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It’s a funny thing, really. Volvo knows that the thing keeping it afloat through the past decade in America has been its line of XC vehicles, and company executives have even come out to say that both small cars and wagons will continue to disappear from the lineup here. Yet if you look at the range of XCs, the only one really considered fresh has to be the XC60. Does Volvo really have so much faith in its products that it thinks even the decade-old XC90 can remain relevant in today’s market? And which XC is best?
The truth is, those of us in the media haven’t really been able to say for sure. In the closing days of Ford ownership and during the rebirth under Geely, not many media test cars have made it out of Volvo of North America’s Rockleigh, New Jersey headquarters. As a result, we really just can’t remember how cars like the XC90 and the XC70 compete with today’s competition. So when the company invited us to visit the whole XC family together in one week, we did what every family should do in early summer. Yes, it’s time for a road trip.
Volvo’s XC story started with a trim package that grew so powerful, it eventually got its own model name. In the final days of the first-generation Volvo V70, right before the turn of the century, a V70 Cross Country model was added with additional ground clearance as well as some tougher-looking textured, unpainted plastic bumpers. Just following the introduction of an all-new 2001 model, the name changed to XC70 and the model has done nothing but smother the standard V70 since. For the 2011 model year, the V70 left our market completely, replaced by a front-drive base model version of the XC, which had previously offered all-wheel drive as standard equipment.
Our own XC adventure starts not with the latest generation of that original though, but with an XC60 R-Design, the top version of the newest model to wear an XC badge. This is also the point where we should offer full disclosure — our road trip plan isn’t exactly a voluntary thing. Volvo’s US PR team gave us this XC60 and told us if we’d like to drive the other cars, we’d be able to find them just on the other side of the Utah/Colorado border in the small town of Gateway. With 900 miles between us and there, we stopped asking questions and hit the road.
In the world of good road trip cars, the XC60 has to be near the top of the list. It has all the right qualities, including a kickin’ stereo, seats that would stay comfortable for days, a quiet ride, and solid handling. When the scenery goes vertical, the panorama moonroof opens up the sky for a better view of the Las Vegas strip or the stunning cliffs that make Arizona’s small claim to I-15 some of its most memorable miles. We might ask for a little higher fuel economy, but an average of about 23 mpg from a 300-hp turbocharged crossover isn’t horrible. It’s able to cross the country at an astounding pace, though our only test of its abilities in the other use of the “XC” is a climb over a curb to take photos under the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. Our first day of driving ends without drama in the small town of Beaver, Utah, where we try to stay at the Beaver Lodge. It isn’t exactly the ski chalet we imagined, so instead we settle for the charming Butch Cassidy Days Inn. Surprisingly, there isn’t a single gunfight all night long.
Our driving partner is slow to get up the next day, giving us a chance to take in the R-Design’s unique elements we overlooked in the rush to escape Los Angeles the day before. It’s surprising to see that its wheels measure 20 inches across because the ride’s never jarring and the steering wheel doesn’t turn with the unexpected weight brought on by a lot of oversized wheel-and-tire packages. Last year, we turned a 2010 Volvo XC60 into a project car on 20-inchers and lowered H&R suspension, and we must say the R-Design is a much better effort in the search for sportiness. It’s well sorted overall, plus it has the blue gauges and upgraded interior. For 2012, it’ll also have 30 extra horsepower.
Utah is a weird place, and we’re not just talking about the Mormons. Its landscape constantly changes, from red rock cliffs near the Arizona border to rolling green hills backed by snow-capped mountains closer to the middle. Continue north and you’ll hit the Great Salt Lake, itself a very weird thing, with the equally special Bonneville Salt Flats off to the west. But we head east when I-70 forks off, which sends us climbing the mountains of Fishlake and Manti-La Sal National Forests. On the other side of that small range, we venture off into a barren, rocky landscape looking for the only gas pump in probably a hundred miles (it’s in Emery, 12 miles off the highway on a road that looks straight out of the opening scene of No Country for Old Men.) We travel through the town of Green River, a place we’ve rested at once before. It consists of little more than a gas station with an Arby’s built in, and when we arrived last time, loudspeakers were playing Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” “Ironic” could describe that, but “creepy” paints a better picture.
The next long stretch of flat miles approaching Moab test the XC60’s sport-tuned suspension, but it continues to pass with flying colors. It’s a heavy vehicle, this Volvo, but it pays off out here over washboarded desert highways. We buzz right past Moab’s arches, which poke up in the distance, and things get boring for a while until we head down a canyon to Gateway, which glows red in the afternoon sun. Finally there, we park the XC60 and prepare for things to get far muddier.
Gateway Canyons Resort is essentially all of Gateway, Colorado. It was built by Discovery Channel creator John Hendricks about five years ago and according to some in-room materials was built on Hendricks’ “favorite place in the world” from his years of travel. It is surrounded by natural beauty and should be considered a road trip destination not just because it’s right in the middle of the country, but also because it’s fairly affordable, offers a ton of outdoor activities, and is home to an amazing auto museum with the 1954 Oldsmobile F-88 concept car as its centerpiece. For us, it’s exactly the type of place those “active lifestyle” couples from Volvo’s ad materials would take their XCs.
Thanks to its infotainment system, car-like handling, and airy cabin, the XC60 has already cemented its position as our favorite on-road Volvo XC before we can even try the others. We go on to learn that the XC70 is nice, but its seats are just a bit less supportive, its handling a little more wallowy, and, until the 2012 year, its infotainment offerings are a generation behind. That’s better than the XC90’s, which are two generations behind. We therefore ditch the roads almost immediately and take each car out for a long trail session.
A small trail runs northeast from Gateway, along the Dolores River and across the border into Utah. We’re told that many years ago, the area was popular with bandits running from trouble in one state or the other, and that one can still find remains of hideouts tucked away in the rocky red cliffs. On this muddy morning, the only thing running for the border is our blue XC70.
Much of the XC70’s appeal comes from the fact that while it feels and acts like a wagon, it can bomb through small creeks and across clay-coated fields with ease. We even have it headed down a drop-off on three wheels at one point. Just as loveable as its ground clearance is the way the T6 engine and the Haldex all-wheel drive work together to keep the XC clawing forward. Through deep puddles, the car wiggles a bit and then rights itself and charges again; over rocky climbs, we can feel the torque hopping around to find its best way to the ground. It’s great to feel a car so often associated with soccer moms feeling so mechanical.
The XC70 isn’t without its drawbacks, however. Its ride is comfortable and quiet and on the road, and for that duty, it offers a great seating position. Out on the trail, we feel slightly too low to the ground and the view is tricky over rises, where the long hood pokes out and the tall dash doesn’t help the case. Speaking of the dash, the migration of the S60’s screens and controls can’t come soon enough, which means it’s good that those changes are just a few months away.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to still love about the XC90, which we take out on another lap of the wilderness with sun above but storms looming. The first thing hits us immediately. Volvos used to smell a certain way, and it was good. It was welcoming. The XC90 still has whatever it is that makes older Volvos smell that way, and we’re instantly taken back to the first trip we took in one, not to mention glory days driving S60Rs and V70Rs.
Another way the XC90 benefits from being from another time is that in 2001, SUVs were designed with off-road intentions. That’s immediately apparent, not only in the way the truck barrels through pools of water but in the view out the front. The seating position is high and the dash is low, with the hood falling away in a manner that makes cresting hills a good deal easier. Relative to this classic SUV, the XC70 and XC60 feel numb on dirt trails. The XC90’s steering is light but quick, and it also communicates ruts and rocks through to the driver in a manner lost on the other XCs. It’s the only vehicle we drive without a turbocharger, but it still feels the most eager, the most like an oversized rally car.
We get to the furthest point out from base camp and start to turn back when the skies open up. The road surfaces, which flip-flop between clay and fine sandstone dust, were already slippery anywhere without rocks poking up. It’s like a slip-and-slide now. And yet, the XC90 seems bothered by really low speeds. It begs to be pushed hard through the muck and rewards us for giving it a chance to prove itself. It’s the most fun we’ve had in a vehicle in some time, which makes us forget about how much of a dinosaur this car is in today’s fast-changing market. This truck epitomizes longevity.
And yet, after the fun is over we do sit in the XC90 for a while looking at the tiny digital readout from a time before iPod integration and 3D navigation screens, or the dials and the buttons from before everyone decided dashboards were too cluttered. The time has come for a full interior re-do and a little freshening on the outside. But if you haven’t driven an XC90 in a while, go try one and you’ll understand why we don’t think a full reboot is necessary. Like Sweden’s version of the venerable Range Rover, a decade in, it’s still really good.
Our week of Volvos ends with an active lifestyle raft ride down the Dolores, but if you’re familiar, you’ll know it isn’t too active. The unexpectedly relaxing float gives us an opportunity to ponder the question we must answer before this adventure concludes. Which XC is the most XC?
The XC60 R-Design wins the highway battle, but falls short off-road and on storage space. The XC90 is a hoot on trails, but it just has too many omissions from what’s expected of a luxury family cruiser these days, despite being Volvo’s only vehicle capable of hauling more than five people. It’s the XC70 that hits a sweet spot for us. It has enough off-road talent for the occasional dirt road, a low center of gravity that helps handling and should join the Haldex in keeping it stable if inclement weather sends the tires slipping, and it also has far more useable cargo space than the XC60, both in the rear and on the easier-to-reach roof rack. It’s also quiet and composed on the road and, though we probably don’t need to say it again, will have the latest Volvo electronics when the 2012 model year rolls around. And it doesn’t hurt that we think it’s also the best-looking XC Volvo has to offer. If we weren’t leaving Gateway by plane, the XC70’s the one we’d be driving home.
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