number, but unlike the XC90, it looks fresh. The family resemblance hasn’t been lost, but it’s a more ritzy package, and the XC60 makes the Freelander 2 look like a pack of cases stacked one above the other. The manner in which the headlamp is flanked by the prominent waistline on one side and the power bump on the bonnet on the other makes it stand-out among the three. Even the smartly incorporated daytime running lamps, the bold grille and

logo and the air dam make for a very pleasing- looking car. It’s only in the rear-three quarters department that the sense of design gets further heightened. The spoon shaped LED tail lamps go so well with the whole car that Ikea could very well hire some of Volvo’s designers for their future furniture range.

 

The Freelander is inoffensive in the way it looks. You would also be surprised to know that despite being based on the same Ford- developed EUCD platform, the results between the Volvo and Land Rover are startlingly different. Because the Freelander is designed for offroading, the overhangs are short and the higher ground clearance kind of pronounces its boxiness. Second glances are not what this design is made for; purpose is what it stands for.

Audi’s Q5 is quite the baby Q7 here, and another nice looker. Like the XC60, its coupe-ish roofline relieves it of bulk, while the prominent front end and the Bulgarian beard-type grille give a hint of aggression. It doesn’t however look like an everlasting design, and Audi will have to be timely with their updates to keep what is a good thing going.

Interiors

Volvo’s interiors are just as funky as the exteriors. Apart from the stand out exterior finish, our test car also came with matching interiors and they gave the Volvo some youthful exuberance – something we wouldn’t say about the S80 or XC90. The floating centre console doesn’t look jaded yet and while the layout and controls have a typical Volvo-feel to them (read large and legible), they are quite intuitive and easy to use. Apart from a working GPS system (boots rather quickly!) that comes as standard, the XC60 also has a City Safety system as standard as well as Hill Descent Control, rain sensors, front and rear park assist camera, a multitude of airbags and a crystal clear-sounding hi-po audio system. The buttons have a nice tactile feel to them, the quality of materials used on all surfaces is excellent and the general environs are pleasing. There is a whole host of optional equipment too, especially in the safety department, but more on that later.

The Freelander 2 is functional even in here. Buttons again are large and easy to use, but not necessarily as good as the ones on the Volvo. Instrumentation on the whole in this HSE version is pretty basic for what is a ` 45 lakh SUV, and as long as you like it that way, it’s fine. Lots of places for storage, some unique arm rest controllers and vertical chrome sticks for horn pads give the Freelander 2 interiors some character. The instrumentation is clear and easy to read, while the audio system is not half bad either. Land Rover’s Terrain Response control is the highlight of the cabin; it allows you to choose torque split depending on surface conditions. The 2011 model is expected to have slightly better equipment levels and a marginally refreshed dashboard and that should help it close the gap.

 

Audi’s Q5 is probably among the better loaded ones here. These are the interiors of the petrol model, which doesn’t have the three chassis settings (like on the Volvo), but apart from that it is more or less the same. The MMI system allows you access to a major part of the entertainment and car functions, which makes it the only one to have a centralised car system. The quality of interiors is good on the whole, in a typical German fashion.

As far as comfort goes, the Volvo has the most comfortable seats of the three. The front seats provide ample support for both short and long drives, while the rear seats are well contoured and there is good legroom too. The boot is pretty voluminous, but is robbed of space because of Volvo’s insistence on providing a full-sized tyre along with the space saver. On the Land Rover, the driving position is good, but lowering the seat too much can mean your left knee might knock the centre console. Where Land Rover have really improved things is at the rear, with decent legroom and shoulder room, with comfortable space for three even though the floor feels raised, which affects under-thigh support. That raised floor also means it is not all that easy to lug things in and out of the boot, though the boot by itself is pretty large. The Q5 has decent seats, both at the front and rear, but legroom at the rear is slightly restricted. Overall, the Volvo has the best interiors here, with the Freelander cocking a snook over the Q5 and coming in second, thanks to its overall comfort levels.

Powertrain & Performance

Like I mentioned earlier, the Audi Q5 petrol was borrowed for this shoot, but we have incorporated test figures of the diesel for the test and in terms of performance, the Audi Q5 diesel stands a fair bit ahead of the other two. With the largest engine and the most power available on tap, the Q5 diesel is also the quickest. The 3.0-litre V6 diesel in the relatively lightweight Q5 (when compared to the Q7) gives it a distinct advantage. Producing 240 bhp@4000 rpm and a very neat 51 kgm@1500-3000 rpm, the Q5’s numbers are quite impressive. The standing start acceleration figures reveal that the Q5 is past the century in under 7.5 seconds, while the other two just about make it in 10 seconds or less. Top speeds are in the 180-210 kph ballpark between the three, which is purely academic. But in terms of passing speeds, the Q5 once again uses its mighty torque advantage to dismiss the 80-120 kph run in just 4 seconds, while the Freelander 2 took 8.1 secs and the Volvo 6.1 secs.

 

Audi’s engine is mated to a seven-speed gearbox and with the sport function dialled in, it starts to shift at the redline. It’s a nice gearbox if you like to drive hard, but a bit bothersome in town where it’s a bit too jerky. Unlike the longitudinal placement of the V6 in the Q5, the Freelander and XC60 utilise transverse placement of engines, again a factor of sharing a platform. The Freelander’s PSA origin 2.2-litre diesel engine helps it pump out 158.5 bhp@4000 rpm and a very decent 40.6 kgm of peak torque from a relatively high 2000 rpm. Despite being low on the horsepower count, the Freelander 2 is quite driveable in town thanks to well selected ratios, which give the car a nice balance between performance and efficiency. In fact it is the most efficient of the three by a considerable margin.

The Volvo tries to find a sweet spot between the German and the English offerings. The Swede makes do with five-cylinders from its 2.4-litre diesel motor. Twin-turbos and some pretty nice camshafts later, the XC60 produces 205 bhp@4000 rpm and nearly 43 kgm of twist in a band of 1500-3000 rpm. The XC60 feels quick by any standard and you won’t really complain about its performance. Even in the city, its calm demeanour means driving it in traffic isn’t tedious. Where the gearbox loses the plot is on the upshifts. Drive hard and fast and the upshifts are slow and a bit clunky. This is true of even the S80 and XC90, which come with the same engine, but it isn’t as bad here because of the lower kerb weight.

Ride & Handling

Volvo’s cars generally are known for their safe-to-understeery setups and the XC60 maintains that tradition to some extent. What the Swedish company has done, however, is make it more sporty to drive and for the first time, we’ve driven a Volvo in India that is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Volvo’s continuously controlled chassis settings allow you to choose between Comfort, Sport and Advanced settings, which alter the dampers to make it slightly stiffer and improve gearshifts. The settings don’t make the car overly sporty unlike some other cars, but it’s useable under most conditions. But the XC60 stays understeery. Despite use of a fourth generation Haldex four-wheel drive unit, which has a 40:60 torque split like quattro, the XC60 can’t be hustled around corners the way the Q5 can. It goes into perpetual understeer if you push it in hard, and you can’t bury the throttle further to correct it. Ride quality though is the best here, with the most settled and pliant setting. Given the overall heft of the vehicle, the XC60 feels very well tied down at high speeds, while the suspension continues to isolate the occupants without being too soft.

 

The Freelander 2 has good grip and around corners it, like the XC60, has nice steering feedback to make it involving enough for the driver. However, it does have a fair amount of body roll, which can be corrected or reduced by shifting the gearbox into sport mode and resorting to manual shifting to utilise the Freelander 2’s natural grip levels. Ride quality, once again, is not too bad, but it has this tendency to thud around when ridges or small bumps come along.

Four rings and quattro should mean the Audi Q5 is good when it comes to handling. It feels the most willing to change direction and feels quite fleet-footed, but has some issues. The trouble is that the rear can become nervous at times and the steering has this sense of vagueness to it. It has a speed-sensitive steering setup, which feels too light at slow speeds to provide any feel around slow corners, and it becomes too tight when speeds enter three digits. Ride quality is fair, but borders more on the crashy side of things.

Off-road, neither the XC60 nor Q5 can hold a candle to the Freelander 2. It is just made for the rough stuff and its lovely approach and departure angles make it easy to go into places the other two will fear to tread. Of course, the Terrain Response system makes it all the more easy, but more often than not you may just not have to use it at all. The Q5 can manage a bit more than the XC60, given its overall ground clearance and quattro’s better manners, but it isn’t a convincing off-roader here.

Verdict

These crossovers/mini-SUVs will have mostly urban use, where smooth powertrains, easy to use controls and setups rule. Despite conforming to most of these requirements, the Audi Q5 comes last. It does have the best performance of the trio here and an exhaustive features list, but most of these are optional and by the time you kit it out, the Q5 3.0 TDI is nearly as expensive as some larger SUVs. What’s more, the on-road dynamics are too sporty to be really enjoyed on a day-to-day basis, while the overall interior comfort levels aren’t the same as the other two.

The Land Rover Freelander 2 doesn’t have as much kit, doesn’t feel as special on the outside or inside, nor does its price really help matters. But the Freelander 2 has many more strong points. It rides and handles well, it can off-road just like anything else that Land Rover makes and has an overall powertrain package that is mature and makes it easy to live with. It’s for those who want a no-nonsense compact SUV with few of the luxury trappings in a more functional package. If you must have one, we suggest you wait until mid-2011 when the car is assembled in India and the price will drop considerably.

But if you must have something right now, it is the XC60. It has the most exhaustive safety package (and then some more, like the optional blind spot information system and adaptive cruise control with radar braking, among others), has looks that are good enough to cause a stir at the club, nicely appointed interiors, a powerful motor and well-balanced dynamics. I wish it could off-road some more and that it could handle a wee bit better, but other than that, the XC60 hits the Swede spot in India.