There I was, riding an Arctic Cat to an igloo village in a country known for its eccentric traditions. This is home to Dragon Boat Racing, a World Wife-Carrying Championship, the World Mosquito-Killing Championship, Inter-national Ice-Swimming Contests, and the Anthill Competition, in which the winner is the person who sits naked on an anthill for the longest period of time. Even though the area's not first in the minds of most people for vacation destinations, by the end of the first evening in Lapland (the northern region of Finland), it was clear why Volvo adds this locale to its testing sites for evaluating the traction capabilities and winter-worthiness of its all-wheel-drive SUV and wagons.
While testing in Finland, we drove the 2005 Volvo XC90 V-8 for a closer look at what makes this model extreme-weather worthy. We drove in all conceivable conditions, from hot deserts below sea level to harsh, severe winter above the Arctic Circle. During our own driving evaluations in Finland, as well as through our interviews with cold- and hot-weather-testing engineers, we learned that the new powertrain of the XC90 V-8 not only brings more power and torque to the equation, but also advanced technology (in some cases, where you'd least expect it) as a result of Volvo's unforgiving test regimen.
Cold-weather testing takes place north of the Arctic Circle in Kiruna and Jokkmokk, Sweden, locations at latitudes between 64 and 65 degrees and at the World Mellatracks in Ivalo, Finland (www.testworld.fi). Split-traction handling, braking, and cornering maneuvers in snow and ice are evaluated. Farther south, near Volvo's headquarters in Gothenburg, Volvo has a large facility where 20 to 100 vehicles are tested at a time, often in back-to-back shifts. In addition, at Volvo's proving grounds in Phoenix, Arizona, a group of 13 Swedish engineers, currently managed by Peter Borjesson, execute reliability and development tests. This team evaluates the performance of materials and fuels in this hot atmosphere and also simulates domestic driving patterns.
The Arizona facility has about three-dozen vehicles that run seven days a week in two shifts. In some cases, the team heads up to Canada for winter expeditions; however, there is a climate chamber on site that ranges from -40 to 54 degrees F. All data is transferred between North America and Scandinavia on a daily basis.
Interior Climate Control
Step into a vehicle on a hot summer day, after it's baked in a parking lot for several hours, and the radiating heat can feel like your head is in an oven. Likewise, driving under uncomfortable circumstances is distracting and more dangerous.
Volvo engineers conducted a test in which two groups of drivers operated vehicles over the same route, with two different interior temperatures. The first group ran at 70 degrees, while the second drove with a cabin temperature of 80. The result? Drivers operating at the higher temperature made more mistakes and missed more actions than those in the cooler cabins.
Volvo's answer to this problem is its Electronic Climate Control system. Using two temperature sensors (one solar and one computerized), the system decides the best method by which air will be heated or cooled and where to direct the flow inside the cabin. Air-conditioning systems dehumidify at temperatures above 37 degrees to ensure that moisture is removed from the interior windows. Ducts on the dashboard can heat the windshield wipers, while floor outlets help evaporate moisture from snowy boots. B-pillar vents double as window demisters in the winter and rear air-conditioning ducts in the summer. These controls are meant to be intuitive and designed to be operated with gloves on. Additionally, drivers and passengers can vary the climate from side to side. Other cold-weather features that supplement climate control include dual-level seat heaters and rear window and sideview mirror heaters.
While the in-cabin environment is important, Volvo also pays close attention to the air outside. In extremely cold temperatures, fuel doesn't combust as completely as in warmer weather, leaving more unburned particles floating in the air. Therefore, Volvo equips all its vehicles with filters for incoming air. This optional air-quality system uses a gas filter that purifies air entering the vehicle as well as that being recirculated. Sensors also help detect gases, such as nitrogen oxide, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, and vapors from fuel. Vents are engineered to automatically close when these particles are present, leaving Volvo's passengers uncontaminated.
Volvo's electronic all-wheel-drive system now comes with Instant Traction. This new technology (which Volvo is the first automaker in the world to introduce) improves start-up traction and enhances traction on slippery surfaces. Developed by the Swedish company Haldex, a nonreturn valve is connected to software that controls the base torque programmed into the AWD system. What this means is when starting off from a standstill, torque (about 60 pound-feet worth) is precharged in the system, because the nonreturn valve prevents the unit from becoming totally drained of hydraulic fluid. This reduces the amount of wheelspin needed to transfer power to the rear wheels.
In addition, an electronically controlled clutch helps improve traction. The front and rear wheels are automatically synchronized by the AWD system, allowing the multiplate clutch to create and distribute near-instantaneous traction where it's needed. When a front wheel slips just a fraction of a revolution, power is transferred to the rear wheels. This helps braking, throttle release, or when the Dynamic Stability and Traction Control anti-spin system is activated. This computer program compares the ideal behavior of the vehicle with the real-time situation by evaluating steering angle, lateral acceleration, wheel speed, and yaw speed to detect deviations and help to correct them immediately. If your vehicle under-steers when cornering, the system reduces engine power and provides braking, using the inner wheels to get you back on the desired track. Similarly, oversteering the outer front wheels triggers the brakes to help prevent the rear from sliding sideways. The AWD is programmed to continuously communicate to the transmission and stability system to keep things straight and predictable.