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2008 Volvo XC70 Review

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More Ink for Volvo's Family Activity Vehicle
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

Road trip – road trip – how I love a road trip!

Most vehicles I test – usually one per week – get driven around our rural/suburban environment here is south central Michigan. We have few challenging roads here and little opportunity for sustained, long distance driving or pushing through the glorious twisties found in mountainous regions. So, I’m always thrilled to be able to take a good road trip with one of these testers, especially to the mountains.

This week we’re headed for the Smoky Mountains again. As regular readers might know, I seem to visit and write about the Smokies about once a year. Two years ago it was a Lincoln launch along the highway known as “The Dragon” because of its endless twisties. Last year my pretty blonde and I did a week there in a Toyota Sienna exploring the depths of the Smoky Mountain National Park. This time we’re taking her Dad, Herb, and her brother, Jim, down for a visit to Cades Cove where the ashes of Herb’s wife (the kids’ mother, of course) are strewn. Herb’s time is coming much faster than any of us would like and he wants to make one more visit there while still on this side of the hereafter.

Our ride for this trip is the new-for-08 Volvo XC70, sort of an off-road-competent station wagon, or we could categorized it as a crossover (car-based) SUV. Volvo, in its best market-speak, calls it a “Family Adventure Vehicle,” whatever that means. It looks rather like a good old-fashioned station wagon with nicely updated styling and a higher, more athletic stance suggesting all-wheel drive – which, of course, it has. The XC70 exhibits that wonderful broad-shouldered Volvo styling language that has made the brand distinctive to look at and instantly identifiable. This one has a bit too much superfluous trim around the fog lights, exhaust outlets, chin and tail edges for my tastes but it still has a competent and stylish look.

Our colleague, Carey Russ, and I attended and wrote about the launch of the new XC70 in Northern Montana last fall, so the car has had plenty of ink – mostly very positive – on But a one-day drive at a launch event is not like living with the car for a week, especially making a big road trip with four people. Now that’s a real test. I’m not sure we’ll get an opportunity to experiment with the hill decent control or other back woods features but we’ll try.

We four adventurers fit easily with all our stuff, including Herb’s clunky wheel chair. The XC70 boasts an admirable 72.1 cubic-feet of cargo area with the 40/20/40 rear seat folded. Of course two of them had to ride back there so the seats were not folded, but there was still more than enough room for our stuff. The floor panel of the rear compartment lifts up to reveal shallow storage – perhaps 3 inches deep – where we stowed our umbrellas, her shoes and a folded blanket for picnicking.

Out on the freeway we found the XC70’s road manners very good. Even loaded as it was we noticed no bounce or sway, just a good, solid feel. Everyone was comfortable in the generous Volvo leather seats at first; Jim in front with me and my pretty blonde and her Dad in the back chatting away. Soon Herb was riding in the front seat as he found it difficult to get his big feet in back there. Seems like the sill is a bit higher than it needs to be and the space between the pillar and the seat front is pretty small. On the way back Jim rode in the back and found his seat a little tough on his back side after about 6 or 8 hours.

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Controls are all logical, attractive and easily figured out with the exception of the setting of the clock, which is managed by way of the trip odometer reset pin imbedded in the instrument cluster. No one had reset it for daylight savings time, so we had to. The clock itself is in the instrument cluster in front of the driver which is rather disrespectful of the passenger. A clock really ought to be in the center of the dash so everyone can see it, don’t you think?

Acceleration is a bit tepid, most noticeably on an uphill entrance ramp, as power from the new inline 6-cylinder is less than stellar. At 235-horsepower and 234 pound-feet of torque that’s much better than Volvo’s earlier 5-cylinder but weak compared to the XC90’s V8. The car weighs just about 2 tons, after all. No other engine options are available. The six-speed automatic transmission with Adaptive Shift Logic and a manual mode is a good mate for this engine. More about that interesting trans later.

The nine-hour drive was easy down I-75 to Knoxville then east on I-40 to the Foothills Parkway, then south on Highway 321 to our resort. We managed just about 24-mpg, which is pretty good since the EPA estimated the range to be between 15-mpg in the city and 22-mpg on the highway. All my engineer friends insist that the on-board info system that told me that is plenty accurate, so I’m believing them. My manual calculations support that number. We verified that highway mileage on the way back and got 24 again.

The morning breeze was balmy and the skies partly cloudy as we headed up the mountain to our destination the next morning. Cades Cove, for those not fortunate enough to have been there, is a pristine valley, about five miles long and a couple miles wide, high in the southwest end of the Smoky Mountain National Park. It used to be a thriving agricultural community until the early part of the last century. No one lives there now but a dozen or more of the original buildings – homes, churches, barns, a grist mill – have been preserved and an 11-mile, one-way, single-lane park road now encircles the cove with two short crossover lanes. Abrams Creek runs right down the center of the cove and out the southeast end where it becomes Abrams Falls.

To get to Cades Cove we turn right at the Sugarlands Visitors Center just inside the park near Gatlinburg and wind along Little River for about 20 miles, then left at the fork onto Laurel Creek Road winding about 7 miles up to the cove. Both are tight and twisty enough to challenge the car’s handling. Just short of the cove traffic stopped to watch an adolescent black bear trundle through the brush about 50 feet from the road. We were able to get a thorough sense of the XC70’s suspension and steering on these wonderful mountain roads. The conventional independent strut design in front features anti-dive geometry. In the rear a fully independent multi-link system is mounted on a light weight alloy sub-frame. Steering is a power-assisted rack-and-pinion (again, pretty conventional) design. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard as are 16-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires. Everything feels firm and balanced. Steering input is not too light and very precise. We swing and sway rhythmically through the scenic roads as Jim, an accomplished fly fisherman, cranes his neck to scan the river assessing where the rainbows, browns and brookies might be hiding.

We crept along the narrow, rough road in the Cove with windows down and sunroof open looking for wildlife (without finding much) and basking in the natural beauty of the park. It’s not even summer yet but many folks were up there. Dogwoods were in full glory and the meadows were lush with dense grasses at least a foot high. The dense forests were approaching their intense summer verdancy. At the far end of the cove, about mile past the Hyatt Lane crossover, the park road climbs a short hill and turns 90-degrees left with the edge of the forest on our right. To our left we can see many hundreds of acres of meadows and pastures, where cattle and horses once grazed, separated by creek beds, rustic fencing and lines of young trees. Now only the deer graze these meadows.

Atop the knoll stood a mighty maple tree - until about 15 years ago when it was struck by lightning, split down the middle and killed. Mother Nature has now cleared that site entirely leaving only one hunk of barely exposed root deep in the grass to indicate where she stood. Under that tree is where Dorothy’s ashes were strewn 20 years ago, and on that spot Herb’s will be as well when his time comes. In spite of sharing the spot with quite a few other visitors we had a nice contemplative time there on the knoll.

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I took lots of photos, of course, including some of the Volvo. It really is a good looking station wagon, I think. The XC70 shows a base price of $36,775 and is quite well-equipped at that price, including all-wheel drive, hill descent control, lots of safety stuff, dual-zone climate control, all the power features we can no longer do without and up-to-date chassis dynamics. Our test car includes the Premium Sound Package including Sirius Satellite Radio for $1,650; Premium Package (leather, power moon roof, and a few other niceties) for $2,995; Climate Package and Child Booster Seats for $875; 17-inch SARGAS alloy wheels for $550. With destination charge of $745 our bottom line is $44,065.

Warranty covers the whole car for 48 months or 60,000 miles. No special coverage on the powertrain.

Rain was predicted for the following day but we were not deterred. We wanted to drive the Roaring Fork Nature Trail directly above the town of Gatlinburg. A few hikers and nature lovers know it is there but it is seldom crowded. Just turn at the #8 light up the hill and keep right at the fork in the road at the famous Park View Hotel, where they used to have the best pot roast in town and some of the best views. The driving nature trail winds for about 7 miles through the steep hills behind Gatlinburg and lots of hiking trail branch off from a series of parking areas along the route.

The Roaring Fork Nature Trail is another of those one-lane, one-way paved paths through the forest where it is best just to creep as slowly as your car can go. I simply selected first gear and idled along stopping to take photos of wild flowers and wild turkeys along the trail. On the down slopes, in first gear with foot off the pedals and ‘hill descent control’ button off, the transmission and engine would combine talents to control our decent, keeping rpms to between 1,500 and 2,500. Nice feature indeed.

The standard hill descent control feature, by the way, when engaged will keep you straight and in control going very slowly down the slipperiest and steepest of slopes. Think of a wet clay hill out on the back trails, and how much fun it would be to slip and slide down scaring your passenger half to death. With over 8-inches of ground clearance and skid plates protecting underneath parts we could do some pretty exciting off-roading if we wanted to.

We decided later that day on a second drive up to Cades Cove to see if we could spy some more wildlife. We thought it likely that the hour before dusk with many fewer folks in the Cove might make for more relaxed and visible animals. We were right. Dozens of deer, plenty of wild turkeys, and two black bears entertained us on that last loop.

But our best stop was a final visit to the memorial knoll where four deer grazed contentedly a few hundred feet away. It was so quiet that we could hear only the soft breeze, a variety of songbirds and a pair of bobwhites whistling for attention in the creek-bed about 150 yards down the grassy slope. A straight line of soft green young aspen trees follows the fence line at the bottom of the hill defining the foreground of a painterly scene with a dense woodlot of dark green conifers and mottled green mixed deciduous trees in the background.

I’m thinking, when my time comes to kiss this world goodby I’d be pleased to join Herb and Dorothy on this gentle, beautiful knoll overlooking Cades Cove. I’m reminded of the James Talyor song called “Traffic Jam. ” The last verse goes, “When I die, don’t want no coffin, I’ve thought about it all too often – just strap me in behind the wheel and bury me with my automobile.” I guess I’d be happier to just be cremated as strewn up there too. Let somebody have the car.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved