Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: The review was written in December 2007 about the 2008 Volvo XC70. This year’s XC70 gains a new turbocharged T6 trim level. To see what’s new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Suburban parents are the Volvo XC70’s prime target. It’s a large station wagon with a brawny look for dad and sensible features for mom. It’s upscale enough that your neighbors won’t look down on you, but affordable enough to keep sending the kids to summer camp.
The XC70 is also significantly updated from the model it replaces. You can see a side-by-side comparison of the 2007 and 2008 model here.
Packed with safety features, an entirely competent six-cylinder engine and some nifty innovations, I would have a hard time not recommending the new XC70 to the upwardly mobile, yet still overwhelmed, parent. Then again, recommending it would be a lot easier if the car I drove hadn’t practically fallen apart while I was testing it.
The new XC70 is certainly more interesting to look at than past versions. The hood has a noticeable bulge, and some fancy hazard lights bedazzle the front bumper. Around back, giant vertical taillights overpower the look. The end result is somewhat fashionable, but still more conservative than a car a true fashionista would likely drive.
Gray body cladding, 16-inch wheels — 17- and 18-inch wheels are optional — and a raised suspension give the XC70 a tougher look than the V70 wagon, which is otherwise virtually identical. The V70 lacks the XC70’s offroad ability and doesn’t come with all-wheel drive.
Even though the XC70 isn’t the most distinctive car, it stands out among family-haulers. For one, it’s a station wagon, and a somewhat upscale one. You’d have to opt for the pricier Audi A6 Avant or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or a less expensive Volkswagen Passat wagon, to get similar size and utility, and none of those wagons look particularly daring, either. Simple Swedish design wins out in this group; picking the XC70 might be a value choice, but it still makes a statement in the style department.
Like the S80 sedan it’s based on, the 2008 XC70’s interior is a huge leap forward in refinement and ergonomics, and it has plenty of nifty features, too.
The materials are exceptionally pleasing to the touch. The doors are finished in leather with lots of padding to make them nice and soft, though it also makes them a little bulbous. The leather steering wheel isn’t quite as meaty, but it’s still substantial. A nicely padded center armrest is another nice touch, but as any driver knows, it’s the seat that matters most.
Both the driver and front passenger seats are exceptionally comfortable, leaning toward the cushy end of the firm/cushy meter of car-seat testing. It’s not so cushy, however, that there isn’t plenty of support for the dear old back and backside on long trips.
From that perch, you’ll take in an elegantly simple dashboard with a nicely grained finish and radically cool gauges — there are digital information displays inside the tachometer and speedometer. The center controls are on Volvo’s trademark “floating stack,” a thin console that connects from the middle of the dashboard to the shifter. It’s always a neat effect, no matter what car it’s in.
The radio and A/C controls are supremely simple, but believe it or not there’s no setting to run the front defroster and send heat toward your feet at the same time. This drove me absolutely nuts in 35-degree, wet Chicago weather.
My main beef with the leather interior in my test car was its light tan color. Barely 3,000 miles into its life as a wagon, there was an array of scuff and dirt marks on the doors and seats. I would highly recommend going with black leather or the base model’s standard fabric, called Tricotec, which resembles the material used for wet suits.
The XC70 comes with a 235-horsepower inline-six-cylinder engine that delivers competent power in city and highway driving. Despite the size of the wagon, I was completely comfortable at high speeds. Passing power could be better, but I was plenty confident with what it had when maneuvering around slow traffic and merging onto the highway.
The transmission was pretty much a non-issue, meaning I didn’t notice any trouble in the way it up- or downshifted. I rarely used the manual mode, though I did give it a shot in heavy traffic, keeping the gear high to see if I could save some gas. The XC70 is rated at 15/22 mpg city/highway, and I hovered around 20 mpg during most of my 500 miles of driving in relatively cold weather. While that sounds low, remember this is a rather large all-wheel-drive vehicle. Then again, the all-wheel-drive Buick Enclave crossover with three rows of seats is 1,000 pounds heavier and manages 16/22 mpg.
The brakes were perfect for this type of vehicle. They aren’t overly grippy, so the kiddies in back won’t get their heads whipped back and forth every time you come to a stop. They’re also not too mushy, which leads to late braking and results in a similar reaction from the kids’ necks.
The brakes’ responsive nature just made this car all the more comfortable for the driver. It’s one of those cars that, after a day or two of testing, I forgot wasn’t my own. This doesn’t happen in sports cars where I’m having fun pushing the limits, but the cars that achieve this feat usually get my highest recommendations.
The XC70 isn’t going to best the competition in these performance-oriented categories, but it handles like a suburban wagon should. The ride is extremely pleasant on both rough surfaces and smooth highways. Road trips in this car will be a breeze for everybody. There was very little road or wind noise, despite the awkward shape of the wagon.
The steering was rather light but still precise. Volvo has a history of vague steering feel, which many driving enthusiasts can’t stand, but the company has recently improved road feel. The XC70’s steering is still light, but it isn’t as floaty and disconnected as, say, a Lexus ES.
Possibly the one place the XC70 falters a bit is in handling. Its large, boxy structure leads to more flexibility throughout the chassis than the S80 sedan exhibits. That’s not a good thing in cars; you want a stiff feel. The fact that I could pinpoint a fault in this usually subjective area is a bit of a warning. However, I was driving a completely empty wagon with just a driver for most of my test. Filling it up with the weight of more people and cargo would likely help make the car feel more buttoned-down.
Because it’s a wagon and has a low center of gravity, there wasn’t much body lean in turns. Its offroad chops and high ground clearance mean you can take the XC70 on snowy offroad paths to a mountain cabin — or to one of those awful strip-mall entrances — knowing you won’t scrape the bottom of the car on anything. Either way, owners should be happy with the extra capability.
Few folks these days pick a large station wagon over a similarly sized SUV. Buyers who prefer a high ride height — because they like a commanding view of the road — might have a reason to do that, but I highly doubt you’re going to find a similarly priced luxury SUV that’s as capable and comfortable a cargo-hauler as the XC70. The rear cargo area is simply huge. It’s both long and wide, and I was able to fit full-size golf bags across the back perfectly. You could stack four deep on one level in there, and the low height of the cargo floor means you can sit on the edge of the hatch and put on your golf shoes without dangling off the ground like you would in an SUV. The load floor’s low height also makes everyday tasks like loading and unloading groceries or luggage much easier to handle.
Under the cargo floor is a shallow compartment that runs almost all the way from the bumper to the backseat. The floor lifts up with a pull of a handle, and it has a hydraulic strut so it stays up without you needing to hold onto it. Because of the depth, you won’t be able to use it for bulky items, but jumper cables and a first-aid kit would make sense in there.
There’s also a very well-done hook system built into the cargo floor. Heavy-duty metal hooks slide forward and back and flip up into place easily. Once flipped up, they lock tight so cargo nets and other tie-downs will be secure. It’s so simple that it’s a wonder more automakers don’t do it.
The XC70’s rear seats fold down flat with one easy motion. This is by far my favorite method carmakers utilize to expand the cargo area. Why every wagon, hatchback and SUV doesn’t do it this way is beyond me. When I recently went shopping for my own car, this was one determining factor; the Jeep Grand Cherokee I owned at the time required four steps to fold the seats.
Safety and Volvo go together hand-inhand, and the XC70 has plenty of standard and optional safety features. Because cars from other manufacturers score just as highly in crash tests, Volvo has to do even more now. You can win the top award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety — which the 2008 XC70 has — but even then you’re on the same playing field with the other winners, and that field has doubled in the past year. So besides the array of airbags, stability control, tire pressure monitoring system and other standard safety features, Volvo has added some intriguing safety options that go beyond the norm, conveying a sense that the car is cradling the family in a security blanket.
In the rare chance the kids are distracting you, Volvo’s $695 blind-spot monitor acts as a nanny for the driver, reminding you there’s someone in your blind spot in case you haven’t been constantly eyeballing all three mirrors.
To really win over the family man or woman, the XC70 comes with built-in booster seats for a pretty decent price of $495. They deploy in two stages with an easy push of a button and can accommodate children between 33 and 80 pounds. Of course, a regular booster seat costs $100 at the top end, so you’re really paying for the convenience and the appearance — let’s face it, some parents don’t want their cars looking like a child’s playpen.
The surprising part of the XC70 is that its base MSRP is $36,775 for an all-wheel-drive, six-cylinder luxury wagon. Some would call it near-premium, but not me. Compared to the $49,285 Audi A6 Avant and the $56,475 Mercedes E-Class wagon, which have similar engines and interior room, the Volvo seems like a bargain. It actually has roughly 5 more feet of total cargo room, too. Like those luxury competitors, seeing one that actually costs that starting price on a dealership lot is rare.
To get leather seats you must add a $2,995 Premium Package, which also includes a power moonroof, wood inlays and a power passenger seat. To get options like a power tailgate and park assist, you must opt for a $1,195 Convenience Package, which also includes less intriguing options like a sunglass holder and tinted glass. Those who live in colder climates will definitely want the Climate Package, which adds heated front and rear seats — if you don’t opt for the booster seats — and heated windshield washer nozzles for $875. There’s also a premium audio system for $1,650, but I certainly didn’t hear that much money in the so-so output from the speakers.
My test car came with the Premium and Climate packages and stickered just north of $43,040. That’s still well below the luxury competition.
Like the redesigned S80, the new XC70 offers a tremendous amount of safety and luxury for the money. That’s a terrific combination. Unfortunately, Volvo is still battling the perception that it’s a problem brand when it comes to reliability. The brand as a whole is currently rated as Average by J.D. Power and Associates.
I was warned when I got my test car that there was something loose inside the tailgate and that they were waiting on the part before it could be fixed.
Aware of the problem, the occasional thunk from the back didn’t bother me; I’ll give the car the benefit of the doubt with one issue. However, when I was filming a video for this review I noticed one of the fog lamps was loose, and then on the last day of my test, the airbag sensor warning light became illuminated. Turns out, a recall for a bad sensor was issued that very week.
Now, we often get test cars extremely early in their lifetime, before all the assembly-line kinks are worked out. But family-haulers need to be both dependable and safe, and the XC70 has some work to do on a full half of that equation.