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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, May 9, 2003

By: The LACar Editorial Staff



The impetus for this comparison test came in the form of an e-mail to the editor. “Kelly is driving me crazy,” the letter began. “It all started when we decided that our old sedan needs to be replaced. We’ve been married for nine years, have two kids, and are doing well (knock on wood). We plan to spend around forty thousand dollars on a new car. I explained to my spouse that we have to get an SUV. I am involved in kids’ soccer practice, and need space in the car for their gear, and for groceries because I love to cook. And for our dog. We live in a gated community on a hill, and I want something with four-wheel drive, because the roads here can get muddy when it rains. Plus, I feel safe in an SUV. Kelly has an old roadster, and is now fantasizing about some sports coupe, I don’t even know the name. ‘Says car is not a car without a stick and that for me and the kids we can get a good deal on a previously owned SUV. A cheap used truck - over my dead body. We need something dependable. This is really putting a strain on our marriage. Both of us check your website regularly. Perhaps you can help.” The e-mail was signed JJ.

LA CAR, being a journal focused on the Los Angeles car culture, does not ordinarily get into resolving family disputes. While debating whether to intercede, another e-mail arrived. “So, the family is now writing to total strangers. OK, let me tell you my side of the story. When we met, JJ found my driving style sexy. I remember one time when JJ’s left hand was touching mine while I rowed through the gearbox on a canyon road above Malibu. It ended up being a very romantic evening. What happened to that person? A four-wheel drive would be nice in the rain, and we need more space, but SUVs are boring. I know far more about the cars than Kelly does, and I’m afraid of rollovers. This is all we are talking about these days. So, can you help?” We simply had no choice. Our readers needed our professional help. Hence this comparison test.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland

For the SUV, we selected the Jeep - the make that started it all. The Willys' designers of the WWII general-purpose vehicle could hardly recognize its progeny - a luxury 4.7 liter V-8 powered Grand Cherokee Overland. It develops 265 horsepower and an impressive 325 ft-lbs of torque. The Grand Cherokee is equipped with QuadraTrack drive, a system that continuously powers all four wheels. Inside, Kelly, JJ, and the kids will find themselves in a leather-clad luxury suite with wood accents, sophisticated stereo system, climate control, and a page-long list of bells and whistles. The Grand Cherokee has thirty-nine cubic feet of luggage capacity, and the rear sets can be easily collapsed, providing even more space if Kelly has to load up on groceries.

But there are significant limitations inherent in the SUV design. The Grand Cherokee is based on a steel frame chassis which provides a stiff ride, despite the best engineering efforts to soften it. And because of the laws of physics, the vehicle’s high profile is more prone to rollover than an ordinary car. When entering the freeway off-ramps one cannot but think that a rollover is nary a sharp turn of a steering wheel away. The 4.7 liter engine can tow close to three tons, and will propel the 4364-pound Grand Cherokee from a standing start to sixty miles per hour in a little over seven seconds. The average fuel consumption is listed at fourteen miles per gallon in town and nineteen on the freeway, but not the way we drove it. Once JJ attempts to infuse a racing spirit in the SUV, there will be a price to pay at the pump. Get aggressive on the gas pedal, and you can use the Grand Cherokee’s towing capacity to haul a small refinery. QuadraTrac is a welcome feature, but at freeway speed, it whines steadily, making it sound as the vehicle is in the wrong gear.

Audi A6 3.0 Avant Quattro

Fortunately, there is a solution which may bring marital happiness to Kelly and JJ. It comes in a form of an Audi A6 3.0 Avant Quattro - a station wagon. Yes, a station wagon. (We can see JJ furrowed brow as this brings memories of seemingly endless Sunday afternoons in Aunt Ella’s old Custom Cruiser.) Don’t worry JJ. The station wagon we drove is a sleek-looking vehicle that nobody would, in their wildest stretch of imagination, compare to anything your Aunt Ella ever drove.

Although the Avant is almost a foot longer than the Grand Cherokee, one feels that the SUV is much more massive. This optical illusion is chiefly attributable to the fact that the Grand Cherokee is a foot higher than the Avant, but, surprisingly, only an inch wider.

The A6 Avant is powered by a 3.0 liter V6 developing 220 horsepower and 221 ft-lb of torque. A comparison of the weight-to-horsepower ratio indicates that the Grand Cherokee pulls a lighter load (16.46 lbs) than the Avant (17.83 lbs). Translation for technically-challenged Kelly: If two vehicles have engines of identical strength, the lighter one should be faster because it has less weight to carry around. But on the road, the Avant seems much more agile than its 3,924 lbs. indicates.

Audi A6 interior with the Tiptronic transmission

The A6 Avant’s agility can be further enhanced through a Tiptronic mode, a Porsche invention (licensed by Audi), which allows the driver to manually shift transmission gears. Now, we definitely got JJ’s attention. In the fully automatic mode, Kelly will be able to make that occasional cell phone call informing everyone that the family is stuck in traffic on northbound 101, or hand bottles of juice to the thirsty members of the soccer team. But push the floor-mounted shift to the right, and a heretofore docile station wagon turns into a thoroughbred, the tachometer needle moves to six thousand rounds per minute, and the family mover transmogrifies into a race car leaving slower competitors in the dust. With JJ behind the wheel, that trip to Kelly’s mom in Calabasas is no longer an invitation to a family brunch, but a 1939 Grossglockner mountain race in the Auto Union V16 Bergwagen. Or a climb to Pike’s Peak. Inside the Tiptronic gearbox, there are the computers which will prevent JJ from over-revving the engine, destroying the transmission, and jeopardizing the serenity of the family gathering. Although, at the brunch we envision a serious discussion about JJ’s driving habits.

The A6 Avant is a luxury car - gray leather, finely brushed aluminum, stereo, sunroof - the works. But besides the accouterments expected in this class, its inside seems to be sprinkled with what can only be described as Ingolstadt magic. The buttons, levers, and controls make modern cars’ interiors increasingly complicated spaces. Some of these will drive you crazy for days, or even weeks, until you figure out where everything is and what it does. In the A6 Avant, on the other hand, every button, every switch, however minute, and however rarely used, is exactly at your fingertips. Its sounds like a paradox, but making things simple to understand is an incredibly complex engineering task. To drive the A6 Avant, you only need intuition and common sense, not a half semester of studying a two-inch thick manual to grasp “the concept.” Sitting behind the wheel, Kelly will feel that the designers asked the driver where to put the controls, and how they should be marked, and then followed up on every suggestion - including, for example, a button on the center console. When twisted to the right, it will tilt the outside right mirror down every time the car is in reverse, so that the driver can see the curb when parking. JJ will find it irresistible. Kelly may find it necessary.

We discovered only two minor problems: the cruise control should be more accessible, and when the A6 Avant is driven with an opened sunroof at thirty-three miles per hour, the air pressure inside the cabin increases to such an extent that the radio becomes practically inaudible. Crack open a window, or increase the speed, and the problem goes away.

The handling is flawless. There is no torque steer - even at abrupt accelerations - and the thirty-eight-foot turning radius allows for easy handling. The ride is smooth and quiet, and the fuel consumption of seventeen miles per gallon in the city and twenty-five on the freeway will not create too big a hole in the family budget. Although the luggage space in the A6 Avant is smaller than in the Grand Cherokee (36.4 v 39 cubic feet), the overall cargo capacity is larger by one cubic foot (73 for the Grand Cherokee, 74 for the A6 Avant).

Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland interior

As to the sense of safety - sitting in the Grand Cherokee, one can understand why Kelly feels that the SUV’s powerful engine can overcome any obstacle. Its seventeen-inch wheels can take the family anywhere, and its steel seem mighty enough to protect the offspring from the perils of the outside world. We too felt invulnerable and omnipotent, but one has to balance perception against the facts. A tall and heavier Grand Cherokee is harder to maneuver then a more conventional and agile A6 Avant, and will likely have a greater propensity to roll over in tight, multiple lane changes. In case of an accident, the SUV’s mass - roughly 400 lbs more than in the Avant – may provide an added safety cushion against a smaller vehicle, but not against an immovable object (like a freeway bridge). In the Avant, the accident can perhaps be avoided altogether. When it comes to muddy roads, the Avant’s Quattro traction system powers all four wheels. We took the car to an off-road desert testing track, and were pleasantly surprised when the Avant passed the climbing and descending tests with flying colors. The car neither slipped nor slid, despite our best efforts to induce such behavior. We had to be cognizant of the Avant’s 4.2 inches of ground clearance when cresting the hills, but unless Kelly tries to take that shortcut across the back lot, the Avant’s traction should suffice. It is true that the Avant cannot compete with the Grand Cherokee’s extreme off-road capabilities. At a recent testing event in Seattle, aptly named Mudfest, we drove the SUV through a mud-covered track in the deep forest. We bounced over deep gorges and crawled up the sludge-covered inclines. This would not have been the place for the A6 Avant. On the other hand, how likely it is that Kelly will attempt to ford (to Chrysler, to Audi?) a 15-inch-deep mudstream in a forty-thousand dollar vehicle - especially if it is leased? JJ may try, but cooler family heads will undoubtedly intercede.

So, we suggest that Kelly and JJ test-drive the A6 Avant. And if all goes well, the family dispute will become a thing of the past. The next time, en route to the family brunch in Calabasas, JJ will shift into Tiptronic mode, hear the engine rev, remember the old Custom Cruiser, and whisper: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The station wagon, of course, not Aunt Ella.

Oh, and one more thing, dear readers. If you assumed that Kelly is the wife and JJ her husband - please check the article again. You may be right. But there is an equally good chance you may be very wrong.

Audi A6 3.0 Avant Quattro


For more Audi information

For more Jeep information


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