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Review: 2003 Volvo XC 70 Cross Country Wagon In Snowy Alaska

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Volvo XC70 Parked At Arctic Circle

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SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide


    Usually, I drive a car for a week, around town and on the local 
highways and byways to see how it works in the everyday world. 
City parking hassles and commute traffic are balanced by highway 
driving on both the Interstate and the occasional uncrowded 
backroad. I drive maybe 250 miles, on average. This week is a bit 

    I spent most of last week far from home. To be more exact, I 
was in Alaska, to drive a Volvo XC70 from Anchorage to Prudhoe 
Bay. The program involved two consecutive 500-mile days, split 
between two drivers for 250 miles each, each day. Although some 
of that mileage was on clear pavement, most was on ice or snow, or 
both, over pavement or dirt.

    OK, I know what you're thinking. Why use the XC70, known as 
the Cross Country until this year? Volvo has a new SUV, the 
XC90. Why not use that instead? There are several reasons. First, 
according to Volvo Public Relations Manager Soren Johannsen, 
``XC90 owners are more likely to head toward Newport Beach; 
XC70 owners go to the Sierras.'' (Volvo's U.S. base is in Irvine, in 
Southern California, hence the S. Cal references.) Secondly, XC90s 
are in short supply. Volvo has a very popular vehicle in the XC90. 
Fifty percent were pre-sold when it was announced. And the supply 
is more limited than was originally intended, as a shipwreck in the 
English Channel resulted in the loss of a large number of early-
production XC90s. 

    The XC70 has some changes for 2003 that make it an ideal 
adventure vehicle, even if your idea of adventure doesn't include 
driving in extreme conditions. Although it looks pretty much the 
same as it has since its model year 2001 introduction, the 2003 
XC70 has the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine that is standard in the 
larger XC90. Rated at 208 horsepower at 5,000 rpm, with 236 lb-ft 
of torque available between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm, its output is up 
significantly from the previous 2.4-liter engine's 197 horsepower 
and 210 lb-ft.

    Previous Cross Country models used an all-wheel drive (AWD) 
system based on a center viscous coupling. The 2003 XC70 uses 
the same AWD system as the XC90, developed in collaboration 
with Swedish manufacturer Haldex. Basically hydraulic in action, it 
reacts very quickly to changing road conditions - within 1/7 of a 
wheel's rotation. Electronic sensors and controls can modify the 
system's response characteristics, for better operation in conditions 
ranging from dry pavement to loose gravel, snow, ice, or mud.

    Additionally, the XC70s used for this adventure were equipped 
with the Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC) system for 
surefootedness on the dicey surfaces expected. And the XC70's 8.2 
inches of ground clearance could prove useful in snow, mud, or on 
the paved highway if debris is suddenly encountered. All of the 
XC70s on this trip were fitted with studded tires, a necessity for 
driving any distance on ice and snow.

    Our driving route took us on almost any possible cold-weather 
winter driving surface. Alaska is having a mild, dry winter so far 
this year, and the first 250 or so miles from Anchorage to Glen 
Allen were mostly on dry asphalt, with intermittent patches of ice 
and snow. The XC70 just yawned, and the various traction and 
stability systems took it easy. From Glen Allen north to Fairbanks, 
it got a little trickier. Patches of dry, plowed pavement were 
interspersed with ever-longer sections of ice, with serious grooves 
from plowing. Even from the passenger seat I could feel the tires 
tramlining in the grooves, just like in the rain grooves in the 
highways at home, and also feel the AWD and stability control 
systems at work. It was all very subtle, and not at all intrusive. 
Conditions were similar to those experienced by anyone in the 
snowy parts of the Lower 48, and the XC70 handled them with 

    The first day was a warm-up. The second day was much more 
intensive and intense. A pre-dawn convoy start got us out of 
Fairbanks on icy pavement, which gave way to improved dirt north 
of the city. This is not my normal driving environment, and I was 
tiptoeing across some occasionally very slick surfaces, but the 
Haldex, DSTC, and especially, studs were doing their jobs well. 
Then, on a straight, downhill section of dirt road with patches of ice 
and snow, the car suddenly moved towards the verge. Unseen ice 
perhaps? Deeper than anticipated snow? I didn't have time to think, 
and reacted instinctively, turning the wheels toward the skid and 
gently getting off the gas to transfer weight forward and get more 
grip on the front tires. Nice try, then the surface was pure 
snow and ice and the outside front tire had discovered that the 
apparently level snow on the outside of the road masked a drop-off. 
And I'm headed towards the only road sign for miles. I got by the 
sign, and stopped, halfway into the snow on the road side. No 
damage except to my ego, no airbags deployed. I apologize to my 
co-driver, who seems as surprised as I am. A quick try at reverse 
shows us good and stuck, with the tires spinning furiously in 
powder snow.

    More cars come along, and we attempt to tow my stuck XC70 
out with another one. After much digging, and occasionally settling 
deeper, it gets enough traction so that, with the assist of the other 
XC70, it comes free. Hey, that 3,300-lb towing capacity comes in 
handy, and might even be a little conservative for short-term use. 
Volvo's tow ropes, with a built-in clevis, are strong and easy to use, 
too. The car is commandeered by the Swedish Volvo technicians, 
who remove snow from the engine compartment, check it out, 
pronounce it fit, and drive on in it. My co-driver and I move to 
another car. 

    Back in the saddle, I head north with extreme caution. Although 
I'm on solid ice and snow, there are no further incidents, and I 
quickly regain confidence. Following the local customs, I also stay 
as close to the center of the road as possible, slowing and moving 
to the right only when there is oncoming traffic. And there is a 
surprising amount of oncoming traffic, as the Dalton Highway is the 
only road between Southern Alaska and the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. 
It was built to support the Alaska Pipeline, which it parallels. There 
are plenty of pipeline inspection trucks, and many large tractor-
trailer rigs. The semi drivers are not slow.

    Alaska scenery south of the Brooks Range is North American 
Alpine. It looks similar to parts of the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, 
or the Rockies, but everything is bigger. You pass through the high 
country in the Lower 48 in a couple of hours at most. In Alaska, 
that's all there is, all day long. ``Beautiful'' barely begins to describe it.

    We stop for lunch and a driver change at Coldfoot, and then on 
to the North Slope over Atigun Pass, which has just been re-opened 
after being closed due to snow and high winds. Although the rolling 
hills and wind-sculpted bluffs directly north of the pass could pass 
for parts of Wyoming, the tundra is unlike anything else on this 
planet. In late winter conditions, the Dalton Highway seems like a 
causeway through a frozen sea, with the ever-present wind blowing 
a wispy cirrus of snow across the road. When the wind picks up, 
visibility decreases drastically, to near whiteout. Ditto when a 
southbound semi passes. The XC70's low center of gravity and 
excellent aerodynamic stability, even in crosswinds, help to make 
the drive safer and less stressful on both the driver and passenger. 
And it's not possible to praise Volvo seats enough. I was exhausted 
after each day, but from mental concentration, not physical 
discomfort. Four-plus hours at a stretch in a Volvo seat is not at all 

    The XC70 proved to be an excellent vehicle for Arctic 
conditions, and should work in any other loose and slippery stuff, 
too. I've driven the earlier version in deep mud, and it had no 
problems at all, so the Haldex-based AWD system should do fine 
there. The modern electronic control systems worked as well or 
better than old-style low-tech four-wheel drive, with more comfort. 

   But a quick note to anyone regularly driving a vehicle so equipped 
in slippery conditions: Volvo's DSTC, and all other similar systems, 
limit wheelslip by gentle application of the brakes to one or more 
wheels. This works, and well, but upon stopping after long 
stretches of ice the aroma of hot brakes was very apparent. The 
brakes worked fine, but being used that much it would be an 
excellent idea to check the pad thickness at regular, short, intervals. 

2003 Volvo XC70 Cross-Country Wagon

Base Price			$ 33,870
Price As Tested		        $ 39,020 (approximate)
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 20-valve
                                 light-pressure turbocharged
                                 and intercooled inline 5-cylinder
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 152 cu. in.
Horsepower			208 @ 5000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			236 @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled
                                 automatic with Geartronic manual    
                                 shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		108.8 in. / 186.3 in.
Curb Weight			3,827 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        18.4
Fuel Capacity			18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		unleaded premium gasoline
                                 (91 octane) recommended
Tires				n/a
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut
				  /independent multilink
Ground clearance		8.2 inches
Drivetrain			front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		18 / 25 / 20
0 to 60 mph				8.4  sec
Towing capacity			        3,300 lbs

Premium Package - includes:
  leather seating surfaces, power-adjustable passenger
  seat, power glass sunroof, trip computer		$ 2,595
Dynamic Stability Traction Control system		$   695
200-watt 4-CD in-dash sound system			$ 1,200
Engine block heater					$ n/a
Destination charge					$   660