Okay, we admit it: We're suckers for style. The plushbottoms who people this office are willing to excuse almost anything in its name, which explains our fondness for the 1983 Aston Martin
Lagonda. You can rely on us to call a spade a spade, but when it's got an ocelot-femur handle and a blade wrought from the finest German boron-Kevlar, well, then a spade is an instrument of rare subtlety and something we desperately need to own, right now, lest the Earth spin off its axis. So it is appropriate that we were floored by our year with the Volvo V70
T5--blinded, for too long, to its dynamic shortcomings and smitten by its tactile splendor.
Our reactions may have been more pronounced because the object of our affection was a Volvo. Volvos, whose bodies have long been artless riffs on the right angle, have benefited immeasurably from the pen of Peter Horbury, Volvo's British head of design. Horbury has somehow managed to show, arguably better than any previous Swede in his position, what a Scandinavian car should look and feel like. From the C70 to the most recent S60, Horbury's Volvos blend the sometimes warring but always Scandinavian virtues of utility and beauty.
From our logbook: "Just as it took an American (Freeman Thomas) to encapsulate the German car's essence (Audi TT), so has it taken a Brit to bring Scandinavian design back to Volvo. This car's styling, inside and out, is restrained and elegant, crisp and uplifting, a tonic for all that depressing, twenty-four-hour Arctic Circle darkness."
It was an anticipated sense of this well-being that overwhelmed us when outfitting the car. We chose nearly every available option, boosting the V70 T5's price from a sensible $34,775 to an almost embarrassing $41,675. But at least we got the sport leather package ($1300) with its fine-grained hides on the steering wheel and gear-selector boot; the security package ($500) with its all-important mass movement and level sensors, security laminated windows, and air-quality system; the cold weather package ($450) with traction and stability control, heated seats, and headlamp washer/wipers; the $350 complex of nets known as the versatility package; and a $1000, nine-speaker Dolby Pro Logic in-dash four-CD audio system with astounding clarity and stereo imaging.
The audio system was a fine companion on long drives, but so was the car itself. Senior editor Joe Lorio was the first to note its highway brilliance: "We put a good 2000 miles on the V70 in the past twelve days, and what a pleasant 2000 miles it was. The V70 truly feels like a luxury unit. Anyone coming out of the previous-generation car will be impressed. The ride, particularly, has seen a wholesale improvement, as the V70 just thumps over potholes utterly unfazed." Credit the V70's well-tuned MacPherson front struts and thickets of rear suspension links, as well as an extraordinarily stiff body--it's 50 percent more torsionally rigid than the previous V70 wagon--which helps the suspension do the job for which it was intended.
The chassis's supple and unaggressive state of tune reveals something about the car's priorities. Even in this T5, or high-performance, V70, the focus remains on traditional Volvo virtues such as comfort, predictability, and safety. The seats, for example, would be at home in a long-haul semi (which may explain why Volvo rigs are growing so popular on our Interstates). Associate editor Joe DeMatio said: "For two ten-hour days, I never felt fidgety in these seats. Whether I was driving or riding shotgun, my thighs never got numb, and my back was never sore. There are a lot of manufacturers out there who need to dissect a Volvo front seat and copy the design and technology."
The 60/40-split rear seats also took their share of bows, both literally and figuratively. We folded them frequently, and no groin-ripping gymnastics were required. Just pull the grip on the seat backs, and--voil--a flat load floor. You needn't even remove the rear headrests. With the seats down, the V70 provides an impressive 71.5 cubic feet of cargo volume. That doesn't make it the best in its class--the Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon is the volume champ at 82.6 cubic feet--but the V70's slight tumblehome and its upright tailgate create the most boxlike and useful cargo shape of any mid-size wagon. Adding some more Swedish utility, the rear seats have two seatback-angle settings: a fully upright position for in-creased cargo space and an obtuse angle to be deployed whilst chillin'.
For further peace of mind, the V70 has the full complement of safety devices, none of which we had the misfortune to test. These include dual-stage air bags, whip-lash-protection seats, and ISOFIX attachment points for rear child safety seats. The ISOFIX hooks ensure that the kiddie buckets don't migrate up the side window whenever the car's cornering angles turn lurid.
Which, admittedly, didn't happen too often. For all our enthusiasm for sport wagons--a winning proposition of SUV utility and sedan dynamics--this T5 version of the V70 seemed more beefy than athletic. It may be interesting to note that, unlike other European (okay, German) sport wagons, whose scopes and tenors are set by their sport-sedan counterparts, Volvo's wagon-led entry into the mid-size segment establishes a decidedly tame attitude for both the V70 and the subsequent S60 sedan. The whole aura of this car is one of upright civility, of responsibility and parental role-modeling, so much so that we never really felt like misbehaving in it. There is something awkward and slow about the car's dynamics that encourages wheelside moderation, too. Unlike the Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz sport wagons, this car actually feels faster than it's traveling, not deceptively slower. An insidiously clever safety feature, true, but kind of an annoying one.
Much of this is caused by the car's steering, which is set to "Dull" rather than to "Fun." Editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., offered this laser-guided critique 13,000 miles into the test: "Three kinds of steering problems: (1) Notchy, ratchety recovery coming off corners. (2) Lack of directional stability in wind or on bad surfaces--needs constant minding. (3) Torque steer."
We were so busy rubbing the headliner and committing lewd acts with the radio's rotary knobs that it was nearly three months before we fully recognized this car's principal drawback: torque steer. The high-pressure-turbocharged 2.3-liter five-cylinder engine (247 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque) tugs nastily at the front half-shafts, and this happens regularly, as the turbo lag of the engine demands large throttle openings.
With torque steer this pronounced and right feet this heavy, it was only a matter of time before we chewed through a set of front tires. In fact, after just 17,000 miles, our stock tires--V-rated, M+S Pirelli P6s--looked balder than Sir Elton John. While high-performance mud-and-snow tires may sound oxymoronic, we saw them as sort of the crossover vehicles of the tire world, able to mete out grip on both high- and low-traction surfaces. We liked this concept so much that when it came time to replace the Pirellis, we procured another set of high-speed all-season tires. Instead of installing our beloved Blizzaks from Bridgestone, whose stock is rebounding after our early fall tire order, we tried Michelin's new Pilot Sports. They handled the conflicting demands of high speeds and low traction masterfully. Technically, the Pilots were the same size as the Pirellis, but they turned out to be a few millimeters too wide for the V70's front wheel wells and rubbed at full steering lock.
The tire ordeal was one of just three unscheduled maintenance diversions. The others were to replace brake pads and to reattach a piece of trim on our dealer-installed roof rack. Three times for the latter. Almost as annoying as the torque steer.
Strangely, the other, medium-performance V70s in the 2001 lineup--the normally aspirated 2.4; the lightly turbocharged, 197-horsepower 2.4T; and the all-wheel-drive, 2.4T-engined XC--don't suffer from steering tug. This makes them more enjoyable and, ironically, makes their drivers more inclined to engage in actual Sporty Driving.
So what we have here is a sport wagon that's not all that sporty, with an engine that entertains mainly by keeping you guessing which way the wheels will point. This is a shame, because the five-cylinder engine is smooth and, as the front wheels will attest, nice and torquey.
The ultimate V70 wagon might combine the XC's all-wheel-drive system (although with more rear-wheel bias than the XC's 95/5-percent front/rear default setting) with the T5's lower ride height and engine. Volvo's newly introduced V70 AWD has the XC's all-wheel drive and the T5's ride height but not its 247 horsepower. This absence of a true performance wagon leaves a narrow but deep crevasse in the Volvo landscape. As it now stands, the V70 T5 is two driven wheels away from greatness. It's a car with abundant strengths, too few of them dynamic.