Divine Intervention

2008, Volvo, XC70

We are all haunted by our past, and Volvo´s motorcars are no exception. If Volvo had been a cobbler instead of an automaker, its shoes would be the safe, sensible ones your mother was always trying to humiliate you into wearing in public.

What a curiosity of human nature this is: Regardless of the object in question, if it´s safe and sensible it´s something to be shunned. Nobody ever won any style points, in other words, while parading the poop deck wearing a skinny bikini...and a life preserver.

So it´s enough to tempt even the most hardened agnostic into believing in some higher power when it comes to experiencing Volvo´s new XC70 sport-wagon at first hand. This, after all, is the direct descendant of dear, old box-on-wheels Volvos that haunt the minds of baby-boomers with visions of "quareness" (which are all the more humiliating for being literally descriptive). Even automotive sophisticates who knowingly compliment Volvo for its recent curvaceous modernizations still grit their teeth when trying to think of nice things to say about a Volvo station wagon.

Well, that just proves that the sophisticates in question didn´t rate an invitation to test-drive the new 2008 Volvo XC70 along the mountain highways and forest trails of Montana´s Glacier National Park. Visually, technologically and practically speaking, the car is transformed"as if by divine intervention, in fact.

Yes, there´s a semblance remaining of the previous XC70 Cross- Country" wagon that this newest, third-generation version replaces. There´s the elevated 8.3-inch ground clearance that compares well with several other off-road vehicles. There´s the black cladding around bumpers and wheel wells; only this time, it´s much better "frenched-in" and seamless with the wagon´s flowing lines. But the differences are perhaps even more conspicuous than the similarities: The prow, with its portholes and converging diagonals, is more aggressive, "harkier." The rear hatch, with its broadened expanse of glass, washes the interior with daylight and improves rear visibility. Aficionados will also note that this rear backlight evokes Volvo´s 1972 masterpiece, the P1800 "hooting Brake" wagon, which has influenced the design of Volvo´s new C30 sport- coupe as well.

According to Volvo spokespeople, it has come as a revelation (divine or otherwise) that customers buying XC70 wagons over the years are significantly more likely to put them to adventurous, off-road uses than buyers of Volvo´s more typically configured SUV, the XC90. That, it seems, was all the engineers needed to hear. The resulting XC70 Gen3 is an off-road wolf in highway sheep´s clothing, as several hundred pounding miles of high-speed rallying through the Montana Rockies have made abundantly clear.

For starters, the XC70 comes standard with Hill Descent Control"and it´s the only Volvo to do so. If you´ve not experienced this uncanny technology, suffice it to say that staring down a long, 45- degree slope with both feet flat on the floor and both hands on the wheel is nerve-wracking at first. But as you feel and hear the combinations of all-wheel-drive, anti-lock braking and skid-control systems inching the car downhill at the pace of an unperturbable turtle, the sense of accomplishment is bracing. The XC70´s accomplishment, that is; not yours.

When the speed picks up and the trail levels out, the XC70 will actually frighten an unsuspecting driver into sheer delight. For one thing, this is a two-ton vehicle meant to carry up to five occupants and from 33 to 72 cubic-feet of cargo. Typically, when a vehicle like this powerslides through the rain-soaked corner of a gravel mountain trail, thoughts of meeting one´s maker come to mind. In the XC70´s case, the combination of all-wheel-drive and Dynamic Traction and Stability 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 the rear wants to trade ends with the front"are kneaded gently back in line. It´s all hydro-electrical computerized highjinks as far as the technical explanations are concerned. But it feels like the hand of God playing with his Matchbox toy car. Deus ex machina indeed.

And when it´s all over with"when the bone-jarring leaps over whoop- dee-dos, the powerslides, the teeth-shattering potholes are all in the rearview mirror"the new XC70 glides back out onto the highway without the merest rattle or squeak. Under that muddy mantle of dirt and grit is a ride of ermine and silk. That´s a lot to ask of a car whose 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 of torque. The six-speed automatic transmission is new, as well. Fuel economy dips to 15 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway (using regular)"penance for power, alas. A comprehensive list of safety improvements (on a vehicle already vaunted for safety) would"and did"fill several White Papers at Volvo´s recent media introduction for the XC70. Two bear special mention: This wagon is the first to incorporate optional two-stage child booster seats that are cleverly built into the rear bench. The seats raise and lower (with their seatbelts) to accommodate different-sized toddlers, and in one fell swoop they eliminate a clutter of aftermarket boosters.

Adaptive cruise control is the other tour-de-force. It not only gauges and maintains constant distance between the XC70 and the vehicle immediately ahead but also warns when that distance shortens perilously. Moreover, it anticipates a potential collision by pre- loading the braking system. This tends to shorten stopping distance to the minimum that laws of physics will allow.

Volvo´s new XC70 is an unlikely overachiever in many ways. For one thing, it´s the sole remaining station wagon in a category wherein SUVs and "crossover" vehicles wage vague campaigns to define themselves. More affecting yet, however, is the way the XC70 juggles its commitments. It plays hard and travels well, yet beneath the guts and glamour is a coat-of-armor that´s anything but unsensible.

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Volvo XC70

2008 Vovlo XC70 front view
2008 Vovlo XC70 front view
2008 Volvo XC70 rear view
2008 Volvo XC70 rear view