SAUSALITO, Calif. -- A parking lot pitched below north-side footings of the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco Bay serves as a temporary track to test some "smart" brakes aboard the slick and sensuous XC60, a new crossover utility wagon from Volvo of Sweden.
Two long rows of orange plastic cones on the black asphalt lot form a traffic lane which ends abruptly at a big blue barrier.
The barrier, composed of pliable plastic and filled with air like a balloon, is designed to resemble a car stopped dead-center in the lane of traffic.
Our instructions for this safety test in the XC60 seem quite clear: We simply steer the vehicle down the coned traffic lane at a speed below 20 mph -- to simulate slow-go movement on a congested city street -- and proceed to run into the inflated blue barrier.
Well, not exactly, because the XC60 happens to be one of the most intelligent cars in the world.
It carries some special hardware for safety and can actually out-think a driver at times and make intelligent decisions regarding the safe operation of the vehicle.
For example, a laser-based vehicle control system aboard XC60 is capable of detecting an immovable object in the path of the wagon. If this equipment determines that the driver is not going to stop the vehicle, then it will activate the brakes on its own.
Volvo labels this new gear as City Safety and describes it as a driver support system designed to apply emergency braking automatically to prevent or at least lessen a low-speed collision.
The equipment includes a laser-guided closing velocity sensor mounted on the windshield and a link to "smart" electronic controls which can determine if a crash is about to occur.
In our test, we send the XC60 at 18 mph toward the barrier but at the last moment the car activates those brakes and tires screech to a halt with our front bumper posed only a few inches off the balloon car.
Those savvy controls on XC60 decide that since the driver is not stopping the vehicle it must do so.
New XC60 -- riding on the chassis of a car and rigged with a turbo-charged engine plus all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction -- comes with many more intelligent electronic safety controls which characterize Volvo vehicles.
Among the alphabetical soup of acronyms for standard safety gear is an anti-lock brake system (ABS) and traction control (TRACS) plus an improved Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) system which employs an on-board computer and various lateral plus linear motion sensors tied to the ABS, TRACS and the engine's throttle.
DSTC monitors the vehicle's forward progress and -- if dangerous oversteer or understeer skidding is detected -- it acts automatically to correct the unstable maneuver by braking wheels or cutting the throttle.
In addition to DSTC yaw control, Volvo overlays the device with a Roll-Over Protection System (ROPS) which adds Roll Stability Control (RSC) with gyroscopic sensors measuring the risk of rolling over.
If these gyro sensors detect that XC60 is about to roll, the RSC automatically counteracts that body movement by activating the DSTC, which then may brake an individual wheel and force an understeer maneuver to block the roll.
Then there's a new gizmo labeled as Trailer Stability Assist (TSA). Its intent is to help stabilize the XC60 when towing a loaded trailer.
The 2010 XC60 is svelte in the design of its curvy exterior package and expansive in the size of its passenger cabin where there's room for five riders plus a generous cargo bay set behind the two rows of seats.
Built on the platform that underpins Volvo's mid-size S60 sedan, the XC60 rides and drives more like a sporty car than a lumbering wagon.
It can be quick and enthusiastic too, thanks to a turbo-charged in-line-six engine aboard.
The new 3.0-liter plant achieves high torque at relatively low engine speed and without a typical turbo's acceleration lag. With aluminum block and dual cams, it produces 281 hp at 5600 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque between 1500 and 4800 rpm.
To control the engine's high output of torque, Volvo adds an electronic automatic transmission with six forward gears and Geartronic sequential shifter.
Shift-it-yourself maneuvers are made by throwing the console-mounted shift lever to the right through a gate, then pushing it forward to bump up a gear or pulling it back to drop down one gear at a time.
The active-on-demand AWD system -- with engine power split between front and rear wheels through a wet multi-plate clutch -- comes from Haldex, a Swedish pioneer in AWD mechanisms.
An electronic device on the rear differential governs the system while also communicating with the car's engine control module and brake controller. When spin sensors at wheels detect rotational differences between front and rear tires, this mechanism reacts by sending more power to non-slip wheels and less to spinning ones. Ultimately, the unit brings both front and rear wheels back into equilibrium -- and the CUV proceeds in a straight-line path.
We note that XC60 also stocks significant passive safety measures, beginning with a stiff core superstructure of high-strength steel ringing the passenger compartment and crush zones front and rear to absorb impact forces of a collision and deflect them from the cabin.
Riders are shielded in the cabin by frontal air bags and side-impact air bags in front seats plus Volvo's side curtain-style air bags.
And to damp the whiplash effect during a rear impact, front seatbacks instantly move rearward to pare acceleration forces on the passenger's back and neck.
The design of the cabin is good -- there are comfortable seats for passengers and lots of luxury goods.
Front seats consist of broad form-fitting buckets separated by a floor console. The second row shows two defined seats and a center section with fold-down armrest.
Second-row seatbacks split 40/20/40 and fold so you get numerous configurations for hauling people and gear.
A long list of premium equipment is standard for XC60, and optional gear ranges from bi-xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps and a DVD-based navigation system with back-up camera to a panoramic moonroof, 12-speaker Dynaudio premium sound system and Volvo's Blind Spot Information System (BLIS).
Volvo's price points for XC60 climb up from $37,200.