The Volvo XC70 is an impressive versatile wagon. It's smooth, stable, secure, fast and very comfortable on the open highway. Most models are all-wheel drive, which makes the XC70 a good choice for foul weather, be it torrential rain, deep snow, or glare ice. But it's on primitive roads where the Volvo XC70 shines. It handles gravel and dirt roads quickly and ably, with stable, predictable handling and excellent traction. We think it's the most compelling car in the Volvo lineup. If you've ever wanted a Volvo, this is the one to get.
The Volvo XC70 3.2 uses a 3.2-liter inline-6 making 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, while the XC70 T6 AWD uses a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 to make 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet (with another 25 hp and 29 lb-ft optional). The turbocharged T6 engine was named one of Ward's Ten Best engines for 2011, a prestigious award. It's the first Volvo engine to ever win.
The XC70 3.2 is front-wheel drive. That should appeal to flatlanders in warm weather, for example Texans and Floridians. The T6 is all-wheel drive. It's prepared for serious travel through unpaved wilderness 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.
Either XC70 model is engineered for serious gear hauling rather than posing at the mall. Its cargo capacity of 72.1 cubic feet is on par with mid-size SUVs, slightly better than Subaru Outback's 71.3 cubic feet. The seating arrangement is flexible and 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. It's rated to tow up to 3,300 pounds, enough for a small boat or camper or a couple of snowmobiles.
Inside is one of Volvo's best interiors: Scandinavian in style 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.
We found the handling of the Volvo XC70 T6 AWD 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. We've also driven it off-highway for many miles in Baja. 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, whether creeping along over rugged trails or hurtling down an unpaved road at rally speeds.
On paved roads, the XC70 is stable and comfortable. It's a good car for long trips 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.
Also, it's equipped with all the active and passive safety features that form Volvo's well-deserved reputation for safety engineering.
The Volvo XC70 is built on Volvo's large-car platform, which it shares with the flagship S80 sedan, so it has more in common with Volvo's big sedan than it does with any of Volvo's smaller models. The XC70 wheelbase of almost 111 inches puts it (by today's somewhat downsized measure) at the small end of the big-car spectrum. It certainly has plenty of room inside. In overall length and width the XC70 closely matches a BMW 5 Series wagon, albeit on a wheelbase that's 3 inches shorter. In weight the Volvo and the BMW are just about dead even.
The Volvo XC70 structure was 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.
In styling, the XC70 follows the current trend at Volvo, with a look that's instantly recognizable, yet smoother, less gangly and visually tighter than the Volvos of just a few years ago. In profile, the character line at the bottom of the windows rises dramatically (for a Volvo), suggesting a forward leaning, dynamic stance. The window pillars are blacked out, which makes all the windows look like a single element. The rear glass angles slightly forward toward the front of the car, rather than dropping cliff-like from the back edge of the roof, yet there's still plenty of cargo volume inside.
Large, sharply defined headlights sweep back into the front fenders. Below each light is a prominent pad of dark plastic, suggesting two individual bumpers, or bumperettes, separated by that bold, protruding grille and the trapezoidal air inlet that echoes underneath it. The bumper pads are finally connected, at the very bottom, by the front edge of the skid plate. Set into each of the pads is a small foglight surrounded by a bold outline of brighter-colored material.
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 cabin is understated, but elegant and nicely polished. Materials and overall finish are high grade. The XC70 interior uses design themes and components from the S80 luxury sedan.
The 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 center stack is a thin panel, 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 clean and pleasing. Most significantly, measured by function and simplicity of operation, the XC70's various controls are better than most other luxury brands, particularly German brands.
The navigation system screen pops up vertically from the center of the dash, though it's canted forward at 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. There's also a rearview camera.
Cubby storage is lacking in other Volvo models but a bit better in the XC70. 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 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) and BMW X5 (75.2).
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. A perfectly flat cargo floor can be critically important for some owners so be sure to check this on any wagon or SUV on your shopping list.
A fold-flat front-passenger seat is a valuable feature that should not be underestimated. The XC70 has such a seat and the fold-flat design does not seem to diminish seating comfort. The seatback can be folded forward to the same level as the folded rear seat and cargo floor. This allows the XC70 to carry long narrow items such as ladders, two-by-fours securely inside, rigged fly rods, 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. Accessories are available to secure your cargo: hooks, nets, space dividers, and a cargo cover. A steel cargo barrier is available that flips down from the ceiling behind the back seats and a safety net that pulls from behind the back seats; marketed as protection from flying cargo, they could also help corral pets, though a harness is still recommended. Or favorite is a drawer, a sliding floor that locks into the rails and pulls out beyond the bumper for easier loading. It will easily support 50 pounds. One disadvantage of the XC70 compared to the typical SUV is a lower ceiling; an SUV will accommodate taller items, or items in an upright position. In practice, we've seldom found this an issue but it does occur. The XC70 has a lower liftover height than most SUVs do, which makes it easier to load cargo and makes for a lower height for dogs jumping in and out.
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. Power rear headrests are available.
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.
The 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. 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 Mitch McCullough reporting from Montana, and Sam Moses reporting from Arizona.