2012 Volvo XC70 Driving Impressions

The Volvo XC70 is a superb vehicle for gravel roads. Yet it's also smooth, quiet and comfortable on the highway. It's more maneuverable than an SUV, whether on pavement or gravel. It's big inside, but its exterior dimensions seem relatively compact, and it's easy to park. It drives like a car because it is a car.

The XC70 comes with a 3.2-liter inline-6 that generates 240 horsepower at 6200 rpm, with 236 pound-feet of torque at 3200 rpm. It's matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission. The engine is mounted transversely (sideways), which is very unusual for a straight six, but contributes to the XC70's interior space.

Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/23 mpg City/Highway. In states that follow California's tough emissions laws, a PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) version of the base model is sold, which trades 10 horsepower for lower emissions and better fuel economy; the 6-speed automatic transmission is recalibrated for maximum efficiency with the PZEV engine.

Inline six-cylinder engines, or straight sixes as they're sometimes called, seem to power-up faster than the more common V6s, spinning more freely and smoothly as they go. In a vehicle of the XC70's heft (4,147 pounds), Volvo's 3.2-liter engine doesn't qualify as a screamer, but it delivers acceleration-producing torque in a smooth, linear fashion. It breathes well at high rpm: It doesn't gasp or get rough if you run it near the redline. It accelerates eagerly from a stop or for passing at higher speeds.

Volvo's 6-speed automatic transmission shifts in all the right places, and whether it's up a gear or down, those shifts are smooth, tight and relatively quick. Put it in Drive and go. Should the driver choose to get more involved, the Geartronic manual feature can be enjoyable. There are no paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, as many cars now feature (that's where Volvo put controls for its navigation system), but there's a manual slot for the shift lever left of the normal gear-selection path. The up-down gear change action has a smooth, quality feel, and the transmission won't insult the driver by shifting up on its own if the revs get too high.

The XC70 T6 comes with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. The smaller displacement is more than compensated by the additional air pushed through by the turbocharger. The T6 turbo uses twin-scroll technology, meaning it takes in exhaust gases in two stages, from three cylinders each. This in turn permits the use of a compact turbo rotor, for swift throttle response with the lowest possible fuel consumption. Maximum torque is on tap from just 1500 rpm and remains available all the way up the rev range. Compared to the normally aspirated XC70 3.2-liter, the T6 generates 64 more horsepower and 99 more pound-feet of torque. EPA fuel economy estimates for the T6 are exactly the same as for the base model: 17/23 mpg City/Highway.

The 2011 T6 engine was named one of Ward's Ten Best engines, a prestigious award. It's the first Volvo engine to ever win. Ward's speculated that Volvo benchmarked BMW engines and noted the Volvo T6 engine offered a “delicious mid-range power band and paucity of turbo lag.”

For 2012, the HP Performance Enhance option uses software recalibration to increase horsepower to 325 hp and torque to 354 pound-feet. The software tweak increases turbo boost; adjusts spark timing, fuel mixture and several other things that control the engine; and recalibrates throttle mapping to increase throttle response. We test drove the 2012 HP Performance Enhance fast for nearly a full day on remote Arizona roads, and we can say the acceleration difference is clear to the seat of your pants.

The XC70 rides comfortably and smoothly, and despite some fairly substantial suspension travel, it's not mushy. There's none of the stiffness or racket found in truck-based SUVs, either. The XC70 leans a bit in corners when driven aggressively, and pitches some between hard acceleration and hard braking. Yet not so much that it's not enjoyable. And this has more to do with being a Volvo than anything else. That same lean and compliance gives it excellent grip when cornering on gravel roads.

The brakes are superior to most. They stop the vehicle right now, with Electronic Brake-force Distribution to instantaneously balance stopping power front-to-rear to the tires with the best grip. Volvo has nearly eliminated the spongy feel that characterized its brake-pedal action for years. Braking distances are very long on unpaved surfaces, however, where controlled locking of the brakes would be more effective than the ABS.

All-wheel drive gives the Volvo XC70 handling stability in slippery conditions. The AWD normally delivers 95 percent of the engine's power to the front wheels, so the XC70 behaves like a front-drive vehicle. But if the traction starts to degrade, as it might in snow, on dirt or on a rain-slick road, the all-wheel drive will send up to 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels, balancing torque among the tires with the most friction underneath, and increasing the chances that the XC70 will continue controlled forward momentum. The AWD system works well, and seamlessly, in that few drivers will ever notice when it shifts power between the front and rear wheels. All-wheel drive is a genuine safety advantage.

Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, or DSTC, like we'll remember that, uses sensors to monitor forward or lateral movement. If it detects a potentially dangerous sliding movement under any of the four tires, it automatically tries to correct the instability by braking one or more wheels or throttling back the engine.

Hurtling down 120 miles of logging roads in the unpaved wilderness of northwestern Montana showed off the stability, handling and ride of the Volvo XC70. The all-wheel drive made driving around corners easy and predictable on gravel, dirt, and mud as snow began to fall. The suspension had just the right amount of compliance to keep the tires to the trail yet gave the driver lots of control. Bumps in the middle of turns never upset the handling. More aggressive tires would improve grip further in these conditions, making the XC70 a terrific wilderness car.

The Volvo XC70 has good, long suspension travel, and 8.3 inches of ground clearance, more than most crossovers and more than a few truck-based SUVs. That means a bumper is less likely snag on something when traversing a deep rut or nosing up a steep rise. The skid plates offer an element of protection for underbody components if it encounters fallen tree limbs or large rocks. You won't find skid plates on a Lexus RX, for example, but they come standard on the XC70. That says something about the customers of these cars. We see XC70s in Moab and other outdoors settings, while the Volvo XC90 appears more at home at the shopping center. The XC70 has been developed for serious outdoor enthusiasts.

Hill-Descent Control works great, managing the throttle and braking and minimizing slides on the way down fairly steep dirt surfaces. We tested it at a moderately challenging ATV park in Germany and later on a much more challenging trail in northwestern Montana. With HDC, the car is slowly lowered down a steep descent. All the driver has to do is steer, feet off the pedals. And that's the point: Without this system, it's easy to lock up the wheels and slide off the trail and into a tree or rock or over a precipice, none of which is convenient. With all-wheel drive and Hill-Descent Control, the XC70 can traverse some truly primitive roads, limited only by ground clearance.

A Volvo XC70 would make an excellent choice for a long-distance adventure. We drove a previous-generation XC70 down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico over some of the same rocky roads used in the Baja 1000 off-road race. We also drove an XC70 up the icy haul road that runs along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Anchorage to Deadhorse, featured in our favorite show, “Ice Road Truckers.” We did this in February, if we recall correctly, and the XC70 was a great partner. We chased the Volvo Ocean Race up the East Coast in an XC70, reminding us of its excellent highway capability and stability at high speeds. The latest XC70, we drove on a hard run into the Arizona mountains. We can say the current-generation model is superior.

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