For most people, there’s nothing unusual about taking a vacation in the middle of summer. For Car Guide journalists, however, this is something we can usually only dream about – until this year, that is. Why, you ask? By publishing the 47th edition of Québec’s best-selling automobile guide in the last few days of July, we were finally able entertain the notion of unplugging our computers and leaving the office in the middle of August.
So, that’s what I did. I wanted to take two weeks off like everyone else, but first I had to deliver the two articles that I promised. The first, on the Nissan GT-R, was for the Car Guide website, while the other one was on the Shelby GT500 for the magazine. That ate up the first three days of my vacation time. I also had to return a test car and pick up another for our vacation.
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Ready to go
With no set destination, my well-deserved summer vacation was going to be something of an adventure. Although we weren’t planning on anything extreme, we still needed a car capable of going anywhere, with enough room to handle more baggage than we actually needed (as usual) and as much comfort as possible. And a little luxury and style never hurts either.
Given my line of work, I practically had my pick of cars. So, we ended up in a Volvo XC60 R-Design, the newest and most upscale version of this mid-size Swedish sport utility vehicle that has just arrived at dealerships. With a 3.0-litre turbocharged in-line six that has been increased from 300 to 325 horses and from 325 to 354 lbs-ft of torque, it’s also the most powerful in the XC60 family.
Strangely, Volvo is promising the same 0-100 km/hr time (7.3 seconds) for both T6 engines. Whatever the case may be, I recorded 7.39 seconds for this first test and 15.44 seconds at 149.5 km/hr for the traditional quarter-mile. I felt compelled to do my usual measurements. I guess you can take the journalist out of the office, but you can’t take the office out of the journalist.
While I’m on the subject, note that the XC60 accelerates from 80-120 km/hr in 6.13 seconds and it needs an average of 41.3 metres to come to a complete stop from 100 km/hr. That means that you can pass other vehicles on small roads without frightening your passengers and brake solidly when needed, like when a farmer decides to pull onto the road with his tractor and a trailer full of manure without looking both ways first. Things like that happen.
In about 2,500 km staggered over six days, I noticed and appreciated the generous engine torque whenever a country road turned into the main street of a village, allowing us to coast through smoothly. Chalk it up to the wonders of a well-controlled turbo without a noticeable lag and well served by a six-speed automatic transmission.
Safe and quiet
That’s not all, of course. After all, the XC60 is a Volvo. And not just any Volvo, the R-Design Platinum with the optional Technology Package. In addition to antilock brakes and the usual plethora of airbags, our XC60 came with the following systems: Collision Warning and Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake for both, Distance Alert, Driver Alert and Lane Departure Warning. The systems are well calibrated and discrete, so you won’t be tempted to deactivate them.
The XC has excellent xenon headlights, automatic cruise control to help it stop and restart in traffic jams, and front and rear sonar with a rear back-up camera for parking. I quickly became dependant on these systems, as they eliminate a large part of the stress of driving.
The XC60R-Design proved perfect for a long road trip through all kinds of conditions and almost entirely on unknown roads. The only irritant was the flat buttons. The fact that they weren’t raised in the least meant that I couldn’t deactivate and reactivate the cruise control without taking my eyes off the road.
With the automatic all-wheel drive alone, the active security features would already be very complete, but Volvo doesn’t stop there. Add to that 20-inch alloy rims fitted with size 255/45R20 Pirelli Scorpion Zero tires and a sport suspension coupled with thicker rollbars and firmer dampers.
At the wheel, my first surprise was the quality of the ride, despite the large wheels and relatively low profile tires. It was always firm but never uncomfortable. It was harsh at times, but only on rough sections of road. One thing is certain, the XC60 is much better than the new S60 R-Design and all “R” type Volvos, with the exception of the V70R wagon of days past.
With large and low tires, the balance and handling are impeccable and the steering is sharp and precise. The XC60 takes on winding roads like a tracking dog, with conviction and hardly any roll. That’ll make the driver happy without worrying the passenger, even at a faster pace. Note that the R-Design’s sport seats are magnificent, offering a perfect combination of support and comfort, even on long trips.
Having fun, off the beaten track
Our goal was to see the countryside, so we spent a lot of hours on the road that week. We set out toward the east and turned right just before Quebec City, then headed toward Jackman, Maine. After a quick stop in Greenville at the end of Moosehead Lake, we crossed the Appalachians to see what the wooded heart of Maine and the frilly coast north of Bar Harbor looked like.
In Machias, we stopped for a famous lobster roll and homemade pies at Helen’s, then the XC60 posed for a photo at the Lubec fishing port, the easternmost point in the United States. Not long after, we crossed into St. Stephen, New Brunswick for supper and to spend the night in the beautiful village of St-Andrews-by-the-Sea at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy.
After briefly visiting loyalist Saint John, we tenaciously headed up the majestic Saint John River, in all its little-known green and blue splendour, taking our time to admire it by systematically choosing the nearly deserted scenic route. We apply the same strategy (of taking the road less travelled) once we were back in Quebec, veering east in Dégelis to get to Rimouski via the back country.
We go through Saint-Marcellin one day too early for its famous medieval festival, complete with lookout tower, trebuchet, public market and Viking camp, but we snapped a picture there anyway. The ferry from Rivière-du-Loup toward Saint-Siméon took us to the more familiar wonders of Charlevoix. We took it easy on the way home, always choosing the smallest, oldest and prettiest roads. These were often the least busy, too: Port-au-Persil, the tombs in Beauport, the Chemin du Roy and finally the old route 132 south of the St. Lawrence spanned by the Laviolette Bridge.
I was glad to have brought my Garmin GPS – although it’s several years old, I update regularly. It saved us more than once, especially since the XC60’s built-in system let us down often because of its incomplete maps.
An epicurean Scandinavian
In its “passion red” dress that envelops its lovely contours, this Swede was beautiful. The XC60 R-Design’s body is monochromatic with aluminum mouldings for the grille, tail end and rocker panels. In the passenger compartment, there are large chronograph instrument dials and two-tone upholstery for the leather seats bathed in the light of the panoramic sunroof.
Basically, our XC60 did not have any of the stern Lutheran chapel qualities shown in Ingmar Bergman films, though it did prove reasonably frugal for its size and power. I recorded an average fuel consumption of 13.1 L/100 km for the hillier segments of our trip and 9.7 L/100 km for a stretch done exclusively on the highway at a little above the legal limit. Fuel consumption would be much better with the diesel engine offered in Europe or a production version of the rechargeable XC60 hybrid prototype, if Volvo ends up manufacturing it one day.
The XC60 is a solid, stable, safe, practical and comfortable driving companion. It is easy to handle and offers great performances, too. With so many good qualities, most drivers would be willing to live with the whims and complexities of some of the controls or the ineptitude of the navigation system. That said, I hope that Volvo has some improvements up their sleeve, as the competition is coming and they look hungry.