Having spent a day driving, riding in, and poking around Volvo's new V70 and XC70 wagons, I sat down to brainstorm a list of adjectives and characteristics to describe the cars in hopes of generating a story lede. Reading them back sounded a bit like a personal ad for a sweet girl who hasn't had many dates, bless her heart: capable, competent, convenient, safe, roomy, useful, willing, well-equipped, smells good. Hardly the stuff of heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed fantasy, eh?
These personality traits do not suggest any failing in the design of the newest Volvos. Rather, the iconic Swedish brand has learned its lesson. It has offered vehicular adrenaline pumps like the hyperventilating V70R turbowagon, and frankly they didn't work out. Oh, we magazine types waxed hyperbolic, but the market didn't know what to make of them-just as the Buick faithful were flummoxed by the Grand National GNX and T-types. So in lieu of lusty emotional appeal, these all-new wagons are imbued with more of everything the Volvo faithful appreciate.
To begin with, they really are all new, based off the recently revamped S80's underpinnings. The previous cars were S60-based, and the 2009 S60 will also migrate to this flexible new platform. Dimensionally, this architectural upgrade buys two inches in wheelbase, over four inches in length, and about an inch and a half of floor-to-ceiling height, all of which adds roominess, including an extra 0.8 inch of rear knee clearance and two cubic feet more luggage space. Accessory nets, tie-down points, bag hooks, and a cargo divider/dog cage optimize the utility of the 29.7-56.5-cubic foot caboose, which can now be accessed through a power liftgate.
Structurally, there's more high-strength steel and improved side-impact reinforcement. But perhaps the most welcome improvement is aesthetic, especially in the case of the XC70, which swaps its homely matte gray faade for a sleeker, mostly body-colored prow that incorporates the latest Volvo cues, like a chrome-ringed trapezoidal black eggcrate grille framing an enlarged Volvo iron-mark logo, like those of the XC90 and forthcoming XC60. In back, the top half of each vertical taillamp now opens with the wider liftgate. Sleeker exterior styling is echoed inside, where the trademark slim "floating" center console can be faced in burled walnut or an aluminum trim decorated with random lines. XCs can be had with a striking high-contrast interior of dark seats, dash, and door-panel inserts against parchment floor and sides.
An additional engine cylinder also comes with the S80 upgrade, replacing coarse five-bangers with an inherently silken 3.2-liter straight-six rated at 235 horsepower and 236 pound-feet. A variable valve timing and lift system fed by variable-length intake runners increases engine responsiveness, with 90 percent of peak torque available at just 2000 revs. Bolt on a twin-scroll turbocharger and those numbers climb to 282 and 295, but for at least the first year, we won't get this T6 drivetrain (too sexy?). That's a pity, because it greatly improves passing power and it simulates the sound, if not quite the thrust of BMW's twin-turbo six. The sole transmission choice is an Aisin Warner six-speed automatic offering Geartronic manumatic control. A "Sport" automatic mode programmed into a V70 T6 AWD we were cruelly teased with did a fab job of holding gears and intuitively downshifting, but here again, that feature was deemed too racy for American Volvoists.
The high-rise XC70 increases its minimal off-road cred with improved approach, departure, and break-over angles, the ability to ford foot-deep streams, and with Hill-Descent Control cribbed from sibling Land Rover. An electronically controlled Haldex wet-clutch all-wheel-drive system is standard on XCs and optional on Vs. The system sends 95 percent of torque forward until the wheels slip, at which point up to 65 percent can be routed aft. The brakes equalize torque from side to side. Volvo set up an off-road course, carefully groomed to accommodate the 8.3-inch ground clearance (up from 8.1). It looked like as rough a road as anybody making payments on a $30,000-$40,000 car would tackle, and indeed the XC70 bounded over the bumps and dips easily. The suspension never bottomed out, but it did hit the top of its travel rather harshly several times, suggesting there's more damping in jounce than in rebound (we're assured that travel in each direction is virtually identical). The harshest bumps elicit a clompity-clomp racket that smacks of excess unsprung weight-or perhaps is the car's way of saying "slow down."
What would a Volvo launch be without new safety technologies to talk about? The biggest innovation is a pair of integrated second-row child safety seats, standard on the V70, optional on the XC70. Designed to keep children in a booster seat for as long as possible, the seat cushion pops up to one position for children aged six to 10 years and to a taller one for three to six-year-olds. This also improves their view out, which may quell rear-seat whining almost as effectively as a costly rear-seat DVD system. The side-curtain airbags now extend 2.4 inches lower down the door to better protect kids. But wait, there's more: new dual-chamber front-seat-mounted side airbags, second-generation whiplash-protection system, blind-spot detection, and available adaptive cruise control with collision-warning that primes the brake system (the brakes don't apply like those on Mercedes PreSafe when a collision is deemed inevitable). The key fob can even detect the heartbeat of a would-be carjacker inside the car if the alarm has been tripped.
So how are they to drive? Both models have gained over 400 pounds, which overwhelms the big new six. Volvo pegs zero-to-62-mph times at between 8.4 and 8.6 seconds. That's respectable, but about a second slower than our measured 0-to-60 times with the previous models' T5 turbos. On a German autobahn, the big brakes demonstrated reassuring retardation with no perceptible fade or judder after several 140-to-60-mph decels. The variable-effort power steering is adjustable in three settings: ridiculously light, too light, and almost right. Road feel is filtered out in all settings, but the calibration is linear and the car goes where it's pointed quite faithfully. Ride quality is Euro-crisp in the V70, less so on the XC70's taller-section tires. The XC also allows a bit more roll in corners.
Basically, these cars never beg to be flogged. You won't have to leave early to get the kids to soccer practice, but neither will you be tempted to take the long, twisty road home. While passion may not motivate Volvo sales the way it does BMWs, Volvo owners will surely learn to love their wagons deeply, and for a long time. But c'mon, Volvo, surely slipping a T6 engine discretely under the hood would add a moderate, sensible amount of passion to the mix without compromising the cars' virtuous natures -- kind of like dressing that same nice girl from the personal ad in naughty underwear.
| 2008 Volvo V70/XC70 |
| Base price || $35,000-$38,000 (est) |
| Vehicle layout || Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door, wagon |
| Engine || 3.2L/235-hp/236-lb-ft DOHC I-6 |
| Transmission || 6-speed automatic |
| Curb weight || 3900-4100 lb (mfr) |
| Wheelbase || 110.8-110.9 in |
| Length x width x height || 189.9-190.5 x 73.3 x 60.9-63.1 in |
| 0-62 mph || 8.4-8.6 sec (mfr est) |
| EPA city/hwy fuel econ || 15-17 / 24-25 mpg (est) |
| CO2 emissions || 1.03-1.08 lb/mile (est) |
| On sale in U.S. || October 2007 (XC70); January 2008 (V70) |