Getting a Grip: Testing the Volvo V90 Cross Country to the Extreme
Volvo claim that its cars are made by Sweden, not in Sweden. Phil Huff puts that to the test...
The difference between 'Made in Sweden' and 'Made by Sweden' is subtle, but one that the company is proud of, promising as it does that its luxuriously appointed behemoths can cope with anything the British climate might throw at it without breaking a sweat.
I wanted to put that to the test, but if I’m going to test things thoroughly I might as well aim for ‘extreme’ and see what happens. Which is how I found myself in the middle of a lake in two-tonnes of Sweden’s finest metalwork.
Fortunately the lake, situated just a few kilometres from the remote ski resort of Åre, was well frozen. Or at least that’s what the Volvo guys promised me but, given the creaks, cracks and moans coming from the icy surface, I was less than convinced. The temperatures had been unusually warm before my arrival too, although it was a reassuringly cold -14°c by the time I’d found my way to the Copperhill Mountain Lodge for the night.
The drive there showed off the talents of the V90 Cross Country nicely. Raised by 65mm over the standard V90 estate, the Cross Country’s softer suspension makes the ride even plusher than usual. Yes, there’s a little more bodyroll in corners, but it’s by no means intrusive and doesn’t affect how much confidence you can place in the car.
That said, I was on special studded tyres that, on the few clear stretches of tarmac, actually hindered road-holding slightly while making a lot more noise. Once I’d turned off the main roads and was on the way to Åre, the roads turned to sheet ice where the studs came into their own.
I was confidently navigating my way using the Sensus infotainment system that’s built into to the V90 and its bigger brother, the XC90 SUV. It's a masterpiece of design - everything you need is displayed on a HUD in front of you, while less important information is placed on the large touchscreen in the centre console. Seldom used options are hidden just a swipe of the finger away, leaving it safe to use on the road.
The same goes for the rest of the interior. It’s as good as it gets, oozing minimalist Swedish style while being easy to use, spacious, comfortable and quiet. How the engineers have achieved this is a mystery, but they’re absolutely nailing it in Gothenburg right now.
The car itself feels nailed to the ground, thanks to an all-wheel drive system that splits power intelligently between the four wheels. Under normal circumstances, all the power goes to the front wheels but, once things get sketchy, it sends some to the rear wheels to balance things up. Unlike most systems, it’s engineered to remain neutrally balanced when on the limit of adhesion, which makes it a more predictable car to handle under extreme conditions.
Ah yes, those extreme conditions. Creeping onto a frozen lake is an unnerving experience but, once I’d been given a thorough safety briefing (“don’t hit any other cars!”) and gone through an exhaustive training session (“there are some cones, go round them”) I was let loose on the 50cm thick ice sheet.
For the purposes of genuine consumer journalism, I left the computer aids switched on for a while, which means there’s traction control, stability control, automatic all-wheel drive and emergency autonomous braking. The surprising result is that it was possible to drive reasonably sensibly around the lake, the car stepping in and braking individual wheels once it had decided that things were getting too enthusiastic. Point proven - the car is inherently safe.
Switch everything off and it’s a different beast, the tail end of the car swinging to angles even beyond 90 degrees yet remaining controllable, which is impressive considering the five metre long pendulum it becomes. Yes, to get the most out of it you need to know what’s going on with weight transfer, steering angles, grip coefficients and such like, but any loon could go out and have a huge amount of fun on Sweden’s natural test track.
It might not quite represent a slippy road in the suburbs of Cambridge, but it’s reassuring to know that the car will look after you every bit as well there as it would in Åre.
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