Audi A4 3.0 TDI 218 Sport S tronic
List price £34,700
Target Price £31,384
The smallest of our trio, but it has the biggest and most powerful engine. Surprisingly efficient.
BMW 520d SE auto
List price £34,165
Target Price £29,744
The 5 Series is our favourite large executive car. Does it still have what it takes to stay on top?
Volvo S90 D4 Momentum auto
List price £32,555
Target Price £31,517
The S90 offers a lot of space for the money and comes packed with safety and luxury equipment.
Volvo used to be famous for two things: big boxy cars and top-notch safety. Its new large executive saloon, the S90, deftly shows just how far the design department has changed direction. However, safety is still a major part of the Swedish brand’s modus operandi, so all manner of driver aids are thrown in as standard.
The S90 will need more than good looks and lots of safety kit, though, if it's to usurp our current large exec car champion, the BMW 5 Series. This is a car with tremendous all-round ability, which is why it’s been top dog since its arrival in 2010.
In best-selling 520d form, the 5 Series is the obvious barometer by which to judge the S90, but what about the smaller Audi A4, our current Car of the Year? Yes, it usually does battle with the BMW 3 Series, but if you’re prepared to trade a bit of space, you can have the A4 with a powerful V6 diesel for similar money.
What are they like to drive?
The 5 Series and S90’s 2.0-litre diesel engines pump out identical power, so it’s hardly surprising they have similar performance, although the S90 builds speed slightly more swiftly than its German rival above 30mph.
You definitely notice the extra zip of the A4, though. It is much more energetic off the line, but it’s the extra strength of the V6 engine from low revs when you’re moving that impresses most. The S90 and 5 Series don’t feel underpowered, but they can’t breeze past slower traffic as effortlessly as the A4.
The A4 is the quietest, too, partly because you don’t need to rev its engine as hard. When you do demand maximum acceleration, its silky V6 motor sounds smoother than the gruffer four-cylinder engines in the S90 and 5 Series. The S90 generates the most diesel clatter at tickover and the 5 Series' engine booms the most when you accelerate hard.
At motorway speeds, all three cars suppress wind noise well, but the S90 suffers from the most road noise, followed by the 5 Series, with the A4 isolating you best from the outside world.
The S90’s eight-speed automatic gearbox slips slickly through its ratios most of the time, although it is a little hesitant when you step off and then back on the accelerator. The A4’s seven-speed 'box is a bit jerkier in slow-moving traffic, but it disengages the engine when you lift off the accelerator pedal when cruising at high speeds, which helps to save fuel. The 5 Series' eight-speed auto gearbox is the best, though; it’s always smooth and responsive.
'Although the A4 leans most through bends, its smaller proportions make it the most agile'
Our S90 had optional rear air suspension (£950). This mostly delivers a comfortable ride, but the S90 fidgets about on patchy town roads and it’s the most likely to thud over sharp ridges. Both the A4 and 5 Series have conventional mechanical suspension as standard. However, both ride more smoothly than the S90; the A4 has a slightly better high-speed ride and the 5 Series is marginally more supple in town.
The S90 also impresses the least through corners, partly because of the over-keenness of the steering to self-centre. It also bounces about a bit if you encounter a mid-corner bump. The 5 Series is the flattest through corners, but it feels heavier than the A4 and more ponderous. Its steering doesn’t weight up quite as consistently either, so it feels less intuitive to guide through bends.
Although the A4 leans the most through bends, its quicker steering and smaller proportions make it the most agile, even though it isn’t quite as much fun as a BMW 3 Series.
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