BMW vs. Volvo: An Informal Wagon Comparison

I’m always looking for my family’s next wagon, so a little head-to-head comparo was in order.

Marc Noordelooswriter, photographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

The Noordeloos family is a wagon family. As noted in my recent Volvo V60 "How I'd Spec It" story, we're on our fifth longroof in a row. Sadly, the all-new BMW 3 Series wagon isn't coming to America, at least for now, so we need to keep our eyes open for an eventual substitute for our 2018 BMW 330i xDrive. The project is regularly on our radar, as we like to plan ahead. There's only one direct replacement in the USA that doesn't have a jacked-up suspension and cheesy plastic cladding: the Volvo V60. I decided to put our BMW and the latest Swedish option together to see how the V60 holds up against our current German daily driver.

My wife Alice came along for the comparison, as the BMW is really her car. Plus, she's a proper car enthusiast. Alice grew up in England and knows a thing or two about driving dynamics. Her late father worked at Jaguar in the "customer competition shop" and as a service engineer. And Alice's mother is no slouch on the car-enthusiast scale. She drove her Mini Cooper to France in 1969 to photograph the 24 Hours of Le Mans and later raced a Jaguar E-Type.

Looking at the two wagons sitting next to each other, the Volvo clearly carries more load—and immediately carries loads of clear advantages. "The V60 is gorgeous, and I love that funky cloth interior," said Alice. "And the rear seat is huge. The Volvo sits nicely between the size of my current BMW and my old [2012] Mercedes E-class wagon." She's right. It feels a good half-size bigger than the 3 Series. Some of that comes down to the Volvo's transverse-mounted engine providing better packaging. The V60 is only 4.6 inches longer than the BMW, and they're roughly the same width. But it doesn't feel that way inside.

Unfortunately, the Volvo also feels bigger on the road and its chassis offers little sporting intention. The BMW's chassis isn't exactly fantastic, having taken a noticeable step down from those in previous-generation 3 Series, but it feels like a top-spec sports car next to the V60. Ultra-light, numb steering with unsettled suspension is the Volvo's dynamic story. The optional adjustable dampers and larger 19-inch wheels that came on our T6 all-wheel-drive test car aren't items I'd recommend, and toggling to the stiffer Sport setting only makes things worse. It also feels like the Volvo architecture lacks structural rigidity. "The feather-light steering and lack of driving involvement is disappointing," said Alice. "And it crashes over Michigan roads. I was hoping for a bit more excitement versus my old, mule-like 2016 V60 but this new Volvo only really raises the bar as far as design and size." The Volvo is more at home on a long highway journey, comfortably returning more than 30 mpg at 80 mph. That's impressive for 316 horsepower and all-wheel drive.

Moving beyond the dynamic disappointments, though, the tweed-look seats are gorgeous. It's a fantastic interior design, even if the touchscreen carries far too many of the controls. A scattering of hard buttons would be welcome, too. Alice noted a few other quirks inside. "The driver's seat is very comfortable, but it lacks support for my narrower frame," she said. "There's also a high beltline with big A-pillars and mirrors, making outward vision tricky. And the rear cargo cover is cumbersome and not very high quality. Finally, the climate control isn't great. It's not good at maintaining a consistent temperature compared to my BMW." Our old 2016 V60 has a similar HVAC issue.

Our experience also exposed some reliability concerns with the Volvo. (Talking later to a couple of friends who own the company's latest models, our experience isn't unusual.) For example, the infotainment system on the V60 did a handful of reboots at random times and the navigation voice instructions sometimes decided to stay silent. And the system is slow to start up, meaning you're delayed in adjusting the climate control and activating the heated seats and steering wheel. Not fun on a cold morning. Finally, the rear window washer stopped working and the tire-pressure-monitoring system displayed a rogue low-tire alert. After pulling off the highway, I checked the tire pressures manually and they were spot on. This is another thing we experienced multiple times with our 2016 V60.

"The V60 is gorgeous and such a great size," summarized Alice. "Unfortunately, it's rather boring to drive and doesn't feel as well built as my BMW. I don't think I'd be happy with it even though I really want to be." Volvo isn't far off with the V60. Geely owns both Volvo and Lotus. A semester at Lotus finishing school and some focus on quality could transform the V60. I'd then love to see it in our garage. Until then, here's hoping BMW rethinks its decision to skip the U.S. market with the latest 3 Series wagon. It would have at least one likely buyer: Mrs. Noordeloos.

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