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Rumble Seat

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NICE, France--In Europe, children are adored, pampered, spoiled and cozened, and parents take them everywhere. In America, such dotage is regarded as poor parenting.

This difference in worldview is reflected in Volvo's family-centered design for the new V70 estate wagon. No other company has made such a concerted effort to promote familial togetherness.

Based on the chassis mechanicals of the excellent S80, the V70 bristles with kid-centric features such as a tumble-and-fold third seat in the floor of the cargo hold (typically, children are left to rocket around unrestrained in the back of station wagons); pull-down sun shades at all four rear windows; a trash-bag holder convenient to the driver's seat; a booster cushion for smaller children; and a world first, a rear-facing child seat with Isofix attachment points. The child seat snaps into and out of a fixed frame so the seat can be removed, baby and all, and toted around with its own handle.

Among a raft of other romper-room options are a foldout picnic table for soccer-mom tailgate parties; a large mirror installed in the back of the car, so parents can see their children's faces in the rearview mirror; and a play table/backpack that attaches to the back of the front seats.

With grocery-bag restraints, dog gates, and a navigation system that doubles as a television, the V70 is obviously the result of intense anthropological study of American suburbia. All it needs is a Zoloft dispenser.

At base, though, the V70 remains fundamentally a Volvo, almost to a fault. After trying to dispel the public perception that Volvos look like boxes, the company made the V70 redoubtably square and orthogonal in the back quarters, where a more svelte contour would have compromised storage. As it is, the cargo hold seems large enough for Whistler's mother and her rocking chair, too.

One of the design goals for the V70 was to increase the body size while reducing length. This was accomplished by minimizing the famously clumsy buggy bumpers, which have been smoothed into the profile. In other directions, the V70 is appreciably larger, including a 3.5-inch increase in wheelbase. To add stiffness, Volvo has employed a special bonding process that supplants spot welding of body parts with resin epoxy.

The results are impressive. The first sensation the car gives is that of girder stiffness, a high-tensile sort of quality that echoes in the chirpy affirmation of the door latches. Interestingly, Volvo has chosen to use a fair amount of injection-molded plastics in the interior, and to do so is to court ticks, burrs and rattles. Yet the interior feels battened down and well-finished. In all the tactile areas of the car, softer, more yielding rubber compounds have been deployed. The center console is a gray monochromatic panel canted toward the driver, presenting ordered ranks of audio, climate and (optional) telephone controls.

Stain-resistant houndstooth fabric dresses the door gussets. Optional leather and wood raises the country club quotient in the high-end models.

In addition to the usual crash-management measures including crush zones, reinforced doors and roof pillars, the V70 comes with lots of active safety equipment, including optional Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC). These sorts of systems monitor steering inputs, wheel spin and vehicle attitude. When DTSC detects sliding or skidding, it will brake wheels individually to re-establish vehicle equilibrium. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, dual-stage front airbags, side-impact inflatable curtains, pre-tensioning seatbelts, and Volvo's WHIPS whiplash protection/head restraint are all standard. If I had to be run down in a Ford Excursion, I'd want to be in a Volvo V70.

And speaking of the Big Blue Oval: As a recent victim of Ford's corporate imperialism, Volvo--once a vocal critic of sport-utilities--has to be more circumspect with regard to SUVs, from whence so much of Ford's profits descend.

The company's chief designer, Peter Horbury, did allow that with the rise of SUVs as a family hauler, the station wagon had to find a new "raison d'être."

"We had to develop a new breed, the sport wagon, and take it away from the humdrum," says Horbury.

After an all-day flog through the Maritime Alps and the Route de Napoleon, I'd say mission accomplished. The V70 is an exceedingly capable sports wagon, particularly in the T5 configuration, with its 250-hp turbocharged 2.3-liter five-cylinder and five-speed Geartronic transmission. The power comes on in surging gusts of velocity, propelling the T5 to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds. At European highway speeds, the 3366-pound wagon hums along with an almost electric quiet.

Along twisty mountain roads, the T5 forgets it has a cargo cabin behind it and disports like a muscular coupe. With MacPherson struts in front and multilink suspension in back, the wagon has excellent balance and agility. The Pirellis P6000 provide trust-inspiring lateral grip that progressively turns up into predictable understeer, until the moment when the DTSC system kicks in. Then with a little shudder the car gathers itself back into balance.

And--unlike many sport-utilities--the V70 won't roll over in an emergency avoidance maneuver, if you care about stuff like that.

The T5 base price is $33,400, while the light-pressure 2.4-liter V70 starts at $32,400. With leather, wood, DTSC, navigation system and all the tempting kiddie options, you can figure on about $36,500 for a well-dressed V70. Soon to come, an all-wheel-drive version as well as the V70XC, a leggier AWD that will be positioned as a sensible alternative to sport-utilities. Parents, start your procreating.

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