Each of the five V70 wagons performs in its own style. The V70 2.4 is soft and smooth. The 2.5T is more powerful. The V70 T5 is firmer and sportier. The Cross Country is firm, but doesn't have the sporty crispness of the T5. The V70R is a sleeper hot rod.
The Volvo V70 2.4 rode very nicely. Its soft suspension dampens bumps well. The tradeoff is that it leaned in corners and the nose dove under hard braking. The base 2.4-liter engine works great on the highway. With just 168 horsepower, however, it lacks the responsive performance of the more powerful models. It was sluggish when quick acceleration was needed for low-speed maneuvers around town or in stop-and-go traffic. Depending on your temperament, driving style and patience levels, you'll either find it fully adequate or sluggish and slow to respond.
The other models use turbocharged engines in various states of tune and are far more responsive. The Cross Country, for example, has plenty of power with strong torque. We used it to pull an empty car trailer and scarcely knew the trailer was back there.
The Geartronic transmission works well. The shifter has a feeling of quality with short, precise selections. The manual mode can be enjoyable. We found it works best to wait until we were ready to accelerate before downshifting, rather than downshifting sooner to use engine braking.
On pavement, the Volvo Cross Country behaves like an agile European touring car, with a plush but firm ride quality and quick steering responses. It's very stable. Away from the pavement, the XC70 changes character and acts more like an off-road vehicle, thanks to its elevated chassis, nubby Pirelli Scorpion tires and an all-wheel-drive system that automatically channels engine torque to the wheels with the best traction.
Until 2003, in its all-wheel-drive models, Volvo used a viscous coupling to direct driving torque where it could do the most good. But that setup has been replaced by an all-electronic system from Haldex, the same system Volvo uses on the S60 AWD and flagship XC90, as well as the 2005 Ford Five Hundred. According to Volvo, the Haldex system reacts extremely quickly to wheel slip, routing power to the wheels with greater traction almost instantaneously: just one-seventh of a wheel rotation to be exact. The system is fully automatic; no input from the driver is ever required.
Lively and lithe, with its bigger horsepower and tighter handling, the T5 is exciting. Its high-pressure turbocharged and intercooled engine puts out 247 horsepower at 5200 rpm, and churns 243 pounds-feet of torque across a flat band spread between 2400 and 5200 rpm. Turbo lag is minimized and, with high torque at relatively low rpm, this engine impressed us with its performance and quiet demeanor.
The T5 handles curves with precision and control. Push it through downhill curves and it remains anchored to the pavement, with the body maintaining a level stance. There's little lateral lean through the turns, and scant dive from the nose when standing on the brakes. Nor does the tail dip during a sudden acceleration.
The optional five-speed manual gearbox, rarely found in a wagon, has a sporty short-throw stick for crisp control. The optional five-speed Geartronic automatic allows shift-it-yourself maneuvers by simply throwing the gear selector lever to the left and locking it in the gate. Then push the lever forward to bump up a gear, or tip it rearward to shift down.
Volvo's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) employs an on-board computer and various motion sensors tied to the anti-lock brakes. This sophisticated device monitors the vehicle's forward progress and, if potentially dangerous oversteer or understeer is detected, acts automatically to correct the instability by braking one or more wheels.
The V70 in all its versions has great brakes, smooth and easy to modulate. Four-wheel disc brakes do a good job of slowing the car, and electronic brake distribution (EBD) ensures shorter stopping distances by directing the braking forces to the tires with the best grip. ABS kicks in when needed to help maintain stability and steering control on pavement as well as dirt.
But now we get to the ultimate sleeper, the V70R. It pumps 300 horsepower out of the 2.5-liter engine with a turbocharger having 20 percent more capacity and twin intercoolers. The engine delivers 295 foot-pounds of torque with the new six-speed close-ratio gearbox, and 260 foot-pounds with the five-speed automatic. Standard equipment includes electronic all-wheel drive, DSTC and big Brembo brakes with four-piston calipers which stop the car fast and true. We did an 80-mph panic stop without our hands removed from the steering wheel, no sweat.
In the transmission's automatic mode, the shifts come in all the right places, and they are wonderfully smooth and tight. In manual mode, Volvo engineers show respect for the driver with almost no programming of the transmission to shift on its own. However, the manual upshifts are too slow; there's a time lag between the lever movement and the shift itself.
We drove for a few hours on choppy, twitchy and undulating Nevada back roads. On one stretch of very remote road, dead straight with visibility for miles, we achieved a very high speed. Despite the undulations and patches, the V70R was rock steady. A button on the dash allows three settings, Comfort, Sport and Advanced, which address the shock stiffness and engine management. There is a distinct difference between the three settings, and each performs exactly as defined by the buttons. This means no compromises with the ride of your car. You have a suspension that's soft when you want it to be, and stiff when you need it to be.
Meanwhile, chassis adjustments are electronically controlled by the Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) active suspension system. It's the kind of technology used by Formula 1 cars. Up to 500 times a second, sensors measure things like longitudinal, lateral and vertical acceleration of the car relative to road conditions and driving actions, and use this information to constantly adjust the ride. But the leap with this technology is that these decisions are made by computer committee; that is, sensors from the suspension, wheels, throttle, steering and brakes all communicate with each other before the various instantaneous settings are determined, including stability and traction control.