Car reviews - Volvo - V70 - R 5-dr wagon
Presentation, practicality, performance, versatility, value, Volvo reputation
Room for improvement
Ride, steering, handling, missing finesse
28 May 2004
SCHIZOPHRENIA and Volvo have long gone hand-in-hand.
Since the 1950s the Swedes’ zealous pursuit of safety – led by its benevolent patent-free invention of the three-point seatbelt first seen in the lovely 121/122 Amazon in 1959 – has literally saved millions of lives worldwide.
Subsequently in the 1970s the safety message was fostered and flaunted, first by its boxy (and later big-bumpered) 140/240 range and then with the impossibly origami 700 series of the 1980s.
But by the 1990s Volvo’s take on safety wasn’t cool: big bumpers weren’t cool daytime driving lights weren’t cool and the leafy suburban middle-class types behind the (often meandering) steering wheel definitely weren’t cool.
Volvo craved to be saved from its beige image.
So out came the 850 T5, a 166kW turbocharged front-wheel driver that flew, and flew in the face of, Volvo convention.
And its scrabbling, slingshot T5-R sedan sibling, with 10 more kiloWatts on tap and mellow yellow paint on top, was an even wilder spectacle, like enduring an elderly auntie on an acid trip.
Then, as the once-independent Volvo was welcomed into the Ford fold in 1999, things quietened down for the 850 and its S60/V70 replacement in 2000.
But memories, like the scorched rubber marks left on the bitumen by those fabulously lairy T5-R owners, are long. And Volvo is still a company with a safety angel on one shoulder and a demon with a need for speed on the other.
So since November last year, Volvo has revved up its V70 wagon range by dropping in a range-topping ‘R’.
This time ‘R’ is to Volvo what ‘M’ is to BMW and ‘S’ is to Audi ... big speed, big performance and big bucks.
In this case the R on the V70’s rump means an extended proboscis that adds a purposefully aggressive look to the pretty load lugger. And there’s not a citrus-inspired hue in sight.
Peter Horbury, the Englishman responsible for Volvo’s current distinctive design language, rounded off the nose and added the revised lower air intakes to aid aerodynamics and significantly lower high-speed lift tendencies for superior overall stability.
Meanwhile, elongating it by 30mm assisted the installation of a larger cooling system that includes the turbocharger’s intercoolers.
You wouldn’t necessarily surmise that from the R’s smaller mat silver surround grille compared to the usual V70 unit. The same garnish sets off the powerful (and sexy) bi-Xenon headlights, especially against the striking "Flash Green" finish of the test car.
But the bright blue instrument lighting is the R’s absolute surprise-and-delight highlight and, along with the aluminium trimmed door and dash inlays, improves on the swish and sassy V70 interior, which is holding its four-plus year-old design with dignity, by the way.
The test car’s no-cost option orange R-line seats are sumptuous and laterally very supportive due to their deeply dished design, and adjust electronically with ease. It felt like I was ensconced in a giant baseball glove.
V70R drivers benefit from the bigger and better aligned S60 centre console, while the leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel is naturally sited and agreeably grippy.
Too bad, then, that the opposite is true for Volvo’s contrived "Spaceball" manual gear lever, which adds to the overall remoteness of the whole gear changing experience.
The no-cost Geartronic five-speed automatic alternative, even with a 50Nm drop in maximum torque, may be the sweeter selection if lesser S60s sampled are an indicator.
Never mind, because there’s always the solidly stylish dash, excellent driving position, spacious comfort for five adults, superb audio system, great all-round visibility and a real air of luxury ambience to enjoy.
And since flat-pack furniture was made for Volvos, nothing touches it for luggage-carrying abilities.
But many may not give a rapid R about this Volvo’s ability to cart Ikea or load Labradors because it’s the high G-loads the all-wheel drive and trick suspension system are capable of that’s more relevant.
Similar to the device Volkswagen uses for its Golf R32, the Haldex all-wheel drive system in the predominantly front-wheel drive V70R sends up to 70 per cent of drive rearwards when required.
Central to this is the intelligent "Four-C" suspension damper with sensors that constantly monitor and electronically adjust them up to 500 times per second according to factors such as steering input for maximum traction, control and smoothness.
I’m afraid only in your baby bottom-smooth road surface dreams, Volvo.
Because, whether you select (via buttons on the dash) the ‘Comfort’, ‘Sport’ or ‘Advanced’ settings, it is the only place where BMW M3-style exhilaratingly fast and fluid cornering is possible.
Our (mostly) irregularly surfaced roads make for a jiggly ride, unsettled motions and a remote driving experience. Throw in the typically lifeless Volvo steering (actually, it’s ZF’s speed-dependent Servotronic system with a tighter rack and pinion ratio for faster responses) and gummy gearshift and you’ve got a fast but flawed rocket.
At least the AWD and various traction aids keep things secure and stable at all times, no matter what the weather conditions may be.
Best, then, to leave it in Comfort unless smooth roads oblige, tune your attitude away from sport mode and enjoy the V70R’s other towering strengths instead.
Like the performance of the 220kW turbocharged 2.5-litre engine, which isn’t the last word in refinement but sure is gutsy.
Slightly gruff but also satisfyingly growly, it incongruously catapults the Volvo with steam-train vigour, making for superbly swift cross-country crossings.
A tonne of torque means overtaking is over before you know it ... and so is the fuel load if you don’t take it easy. Which is hard when 0-100km/h only takes 5.9 seconds. Count on around 12.0 litres per 100km. Volvo says to expect 10.9, assuming you’re not attempting the 250km/h V-max.
Keeping all that performance at bay are 330mm vented discs doggedly gripped by Brembo four-piston callipers ensconced in beautiful 18x8.0-inch five-spoke alloys banded with 235/40-series Pirelli P-Zero Rosso tyres.
If you’re expecting a BMW M3 or even an Audi S4 Avant for two-thirds the price, you’ll be disappointed by the handling and ride qualities it offers.
But despite that, at $102,950, it’s a bit of a bargain, standing alone as a sophisticated, spunky, comfortable and versatile continent-crossing rocket with all the usual Volvo safety and security virtues.
So forget about sportiness, embrace its sumptuousness and revel in the mad and audacious machine that is the crazy Volvo V70R.
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