The brain, it’s a mysterious old thing. All the bizarre chemicals inside it can trigger a myriad of emotions. I’m by no means an expert on the subject of course, I just drive cars, but I love the emotions really good cars can elicit. There are three main chemical compounds that drive the brain’s responses. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical, Oxytocin is the monogamous bonding chemical and Cortisol creates the fight or flight response that helps deal with stress. Rather oddly, I’m experiencing all three in these two high-riding SUVs. Let’s take a moment to untangle from all the stimuli and find out what’s truly going on.
Fight and flight
The Audi is the newest car, so let’s start there. Hoping up into its tall-boy cabin with swish piano-black fixtures and Virtual Cockpit instrumentation raised all around to meet you like it would in a sports car; accepting the ginormous 22-inch alloy wheels with low-profile performance tyres, and acknowledging the 2 ton-plus weight, you’ve got to say this is an odd car; appealing but full of contradictions. Then again that’s what people seem to want and what carmakers will gladly provide if it’ll secure them a sale or two. If we’re being rational, the slab-sided Q7 is the big Audi SUV to have – well, maybe the Volkswagen Toureg if you drill down the MLB-Evo rabbit hole even further – but no one ever had any fun being rational. And that’s what the Q8 is, fun.
On the move, the Q8 starts to come together, firing off all those happy-making endorphins. Not a word of a lie, with its tremendous cross-country speed, it feels like a Porsche Cayenne (strictly speaking the Cayenne Coupe I suppose), qualifying as a sports car with a high seating position to help you see over the traffic ahead and pick out your apex and clipping points that much easier. And Audi should charge local government for its laser lights, because when deployed they do a far better job of lighting the motorway than the public street lights. Drivetrain wise, we’re talking about a typical Volkswagen-Audi Group 3.0-litre turbo V6 producing a well-rounded 250 kW/500 Nm, driving all four wheels through an eight-speed ZF auto gearbox.
In true Audi under-claiming fashion, we bettered the 0-100 km/h claim of 5.9 sec with a 5.75 sec run. Likewise with the six-cylinder’s thirst – try double digits all day every day despite the 48V electrical sub system’s mild-hybrid coasting function. We did uncover a rather annoying lag in the drivetrain – it’s not just turbo lag but an unseemly jerkiness between the moment you apply throttle and when the Q8 jumps from coasting mode to finally get going. Bookend this with an extremely jarring and knobbly ride on those very pretty but compromising 22-inch rims and soon the brain has Dopamine fighting a losing battle to Cortisol.
There’s no such doubtfulness in the boxy but beautiful Swede. Since its launch in 2016, the XC90 has been a wonderful counterpoint to its predecessor’s somewhat agricultural beige-ness, and it’s won just about every car award in Christendom as a result. Now it’s enjoying a mild tech update, I guess you could call it. Just like your smartphone, that’s what qualifies as a new car nowadays. Nevertheless, sliding behind the wheel once again, all that positivity comes flooding back to the brain of just what a magnificent motor vehicle this XC90 is. The chemical galloping around the head in this instance is Oxytocin, the one that makes you want to have a long-term relationship with the thing.
Sure, versus the Audi, it does require a double take to make sure it’s not the old model, both inside and out. It little visual drama, but it has dignity and refinement by the spade load. We’ve long maintained the Volvo XC90 is the only enormous 4×4 SUV you can drive that doesn’t make people automatically hate you – this sentiment persists in 2019. Likewise, all the interior tablet-like functionality is as before, and it’s bizarre how much more intuitive it feels now that we’ve acclimatised to it. Still, it’s by no means perfect, it needs a few extra finger stabs every now and then, however, Audi’s haptic-feedback interface can feel just as clunky at times. The Drive Pilot semi-autonomous driving in the Volvo is further enhanced, too, feeling more intiuative than before, and better than the Audi’s. And this being a vehicle for big Scandinavians, the seats envelop its occupants. With its cavernous 775 l boot and standard seven-seat layout, the sweptback Q8, somewhat predictably, can’t top this in the practicality stakes.
But, oh lordy, set off for a drive and the brain’s chemicals are in for a double whammy, because the XC90 is not just the one you’ll want to take home to your parents, it’s the equal of the Q8 in the on-road entertainment department, too. The T6 twin-charged four pot very nearly matches the Audi big six for grunt, giving away a mere 15 kW, translating into a very quick 0-100 km/h sprint time of 6.25 sec. It’s only in the higher-speed ranges that the bigger-displacement Q8 seizes an advantage, with 500 Nm of torque playing 400 Nm pretty convincingly. However, while the Volvo doesn’t pretend to be a sports car, it’s a smidge lighter than the Audi and its accurate steering, smooth weight transition and responsive drivetrain have you relishing every twist and turn. All this in a seven-seat Volvo family wagon!
Is this love?
It comes down to this. After a short test drive in the Audi Q8 you’ll come away loving it. The future-proof interior, new-wave styling and raised ride height are all worth the hefty price of admission. Spend more time with it though and the lurching drivetrain, thirsty motor and constant patter from the big tyres do begin to diminish the luster. Not to mention the not-insubstantial matter of a R300k price differential with the Volvo.
The XC90, on the other hand, impresses from the outset and continues to build Serotonin and Oxytocin in the brain, to the point that you can’t imagine living life without one. It’s the affordable choice, the practical choice, it’s the SUV that won’t be flagged by neighborhood watch as a suspicious vehicle, and its twin-charged motor is smoother and more economical without giving away too many furlongs to the Audi. We bet there’s an even greater chemical-inducing experience to be had with the Volvo XC90 though… And that’s living with one. We can have nice things after all.
In a nutshell –
1st Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Momentum
Swedish luxury, wonderfully agile
If there are any, we’re yet to find them
Engine: 1 969 cc, 4-cylinder turbo and supercharged
Power: 235 kW @ 5 700 rpm, 400 Nm @ 2 200 – 5 400 rpm
Weight: 1 975 kg
Power to weight: 118.8 kW per tonne
0-100 km/h 6.25 sec (tested)
Quarter mile 14.7 sec (tested)
Top speed 230 km/h
Tyres: 19-inch alloys, 235/50 Pirelli Scorpio
Economy: 8.0 l/100 km (claimed), 11.2 l/100 km (tested)
Transmission: 8-speed auto
CO2 emissions: 186 g/km
Boot capacity: 775 l (five-seat configuration)
Priced from: R1 060 700
2nd Audi Q8 55 TFSI quattro
Laggy drivetrain, rough ride
Engine: 2 995 cc, 6-cylinder, turbo
Power: 250 kW @ 5 200 rpm, 500 Nm @ 1 370- 4 500 rpm
Weight: 2 090 kg
Power to weight: 119.6 kW per tonne
0-100 km/h 5.75 sec (tested),
Quarter mile 14.05 sec (tested),
Top speed 250 km/h
Tyres: 22-inch alloys, 285/40 Continental SportContact
Economy: 9.1 l/100 km (claimed)/ 11.7 l/100 km (tested)
Transmission: 8-speed auto
CO2 emissions: 210 g/km
Boot capacity: 605 l (five-seat configuration)
Priced from: R1 388 000