By Michelle Spencer
Sleek, elegant, chic and sporty are not words you might normally associate with a 4x4 - and you'd be extremely unlikely to use them all at once to describe the same 4x4. That is until the advent of Volvo's XC60.
Since bringing the utilitarian off-roader into the family leisure market, car makers have striven to style it and tailor it to offer the broadest appeal, with varying degrees of success. Some try a 4x4/MPV cross, while others go for a more laid-back SUV image. There's even been an attempt by a premium car maker at trying to turn its large SUV into a sleek sports coupe, with notably unsleek, nay, grotesque, results!
Unlike many SUVs, Volvo's XC60 manages to retain, and even enhance, the svelte lines and subtle contours of its more lightweight saloon and estate brethren. In fact, if you lowered an XC60 to make it adopt a road-hugging stance, it would doubtless appear as a rather rakish sports estate. Volvo calls it "emotional" styling.
You wouldn't accuse the XC60's interior of being overdone. It is fresh, modem, stylish and, above all, simple. The all-anthracite lower-half trim of our test example might seem dull and oppressive in some cars, but with little more to lift it than white contrast stitching and tastefully applied bright moldings, the Volvo manages an air of smart practicality. You'd expect nothing less from Swedish design.
The focal point is without doubt Volvo's now well known 'floating' center console, in this instance having a bright metallic finish. It presents an array of logically-arranged and clearly-marked controls - the human-shaped air-distribution graphic being a particular case in point - which become almost intuitive at first glance. Above this and the CD slot resides the clear sat-nav screen, slightly inset to reduce reflections in the window glass, and located on the same plane as the instruments where a quick glance enables immediate visual clarity without refocusing.
Gauges - just the two - convey the necessary details via annular analogue dials and (that word again) 'floating' pointers with digital supplementary information displayed in their centers. They have a chronographic look to them, but Volvo has thankfully resisted the usually Far-Eastern car manufacturers' trend to decorate them with too much bling and fancy illumination.
In true Volvo tradition, the seats are well-shaped, supportive and comfortable with those in the front offering a useful range of adjustment. The rear compartment boasts reasonable if not commodious legroom, and the nicely contoured seat should provide three average-sized adults with cozy but comfortable travel. The 40:20:40 split/fold seat gives a flat load floor when the one-touch release levers are operated.
Zoned climate control gives a degree (actually, quite a few degrees) of heating/cooling versatility and clean cabin air using filtration and Volvo's Clean Zone Interior Package, an innovative air-purging system.
Five-cylinder engines make a deal of sense, being as responsive as a 'four' yet almost as smooth as a 'six', although the smoothness bit is less apparent with an oil burner. Once warmed up, though, the D5 is a pleasant enough diesel, delivering brisk performance in concert with the smooth-shifting six-speed Geartronic transmission, which also has Sport mode and manual override.
Having originally thought the steering over-weighted, a few miles later it seemed to feel quicker and more responsive. Speed-dependent assistance is available as standard or an option, depending on model, with a user-selection facility.
In normal conditions the all-wheel drive system is front-biased, with torque re-apportioned via the computer-controlled hydraulic clutch as available grip alters. Volvo's Instant Traction is designed to assist with standing starts. Ride is quite firm (maybe due to the BMW X3 being an XC60 benchmark) but gives car-like cornering and handling, though well-judged initial compliance takes the sting out of many road imperfections.
The Volvo's City Safety helps avoid low-speed accidents; Collision Warning with Auto Brake and Adaptive Cruise Control with Distance Alert operate at higher speeds; BUS reveals your blind spots; DAC and LDW try to stop you falling asleep or straying out of lane; and IDIS delays phone calls while you deal with complex driving situations. These systems can be had along with Volvo's renowned safety design and engineering assisted by Roll Stability Control, Hill Descent Control, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, and Trailer Stability Assist. Oh, and there's Park Assist...
The Volvo's 90kg nose weight offers a good margin to accommodate most appropriate caravans, and rectangular, straight-edged door mirrors provide a better platform than many for towing mirrors.
The XC60 proved to be brisk, turning in a 0-60mph time of 14.5 seconds despite initial take-off being softened by the automatic gearbox.. Hill starts were equally as trouble-free. The outfit felt quite unruffled in urban conditions, possibly due to the assurance of City Safety, and with a 30-50mph time of 6.1 sec was rarely in danger of holding up other traffic. Normal auto mode coped well, smoothly finding itself in the right gear at the right time.
The steering could occasionally feel a bit weighty in tight, twisty urban conditions but improved at higher speeds to become smooth, responsive and accurate, where the Volvo felt in complete control through strings of minor-road bends. On steep descents manual gear selection could be useful, but the strong brakes with their various driver- assistance systems provided reassurance.
At motorway speeds the XC60 tracked straight and true, though on a very windy test day some buffeting was experienced, as was some enforced deviation offline from large overtaking trucks and coaches.
Ride comfort in all conditions was firm, though rarely uncomfortably so, and the XC60 managed to damp out the caravan's bump reactions very competently over all but the worst ruts.
Think of this SUV as a tall, slinky, blonde Swede that'll never have a blonde moment, yet is very XC.
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