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Vail Valley: A super Swede in a slimmer package

Andy Stonehouse
Vail, CO, Colorado

It struck me, after a few days in the compelling new Volvo XC60 crossover, that the Swedish auto company – one of Ford’s last remaining international sub-brands – hadn’t been mentioned, at all, during the recent auto world meltdown.

I realized this was not entirely true, recalling a conversation I’d had at the Denver Auto Show with the former owner of the former Glenwood Springs-based Volvo dealership, which rather suddenly ceased to exist not so long ago. He had some not-so-kind words about the company’s aggressive strategy of dealership closures (this was before Chrysler and GM were forced to do the same thing) and the resulting inconvenience for mountain Volvo owners. Glenwood to Broomfield for servicing is a long haul.

Whatever the case, the XC60, Volvo’s primary new product during the recent unpleasantness is, despite a downsized dealer network, a fine machine. It also demonstrates a European-styled commitment to responsibility and safety that’s quite admirable, all things considered. There’s just a slight issue with mileage. More on that in a moment.

The responsible angle is that the XC60 occupies a considerably more size-appropriate position in the company’s periodic table of automobiles. The larger XC90, apparently the only Volvo certain Denver-area dealers actually sold in the last five years, appears to be a bit of a galoot compared to the more austere XC60.

In a way, the new 60 almost looks like a jacked-up and slightly lengthened version of the company’s relatively new C30 coupe-the nose, high shoulder line and very large glass liftgate and wraparound tail lamps are very similar, design-wise; inside, there’s ample room for full-sized passengers in the back, a substantial cargo area and a generally ample and grounded driving experience throughout.

The safety angle, always a big part of Volvo’s panache, is an all-new accident prevention system that will either strike buyers as super-cool, or a little freaky. “City Safety” uses the same sort of forward-scanning radar that has been found in predictive cruise control systems of the past few years, but in this case, it gets considerably more involved.

Tool along at up to 18 mph and, if you absent-mindedly do not notice that the driver in front of you has failed to advance at a light, the XC60 will sense the object in your path and rather briskly, and automatically, dumps the brakes.

Like an airbag, it’s a system you’ll hopefully never need to use, and one that you don’t particularly want to experiment with – the leap of faith being that you need to totally hand over judgment to the Volvo’s computer and not feather the brakes yourself, or you’ll still potentially pound into someone’s bumper. It’s kind of all or nothing.

Leading the safety brigade

My recent trip to Detroit, where Ford and Volvo (and, in the old days, Jaguar/Land Rover) co-develop much of their technology, revealed that Ford’s engineers let Volvo be the leading edge when it comes to safety systems. A similar system employed on the new 2010 Taurus instead blinks a big red light and sounds a buzzer but does not actually hit the brakes for you, the logic being that Ford’s Joe Sixpack clientele are probably not quite ready for the self-braking SUV.

All combined, the XC60 is far from a Swedish version of the Ford Escape. The ride is smooth, albeit a little hollow sounding, perhaps due to all of the extra crash-proofing, and cornering was absolutely balanced with no larger SUV-style diving and dipping, and overall handling quite impressive.

I tried the XC60 with the larger, optional 300-horsepower turbocharged six-cylinder and it indeed will provide oodles of boost at any altitude and angle of incline. I also gave it my best try to drive it like a C30 coupe and was moderately amused by the results, although the quasi-sporty, leather-covered seats won’t hold you in place if you attempt to autocross the machine.

It was also earnestly capable in a moderately challenging offroad test, with poised AWD agility, good clearance and my first practical test for the probably Range Rover-derived hill descent control system, which will do the downhill braking for you at speeds up to about 10 mph.

Scaled-down Swede

Inside, the XC60 has all of the larger 90’s dandy bits, just scaled down. There’s tons of leather, a preponderance of stippled surfacing and even some faux crocodile-style embossing on the leather door inserts.

The moderately gigantic steering wheel hides a bit of a surprise – the joystick and two-button control for the new DVD navigation system, hidden on the front right side of the wheel. I spent the first two hours in the car poking the standard contols on the center stack and wondered what the hell was going on, until I noticed the new and, again, safety-inspired control.

Once you figure it out, it’s a fairly intuitive way to access what is quite an accurate and interactive navigation system, with a strange selection of landmarks (every fourth restaurant, sometimes, in a completely random fashion).

The synthesized navigation voice also had a great Easter Egg hidden inside: The standard male voice replicates some chatty American voice, but when you’re very close to your turn, suddenly the posh “Nigel” voice from the Range Rover system pipes up. Odd, that.

the XC60’s slightly pricier iteration includes a bucket of other niceties, ranging from Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio (plus the auto world’s first across-the-line application of HD radio) to a full-cabin, laminated panoramic roof with the cursory sliding opaque screen and a somewhat small opening sunroof above the driver’s compartment.

About the only negative, besides the inherent curiosity of the City Safety deal, was the mileage. It’s advertised as getting up to 22 mpg on the highway and that was about it, on mandatory mid-grade (or better). Admittedly, better than the 19 mpg from the V-8 equipped XC90, but a little surprising, nonetheless.


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