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PG on Wheels: Once stodgy, boxy, Volvo now sexy, svelte

Friday, February 16, 2001

By Don Hammonds, Post-Gazette Auto Reviewer

Let's play a word association game, shall we? Let's start with Volvo. Now what do you think of when I say the name Volvo? Safe? To be sure. Classy? You bet. Fun to drive? Maybe.

Boxy? Did I hear you say boxy?



  Tip of the week

Come see Post Gazette auto reviewer and PG On Wheels columnist Don Hammonds at the 2001 Pittsburgh Auto Show from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. He will be at the Post-Gazette booth on the third floor of the convention center. The show, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Automobile Trade Association, runs from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.


That was true several years ago, but as Volvo says in its advertisements, there's a "Volvolution" going on.

This Swedish company makes cars that are nothing like the boxy, staid numbers that you and I remember. They are now svelte, shapely, come in many variations and -- surprise -- are fast as the dickens, thanks to turbocharged engines in many of their models.

But in transforming itself, Volvo hasn't forgotten old-time values -- rugged quality, safety and practicality -- that have brought it sales year after year.

To get a good idea of what's coming from Volvo these days, I tested both the new Cross Country wagon and the new S60 sedan.

Let's take a look at the sedan first.

Our Maya yellow (gold) S60 2.4 T had a base price of $29,800, but as you might expect, there are some attractive goodies to be had for a bit extra.

Metallic paint, leather interior, a cold-weather package, sunroof, touring package, CD radio system and leather this and that, among other things, bring the bottom line to $36,260.

And just whom is this car targeted for? I refer you, to the sales catalog for the S60: "The S60 tastefully reflects all the best of the new era of Volvo design. It is striking in a category heretofore dominated by a select few Teutonic competitors."

    The Bottom Line

Volvo S60 2.4 T

This one's for you ... if you're interested in a luxury sedan but expect a lot more practicality than you can get in some of the German sport sedans out there. If you can handle the price tag, you'll be getting a well-equipped luxury sports sedan that will keep upwith the best of them--especially in acceleration.

What's the buzz? The AAA New Car and Truck Buying Guide says, "Its distinctive styling, functional interior, comfortable ride and crisp handling make [the S60] an attractive alternative for those who don't like the image of a BMW 3-series or the price of a Mercedes C Class." It adds, "The S60 is clearly designed for drivers who appreciate good ride and handling characteristics." Money Magazine says its resale value after 5 years will be about 38 percent, roughly average. Its insurance costs are about average as well, Money says. Expect 21 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway.

In a family way? I can't think of a car that would give me a greater sense of safety and security than the S60--unless it were another Volvo! We also had little trouble loading a baby seat into the back of the car, and the trunk has better than average carrying capacity.

Volvo Cross Country

This one's for you ... if you can't stand minivans, are put off by cramped quarters in most sports utility vehicles, yet need the room and want the style and cachet that goes with driving station wagons these days. The Cross Country should fill your bill more than adequately.

What's the buzz? It may be a station wagon, but the Cross Country is surprisingly rugged, and it has no peers on the market except the more expensive Audi allroad and to a lesser extent, and lower cost, the Subaru Outback.

"Considering its relatively high stance, handling on winding roads is a pleasant experience. Acceleration and braking are more than adequate, but the XC's most remarkable attribute is its off-road capability," wrote the AAA New Car and Truck Buying Guide. Next month's Money Magazine says insurance costs for the Cross Country are about average, but its resale value after five years is a class-leading 43 percent. Expect 17 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway.

In a family way? I don't think you'll go wrong with the Cross Country, and if you have a large family, get one with the third seat.

Teutonic? Did they say Teutonic? Three guesses whom they are talking about, and the first two don't count. BMW and Audi, of course.

Right off the bat, the thing that surprised me about the sedan is how much of a performer it was. It is equipped with a 5 cylinder, 247 horsepower supercharged engine that is good for 7 second times in the race from 0 to 60. Ladies and gentlemen, that is haulin'!

I loved tromping on the pedal and listening to the deep, throaty sounds coming from the turbo- powered engine.

What's really neat is that even though the car has an automatic transmission, you can hear the gearshift as it moves through the motions, and the exhaust changes its wonderful melodies accordingly, just like a good manual transmission. That added immeasurably to the fun.

Style-wise, the Volvo is a mixed bag, I'm afraid. It's pretty good looking from the side, but the attempt to put a coupe roof line on it just doesn't work.

And it's also marred by a thick black strip that runs along the side of the car. The garish shade of gold that mine was painted didn't help either. Try a darker hue -- maybe black or venetian red.

On the other hand, the front end is both sleek and elegant looking, while still maintaining a sense of identity. The rear end? Doesn't really work for me. The taillights are weird looking and there are angles near them and the trunk lid that look clunky.

The S60's trump card is the interior -- m-m good! Volvo has the most comfortable seats I've used in quite some time and they are ergonomically correct as well as being luscious to sit in.

I rode in the front one night as a passenger, reclined the back rest and fell promptly asleep. Could somebody bring me my house shoes and cappuccino, please?

The biggest problem I had with the Volvo -- and I must say I seem to have it with every one I've driven so far -- is that the brakes are way too sensitive. They grab incessantly and really get in the way of an otherwise wonderful driving experience.

2001 Volvo Cross Country

I also didn't care for the trunk opening system. You can't get at it with a key from the outside. Volvo expects you to always use the button on the key chain and that's fine --except mine didn't always work.

That meant I had to turn the car on, insert the master key into a dashboard gizmo and press a button. That's an awful lot of trouble.

I will say that the S60 is a car that thinks of everything -- which isn't a bad thing for folks like me who can forget even the simplest things. A message center reminds you about maintenance, engine problems, speed and other items.

The heater controls on both the S60 and the Cross Country are works of art because they're so easy to understand. There's a little picture graph of a human body with arrows pointing to the direction of vents and air. Just hit the button nearest the point where you want the air directed.

You also can get a trip computer that stores driving distances, fuel consumption, current fuel consumption and average speed. The side view mirror is heated for winter use and includes security lights that are both handy and reassuring.

And get this -- there's an optional interior air quality sensor that detects increased levels of contaminants in the outside air. The filter is designed to separate gases and particles to reduce stinky smells and undesirable elements (particles, not people) from getting into the car.

Now for the Volvo Cross Country.

The well-heeled set that has always been at the core of Volvo's station wagon business will be more than pleased with this one. It has few peers -- only the Audi all-road truly competes with it since the Legacy Outback, which also is all-wheel-drive, sells in a much lower price bracket.

The same qualities that make the S60 a sheer joy to drive also make the Cross Country a winner. It's solid, substantial, full of safety features, has the added bonus of the all-wheel drive system, and the huge advantage of a third seat for those families that need one.

It's also quite the performer on the road, moving along nicely with enough acceleration to make it a worry-free ride on the highways.

You'll find the same comfy leather seats, albeit in a slightly different design and look from the S60.

The minuses for the Cross Country are, as with the S60, the sensitive brakes. Though they stop you in plenty of time, you still have to modulate pressure on them carefully or you'll find yourself watching the rear end hop up at every opportunity.

Unlike the S60 I tested, the Cross Country had a navigation system, and it was easy to have it pop up unexpectedly because of accidentally engaging the control button. It also was a tough one to program. I never got the hang of it, even following the instructions in the manual carefully.

Like the S60, the Cross Country is chock full of features that are useful, like a nice little bin on the side of the dash for purses, wallets, Kleenex and what not. There also are pull-up window shades on the side of the windows that are wonderful for keeping the sun out and allowing irritable, sleep-wary babies to get in a snooze. First-aid kits also are part of the equipment package.

Altogether, both of these Volvos combine the best of the company's past -- reliability, ruggedness and safety -- with some sexiness and attractiveness on the outside. Not a bad deal!

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