- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

With the introduction of a V-8 engine in the Volvo XC90, Volvo aims to capture even more of the very profitable upscale SUV market. That’s both good news and bad news for Volvo. Unfortunately, the XC90 has received so much attention that buyers are overlooking another very capable vehicle in the Volvo lineup — the XC70.

Much to its credit, Volvo has never given up on the wagon, and it’s finding that there’s a very specific market segment that doesn’t want to own (or be seen in) an SUV. Volvo has found that those who prefer wagons want the ability to haul friends, family and loads of stuff, without compromising their ability to go on the occasional backwoods fishing trip, or a skiing weekend in Vermont. They want something that can go just about anywhere, but still has the comfort and convenience of a real car.

And to demonstrate just how capable the XC70 is, Volvo organized two test drives, the first across Alaska in the dead of winter, and the second across the Baja Peninsula on mostly unpaved and unbelievably crude roads.

Not for the faint of heart, the first route took us from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay over 1,000 miles of ice-packed, snow-blown roads. Temperatures ranged from zero to -30F with winds more than 50 mph. Wind chill temperatures were — well, you figure it out. There was nothing special about our test cars, other than studded snow tires, engine-block heaters, and an extra spare tire.

Phase 2 of our test drive took us south of the border into the heart of the Baja Peninsula. It was a test to see how well the XC70 endured the rigors of driving the back country of Mexico, and it presented a challenge to even the most durable auto writer. The route zig-zagged back and forth across the Baja over routes that can barely be described as roads. Literally hundreds of miles were populated by rocks, sand, cactus, and an occasional abandoned car — always upside down and stripped of all usable parts.

There was no such thing as a smooth road — rocks and sand were everywhere, but even though the roads gave our test car an incredible beating, the carlike suspension of the XC70 admirably soaked up the bumps of the truly miserable roads. One of the big advantages of our XC70 was its low seating position that eliminates the “head toss” problem associated with most SUVs.

Volvo’s ever-present, but transparent, all-wheel drive never failed, even where the sand/dust was more than 2 feet deep or in thick soupy mud after a sudden rain. Four-wheel capability is automatically engaged when wheel slippage is sensed, so it’s always there when you need it.

The 208-horsepower engine has plenty of power for the most rugged terrain, and the five-speed automatic transmission seems to get the most out of the engine. The manual shift feature was particularly helpful for providing engine braking on hilly, twisty, mud-slicked roads. And the antilock brakes came in handy more than once during our 500-mile desert odyssey.

Even though the roads and terrain were outrageously bad, we were more than comfortable inside. There was no need for heated seats, but the ventilation system did a great job of keeping endless miles of dust out of the cabin, and the many power-seat adjustments make it possible to stay comfortable on our two 250-mile days.

The heater and defrosters worked perfectly for a marvelous view of the great outdoors. It didn’t take long to get out of range of even the most powerful radio stations, but an ample supply of CDs and the XC70’s great audio system kept us entertained.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of room inside for an extra spare, our luggage, a satellite phone and all of the other paraphernalia needed for an outdoor adventure.

After two days behind the wheel of the XC70, traveling over some truly inhospitable terrain, we continue to be impressed, not only with its rugged capability, but with its many creature comforts as well. The most amazing thing is that nothing on our 10 test cars ever broke. In fact, several of the journalists involved in the test drive wondered if perhaps we had been duped into doing an endurance test drive for Volvo. We found out later that the cars we drove would not be sold, but would be sent back to Volvo’s proving grounds for a complete teardown to see what could be made better.

So, now we have to ask ourselves, who needs an SUV?

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