Volvo V70 Cross Country (XC) car reviews

Review Notes: 2002 Volvo V70 XC Cross Country 5-Cylinder Turbo Automatic
Quirks Unusual controls
Gas mileage 19 city, 24 highway EPA
Unusual features Safety features abound; clever control layouts; available manual transmission
Above Average Safety, handling, brakes
Needs Work In Automatic transmission
Bottom-scraper test Superior
Car reviews written by David Zatz

Volvo has, over the years, successfully changed its reputation from a maker of dull, well-made, boxy cars to one of sporty, well-made, semi-boxy cars. The V70 shows just how far Volvo has come, without leaving behind its Swedish ancestry. While chock full of safety features, the turbocharged V70 XC (Cross Country) is also one of the sportiest wagons you can buy.

First, a quick roundup of the safety features, since you knew any discussion of a Volvo would have them. There are seemingly airbags everywhere, hidden neatly here and there. The headrests are adjustable on every seat, including the fifth-passenger seat in the middle of the back row. The steering wheel telescopes forward and back, in addition to going up and down, to accommodate itself to any driver, and the seat goes back further than we'd expect. There is an optional cargo net to protect rear passengers from being hit by flying objects in the wagon section, as well as the obligatory advanced antilock brakes and (the reason for the XC designation) all wheel drive to keep traction. In addition to a winter shifting mode, the automatic transmission lets you start as far up as third gear for good snow starts. There are fog lights in both front and back, so you can see well and others can see you - though the rear fog lights are blinding to other drivers when used without fog (as most American drivers seem to use them), so they make you safe and cause risk to the poor sap behind you. The headlights are always on, unless you set the control to have the driving lights on - actually we don't know why there are three different positions on the headlight control. The hazard flashers are even lit at night so you know where they are (as is the headlight control, which has a green LED constantly on unless you manually turn the headlights on). To keep visibility up, there are little windshield wipers on the headlights (with the winter package), along with a well styled rear wiper/washer. The rear driver's side window has its own defroster, which actually doesn't make much sense to us, since the driver doesn't use that window anyway - one of the passenger side windows would make more sense. Finally, under the skin are a variety of clever things that protect the occupants in an accident.

With the safety features out of the way, we can move onto the luxury trappings of this vehicle, which starts at about $36,000. Ours had an optional luxury trim package, which is actually a nice feature, with classy faux-wood trim well deployed here and there and custom-fit leather on the seats and doors (with wide stitching to make sure people notice, and presumably also to keep it in one piece longer). However, the center stack is still a massive expanse of black plastic.

The controls are all sensible, if unusual. The left hand stalk is devoted mainly to the trip computer, and twisting a dial on the stalk puts the trip computer through its paces: gas mileage, distance to empty, and average speed. The right hand stalk controls the wiper-washers, while cruise controls are on the left hand side of the steering wheel, easily reached without moving your hands. Minimal stereo controls are on the right side of the wheel. All lights are controlled from the same panel, so you don't need to hunt for fog lights. Likewise, window, mirror, and lock controls are on the door, clustered together. (The power locks are an odd setup - instead of separate lock and unlock positions, pressing a single button alternatively locks and unlocks the doors.)

The optional CD/cassette player has excellent sound, which is good, because it's set up in a huge custom enclosure. It has an interesting set up controls, with normal knobs for bass, treble, fade, and balance, but also large knobs for source (CD, AM, FM, etc.) and memory. That's right, instead of a row of buttons, you get a knob. After getting used to it, the source knob is much easier to use than the traditional setups, because it doesn't require you to find any buttons. However, the memory knob is pushing it.

The climate control is better designed than most, giving the driver control over the a/c compressor, air recycling, and airpath - or a big AUTO button to let the system handle it. You can have air going through the defroster without having the air conditioning on, a welcome change. Both driver and passenger have thermostatic control. Again, all climate-control related buttons are clustered together in this panel, including the dual-power seat heaters and front and rear defrosters. It's an unusually well designed system which is easy to learn and use without paying much attention to it. Rear passengers can close or redirect their own climate control vents.

There are also dual cupholders in the center console, and a spring-out cupholder that comes out of the center stack for those who like to gamble that nothing will spill into the climate control.

The instrument panel itself is well designed, clean and pleasant to look it, without being a distraction. It's a traditional white-on-black design with green blacklighting. The speedometer includes an odometer and trip odometer (both are always on), while the tachometer includes a PRNDL, clock, and outside temperature display. The only other gauges are coolant temperature and gasoline. The lettering is modern and faintly elegant, a good choice.

There is decent storage space, with map pockets, the center cupholders, and an open-topped center bin. There is also a shallow center bin with a cover, but this also serves as the rear cupholders. We would not recommend using this ourselves, since it doesn't seem very effective or very strong. We wouldn't mind an extra cubby, or removable rubber liners in the cup holders and center bin to make cleaning easier and prevent rattles. There is also no coin holder - and, while we're at it, no power memory to keep the radio on after the key is removed (the power windows do work after the key is removed).

The seats are comfortable, with three way memory in the driver's seat and mirrors, and a power passenger seat. The rear seats have individual "flip and fold" features, to allow for more cargo. Unusually, all three seats can be flipped individually, so for example just the center can be flipped down. Surprisingly, though, there is no way to adjust the seat belts.

At this point, many readers are probably wondering when we will get to the all wheel drive and turbocharged five-cylinder engine. That engine has been with Volvo for a long time, and has proven to be reliable over time. However, it tends to make power at higher engine speeds, which means there is not a great amount of off-the-line power unless you rev it while the brake is on (or before letting out the clutch). This is the kind of engine that prefers a manual shifter, but our test car had the five-speed automatic. We have tested better transmissions. This one consistently gave us the impression of being formed around a large rubber band, with delays before acceleration and then sudden jerking forward. The reason, we finally concluded, was that it liked being in fifth gear for better gas mileage - 19 city, 24 highway, according to the EPA. Any time you want power, though, it has to downshift into fourth or third, and that's the jerking. It is not especially smooth or fast, and sometimes can't make up its mind and lets the engine roar in neutral while hunting for the right gear.

On the lighter side, it has a manumatic option, letting you whack the shifter forward to bump up into a higher gear, or pull it back to downshift. We don't normally like driving with manumatics, but it pays in this car, since it lets you control the gear and, therefore, the available power. The manumatic does have a small delay before shifting so you need to think a little ahead of time, but it certainly made driving more enjoyable and brought more from the engine. Overall, though, we strongly recommend a manual transmission.

Though the turbocharged engine only produces about 200 horsepower, it is quite fast in a sprint (zero to sixty in about 7.5 seconds), once the boost builds and the engine gets into its sweet spot. The transmission helps by allowing it to get very close to redline, something many automatics refuse to do. The result is very fast and easy highway merging, and, with a quick downshift, easy highway passing as well. This is one wagon that will keep up with most sedans - including quite a few sporty models.

City acceleration, despite a bit of a lag when starting out, is good, and the all wheel drive helps considerably by allowing full acceleration while turning. There is, however, quite a bit of understeer, due no doubt to the large size of the vehicle. We found that the tires were very quiet on turns - no loud screeching noises to attract municipal attention - which added to our overall sense of stability. On the highway or in the city, handling was better than we'd expect from a larger car - especially a station wagon - and the Volvo always inspired confidence. While the ride is firm, it does soak up the jolts and shocks of irregular pavement well. The interior is also well insulated in terms of noise, with far less wind noise than we would expect.

We must note that there are several V70 models, all wagons, with engines ranging from a 168 horsepower, non-turbo five to a 247 horsepower version of the Cross Country's engine.

The Volvo V70 XC is an interesting package, providing more personality than the similarly priced Mercedes, more safety than most cars and SUVs, conveniences in its ergonomics, and practicality in its configuration. The automatic transmission is a major flaw, though, and there are many good offerings from other makers which come in at a lower price - the upcoming Chrysler Pacifica being on of the more interesting competitors. The Volvo is certainly competitive in its class, and, yes, we'd certainly recommend a test drive before you drive off in that Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus if you have a lot of cargo - or people - to drag around. And we'd certainly say it's more enjoyable than a monster SUV, and far safer for everyone else on the road. Take one for a spin, and see if you become one of the many loyal "Volvo-for-life" customers.