European carmakers step up their games
In the ongoing tussle between sport utility vehicles and sedans for the wallets of consumers in the premium segment, SUVs have gained the upper hand.
But sedan sales still account for a significant proportion of the overall luxury market and automakers continue to launch new contenders. Among the latest are the 2019 Audi A6 and A7 sedans, as well as the 2019 S60 sedan and V60 wagon from Volvo.
Of course, Audi and Volvo both have successful SUV models of their own, in the form of the Audi Q5 and Q7 and the Volvo XC60 and XC90 models. But these brands are firm believers in the enduring appeal of sedans and have made big strides in the design and engineering of their latest entries.
On the SUV side of the equation, BMW has just raised the ante with its latest-generation X5, a mid-sized player that builds on a reputation as one of the best such vehicles on the market. (It’s also built in South Carolina at BMW’s biggest plant and exported around the world.)
For 2019 BMW has polished and refined the X5 formula. While the exterior looks familiar, the vehicle is larger in most dimensions, rides on a more sophisticated air suspension system and adds rear-wheel steering to improve handling.
BMW has long been known for its superb powertrains and the X5 maintains that tradition with its smooth-running but powerful 335-hp 3.0-liter turbo straight six. The engine sends power to all four wheels through an eight-speed ZF automatic. For power hounds, a 456-hp twin-turbo V8 is an option.
Driven off-road and on, the 2019 X5 felt confident, capable and engaging. Its on-road responses are not quite as crisp as a Porsche Cayenne, but overall the new X5 — priced from $60,700 — has to rank as one of the most compelling SUVs available. Its attractiveness is underscored by an interior that has been greatly improved, with new features, more attractive trim and even an optional third row seat for children.
While the X5 is admirable, we are still drawn strongly by the charms of the newest sedans in the premium segment. These entries may lack the ultimate versatility of a SUV, but they are arguably easier on the eye, more refined and more entertaining at the wheel, at least for an enthusiast driver.
These advantages are embodied in the 2019 Audi A6 and A7 models. These sedans are closely related, sharing powertrains and interiors, but offer interesting variations on exterior design. The A6 presents a fairly conventional three-box, four-door sedan appearance, elegant and a touch more adventurous than its more conservative, larger A8 flagship sibling. On the other hand, the A7 — now in its second generation — updates a combination of a coupe-like roof profile, four doors and a rear lift-gate to deliver a sculpted and svelte-looking sedan, unrivaled in today’s market.
Both the $58,900 A6 and $68,000 A7 benefit from the latest interior design elements found in the new A8, which means that most vehicle systems are managed through a combination of two large, touch sensitive screens. These screens are relatively easy to master (compared to some rivals), which simplifies the task of managing the myriad convenience and safety features found in these new Audis.
The driving experience in both A6 and A7 is underpinned by the strong performance of the 335-hp 3.0-liter, turbo V6, which sends power to all four wheels via Audi’s upgraded "ultra" quattro system and a seven-speed automatic transmission. Steering response is crisp (although feedback could be better) and the chassis stays commendably flat during aggressive back roads driving.
Given that these Audis are mid-size passenger cars, it’s a stretch to describe their road manners as sporting, but they are considerably more fun to drive than virtually any SUV available.
Best of all, the unusual and sensuous design of the A7, coupled with its sportback practicality, makes it a very appealing alternative to the conventional sedan format.
In a sense, the same can be said of the 2019 Volvo V60 wagon, which joins its S60 sedan sibling in the Swedish brand’s lineup. Unlike European consumers, Americans are not fans of wagons. However, a small segment of U.S. buyers has long had a soft spot for Volvo wagons, and the company is mining that demand with its latest V60.
Overall, Volvo is on a roll in the U.S., with sales up 30 percent year to date and a new plant coming on-line in South Carolina (a state which is fast becoming the source for high-end foreign branded vehicles). Both the S60 and V60 — and the next generation XC90 crossover — will be made at the $1.1 billion facility. Like most smart automakers, Volvo shaves costs by platform and powertrain sharing across model lines. So it is with the new S60/V60 models, which use the same turbo and/or turbo and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines, teamed with all-wheel systems, found in all Volvos.
For 2019, the S60 and V60 benefit from longer wheelbases, sleeker designs and interiors with new trim materials to enliven the mood of an otherwise minimalist cabin.
The S60 and V60 compete with the likes of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Infiniti Q50 sedans, a step below the A6/A7 segment. As such, the new Volvos do not have quite the level of sophistication or refinement of the larger Audis. But the Volvos’ more powerful, 316-hp four-cylinder engine versions do have a horsepower edge versus their direct competition. And during our test drive, the Swedish cars delivered a pleasing balance of ride and handling prowess over twisting, hilly roads.
As with the A7 in the Audi family, the icing on the Volvo cake is the V60 wagon; its low, slinky design aesthetic stands out vividly from the regular sedan and SUV crowd.
So, while new SUVs such as the BMW X5 continue to make a strong impression on the market, it’s worth remembering that the likes of Audi and Volvo still have interesting and engaging alternatives to consider.
John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at email@example.com.