- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

Like people, automobiles have to make their bones every now and again. So it has come to pass for the Volvo XC70 Cross Country, the Swedish manufacturer’s all-wheel-drive version of its V70 midsize station wagon.

By itself, the V70 is a pleasant vehicle of decent design and good construction — if a bit pricey, as is the case with most European cars sold here.

The XC70 adds all-wheel drive, along with rugged lower-body cladding. It is intended for buyers who want the all-weather performance but are not into the sport utility craze.

For those who must have one, Volvo offers the XC90, a tall and heavy SUV that competes with the likes of the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.

In its eight years on the market, the smaller XC70 Cross Country has been successful, with sales lately of around 15,000 a year. But it’s become a familiar face and, while that does not necessarily breed contempt, the Volvo folks decided to re-establish its bona-fides, to make its bones anew, as it were.

They chose Baja, Mexico, that 1,000-mile-long peninsula that drops down from Southern California between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean. It is a largely undeveloped patch of the planet, with stunning mountains and valleys, rugged and beautiful ocean and sea coastlines, undulating deserts populated by sage and the majestic Cardon cactus.

Many of Baja’s roads are unpaved. They meander over rocks, dirt and sand, and their topography is forever changing, so the smooth stretch of today becomes tomorrow’s teeth-chattering treachery.

Baja is host to many races, amateur and professional, official and private, the granddaddy — and most famous — of which is the Baja 1000, where vehicles of all types hammer over the rugged terrain at sometimes frightening speeds, in a race that can keep a driver and co-driver cooped up in a hurtling vehicle for anywhere from 18 to 30 hours.

That was where Volvo decided to demonstrate that the XC70 Cross Country deserved respect. The drive route covered nearly 350 miles, of which about 160 were over primitive, unpaved roads.

In places, the sand was soft and mushy, and occasionally there were water crossings. None of it, however, was the slow-motion sort of off-road driving favored by some enthusiasts, where you crawl at less than walking speeds over terrain so rugged you sometimes need an on-foot guide to show you the way through.

On some segments the speed was a mere 25 to 40 mph, though with the dust and the rugged surface whacking the suspension system, it felt more like 55 or 70 mph.

Throughout, the XC70 handled everything the Baja roads served up. The cars were modified only slightly: Skid plates underneath to protect from rocks and other detritus, and tires with better all-terrain strength and flexibility than the standard all-season street tires.

Everything else was stock, including the five-cylinder, 2.5-liter engine that, with turbo-charging, delivers 208 horsepower. Throughout the run, the engine proved up to the task, with no shortage of power, as the five-speed automatic transmission shifted up and down as needed. There’s a manual-shift mode, but it was not used.

The test car had more than 1,000 punishing Baja miles on it, and its body protested occasionally over some of the more rugged sections. It sounded as if the Cross Country would develop chronic rattles and squeaks. Surprisingly, it did not. Back on paved roads, it was tight and quiet.

On the road, the steering had a soft feel that protected the driver’s hands from shocks. There was virtually no kickback as the front wheels hit rocks and potholes. Helping out were Volvo’s automatic stability control, as well as its adjustable, road-sensing suspension system.

The tested Cross Country was equipped for four, with the center rear position taken up by a dealer-installed electric-powered cooler for sandwiches and soft drinks. Up front, the bucket seats, in usual Volvo fashion, were designed for support and comfort, though they lacked lateral support. That was not important for the Baja roads, but could be a deficiency for people who like to drive rapidly on twisting mountain roads.

Comfort in back was decent, though space is restricted for anyone of large stature, and getting in and out takes some care.

The XC70 Cross country is priced at $35,495. With options, the test car came to $44,700. That’s not cheap, but if your desire is for a vehicle that can handle the harsh stuff as well as the seasons in your neighborhood, this one’s got the bones.

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