- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2001

When Chrysler introduced the first minivan back in 1984, the auto world was taken by storm. Chrysler caught the other automakers flat-footed.

As a result, many manufacturers were forced to offer warmed-over cargo vans until they had time to produce the real deal. Eventually, the popularity of the breed made for far more competition and far better product, demanded by increasingly sophisticated buyers.

As with minivans, so too with SUVs. The sustaining popularity of sport utes has spawned some interesting variations good and bad. Some were quickly exposed as charlatans: poseurs in plastic cladding. Others, though, proved to be genuine and welcome alternatives to the traditional SUV. One such vehicle is Volvo's V70 Cross Country wagon. The recipe for the XC is straightforward. Take the trucklike traction of a sport ute; add the carlike ride and sensible sizing of a station wagon. Mix in a generous helping of Volvo safety features and voila. The ingredients yield one well-done hybrid, a worthy traveling companion, on or off the road.

The Cross Country's platform is adapted from Volvo's S80 and V70 models, stretched out and beefed up for this application. Despite the car-based chassis heritage and the lack of such traditional SUV staples as a two-speed transfer case, don't underestimate the toughness of this Volvo. During my test drive, the Cross Country calmly rolled over some washed-out roads that would've sent many SUV wannabes crawling back to their garages.

The 2001 model is the first year of the second generation for the Cross Country. The new model is wider, taller, stiffer. It hauls more and costs less (about $2,000 less) than its predecessor. Volvo gives buyers their comeuppance with a boost in ground clearance (now 8.2 inches) and seat height (plus 1 inch). Underneath, an aluminum front skid plate and body cladding on doors and wheel arches offer protection when traversing rough country.

The suspension is independent front and rear with MacPherson struts up front and multilink in back. Volvo's all-wheel-drive system pushes 95 percent of the power through the front wheels on dry pavement. When traction suffers, power is shifted to the aft wheels as needed, in whatever proportion is required. AWD works in concert with Volvo's TRACS system, which applies the brakes to tires that are slipping and transfers power to the tires that can find traction. The Cross Country rides on beefy (215/65 R16) Pirelli Scorpions. The tires are versatile, with enough grip for slush or off-road traction, yet a low enough tread profile for quiet running on the highway.

A turbocharged, 2.4-liter, five-cylinder engine provides the power for the Cross Country. The aluminum motor makes 197 horsepower and 210 foot-pounds of torque, and it's linked to a five-speed automatic transmission. The light-pressure turbo pulls smoothly through all gears and feels well matched to the vehicle. Gas mileage is comparable to the competition (18 city/22 highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency). While the XC is rated to pull trailers up to 3,300 pounds, like any four-cylinder, regular towing would figure to tax the resources of the small-displacement motor.

The Volvo XC boasts a handsome cabin, with plenty of room for people and their belongings. Available options include a navigational unit that uses Global Positioning System satellite technology and sound systems good enough to make your home stereo blush. A flexible floor plan allows for many different combinations of people and cargo. The back seats are of a three-way, 40/20/40 split/fold design. The middle section accommodates a number of options, such as an electric cooler or a small, removable storage bag.

The XC is one of the most safety-conscious, all-road vehicles in the market. Volvo safety features include dual-stage front air bags, inflatable side curtains and air bags, a whiplash protection system and standard four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock.

I've had the opportunity to roll up almost 2,000 miles on several Cross Country wagons in the past few months, on road surfaces ranging from smooth-as-glass superhighways to rutted, log-strewn roads that would give a mountain lion pause (or is that paws?). I came away from my time in the saddle with a lot of respect for how well this Volvo solves two very different engineering challenges. It combines carlike comfort on the highway with sure-footed stability in rugged terrain or foul weather. Well-designed and well-executed, Volvo's XC is a versatile, capable and attractive alternative to the standard SUV.


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