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A wild ride for XC70

2008 Volvo wagon bests Montana logging roads

WHITEFISH, Mont. - If there is a singular characteristic that makes the 2008 Volvo XC70 all-wheel-drive wagon remarkable, it is duality.

We beat this car up in testing on more than 150 miles of some of the gnarliest dirt and logging roads that the wilds of Montana have to offer. We thumped through potholes, slid sideways through slippery corners, and sped through fire-ravaged forest. We were in the boonies, on the watch for elk, bear, rocks, ruts, and - at one point - a wrong-side-of-the-road truck.

But back on public roads, we may as well have been driving a sedate Volvo sedan - such as the S80 - wrapped in luxury, surrounded by safety, cruising in absolute and powerful quiet.

We drove the previous generation of this car down the Baja in Mexico, where even some racers fear to tread. The results were the same during that testing: this is a hard car to break.

This new version is about 2 inches longer in wheelbase, which adds to the silky feel of a highway commute. It's 4 inches longer overall, which allows for even more gear in the already ample rear cargo area. It also has more high-tensile steel forged into the protective cage. Its redesigned outside looks more aggressive, an appearance that belies the interior sweetness.

Despite the car's toughness, we had reason to be afraid two times during our Montana testing.

First, while riding the outside edge of a turn bending left and ready to turn into the inside apex, a big truck came out of nowhere on our side of the road. We touched the brakes lightly to get weight up front for better steering.

Next, we pulled sharply right, through mounds of gravel, and then left, back onto the road, applying gas for needed traction. If ever there were a remake of the California wine-country film "Sideways," my co-driver, Emilio Lezcano, and I could star, without the wine.

The second scary moment came after we sliced a tire on a sharp rock. We needed a lookout to stand guard while Emilio and I bent over, backs to the forest, to change the tire. That's because a grizzly sow and her three cubs had just been spotted a few hundred yards away. You never saw lug nuts spun off and on so quickly. We should send the video to NASCAR teams in need of a pit crew.

Volvo makes no pretense that this is an SUV, even though it will go where most of them won't - ground clearance excepted. Rather, it is aimed at those who like to make "their own road and have their own style," said Volvo XC70 product manager Leif Settergren.

Maybe, if that includes people who want to travel in stylish safety - like urban and suburban commuters and northern New England drivers who tackle bad weather conditions.

To that end, safety features abound in the XC70. It comes with traction control - a hill descent system that lets the car creep down the steepest, slipperiest of slopes - as well as air bags all around, and the auto industry's first safety seat that can be adjusted as a child grows older.

Though it seems to be a hot rod when flogged over backwoods Montana gravel, the Volvo's power plant - a 235-horsepower, 3.2-liter, inline-6 - is straight from the luxurious and sensible S80 sedan.

Much of the interior elegance also comes from that model.

The XC70 goes on sale this month, starting at about $36,000. The price does not include a roadside guard in the event you have to change a tire in grizzly country.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

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