Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 28 Oct 2007 08:00:00 PDT
We are all haunted by our past, and Volvos motorcars are noexception. If Volvo had been a cobbler instead of an automaker, itsshoes would be the safe, sensible ones your mother was always tryingto humiliate you into wearing in public.
What a curiosity of human nature this is: Regardless of the object inquestion, if its safe and sensible its something to be shunned.Nobody ever won any style points, in other words, while parading thepoop deck wearing a skinny bikini...and a life preserver.
So its enough to tempt even the most hardened agnostic intobelieving in some higher power when it comes to experiencing Volvosnew XC70 sport-wagon at first hand. This, after all, is the directdescendant of dear, old box-on-wheels Volvos that haunt the minds ofbaby-boomers with visions of "quareness" (which are all the morehumiliating for being literally descriptive). Even automotivesophisticates who knowingly compliment Volvo for its recentcurvaceous modernizations still grit their teeth when trying to thinkof nice things to say about a Volvo station wagon.
Well, that just proves that the sophisticates in question didntrate an invitation to test-drive the new 2008 Volvo XC70 along themountain highways and forest trails of Montanas Glacier NationalPark. Visually, technologically and practically speaking, the car istransformed"as if by divine intervention, in fact.
Yes, theres a semblance remaining of the previous XC70 Cross-Country" wagon that this newest, third-generation version replaces.Theres the elevated 8.3-inch ground clearance that compares wellwith several other off-road vehicles. Theres the black claddingaround bumpers and wheel wells; only this time, its much better"frenched-in" and seamless with the wagons flowing lines. Butthe differences are perhaps even more conspicuous than thesimilarities: The prow, with its portholes and converging diagonals,is more aggressive, "harkier." The rear hatch, with its broadenedexpanse of glass, washes the interior with daylight and improves rearvisibility. Aficionados will also note that this rear backlightevokes Volvos 1972 masterpiece, the P1800 "hooting Brake"wagon, which has influenced the design of Volvos new C30 sport-coupe as well.
According to Volvo spokespeople, it has come as a revelation (divineor otherwise) that customers buying XC70 wagons over the years aresignificantly more likely to put them to adventurous, off-road usesthan buyers of Volvos more typically configured SUV, the XC90.That, it seems, was all the engineers needed to hear. The resultingXC70 Gen3 is an off-road wolf in highway sheeps clothing, asseveral hundred pounding miles of high-speed rallying through theMontana Rockies have made abundantly clear.
For starters, the XC70 comes standard with Hill Descent Control"andits the only Volvo to do so. If youve not experienced thisuncanny technology, suffice it to say that staring down a long, 45-degree slope with both feet flat on the floor and both hands on thewheel is nerve-wracking at first. But as you feel and hear thecombinations of all-wheel-drive, anti-lock braking and skid-controlsystems inching the car downhill at the pace of an unperturbableturtle, the sense of accomplishment is bracing. The XC70saccomplishment, that is; not yours.
When the speed picks up and the trail levels out, the XC70 willactually frighten an unsuspecting driver into sheer delight. For onething, this is a two-ton vehicle meant to carry up to five occupantsand from 33 to 72 cubic-feet of cargo. Typically, when a vehicle likethis powerslides through the rain-soaked corner of a gravel mountaintrail, thoughts of meeting ones maker come to mind. In the XC70scase, the combination of all-wheel-drive and Dynamic Traction andStability Control (DTSC) keeps the driver on the straight and true.Misjudged understeers"when the nose plows and the car balks to turn"are reined back from the brink. Slap-happy oversteers"when therear wants to trade ends with the front"are kneaded gently back inline. Its all hydro-electrical computerized highjinks as far as thetechnical explanations are concerned. But it feels like the hand ofGod playing with his Matchbox toy car. Deus ex machina indeed.
And when its all over with"when the bone-jarring leaps over whoop-dee-dos, the powerslides, the teeth-shattering potholes are all inthe rearview mirror"the new XC70 glides back out onto the highwaywithout the merest rattle or squeak. Under that muddy mantle of dirtand grit is a ride of ermine and silk. Thats a lot to ask of a carwhose base price is $36,775.
For 2008, Volvo has equipped the XC70 with a larger motor"a 3.2-liter inline-six producing 235 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds oftorque. The six-speed automatic transmission is new, as well. Fueleconomy dips to 15 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway (using regular)"penancefor power, alas. A comprehensive list of safety improvements (on avehicle already vaunted for safety) would"and did"fill severalWhite Papers at Volvos recent media introduction for the XC70. Twobear special mention: This wagon is the first to incorporate optionaltwo-stage child booster seats that are cleverly built into the rearbench. The seats raise and lower (with their seatbelts) toaccommodate different-sized toddlers, and in one fell swoop theyeliminate a clutter of aftermarket boosters.
Adaptive cruise control is the other tour-de-force. It not onlygauges and maintains constant distance between the XC70 and thevehicle immediately ahead but also warns when that distance shortensperilously. Moreover, it anticipates a potential collision by pre-loading the braking system. This tends to shorten stopping distanceto the minimum that laws of physics will allow.
Volvos new XC70 is an unlikely overachiever in many ways. For onething, its the sole remaining station wagon in a category whereinSUVs and "crossover" vehicles wage vague campaigns to definethemselves. More affecting yet, however, is the way the XC70 jugglesits commitments. It plays hard and travels well, yet beneath the gutsand glamour is a coat-of-armor thats anything but unsensible.