A few years ago, one of my close friends who is no longer with us but who I will always carry in dear memory and who was one hell of a sales guy, pitched his 911 (993) convertible to me as the perfect family car. His logic was that it was four-wheel drive, he had fitted a ski rack on the back (i.e. the hood), his children were small enough to fit in the back seats and he wasn’t much for carrying luggage, saying it was better to buy what you needed once you arrived. I have no idea whether the guy on the picture below follows the same logic, but when I saw this 911 last week it made me think back on the above, but also on what at least to me seems to be an eternal question, namely what the ideal family car really is?
Addressing the same question from another angle, I sold my 2017 XC90 last week, having owned it for two years. In many ways the XC90 can be claimed to be the perfect family car. Roomy, safe, comfortable, silent. Comes to that what the Geely money has allowed Volvo to do, namely create a really nice interior, install a hi-fi system from Bowers & Wilkins that kills it (if you’re in the market for an XC90, this is a must-have option!), and letting the designers build one of the best looking SUV’s out there, in my humble opinion. As someone who grew up in Sweden in the 80’s and 90’s with Volvos on every corner looking like they’d been drawn with a ruler, including on the inside, that’s quite a sensational development.
Unfortunately however, the Chinese money apparently ran out before Volvo got to the “fun to drive” part. The different driving settings are basically useless, the optional 4C air suspension seems to be missing any air whatsoever and shakes the car in its passengers even at small bumps, and whereas the four-cylinder T6 engine has enough power, it has the character – and sound – of a sewing machine. So yes – the XC90 is the ideal family car for the parent who’s into transporting both small and large children and lots of stuff, but not really for the one who as me, though that could be combined with at least a little thrill of driving.
One reason I thought so is that before the XC90, long-time readers of this blog will remember that I had an AMG E63 Wagon from 2014, and that was a car that was splendid on achieving both of those, and was (and is) thereby descsribed by many as the perfect family car. Roomy, comfy and discrete enough to transport all your belongings together with grandma without her noticing anything, yet at the turn of a switch (or push of the right pedal), a beast that eats 911’s for breakfast and allows mum or dad to have a bit of fun when they’re on their own. And it does all this with a build quality that is Mercedes at its best – something I feel they’ve lost in the new E-class.
So why on earth did I replace? Well the problem is that to my mind the concept doesn’t hold up. To start with the fun to drive part, if you have more than one car, you will typically drive that when you’re alone. Whilst more fun to drive and definitely faster than most other Mercs, the E63 remains a 5-metre long, 2-ton heavy estate – that’s right, it’s made for transporting stuff, not racing around a track, and when you do so, most family members don’t want to feel like they’re being driven around a track. Secondly, although discrete, everyone who knows (and there is, as I discovered, quite a few who do) wants to race you. That’s fun at first, much less so in the long run. Finally, if you live in any other country than Germany, having 600 hp under the hood that you’re never able to exploit in full leads to a certain frustration and thereby, strange behaviour. I started realizing something was really wrong when I was engaging the launch control at the exit of toll stations in northern Italy. Pathetic is only the foreword.
Three examples, three different types of cars, in my view none of them ideal for the driving-inspired parent with family needs, seeking perfection. So if none of these, what is then the perfect family car? Let’s start with the build quality side of it. This isn’t specifically related to family cars, but it is related to any car claiming to be perfect. My remark would be that although Volvo and other brands, notably Asian, have come a very long way in terms of build quality, they’re not quite there yet. I saw Volvo as a leader in this regard and bought the car thinking they had, but was forced to note that in some areas, it isn’t yet the case, something that certainly goes for others as well. You may be able to live with this better than I could, but when shopping outside of the traditional premium brands (you know who they are) this is something to be aware of, and to be checked.
The next observation should be an obvious one, but looking at the current trend in car sales numbers, clearly it isn’t: for the fun-seeking perfectionist and all other things equal, an estate will always be superior to an SUV. On one hand this simply reflects the laws of physics: just like an electric car is glued to the road thanks to the low center of gravity, an estate is lower than an SUV. I truly don’t understand why you would buy, say a GLE 63 AMG rather than an E63 AMG, or a X5 M instead of an Alpina B5 Touring (given BMW refuses to build an M5 Touring). At a weight of 2.5 tons or more and the mentioned higher center of gravity, engineers will always be on the losing end in their fight against the forces of nature, trying to compensate what cannot be compensated and essentially ruin the good sides of an SUV (read comfort) withouth really improving the driving experience.
Given how few of us travel on snowy mountain roads with any regularity, that leaves practicality as the only additional argument for an SUV I can think of. Well, I had to lift my bags around 15cm higher to get them into the XC90 than into the E63, and the latter had a larger boot. The estate also doesn’t put dirty marks on your trousers when you get in and out of it. This is certainly not an argument against four-wheel drive which is one of the most underrated safety features of these last years and sure, if you live in a place where four-wheel drive isn’t enough and you need an SUV, you have my full understanding, but I would in that case prioritize comfort over driving thrills and try to maximize that (Range Rover anyone?). For the rest of us the praticality argument doesn’t really work, so assuming driving pleasure ranks higher on your agenda than showing off, an estate will be superior.
Ok, so a four-wheel drive estate from a traditional brand then. We can disregard Porsche who doesn’t really build one (the Panamera Touring is still a bit small), and as mentioned, the current E-class isn’t a favourite of mine. Sven, my co-writer on this blog, argues that an Audi RS6 is, perfect, ticking most boxes and being less “racy” than an E63. I would still claim others would love to race it though, as its fabulous looks send a clear message. And over in Munich, BMW for some strange don’t seem to identify the market opportunity I’m chasing here, since they refuse to give us a 5-series with anything more than the supercharged straight six in the 540i, which is a fine engine but not more. Alpina does though (I wrote about this wonderful in a recent post you can find here), in the form of the very understated B5 – is that the anwer?
I’m not going to waste more of your time since for the moment, I don’t have an answer. I do need a replacement for the XC90 though so I’m giving this quite a bit of thought right now. If you have any thoughts and ideas feel free to share them, they will be highly valued!