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2010 Volvo XC60: where's the box?

2010 Volvo XC60: where's the box?

Let’s play a game of word association. We’ll say the name of a brand, and you respond with the first word that comes into your head. Ready? Volvo…

If you said “boxy,” you’re not alone. That’s the classic shape most of us have grown up knowing. And it’s why a lot of people are likely to be confused by the pictures they’re seeing of the new Volvo XC60. It’s a sleek and sexy crossover that’s about as far as you can imagine from the staid Swedish wagons we’ve seen on the road in years past. Maybe that’s why Volvo designers decided to bolt an oversized brand badge on the grille.

Will diehards may be a bit disappointed by this dynamic new look, Volvo is betting on the XC60 to draw in a whole host of new buyers who’d normally drive past the company’s showrooms. And if our first drive of the new crossover is any indication, they just might be able to grab some of the folks who’d normally opt for more passionate brands, like BMW, with its compact X5, Audi, with the new Q5, Acura, with its RDX, or Volkswagen, with the oddly-named Tiguan.

The big grille, with that oversized Volvo logo, is flanked by a pair of upright daytime running lights, and sweeping headlamps that roll off into the fenders. The broad shoulders are familiar touches, found on a number of recent Volvo production models and concept vehicles, but the XC60 adds a cinched and sexy waistline. The roof is almost coupe-like, though it still provides a reasonable amount of headroom for rear seat passengers. The rear view might be the most familiar angle, distinctly Volvo with those broad shoulders and narrowed rear hatch.

Now does it look like a Volvo?

Now does it look like a Volvo?

Inside, the XC60 is one of the most well-appointed models we’ve yet seen from Volvo, with an elegant blend of leather, wood and chrome. The optional two-tone leather seats are particularly handsome. The flying buttress center console is carried over, but it’s been reshaped to provide plenty of extra storage space. There’s a twin display at the top of the center stack, a small LCD read-out for various messages, and a larger display for navigation. Controlling the latter system takes a few minutes to learn, but quickly becomes intuitive.

The rear seats on this two-row model provide a fair amount of room, plenty for your head, and enough for most passengers’ knees, thanks to the way designers carved out space in the back of the front seats.

The overall look and feel is that of a machine waiting to be driven.

After 250 miles behind the wheel, negotiating everything from highways to winding mountain roads, we were reluctant to hand back the keys. There’s a lot to like, even love, about the XC60 – everything but the 16 mpg City/22 mpg Highway fuel economy rating.

We picked those keys up on a brilliantly sunny day just north of San Francisco, and headed on a route that took us up Highway 1, the treacherously twisty coastal road. Normally, one would expect that to translate into a slow, ponderous drive, but as the miles rolled up on the odometer, we noticed the speedo needle steadily pointing higher.

Plenty of ground clearance

Plenty of ground clearance

The basic platform of the crossover is the same one that Volvo uses for its V70 wagon, XC70 crossover and the S80 sedan. But thanks to some nice tuning of the suspension, and despite the segment-leading 9.1 inches of ground clearance, it’s easy to forget you’re behind the wheel of something sitting that high up. There’s surprisingly little body roll, and you have to push the 60 hard to get those tires to make any noise.

It helps that the first versions of the XC destined for the U.S. will be all-wheel-drive. (Later models will be offered in front-drive configuration, as well.) Volvo has adopted the newest version of the time-tested Haldex AWD system, which pushes most of the power to the nose, until it senses wheel spin, and proportions more power to the rear.

Volvo’s turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six makes plenty of power, 281 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, to be more precise. Those are segment leading numbers, though the 0 – 60 times of about 7.1 seconds are a bit slower than some of the competition.

We began this review by asking what the word, Volvo, immediately brought to mind. Maybe you said, “safety,” for no other brand has made that such a priority, one of the essential elements designed into every one of its cars. And the XC60 is no exception, for it introduces an assortment of both new and time-tested safety technology.

There are the expected antilock brakes, traction and stability control, brake assist, head, front and side airbags, automatic cruise, Lane Departure Warning and the various acronym safety features like BA (Brake Assist) and HDC (Hill Descent Control). There’s a new alert system which sounds off when it senses the driver getting drowsy.

2010 XC60: Roomy cargo bed

2010 XC60: Roomy cargo bed

But the real breakthrough is the new City Safety system, a standard feature on the XC60. The vast majority of accidents occur at slow speeds, and usually around town, Volvo engineers pointed out during our background briefing. To help reduce their number – or at least their severity – the technology scans the road ahead with an infrared laser. Cameras, mounted behind the rearview mirror, will detect when you’re closing too fast on the car ahead, at speeds up to around 18 mph.

If necessary, the system will your car to a halt, as long as the closing speed isn’t too great. Otherwise, it will scrub off as much speed as possible to minimize the impact. Why not just let City Safety operate the brakes when you’re in traffic? The system was consciously designed to wait as long as possible, to let the driver manually avoid an accident, if possible. When it does kick in, the stop is extremely abrupt, not something you’ll want to experience often. City Safety will only stop if it senses another car in the way. It can’t respond to stray dogs, deer or pedestrians.

At $37,200 $825 destination fee — and you can easily add $5,000 or so for a fully-loaded version – the XC60 isn’t cheap, but it compares reasonably with its import competitors.

According to Doug Speck, president of Volvo Cars North America, the ’10 XC60 is likely to become the high-volume model in the line-up. And if mileage isn’t your priority – and it isn’t for most motorists when fuel is down around $2 a gallon – he may be right. The sleek crossover is a pleasant surprise for both traditional Volvo fans and those who’d normally not give a second glance to the classic Volvo box on wheels. The new XC60 may very well win over a new generation of Swedish aficionados.

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