We Americans are a bit reverse-snobbish. We want our Budweiser without its pesky Cesky roots. We like our bullets to be real, not rubber. And when it comes to SUVs, it damn well better look like one, even if it's fundamentally a station wagon that's lapsed from its catholic roots.

Clever Volvo, then, for giving us what we want, while delivering what we really need with the new XC70. What began its life three lifetimes ago as the more universalist Cross Country - really, a Volvo wagon with a little lift in its loafers - has been recalibrated for our more brash tastes. Now it's all up front and personal, with an in-your-face face and some choice rugged accouterments.

At its core though, it's still a smart way to carry five people and their effects without the typical aftereffects: poor gas mileage, poor visibility, and poor standing among the greens. And it's all in smart tough-guy disguise. You can swagger like a real left-lane cowboy and still respect yourself in the morning.

Keeping the pace

Mechanically, there's little air between the XC70 and the new V70 - or, for that matter, the S80 sedan itself that donated its core to the pair of new wagons.

As in the new S80, the XC70's in-line engine is turned transversely in the engine bay. The 3.2-liter, 238-horsepower six-cylinder engine is the only engine available, though, while the S80 offers a turbo six and a V-8. An in-line five-cylinder turbodiesel with 185 hp will be available in markets outside theU.S.; the gasoline turbo six is under consideration for the U.S.

A six-speed automatic transmission is standard, as is Volvo's all-wheel drive system, which uses a Haldex clutch system to shuttle power from a 95/5 ratio up to a 35/65 rear bias, depending on traction.

So assembled, Volvo predicts a top speed of 134 mph, and a moderate pace of 8.6 seconds to get to 60 mph.

This new engine is smooth, but it's not butter-smooth. There's a faint vibration at lower speeds and a throaty resonance at the top of its range. And while it makes reasonable power, it's not as rippingly sweet as, say, the big six in the Acura RL. The six-speed transmission shifts well on highways, and in manual-selection mode, answers the call for power with a brisk gear change.

Fuel economy figures for the crossover haven't been determined, but a recent drive in an S80 with the same powertrain and a curb weight nearly 400 pounds less yielded a nearly 350-mile cruising range.

Minimizing sprawl

The XC70 has roughed up its image, but moving off the former S60 architecture to the new S80-derived running gear hasn't changed its light, deft touch.

It has grown, though. The XC70 now has more leg room and more interior space than the outgoing model. There's an extra 2.4 inches of wheelbase applied, which grants more middle-row room. Still, the second-row passengers ought to be small, not strapping: two six-footers riding tandem in the XC70 will find their knees close to the dash and the front seatback. While larger, the XC70 hasn't succumbed to suburban sprawl.

The middle seats are versatile: they're split into three separate cushions, each of which folds flat forward and amplifies cargo room. And for smallest passengers, the second row can be outfitted with integrated two-position booster seats that eliminate the need for aftermarket strap-ins.

The XC70's suspension and steering will not benefit from Volvo's active chassis control setup, with Four-C automatic damping control. All the test cars provided on a drive outside Cologne, Germany , were outfitted with the system, making a direct assessment of ride and handling more difficult. The similar S80, without those systems, has fine steering response and ride control.

The overall sensation is a bit willowy, though. The XC70 - and the S80 - transmit vibrations through the steering wheel and body structure that simply don't ever emerge in a Lexus RX or an Acura MDX. The controls feel substantial but more rock-solid architectures can be found over at Mercedes and BMW, too. 

Among the raft of hardware to help the XC70 with light-duty off-roading and on-roading are Hill Descent Control, a blind-spot alert system, cornering headlamps, and adaptive cruise control.

Less drag or more?

It's become progressively more masculine, and this time the XC70's aero-butch theme plays out well on its pretty flanks and tightly drawn front end. Everything's amplified - the size of the Volvo "ironmark," the thickness of bright trim around the grille, the headlights themselves, the spread of the VOLVO letters across the tailgate. It's all drawn from the XC60 concept we revealed to you in January from the Detroit auto show - and it's a safe bet the same theme will reappear when the XC60 goes into production late next year.

The ritzy interior has been loaned out by the S80 as well. The shapes and textures are carried over ( Europe gets a handsome matt walnut we'll have to wait for), but Volvo says special attention has been paid to the XC70's ventilated sport seats. It has to be true - they felt better after hours of driving than any crossover seat in memory. All the rest of the interior trim is tastefully coordinated, and the XC70 has useful bins in the center console for a cell phone or iPod, and a bin beneath a rolling tambour.

The niggles are few, once you nestle into the front seats. The XC70's cruise control is indecipherable at first pass. Unlike other luxury vehicles, the stop-start button isn't given any ceremony - no red lighting, no dramatic placement, just a discreet placement high on the dash. Oh, and while that iPod bin is handy, the actual jack is located down in the glovebox, when everyone knows we all shuffle and click ahead through songs we don't want to hear.

We're not sold on two of the high-tech features found in the XC70. Radar cruise control adds a layer of thinking to an idea that already dismisses driving concentration. And the new obstacle detector built into the dash goes off like you've hit a nerve in a game of Operation! Closing in on a car turning right will set it off - and it bleats cheaply.

Of course, it's all in the name of safety - and those features plus the rolling stock of airbags, traction control, and stability aids remind me of the Volvo exec who once told me Swedes are paranoid about safety. He wasn't kidding.

Homing device

Every vehicle is the product of its environment, which explains why the nimble, safety-conscious XC70 looks like the SUV that American shoppers want, and drives like the station wagon they really want - and that Euro drivers will also want when the big tires and Yankee frippery are stripped off.

The look of a real truck-based SUV translates pretty well to Volvo's new large crossover. And by keeping the light steering and damping, the worst sins of big, truck-bred SUVs have been avoided. Other makes may build crossovers with tighter feel and more edgy performance, but few also carry Volvo's enviable reputation for safety.

When it goes on sale October 1, we're sure the elite hipsters who signed up for the original Cross Country won't be disappointed. And neither will most drivers of American-made sport-utes, who realize that the biggest SUVs don't always suit the task at hand.

 

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