Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Test Drive: 2014 Bike Month Wagon Comparison

During the last couple of weeks, we have taken a look at each of the individual contenders in our bike friendly wagon comparison. You can click on each of the following links to take an in-depth look at each:

2014 Acura TSX Sport Wagon
2014 Audi Allroad Premium Plus
2014 BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon
2015 Volvo V60 T5 Drive-E Premier
 
These long-roof cars offer tremendous versatility, but try hard not to sacrifice the driving dynamics that make them fun for the driving enthusiast. Each vehicle won at least one category and the difference in score between the winner and the runner-up was just a few points and only one point separated second and third. The gap that separates the last place contender from the rest of the pack is a fair bit larger. Overall, there were several categories where it was so close, I felt it best to declare a tie. However, none of these is cars is terrible at all. In fact, I can honestly say that there is not a single bad car in the group and that the winner was decided largely by a matter of degrees.

Exterior

1st place = Volvo V60
2nd place = Audi Allroad
3rd place = Acura TSX and BMW 328i (tie)

This first category is always a matter of opinion and likely up for contention. My opinion places the Volvo at the top of this heap because it simply offers the tightest appearance and most attractive wheels. Some might find it a bit "boring," but I think it looks clean, sporty, and still elegant. The Audi comes up second for its aggressive fascia and clean overall lines, but loses points for the slightly cartoonish body cladding. The Acura and BMW tie for third, but for different reasons. The Acura's appearance is a bit long in the tooth (literally and figuratively), but would look fantastic with a few simple touches like larger wheels and a lowered suspension. The BMW, on the other hand, loses points for its lack of brightwork, single-sided exhaust outlets, and small wheels that give the entire car a slightly down-market appearance. Some might argue that it is "sporty," but I simply do not agree.

Interior

1st place = Audi Allroad
2nd place = Volvo V60
3rd place = BMW 328i
4th place = Acura TSX

Audi's reputation for producing beautiful interiors still holds firm. The Allroad delivers a clean, well laid out interior that is screwed together nicely from materials that feel of high quality. It would benefit greatly from the MMI-plus package and sport seats, but even in base form, it is just a nice place to be. The Volvo comes up a very close second with its Swedish minimalist sensibility and awesome two-tone seats. The superbly comfortable sports seats and TFT instrument cluster certainly do not hurt along with nice non-wood finishes surrounded nearly everywhere by soft touch plastics, even where other brands typically use hard plastic. The gap to third and fourth is quite wide as the BMW simply falls short for using far too much untextured hard plastic and the Acura feels significantly dated compared with the competition.

Storage

1st place = Volvo V60
2nd place = Audi Allroad
3rd place = Acura TSX and BMW 328i (tie)

This category is of particular importance to this comparison as having a usable cargo space that is not only convenient, but well designed and have a lot of useful tricks is a big part of of the reason for owning a wagon. The Volvo, despite having the smallest cargo area on paper, wins for having the widest and best laid out cargo area. It has little cubbies for just about everything under the load floor and was the only vehicle in our test that could easily accommodate my road bike without requiring me to wrestle it around, remove anything, or even adjust anything. The luggage space of the Audi comes in second for being the second widest as well as having a design that is eminently usable in combination with a very trick cargo cover. The Acura and BMW once again bring up the rear together with their quite large rear spaces that are rendered much less usable by shock towers and wheel wells that intrude, rather invasively, into the cargo space, effectively splitting the space into two sections and making them less convenient for cyclists.

Engine and Transmission

1st place = BMW 328i
2nd place = Volvo V60
3rd place = Audi Allroad
4th place = Acura TSX

It should come as no surprise that BMW wins this category hands down. Its 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 is an absolute gem and delivers exceptionally smooth power and works well in conjunction with the excellent 8 speed transmission. Even the auto start/stop feature is not that invasive and while the presence of AWD saps a bit of fuel economy, it is still pretty decent for the class. Volvo's new Drive-E engine and the 8-speed automatic that it is paired with gets a very close second. It is hands-down the most efficient in this group and delivers seamless power. What keeps the Volvo from taking the win is the tuning of the auto start/stop feature, which is not as smooth in all conditions as the system on the BMW. Audi's ubiquitous 2.0L turbocharged inline-4 comes in third because it delivers solid power to the ground through Audi's signature Quattro AWD system. What costs the Audi is the transmission that seems to get easily confused and the lowest fuel economy in the class. Acura's TSX brings up the rear with the least powerful engine and a 5-speed transmission that deserves to be in a museum. It delivers surprisingly good fuel economy despite the antiquated technologies, but simply lacks the performance to compensate for the older drivetrain.

Handling, Steering, and Ride

1st place = BMW 328i
2nd place = Acura TSX and Volvo V60 (tie)
3rd place = Audi Allroad

When it comes to balancing ride and handling few auto makers have quite found the secret formula that BMW has. The 328i does a fantastic job of offering great handling and a comfortable ride, although the steering is okay, it is not nearly as communicative as BMWs of the past and is pretty much on par with other sporty competitors in this class. The Acura and Volvo each offer their own combination of handling and ride balance that lean more towards the sporty end and both feel a bit stiffer than the BMW while still offering good handling. The TSX is slightly softer than the Volvo, and actually benefits from having a slightly better weight balance than my TSX sedan. Both cars offer steering that is on par with BMWs for weight and level of communication so they are really only edged out slightly by the BMW. Audi brings up the rear here because the added ride height has severely compromised the cars handling even though it offers a fantastic ride. As far as steering goes, the Allroad simply offers the worst of the bunch with little weight and nearly no feel.

Noise, Vibration, Harshness

1st place = Audi Allroad and Volvo V60 (tie)
2nd place = BMW 328i
3rd place = Acura TSX

The added storage space of a wagon presents a particular challenge in terms of NVH since it creates a space that allows for noise to echo inside the car. Managing this well can make a tremendous difference in the overall enjoyment of the car and both the Audi and Volvo do a fantastic job of managing these traits. Both cars were totally free from squeaks and rattles and had doors that closed with a solid thud. Once closed up, both cars were shockingly quiet, even without the cargo covers in place. The BMW comes in second here because it offers good management of NVH for the most part, but has moments where the exhaust drones a bit and the general noise level in the cabin is just a touch higher than category winners. The TSX brings up the rear here for its somewhat unacceptable level of interior noise. The large cargo area acts as an echo chamber and amplifies the boomy sounds of road noise that enter the cabin.

Gadgets

1st place = BMW 328i
2nd place = Audi Allroad
3rd place = Volvo V60
4th place = Acura TSX

Most of the cars in this class have the basics covered with available push button starting, keyless access, and center stack screens. The exception here is the TSX, which as an older car, lacks many of the features that the competitors have as either standard or as options. Additionally, it cannot make up for it with a fairly mediocre resolution screen that feels like it is running software that is at least one generation too old. The remaining cars are distinguished largely by the size and resolution of their screens and the simplicity of their control setup. The level of separation is purely a matter of degrees and BMW wins almost entirely on the basis of its larger iDrive display and easily reachable controller. Audi edges out Volvo by the slimmest of margins for a slightly cleaner interface.

Value

1st place = Acura TSX
2nd place = Volvo V60
3rd place = Audi Allroad
4th place = BMW 328i

Value plays an important part in most people's car-buying decisions. If money were no object, most people would buy the most expensive car possible, but since that is never the case, we must take price into account. The TSX dominates this category because it offers up 90% of the car for about 80% of the price of the most expensive competitor. Sure it lacks a few gadgets and uses some antiquated tech, it still is a fantastically enjoyable car to drive with a large cargo capacity and comfortable interior. The Volvo offers the second best value with a car that is every bit as competitive as the Germans, but at 90% of the cost. The two Germans get dinged heavily here for their high price tags. While they offer some equipment that the two less expensive vehicles do not, such as the panoramic sunroofs, the significantly higher price tags, upwards of several thousand dollars for equally equipped cars, makes them a tougher bargain. BMW really loses out here because even for being somewhat modestly equipped, lacking some niceties such as real leather, it was still the most expensive car in the test.

And the winner is...


The Volvo V60 by a nose! Volvo, with its recent infusion of cash from Chinese investors Geely Automotive, has built an all around great car that perfectly fits the need of this avid car and cycling enthusiast. While it did not win every category, the Volvo simply offers the most well-rounded vehicle in the test. It has an attractive exterior with many great features while the interior is clean, elegant, and one of the most cohesively organized on the market today. It handles, drives, and rides well while still offering great versatility and superb comfort. Best of all, it does this at a price that crushes the German competitors. The Audi just edges out BMW for second and Acura's aging TSX brings up the rear. As I stated earlier, none of these is a bad car. Each of them has something that makes it a purchase that will meet the needs of certain buyers. The Germans have snob appeal to their advantage while the TSX is the bargain hunter's dream. However, it is the Volvo, with all of its Scandanavian quirkiness, that I would put in my own driveway.

Tags: Acura, Audi, automotive, BMW, comparison, review, test drive, Volvo, wagon