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2008 Volvo XC70 Review

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Launched in the Montana Rockies
By Steve Purdy

The good folks at Volvo chose to introduce the fresh, new, third-generation Volvo XC70 to the media in the big sky country of Whitefish, Montana. As we flew over Glacier National Park and into the Kalispell airport the yellowing aspens confirmed that fall is already upon these lovely mountains - a perfect time to be here. The aspens will soon be glowing gold.

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The new XC70 is the all-wheel-drive sport wagon (or is it a CUV?), based primarily on new S80 components, also shared with the Land Rover LR2. It would take more than a higher ground clearance and all-wheel-drive to think of it as an off-roader, so it’s not an SUV in that sense, but much leeway is granted these days in defining a genre. Volvo calls it a “family adventure vehicle” an innocuous as that sounds. We’ll figure out what to call it before we’re done here.

The first two generations of the XC70 were more station wagon than anything else. Sure, they stood a bit higher off the ground than most wagons, I suppose, and a bit more sturdy, but a station wagon none-the-less. In terms of appearance this new one looks a lot like an evolution of the old wagon and a little closer to the bigger, brasher, more SUV-like XC90 that has been a great success for Volvo since it came out nearly a decade ago winning “Truck of The Year” honors right out of the box. The XC90 was one of the first to be called a CUVs designed with attributes of an SUV on a car platform.

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I’m getting a close look at the new XC70, 4 inches longer overall and 2 inches longer in wheel base than its predecessor, on the lawn of The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, the rustic but upscale resort where we’re headquartered this week, on the shore of – you guessed it – Whitefish Lake. The air is cool with a light breeze coming off the still water and I kept waiting for the sun to go under the intermittent clouds so I could get some photos without harsh shadows and reflections. No luck, I had to shoot with the glare.

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While evolutionary the new design is attractive. The Volvo design language, first presided over by Peter Horbury of Ford, took Volvos from slab-sided rectangular boxes to curvaceous, stylish elegance. Most distinctive is the broad shouldered look created by the mid-body’s extention outward from the upper body. The horizontal shoulder line blends into the hood line approximating a V-shape tapering to a distinctively Volvo grille. The rear view has sort of a hexagonal theme reminiscent of the tail of the revered P1800ES sport hatch of the early 70s. Part of the large, complex, but lovely rear lights are integrated into the lift gate and the rear window extends lower than the side windows. Flat black cladding on the lower body all around and high onto the rear may sound less than aesthetically pleasing but is executed well adding to the pseudo-off-road image of the wagon.

Safety, of course, is one of Volvo’s claims to fame. Sounding the cabin are more airbags than you’ll find at a Senate hearing, and somewhat smarter ones as well. Integrated into the car’s substructure is way more high-strength steel than in any previous model adding to the weight and the exceptional crashworthiness. Chassis dynamics the equal of any manufacturer’s keep the car going straight and under control no matter what the conditions. Collision and blind spot warning systems help the driver stay out of trouble.

So what’s new about this one? Well, the company line is “plenty.”

Certainly a new engine leads the list. An in-line six-cylinder, normally aspirated with a Variable Intake System and Cam Profile Switching to achieve greater efficiency. Torque numbers are the same as the last year’s 2.5-liter turbo 5-cylinder at 236 lb.-ft. but horsepower is up from 205 to 235. On the road it feels less than exciting. Acceleration is tepid but adequate. (We’ll expect that good sense will prevail at Volvo and we’ll soon have the wonderful V8 that powers the XC90 and S80.) The competent 6-speed automatic transmission with manual mode makes up for the lack of grunt nicely. Towing capacity is a respectable 3,300 pounds.

The interior is considerably changed and upgraded as well. Without having them side-by-side I’d have to say the interior is virtually identical to the new S80 we tested last fall. There is a good measure of Scandinavian style and finesse. Seats are well bolstered but not overly firm. Controls are intuitive and laid out well. Materials are of good quality and good looking as well.

Other thoughtful features and options include:
- A slick and simple pair of Child Booster Seats integrated into the rear seat require just a simple pull on a release to allow the seat base to rise up a few inches and reseat itself sturdily so the youngster can be more safely and securely belted in –
- A world first, aluminum rails with adjustable cargo anchors in the rear cargo compartment which also has lockable storage,
- Hill Descent Control which will allow us to crawl down the steepest trail without going sideways, or worse yet backwards, lending credibility to the off-road credentials of the XC70,
- Radar-based Adaptive Cruise Control,
Collision Warning System with Brake Support and with Automatic Braking,
- Lane Departure Warning,
- Driver Alert Control to warn of falling asleep,
- My favorite: Blind Spot Information System with a light that warns whenever a vehicle is in your blind spot.

Our drive route was fantastic. More than three-quarters of the route followed mountain two-tracks, logging trails and a variety of gravel roads. Some were mighty rough and rocky. The Volvo folks really wanted to accentuate the off-pavement competence of the XC70. We certainly couldn’t call that off-road but we could call it rough road as we wound our way into Glacier National Park.

I was at the wheel though the first leg of the journey. One particularly twisty, rocky and rough section with natural speed bumps nearly two feet high at frequent intervals kept us bouncing and jouncing and thrashing around – a great test of the suspension, steering and brakes of the XC70 – a test passed with aplomb. The car behind was pushing me to go faster and faster as we both caught some air on some of those “yumps,” the rally-racing guys used to call them. Coming down off the bumps and pushing hard through tight turns the suspension caused no drama whatsoever and barely hit the bump stops. This suspension is tuned beautifully to feel competent on the smooth roads and the rough ones as well.

We gleefully challenged the XC70 to test its limits but I’m not sure we were ever near the limits in spite of pushing hard. The chassis is stiff as was obvious under these challenges. The standard 16-inch wheels with 45-series all-weather tires preformed well. Steering feedback was excellent and the brakes felt firm and in control with no grabbing or unpredictability. The chassis dynamic controls were confidently in charge so we experienced no slipping or sliding. Intense chatter-bumps on one particularly dusty section did not disturb the car a bit, though it made us grit our teeth.

With about 8.3-inches of ground clearance we bottomed out not once, although we hear that one of the journalists on an earlier wave did, poking a hole in an oil pan. The XC70 has no skid plates underneath, by the way, but we understand they can be added if you want to do some serious off-roading. Approach and departure angles make it possible to dive into and out of gullies and ruts that would make most competitors scrape the bumpers, or worse. But, again, this is not an SUV designed for serious off-roading. It is, however, particularly adept on these rough back roads.

After a light lunch on the shore of beautiful Lake McDowell in the cool fall sunshine we switched drivers and headed to the other side of the park, where 5-year-old forest fire damage had turned the barren trees gray leaving the forest floor lush with small and colorful new growth. More great dirt roads challenged the Volvo. My friend and colleague, Gary Witzenburg, took the wheel for this section. He complained not a whit as I hammered it through the morning section so I’ll not complain as he pushes hard. This section included more miles of two-tracks and narrow dirt roads clinging to the shoulders of the mountains but the surfaces were not nearly as rough. At one point we were only 12 miles of dirt road from the Canadian border.

As we finished the run we had an opportunity to test the hill decent control system, also shared with Land Rover, along a powerline trail with a long, steep drop. For those who have not had this experience it can be a bit disconcerting at first and it’s way more fun on a slippery surface. Our XC70 handled the slope easily as it danced straight but slowly down the loose, rutted slope with our feet fully off all pedals.

Pricing on the new XC70 is nearly the same as the previous model in spite of these substantial upgrades and features. Just a few hundred bucks separate the two. This one begins at less than $36,775 and loaded up with options you’d probably struggle to get the price up to 42-grand.

I’ll admit that I have a fondness for Volvos since my mechanical mistress for many years was a sexy red ’65 P1800S. For a while there Volvo lost a good deal of its distinctive personality. But, of course, many automobiles did as well throughout the 80s and 90s. Part of the charm of this car, to me, is that it isbhgb, along with other Volvo products, exhibiting and developing that distinctive character again.

So – what do we call it?

Let’s just call it fun.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved