Volvo Hones Cars With Lots Of Ice Time

Chances are good when you think of Volvo cars, you think of safety. They like that you do. Chances are also good that you think of boxy, and with the third generation XC70 wagon, I am pleased to report that Volvo has discovered they are sexy.

I was recently spirited to the top of the world to test two Volvos: the XC70, and the S80 sedan. It was appropriate that Volvo wanted me in Swedish Lapland – it’s bloody cold. The engineers have been testing their cars here since the 1960s, taking advantage of the old Broadway adage that if a car can make it here, it can make it anywhere.

I flew into the airport in Kiruna. In the fading sunlight of 2:30 in the afternoon, it was hard to miss that you weren’t in Ontario anymore. Experiencing just eight hours or so of daylight at this time of year (and most of it is pretty grey), the temperatures hung about -17C. Which is doable for a decent Canuck, until the wind starts blowing and our Scandinavian hosts started chuckling.

After a briefing, I got the keys to a pearly grey S80. After three airports, and a day and a half of travel, this was what I’d been waiting for.

The drive from Kiruna to Riksgransen, the first destination, was estimated to take an hour and 45 minutes. There is only one route from the coast, and I shared the narrow highway with large trucks that blew past with practiced nonchalance.

The road was covered with ice, and the wind can leave blown snow around any of the numerous bends. It was a perfect introduction to both the car and the setting. In the pitch black of 5 p.m., I set out on the unlit roadway.

The Swedes may not have invented winter, but they sure know how to drive in it. The S80 was as sure-footed as a leopard, especially with the advantage of studded tires – a necessity in these climes. At 140 km/h, there was not a single incidence of slide or loss of control.

Another driver in another Volvo pushed past at 180 km/h. Considering the conditions, this was pure stupidity. Volvo saved him from himself with the all-wheel drive and Dynamic Stability and Traction Control.

DAY TWO brought my introduction to the rather forbidding surroundings north of the Arctic Circle.

The area is famed for its rich iron ore deposits discovered in the 1600s. In 1904, the famed Iron Track Railroad was finished to expedite moving the ore out. Engineers building the railroad persevered through blizzards, bitter cold, severe spring flooding and huge avalanches. The 475 km of track joined the city of Lulea on the Baltic Sea to Narvick, Norway.

This is where Volvo engineers set the standard for their cars.

I was reminded of many Canadian settings here in Sweden. Towering mountains with their ski chalets, numerous lakes, and a dry biting cold that takes your breath away. Volvo’s choice of environments bodes well for our country. Many people forget that Canada is considered an extreme weather country for cars; Volvos are already set to contend with our home extremes.

This second day was about the XC70. This wagon looks good. Gone are the square-cut edges and lines that once shouted of a sensible but boring purchase. From the rear, the car has a macho stance on 209 mm of ground clearance. It’s got road stick that makes you realize outsized SUVs are wasting themselves on unused potential.

The day’s map looked simple enough: drive a large irregular loop riding along the coasts of several fjords in Norway, just a kilometre from where we were staying in Riksgransen, Sweden.

It’s a little disconcerting to see unfrozen open water to your right, and frozen lakes to your left. It’s more disconcerting to have a huge snowplow lead you through several kilometres of an inland pass as snow furiously blows across the road, leaving large drifts. The weather turns on a dime here. Luckily, so do the cars.

Back at the facility, four tracks were set up to thrash around in the cars. On a frozen lake, I had the chance to test both the XC70 and the S80 on a couple of slalom courses, a tight turning course of cones and an off-road jaunt resembling the passage into my Northern Ontario cottage in winter.

After appreciating the Dynamic Stability and Traction Control on the main roads, it was the first thing to be shut off to truly appreciate what it was doing. With it off, you could feel what you were taking for granted. Snap it back on, and the solid ice was pretty much no issue at lower speeds.

Volvo’s Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept, an option, is adjustable in three settings on both the XC70 and the S80. Depending on conditions, you can select Comfort, Sport or Advanced, and the car responds accordingly.

I PUNCHED IT into Sport for the tight icy tracks, and felt both cars respond. The S80 showed remarkable control, with a tighter body and noticeably faster steering response. The sporty feel of this car belies its large sedan status.

Even though the sides of the courses were huge snow banks, it was hard to believe the car would stay on course at higher speeds, but it did. I was bracing for a few thumps that never came, though I watched another driver who had no qualms about putting both vehicles through their paces at astonishing speeds. No thumps. Heading the wrong way, you back slightly off the steering, keep off the brakes, and the car would realign itself every time.

Both cars feature all-wheel drive with Instant Traction, Volvo’s system that distributes power between the front and rear wheels with an electronically controlled hydraulic clutch. Initially, this can take a little getting used to; when the power transference takes place, you realize the car is making a decision before you are.

The XC70 could easily replace what most people are using much larger SUVs for. I jammed it up the narrow twisting roads that mimic most off-road settings in our country, and the 3.2 L inline six-cylinder engine tackled everything smoothly and powerfully.

The Hill Descent Control works in both forward and reverse; while it will safely keep you to about 10 km/h on steep grades, it would also be useful to anyone loading a boat down a ramp. The clearance is high enough to prevent bottoming out in all but the most careless instances, and the trunk comfortably held several suitcases and equipment bags.

As I drove back to Kiruna on the final day, the snow was starting to fall to signal the beginning of the ski season. Previously too cold, it begins now and ends in June. Everywhere I looked, the stony forbidding mountains cut majestically though wispy clouds. Here near the top of the world, I drove for home with a newly found nonchalance.

Travel was provided to freelance writer Lorraine Sommerfeld by the auto maker.