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Buying an SUV for a Golf's price

Volkswagen Touareg 3.0 TDI (2005) – Volvo XC90 D5 (2007)

30/03/2013 20:41 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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Editor

As typical of a long-serving automotive journalist he worked at nearly all of the major printed automotive magazines in Hungary before ending up on the internet. More of the new cartester type, he’s also an automotive engineer by profession. Although he’s the editor in chief
of the mother magazine, totalcar.hu, he loves doubling as a photographer – we sometimes
think he made a mistake when choosing titles. Has a wife and a small daughter.

Depreciation hits full size SUV’s like a freight train: it’s fast, heavy and unstoppable. After five to seven years of service they almost seem affordable. What can you get for your money? A Touareg or an XC90, for instance. But does that nametag still come with a quality vehicle?

It seems to me that by the time the two vehicles we found at a used car dealership (a VW Touareg, 2005, and a Volvo XC90, 2007) went up for sale, they had been losing their value on a daily basis. . What can they still do for you? Well, the Volvo is younger and as a seven seater it is also more versatile. The Touareg has two more years under its belt and can only carry five passengers, but it has a 3.0 V6. Sure, the car was also available with a five-cylinder in-line diesel (practically the mighty 5.0 V10 cut in half) but it was never a blockbuster against the V6. Why settle for five when you could have six?

Indeed. A clear winner in this bout: 185 PS and 400 Nm stand no chance against 225 PS and 500 Nm. The Volvo XC90, powered by a 2.4-litre five-cylinder turbodiesel, is unquestionably an underdog in this fight. The difference is so epic – even with more than 180 000 kms behind them – that we could not pass an impartial judgement of these two behemoths at first sight.

It does not take a degree in behavioural sciences to realise that the number one (perhaps sole) reason these cars are purchased in Eastern Europe is to sweep everyone out of way on the highway. As a result of their vast power reserves driving at legal speeds feels like a leisurely autumn stroll. These oversize, all-wheel-drive off-roader look-alikes are also ideal for towing a trailer, taking a ride to the horse ranch or down to the harbour.

Driving fast and hard, however, has taken its toll on the brakes. The disks look worn and their stopping power, like the original purchase value of the cars that host them, is all but gone. The tyres are also long in the tooth (and short in the tread depth) but they'll make do for a short while. A very short while, that is, and then comes replacement time. The Volvo comes with a full set of winter tyres and that is a relief. Moneywise, that is. A quick check on the internet will tell you that a single tyre for the Touareg costs 100-130 Euros apiece if you settle for budget brands; and more like 140-190 Euros if you go for brand names like Continental, Pirelli or Michelin. And that is for the default size (235/65 R 17), while this specimen is equipped with 18” wheels.

This puts the price of the Touareg into a whole different perspective. Its €13 000 asking price won't fetch you a new Golf, not even an 86 PS base version. And yet, used or new, luxury has its price. That's why most people rather spend this money on a compact car – a Golf, a Focus or an Astra. Those few who opt for the Touareg instead are rewarded with a taste of the Phaeton (same era, similar style). There are of course differences. Inferior materials were used for the centre console, and the controls knobs for the adjustable height suspension are bulkier in the SUV. And this suits the Touareg well, since the entire vehicle is – how to put it mildly – bulky.

The interior of the Volkswagen makes a far better overall impression. For one, it sports brown, rather than black leather, and the upholstery has survived these seven years in surprisingly good shape. The only spot that shows substantial wear is on the side of the seat, where your leg brushes against it when you enter the car. Controls for the windows and headlights are also worn, showing the bare white of the plastic like you can see in old Audis. And that's a shame because apart from these faults the interior shows very little deterioration. Rattle has also been kept at bay over the years.

Air suspension: Must or Bust?

Air suspension can give you more trouble than a simple steel spring suspension. Honestly though, that is partly due to the fact that you don't really care if your steel springs have sagged and lost their tension as long as they do not break. The Touareg has been manufactured with both types of suspension but the non-pneumatic version was only available with smaller engine models.

It also means that as the car enters into the age of 5-8 years, you can expect problems with your suspension. Exactly, what kind of problems, you may ask? Well, it is like that nasty male organ: as the suspension compresses and rebounds the rubber bladder gets rubbed and worn and finally punctured. If you don't spot and mend this in time the compressor will keep running to make up for the leak. Continuous operation will cause premature wear and you will be paying through the nose to set that right. Brace yourself, here come the figures.

Scrapyards will let you have an original but used compressor for the air suspension system for €300-400. Alternatively you can order an OEM unit from Wabco for €500, widely available on Ebay. That isn't exactly cheap, is it? Neither are air springs, priced at €300 apiece. Of course you must put this into perspective, and weight the prices to the fact that you sit in a Touareg or a Cayenne, not just any wreck you pick up for a hundred Euros. Comfort (and adjustable ride height) comes at a price. End of argument.

So what to look for when buying a Touareg (or Cayenne, Q7, Mercedes ML, GL, Range Rover) with an air suspension? Ssimple: ask the owner to stop the engine – sometime they'll try to sell you a lemon with the engine running. As soon as the engine is killed you can hear the hissing noise of the air escaping. Wait a bit longer and you can also see the car sinking gently at one corner. Or, you can choose the simple way and check the instrument panel if the warning light is on. Sometimes the entire control unit is blown: in this case the car just won't lift off the ground – don't be fooled by claims of a lowered suspension.

Volvo XC90

The Volvo isn't that bad after all. I have always had a soft spot for the XC90, as opposed to the Touareg which gives me cold feet ever since I saw the first one. The Volvo sports extra comfy seats, the engine purrs along softly, the body rolls gently on the long springs and the car seats seven. The entire vehicle is one big and warm welcome and well thought out. It‘s IKEA on four wheels. Alas, quality isn't that great. Volkswagen holds the trump in this game.

Let's look at this specific car. You can tell it has lived life to the fullest. At five years of age, leather upholstery is showing cracks, with wrinkles on the rear seat. Apparently the owner has failed to give it proper care. But there is more. There is a ding on the aluminium lid of the compartment behind the gear lever. Wing mirrors wobble. All switchgear is worn shiny. It is hard to believe anyone in their right mind would buy this worn-down vehicle when the same amount of money could get you a brand new Astra with plenty of creature comforts, albeit with an entry-level engine.

And then there are the battle scars from all these years. The nose has obviously scored a few touchdowns, all doors have scratches, and the front badge has lost its glory. Just don't go near it. The saving grace of the XC90 is that it is smoke free, so you can still sniff that grand new car smell in the interior. On the other hand, our Touareg smelled bad, especially with the A/C on – this car has seen some heavy smoking.

Do not look underneath the car, unless you are prepared for the worst. Nearly 200 000 kilometres of huffing and puffing have left the exhaust system rotting here and there, but that should not come as a surprise. But rust has also reared its ugly head at other spots. The entire rear suspension is in decay, the wheel hubs are corroded, and so are suspension arms. Judging by the state of affairs I have a feeling that the odometer may have been rigged, although with frequent urban use, getting in and out of the car all the time, you could hypothetically accumulate this much wear. Rather improbable, however.

Apart from the appalling aesthetics, however, the car is in a more or less sound condition. All electric components are functional. I went over the side windows, the mirrors, the HVAC system, the old-school satnav, the board computer. I also got adventurous and switched on the seat heater despite the scorching summer sun. All works.

Having given my haemorrhoids the heat I needed to cool down. No issues, the A/C blows chilled air. Despite the wear and tear this XC90 seems to work properly. Apart from a single amber light reminding me of a blown sidelight there were no warning signs.

This car may have a shortage of engine power but it has loads of character. Unless you are a natural born racing driver you will find it plentiful for whatever life chucks at you. Of course, if you prefer to ride fast, the gearbox will need to work hard to keep up the pace. But the A/T works quickly and smoothly, with only the undulating engine tone and the prancing tachometer giving away the plight of the D5 under the hood. This is one hard working engine. In comparison the auto gearbox in the Touareg seems almost sluggish but with that beast of an engine, gear selection is all but indifferent.

Against the cold and slightly overwrought Touareg the Volvo is more reserved, more welcoming. It is also more noisy, mind you. Another thing is that while the Volkswagen is marred by a few worn switches, a cracked wood panel, and a discoloured spot on the driver's seat, the Volvo looks altogether shabby. Also, both cars have a tendency to totter along the road. The Volvo does so excessively and predictably. The Volkswagen seems to be more controllable but it is in fact just as erratic.

Steering, on the other hand, presents issues that go well beyond subjective feelings. As I was leaving the dealership I blamed myself first: it has been too long since I drove a large SUV and I have simply forgotten just how much effort it takes to steer these early specimens. Although, when I think about it, you can work a '76 Range Rover without breaking a sweat, provided that it has power steering. Driving on I noticed that is also takes a concentrated effort to keep the vehicle running in a straight line. As I turned the wheel completely the power steering started whining and getting stuck. There is something wrong here. Maybe it's just the tyres losing some air during the long wait (we had no time to check the pressure) but maybe there is far more at play.

This is not saying the Touareg has a fabulous steering. This model was in fact always grossly insensitive, while this particular vehicle had a slight bias and a tendency to kick back (a possible sign of faulty steering damper perhaps?). Also the worn leather was just plain disgusting to touch.

Coming back to the Volvo it had some strange brakes. It took a hefty shove to stop the car with the pedal coming way too close to the floor, slowing the car with the slightest of pulsing (a tell tale sign of cupped rear brake disks). The Touareg was just the opposite: hard and firm pedal, with strong deceleration even at the faintest touch, but when I needed to brake hard, it was just all out of breath. Neither of them is good.

The Volvo still has life in it, but it won't be long before you need to have the brakes and the steering checked. The tyres have seen better days, and it won't take more than a few years before those rust spots eat through the metal, and all the king's horses could not make this interior look shiny and bright ever again. As for its residual value there is still a long way down from its current price of 15 grand (in Euros that is). I cannot fathom just how much you must lust for the faded luxury of a full size SUV – originally sold for over three times its current market value –, to go ahead and sign on the dotted line. But apparently the model has its following, with forumites raving about the post-2006 model. Maybe you should go for it, after all?

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I want a diesel estate

The limit is at 2500 Euro, plus 1500 set aside for repair. I don’t get upset by a bit of electric trouble, I drive a Fiat right now.