“Wagons are sexy,” I insisted when I told people I was going to drive the new Volvo V60 Cross Country for the past week. Not everyone was convinced. While in my native home town there’s a long-standing affinity for the wagon – or, as I grew up saying, a “hatch” which will loosely lead you ‘hearse’ (don’t ask, long story) – the wood panel hangover has been tougher to overcome in Mzansi and, like diesel engines, its taken some clever branding to even get a foot in the door. The V60 Cross Country, then, picks up a nameplate that has served Volvo well for two decades, lifting the regular V60 and positioning itself as the de-facto “urban active” option for those not quite convinced with crossovers.
Volvo is in an unusual position right now. On the one hand, it has an ambitious roadmap ahead, undoubtedly starting with the all-new XC90 SUV, and building on fresh platforms from Chinese owner Geely. In fact, while the XC90 may have been Volvo’s big new launch for 2015, and winning COTY award earlier this year, in four years time it will be the oldest car in the company’s line-up.
First Impressions Count
At first glance, the V60 Cross Country is not far from the V60 it’s based upon, no bad thing given I still think it’s one of Volvo’s most cohesive and effective designs. The broad, low fascia with its gaping grille leaves the front looking purposeful and surprisingly sporty (for a Volvo), while the tapering rear and the gently kinked shoulder-line that joins the two are aging far more gracefully than can be said for many of the crossovers out there.
Compared to the regular V60, the Cross Country is 2.6-inches higher, for a total ground clearance of 7.9-inches. At the front, there’s a new honeycomb grille – the three filled-in segments are for the radar system (I had wondered what they’re for a good while) – and a redesigned lower skid plate. Side-on, you get new scuff plates and black fender extensions, along with gloss-black mirror trims. A new lower skid plate distinguishes the rear, and it sits on unique 18-inch alloy wheels as standard.
That might not sound like much on paper, which Volvo’s PR team was kind enough to share well ahead of my test period, but in practice the Cross Country carves an interesting niche alongside a crossover or SUV. It’s clearly a little more butch than a regular V60, but it lacks the try-hard feel of a pseudo-SUV.
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Well, except when it comes to power, that is. Here in SA there’s 6 engine options; the T3 (152 HP), T4 (190 HP), T5 (245 HP), T6 (306 HP). I had the T5 turbocharged five-cylinder good for 245 HP and 350Nm of torque in full from just 1,800 rpm, for a fairly broad power band, and there’s a eight-speed Geartronic automatic transmission with manual override option though no paddle shifters behind the chunky, comfortably gripped wheel with its glove-friendly buttons for cruise control and multimedia.
All-Wheel Drive comes as standard, using the same Haldex setup as on Volvo’s other AWD cars. Typically, it pushes all of the power to the front wheels, but – with just 1/17th of a wheel-slip of warning – can push as much as 50-percent to the rear for improved traction. Then there are the electronic smarts, like Hill Descent Control, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, Advanced Stability Control, and Torque Vectoring, which collectively work to keep the Cross Country pointing in the right direction.
Inside, there’s a new two-tone interior, but the design is otherwise the same. Volvo fits its excellent leather contour seats as standard, and they’re both comfortable and supportive, while the fit and finish of the dashboard are admirable. So, too, is Volvo’s standard-fit tech, like a 160W CD/HD radio system with Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio, satellite navigation (with six monthly auto-updated mapping), and a WiFi hotspot for up to eight devices, and a bundle of apps like Glympse, Pandora, and Yelp. These, sadly, I could not figure how to enable given our region. I need another week with the V60 Brent!
Options include an excellent Harman Kardon sound system with five 130W channels, adaptive cruise control (which was noticeably smoother when auto-braking than other systems I’ve tried), blind-spot warnings and cross-traffic alerts, keyless entry, a heated windshield, and heated front and rear seats.
Some of my lingering frustrations from the V60 remain. The 7-inch display topping the center stack looks small compared to what rival cars are fitting (and, indeed, the tablet-style infotainment system in the XC90) though Volvo does at least make good use of what real-estate it has, squeezing navigation, multimedia, and car status information all onto the screen at once, and without it looking cluttered.
Volvo hasn’t done away with physical buttons, to the delight of many, but the layout is confusing. Infotainment mode shortcuts run along the top edge, drooping like a handlebar mustache to meet the climate and finally the safety feature buttons. Altogether they encircle a dedicated numeric keypad – it was easier to sync my phone via Bluetooth and then use voice recognition to dial from the contacts – and more HVAC controls.
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I threw the V60 Cross Country through some perhaps more typical maneuvers, like a high-speed slalom, and tested out the City Safety proactive anti-collision technology en route to the Free State. The latter can automatically trigger the brakes at city driving speeds when the car believes you’re about to crash into the vehicle in front, and although a little jarring, it works as promised.
Similarly, whether on the highway winding through slow traffic (read; other cars) or some of the more ambitious highveld roads, the Cross Country never felt less than sure-footed. That’s not to say it’s a sports wagon, irregardless of what Volvo’s marketing might promise.
You’re aware of the weight, even if there was never a moment when I doubted the V60 had the traction to carry it, while dropping a heavy right foot reveals a little more sluggishness to surge forward than you’d hope for from a car with sporting pretensions.
At low speeds, the quintet of cylinders chatters in a uniquely attention-grabbing way, but that progresses into a more toneless howl when the gearbox is provoked into kicking down a transmission or two. Certainly you can build up a head of steam, but the Cross Country is happier with sweeping curves than cutting and dicing through mountain switchbacks. There, the extra clearance is surprisingly well hidden: there’s no body roll or sway.
For me – and for Volvo’s “pick up your friends and go do some extreme sports” marketing – it’s the rear legroom that presents the biggest problem, though. Space there, especially if you’re sitting behind someone that’s a pro rugby player or taller, like myself, is noticeably tight. It’s disappointing, because otherwise the V60 Cross Country so impressively ticks the most important of Volvo’s boxes. Handsome, sure-footed, comfortable, and – at R541 700 for the well-equipped base model, or add an extra R39 100 for the add ons found on our review model; with niceties like the Harman Kardon stereo, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning (though not, it’s worth noting, any sort of active help to bring you back in-line), keyless entry, and more – competitively priced, it’s a compelling wagon.
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The rear space was never going to be addressed with this car, though: that’s a platform issue, and thus something Volvo will have to wait a little longer to fix. It’ll put a crimp in your style if you regularly carry four adults and their accompanying extreme sports gear, shopping bags or whatever makes them happy but then again an SUV is probably better suited to that anyway.
Instead, the V60 Cross Country is a palatable shot of safe excitement into a family wagon, with a confidence-boosting driving position that doesn’t undermine an on-road manner that – if you’re coming from a crossover – will impress with its eagerness.
It’s also a sexy wagon, and I think we need more of those.
Hear more on this review during my inserts on UJFM (14h45) and OFM (22h20) this Monday, 13 June 2016.