ÅRE, Sweden — If there’s one thing selling faster than hotcakes in Canada right now, it’s sport utility vehicles. With very few exceptions, however, they aren’t particularly utilitarian or sporty. Thankfully, a few tough, svelte and spry steeds are effortlessly breezing past the herd that so often drags its hooves.
The best known and highest rated is undoubtedly the Volvo Cross Country, which was first launched 20 years ago in 1997. But when it comes to reputation and popularity, it is neck and neck with the Subaru Outback, a vehicle that came on the scene around the same time and with whom it has shared the same territory ever since.
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There is no overlap between the costliest Outback and the least expensive Cross Country, and better still, they have no true rival. But that doesn’t mean that their success has gone unnoticed. Mercedes-Benz is throwing its hat in the ring with its new E-Class All-Terrain that has its sights set directly on the Volvo Cross Country.
The renaissance continues
As it turns out, timing couldn’t be better, because the Swedish manufacturer has created a new one—the V90 Cross Country, which has just arrived in Canada. Volvo invited us to Sweden to discover and drive the vehicle that is kicking off the fourth generation of this series. It arrives at just the right time to take over from a third generation whose career spanned almost a decade.
This is a major transformation for the Cross Country. The metamorphosis is just as significant as the one that, last year, gave us the superb XC90, named Utility Vehicle of the Year by the judges of the North American Car of the Year awards. This should come as no surprise, since the V90 Cross Country is built on the same SPA (or Scalable Product Architecture) platform as the XC90 and the new offshoots of the 90 series, the S90 sedan and the V90 wagon.
The 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country shares the superbly refined lines of the wagon with which it shares a prefix. Its look, however, is sturdier, as it should be, with a black grille bespeckled with chrome dots, anthracite-colour fender extensions and sculpted rocker panels, a tail end with two large exhaust tips, the name Cross Country engraved on the bumper and a protective shield attached below.
However, the most striking thing about the Cross Country is its 210-mm ground clearance. That’s 65 mm more than the V90 wagon, and it shows—a lot.
A question of poise
The differences are not merely aesthetic. According to Egbert Bakker, who led the team assigned to refine its handling on the road and beyond, every last one of the suspension components has been modified or replaced in keeping with the V90 Cross Country’s go-anywhere mission. Ditto for the drive assist system, the stability control program and others.
On the other hand, there’s no height-adjustable suspension, as with the XC90. Bakker tells us this is because customers didn’t ask for it. It can, however, be equipped with an air spring rear suspension that automatically corrects pitch depending on the load. It is accompanied by adjustable dampers associated with the various available driving modes.
There’s but one engine for the 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country, namely the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder as the XC90, S90 and V90, boosted by both a turbo and a supercharger for 316 horsepower, but most importantly for a torque peak of 295 lb.-ft. at 2200 rpm. It’s a flexible, smooth and just responsive enough engine paired with a clean and precise eight-speed automatic gearbox. This combination produces fluid acceleration in all gears and a nice sound when we push our right foot down.
The first three versions built on the SPA platform both surprised and impressed with the freshness, modernity and originality of their body and cabin design. Same goes for the V90 Cross Country, whose shape and passenger compartment feature subtle variations on the same themes.
Its dashboard is identical to that of the V90 and S90 for its design and layout of the controls. The only finishes offered are almost-black walnut and dark grey aluminum. There are no pale wood accents for the Cross Country. In the middle, there’s a 12.3-inch screen with the optional Premium Package.
After the initial surprise, the Sensus system that gives access to various menus and commands by swiping (like on your smartphone) is easily mastered. That doesn’t change the fact that certain commands—like the one that allows you to (partially) deactivate the stability control system—should be more easily accessible.
The seats are fantastic, as is almost always the case with Volvo, and the driving position is impeccable. Visibility is very good, except for the outside mirrors that are a little bigger than on the S90 and V90. Odd choice, considering they block the view of the inside of a turn even in those models.
In any case, these proudly Swedish creations that bring the expression “Scandinavian style” back into fashion deserve a hat tip for resisting the temptation to imitate in the least the German brands that have long set the tone and called the shots in the luxury car segment.
Slip, sliding away
The 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country was perfectly comfortable on the icy courses of Lake Ånnsjön, even when we set the stability control program to Sport mode, which deactivates it almost entirely. With precise steering, the grip of the Hakkapeliitta tires dotted with small 1.2-mm studs, excellent weight distribution and efficient four-wheel drive, you can treat yourself to a veritable all-you-can-skid buffet.
The trick with this fifth-generation Borg-Warner (formerly Haldex) AWD system is to keep the wheels in a straight position as long as possible for maximum actuation. The system can then transmit up to 70% of the torque to the rear wheels, and that translates into controlled sliding at your fingertips—and hours of fun on a cold and perfect Swedish winter day.
However, it was on the narrow, winding roads that took us from the Östersund airport to the village of Åre, where the 2019 World Skiing Championships will be held, that the new V90 Cross Country impressed and delighted me most. Beyond the multiple safety systems it features, the vehicle inspires a remarkable sense of confidence in the driver.
The balance, smoothness and ever-predictable reactions make for driving pleasure that’s as subtle as it is precious, even on barely sanded and never salted icy stretches. And the updated suspension stepped in to tame undulating and bumpy sections. Take it from me, this new Cross Country will be very comfortable on all of Canada’s roads.
This much is certain: with its unwavering will to remain perfectly true to its own values—technical or otherwise—Volvo’s SPA platform has allowed it to create cars and utility vehicles with unprecedented handling and feel. This mixture of agility, smoothness and flexibility won’t sacrifice stability or safety one bit.
The 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country, which is both car and utility vehicle and true to its own tradition, is definitely cast in the same mould. It’s a rare specimen that is sure to shine again here in Canada, albeit discretely, much to the great pleasure of diehards and those who just get it. And it looks good too.