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2009 Volvo XC70 Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2009 Volvo XC70

New Car Test Drive
© 2009

The Volvo XC70 wagon has been a top choice among serious outdoor enthusiasts for years, and for good reason. It offers a high level of capability off road, it's superb on primitive roads, gravel and dirt roads, heavy snow. Yet it's smooth, stable, secure, fast and very comfortable for long highway slogs, regardless of the weather. It's quite practical, engineered for serious gear hauling rather than posing at the mall. And, of course, it's equipped with all the active and passive safety features that form Volvo's well-deserved reputation for safety engineering.

The 2009 Volvo XC70 lineup includes the new high-performance 2009 XC70 T6, which boosts the fun factor with 281 turbocharged horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque from its six-cylinder engine.

The 2009 XC70 lineup includes the T6 and the standard model, which was all-new for 2008. The standard XC70 comes with a powerful inline-6 rated at 235 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque.

It provides good passenger-cargo flexibility and more cargo volume than some mid-sized SUVs, but its exterior dimensions are relatively compact, and it's easy to park. It's rated to tow up to 3300 pounds, enough for a small boat or camper or a couple of snowmobiles. Its maximum cargo capacity of 72.1 cubic feet is on par with some mid-size, truck-based sport-utilities.

Though it looks like a traditional wagon, the XC70 is prepared for serious travel in unpaved areas. It comes with full-time all-wheel drive, and its suspension is raised to increase both movement range and ground clearance. Dent-resistant lower body cladding and protective skid plates underneath protect it from damage. Hill Descent Control makes ascending steep, slippery trails easier and safer.

We found the handling of the XC70 on primitive logging roads to be excellent. This would be a good car to drive to the top of Alaska in the middle of the winter. We know, we've done it. More recently, we drove an XC70 over 120 miles of logging roads in the unpaved wilderness of northwestern Montana. The all-wheel drive made driving around corners easy and predictable on gravel, dirt, mud, and snow. The suspension had just the right amount of compliance to keep the tires on the trail yet gave the driver lots of control. Bumps in the middle of turns never upset the handling. The car was comfortable, weather creeping along over rugged trails or hurtling down an unpaved road at rally speeds.

Yet the XC70 is maneuverable and quite comfortable on paved roads, where most of us drive most of the time. It isn't the most exciting vehicle to drive, and it's not as sporty as the pavement-oriented Volvo V70 wagon, but it makes a good grand tourer and great daily transportation. It rides smoothly and doesn't float or lean excessively through the curves, and it should deliver better real-world gas mileage than most mid- and full-size truck-based SUVs. We think it's the most compelling car in the Volvo lineup.

Inside, the XC70 has one of Volvo's best interiors: very Scandinavian, and elegantly understated. It's easy to master its multitude of controls, and it's simpler and more efficient than many of its European luxury competitors. The XC70 seats five, and the seating arrangement is flexible. The cargo compartment has tie-downs and other useful accessories. With the rear seats folded, the XC70's flat floor and low lift-over height make loading bulky cargo easier than with many SUVs. For 2009, a Bluetooth interface comes standard.

Model Lineup

Volvo XC70 3.2 AWD ($37,250); XC70 T6 AWD (39,500)

Walk Around

The Volvo XC70 was all new for 2008, meaning that everything from its engine to the interior to the basic architecture of its chassis has changed. The exterior design changed, too, and while its basic character is familiar Volvo, the XC70 looks smarter than before. Relatively speaking, additional changes for 2009 are minimal.

The XC70 is built on Volvo's large car platform introduced with the 2007 S80 sedan. (The previous XC70 shared its underpinnings with the intermediate S60 sedan.) The important point is that the XC70 has more in common with the line-topping S80 than it does with the mid-size S60. It's longer and wider than the previous XC70 (by 4.2 and 0.1 inches, respectively) and rides on a two-inch-longer wheelbase, opening up more room inside. In overall length and width this newest XC70 closely matches a BMW 5 Series wagon, albeit on a wheelbase that's still 3 inches shorter. The Volvo is lighter than the Bimmer, but by less than 100 pounds.

The XC70 body is nearly identical to that of the Volvo V70, which fills the role of a more conventional road-going wagon in the Volvo lineup. Both were developed with Volvo's attention to impact-dissipating crumple zones, and both have fully laminated glass. The only unique XC70 structural feature is an extra lower front crossbeam, added to account for its higher ride height in an impact.

The latest styling is Volvo evolution, but it's smoother, less gangly and visually tighter than the pre-2008 XC70. In profile, the character line at the bottom of the windows rises a bit more dramatically, creating a more forward leaning, dynamic stance. The window pillars are blocked out, which makes all the windows look like a single element. The rear glass now angles forward toward the front of the car, rather than dropping cliff-like from the back edge of the roof, yet there's still there's a bit more cargo volume inside.

The headlights and grille are larger, a bit more angular and more prominently defined. The XC70 has a soft plastic nose painted to match the body, rather than the full, dark-vinyl mask worn on the earlier version. The lower bumper is dark vinyl, with intake-like cutouts for the foglights; below it, the silver-colored skid has been widened and shaped more aerodynamically. There's a lot of dark, impact-resistant cladding around the bumpers and along the rockers.

From the rear, the XC70's hexagonal shape reminds us of the C30 coupe. The tail lights are large enough and bright enough to do Las Vegas proud, and the rear glass window extends down lower than the side windows to improve rearward visibility. The hydraulically operated power tailgate is handy if you approach the back of this car with arms loaded, and it keeps hands cleaner if the tailgate is coated with grime.


The Volvo XC70 interior borrows heavily from the S80 luxury sedan, taking both design themes and components such as gauges, switches and console. We'd call it one of Volvo's best interiors yet. Volvo interiors have usually been straightforward in function, but they've sometimes been almost cloddish in appearance, with at least a few quirks. Not so in this XC70. It's understated, but elegant and nicely polished. Materials and overall finish are high grade.

The optional leather upholstery is smooth and stretched tautly over the front seats, and the seats themselves are excellent. It's hard to find a better mix of comfort and support for typical driving. Visibility outward is good, forward and aft. The rear-most side windows are imbedded with their own electrical grid for defrosting.

The XC70 driver sits before a fat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, looking at big, crisp gauges with bright-white backlighting and number gradients that are easy for the brain to absorb.

The standard trim is called dark fineline, while the T6 is trimmed in aluminum. We found the walnut and walnut root that come with the Premium Package gorgeous.

The overall effect is very Scandinavian, yet the coolest element may be the thin-panel center stack. It's no more than two inches thick, with open space behind it. Most controls are placed here, with audio above climate and a display at the top, arranged in a neat, symmetrical pattern. The primary knobs are big and raised substantially from the surface, and the airflow controls are fashioned in an icon shaped like a seated person, so there's absolutely no confusion about directing air toward the face, feet or windshield.

It's all quite clean and pleasing. Most significantly, measured by function and simplicity of operation, the XC70's various controls are better than most other luxury brands, and particularly German brands, which still insist on layering more menus in their interfaces (while still adding more buttons). This alone might be enough reason for some to choose Volvo.

The navigation system is well worth getting. The screen pops up vertically from the center of the dash, though it's canted forward at what seems a strange angle. The driver surfs through menus and makes choices with buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes, almost where you'd expect paddle shifters for an automatic transmission. We think it's better than many other systems. The menus are no more difficult to learn, and they're managed without taking hands from the steering wheel and fishing for the controls. Passengers can control the system with a remote.

Cubby storage is decent. The center console and glovebox hold quite a bit of stuff. The pockets behind the front seatbacks are handy and the cupholders work well.

The rear seat is not the roomiest, given the apparent size of the vehicle it's in. We wouldn't recommend it to six-footers for a cross-country trip. There's enough room that someone 5-feet, 9 inches won't get claustrophobic or cramped riding in the back of the XC70 across town, however. And we think it would be fine for families until the kids are well into their teens. With the stereo upgrade, there are redundant audio controls and headphone jacks for rear passengers. The rear DVD system puts a screen in the back of both front headrests, which we prefer to those that drop from the headliner.

The cargo area is one of the XC70's strengths. The back seat folds easily, 40/20/40, so the center section can work like a pass-through for skis or hockey sticks. With a maximum cargo capacity of 72.1 cubic feet, the XC70 compares favorably with the larger, heavier Mercedes M-Class (72.4 cubic feet), BMW X5 (61.8) and the Hummer H3 (62.9).

The cargo floor is perfectly flat with all the seats folded down, providing a smooth, friendly area for cargo as well as dogs or even people: One or two people could sleep comfortably back there. We tested this. It's a useful feature for camping or for stopping for a nap on long road trips, a potentially important feature not found on many vehicles.

The fold-flat front-passenger seat is a valuable feature that should not be underestimated. The design seems to do nothing to diminish the seat's comfort, yet its back can fold forward to the same level as the folded rear seat and cargo floor. This allows the XC70 to carry long narrow items such as fly rods or two-by-fours securely inside, or maybe a kayak. Under the load floor is a lockable, shallow storage area, no more than six inches deep.

The cargo floor itself features aluminum rails with movable anchorage points for securing loads. The anchors can be tucked down into the rails when not used, to keep the floor perfectly smooth, and there are more anchorage points in the side panels. There are also a host of load-related accessories, such as hooks, nets and space dividers. Or favorite is simply a drawer, or rather a sliding floor that locks into the rails and pulls out beyond the bumper for easier loading. It will easily support 50 pounds. One slight disadvantage of the XC70 compared to the typical SUV is a lower ceiling, so the SUV will accomodate taller items in an upright position. In practice, we've seldom found this an issue. The XC70 has a lower liftover height than most SUVs do, and it's easier to load.

The seats are designed to help reduce whiplash injuries. During a rear-end impact, the WHIPS seatbacks move rearward to reduce acceleration forces on the occupant's back and neck, while the headrest pushes forward and upward slightly to meet the neck and head as they are thrust backward.

Driving Impressions

We found the XC70 offers moderate off-pavement capability and superb gravel road handling. Yet it's also smooth, quiet and comfortable on the highway, and more maneuverable than nearly any truck you can buy. While big inside, its exterior dimensions seem relatively compact, and it's easy to park.

The XC70 comes with a 3.2-liter inline-6 that generates 235 horsepower at 6200 rpm, with 236 pound-feet of torque at 3200 rpm. It's matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine is mounted transversely (sideways), which is unusual for a straight six, but contributes to the XC70's interior space.

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 (4092 pounds), Volvo's 3.2-liter engine doesn't qualify as a screamer, but it delivers acceleration-producing torque in 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 six-speed automatic transmission is probably its best automatic so far. It seems to shift 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 T6 comes with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. The small difference in 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 46 more horsepower and 59 more lb.-ft. of torque. EPA estimated fuel economy suffers only minimally, with the same 15 mpg city rating as the base model, and 22 vs. 23 mpg on the highway.

We found the XC70 does not get tiresome around town or on the open road, as some conventional sport-utilities can. The XC70 rides comfortably and quite smoothly, and despite some fairly substantial suspension travel, it's not mushy. There's none of the stiffness or racket you'll find in some 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.

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

The all-wheel-drive system gives the XC70 handling stability in slippery conditions. It 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 AWD will send up to 60 percent of the power to the back 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. It's a genuine safety advantage.

Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, or DSTC, 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 along 120 miles of logging roads in the unpaved wilderness of northwestern Montana showed off the stability, handling and ride of the 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 on this further in these conditions.

The XC70 has good 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 RX350, 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 XC90 appears more at home at the shopping center.

Hill-Descent Control works great, managing the throttle and braking and minimizing slides on the way down fairly steep dirt surfaces. We've tested it at a moderately challenging ATV park in Germany and 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. 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. We drove the previous-generation models down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico over some of the same rocky roads used in the Baja 1000 off-road race and up the icy haul road that runs along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Deadhorse, for thousands of grueling but trouble-free miles. And this new one is superior in every respect.

The Collision Avoidance Package is based on research that suggested that driver distractions cause up to 90 percent of all traffic accidents. The package includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Collision Warning with Auto Brake, Distance Alert, Driver Alert Control and Lane Departure Warning. Adaptive cruise control issues a warning if the XC70 is closing quickly on an object and pre-loads the brake system, and it can actually engage the brakes if the driver fails to respond.

Volvo XC70 is an excellent choice for outdoor adventurers. It offers genuine off-pavement capability and it's very good on unpaved roads. It has lots of room for gear and the cargo compartment is perfectly flat. It offers many advantages over truck-based SUVs, including better fuel economy, better handling, better ride, and for many it's a more rational alternative. Yet it's quiet, maneuverable and pleasant for the sort of driving most of us do most of the time.

J.P. Vettraino reported from Germany, with editor Mitch McCullough reporting from northwestern Montana.

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