SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide
Fashion is a funny thing, incorporating all the definitions of "funny." Its primary function is to attract attention, in the same manner that a bird of paradise's bright feathers or a peacock's tail attracts attention. Other animals grow their own dominance signals and mating plumage; (allegedly) civilized humans buy them.
What does this have to do with automobiles? On the road, a car is an extension of its driver's body. Consciously or unconsciously, people can proclaim their (desired) place in the primate pecking order by their vehicle choice. This can be by cost, outrageous style, or size. Cost and style require some knowledge on the viewer's part; size is obvious.
You doubt this? Spend time in many different vehicles of varying size, and watch the actions of other drivers around you. Driving a Chevy Cavalier, I felt like the Rodney Dangerfield character who doesn't get respect – people acted as if I wasn't even there. In a Hummer, well, people notice. Boy, do they notice....
So, what does that have to do with a 2001 Volvo Cross Country? Well... sport utility vehicles are immensely popular. They're often immense. And, although there are perfectly legitimate reasons to buy an SUV like the need to tow a heavy boat or trailer and have more secure interior space than in a pickup, most urban and suburban SUV owners are buying plumage. They don't NEED an SUV to transport the soccer team – a minivan (perceived to be the vehicular equivalent of neutering) or a full- sized van (instant '70s nostalgia, as hip as platform shoes) can do a much better job of that. And the vast majority of urban four-wheel drive vehicle owners never use the 4WD.
One reason that people give for buying a truck-based SUV is that it has four-wheel drive and can get through mud, snow, and other poor conditions. The Cross Country has all-wheel drive, and, if my recent experience in the hills of Vermont, and time in Quebec last winter in an all-wheel drive S70 sedan is any indication, mud and snow won't necessarily stop an all-wheel drive Volvo.
Modern trucks, and SUVs in particular, are remarkably comfortable. But step-in height can be daunting, and the large size and extra weight of a body-on frame vehicle means poor fuel economy. The solid-axle suspension of many four-wheel drive SUVs may be rugged and hard to break under extreme off-road conditions, but is less comfortable than an automotive-type independent suspension and offers lower handling limits at speed on pavement.
A day and a half spent driving a 2001 Volvo Cross Country on highways, secondary roads, and Class IV "legally passable" dirt roads in New England highlighted the Cross Country's versatility and capability. Its 2.4-liter, 197-horsepower inline five- cylinder engine reaches its torque peak of 210 lb ft at 1800 rpm for great real-world performance. It may lack the top-end punch of the T5, available only in the V70, but, matched with a five-speed Geartronic automatic transmission, it is a better solution to most everyday driving situations. The Geartronic is one of the best manual-shift mode automatics, but the Cross Country's power characteristics are such that it's not really necessary.
According to Volvo, the Cross Country is designed for "on-road use with some off-road capability." It is a car, with unit construction and a fully-independent suspension. The rear suspension is a multilink design similar to that of the S980 and V70, but modified for all-wheel drive and increased ground clearance. The front suspension is a MacPherson strut design, like that of other Volvos, but it has been modified for increased clearance and suspension movement, and features a wider track than the V70 due to the bigger tires. On pavement, the Cross Country handles like a car, despite the eight-plus inches of ground clearance. Its center of gravity is still far lower than that of a "real" SUV, and it takes corners like the well-designed contemporary European luxury car that it is. Turn-in is slower and its ultimate cornering abilities are less than those of the V70 T5, but, if you don't know what "turn-in", "roll couple", or "IPD" mean, don't worry about it. The Cross Country handles quite well, and offers good comfort.
Of course, the definition of "road" is debatable, and that's where the Cross Country's all-wheel drive shines. Unlike the four- wheel drive systems of most SUVs, it operates transparently to the driver. There is no "4WD" lever or button, and you don't have to be at or below a certain speed to engage four-wheel drive. You just drive it. The Cross Country is primarily a front-wheel drive car. In normal operation, 95 percent of the power is transmitted through the front wheels. But, when front wheel slip occurs, power is automatically transmitted to the rear wheels by a viscous clutch. Power distribution depends on traction, and is automatically adjusted to maximize traction. Additionally, Volvo's TRACS traction and stability control system adjusts power side-to-side by applying the brakes on one side to prevent wheel slip.
The Cross Country slogged right through on Vermont Class IV "legally passable" roads more suitable to a mountain bike than a car, due to mud, water, and (lack of) clearance. Much credit there should be given to the Pirelli Scorpion tires, which felt like they grew paddles in the really slick stuff. As for snow, I had the opportunity to drive a 1999 S70 AWD equipped with good snow tires in Quebec last winter. The road was normally open only to snowmobiles in the winter, but the all-wheel drive Volvo had no problem, even driven by a snow-phobic Californian like myself. Tire choice is paramount in snow or mud, and ground clearance is necessary for the ruts and bumps often found on poor dirt roads. Four-wheel drive low is not used often, even by hardcore off- roaders. (but when you need it, you really need it! At that point, usually, "road" is a figment of someone's imagination.) For most people, a full-time all-wheel drive system like that found in the Volvo Cross Country makes more sense, and is capable of dealing with any road and weather condition found in most people's lives. There are still uses for big SUVs. If you have to tow a heavy trailer on a regular basis and also need interior space, by all means get one. If you want to impress someone by the size of your vehicle, ditto. But if you want comfort and refinement, good road manners, and easy access, and do an occasional fishing trip down "roads" that look as if they were last traversed by a Conestoga wagon, check out the new Volvo Cross Country.