Capsule Review: 2013 Volvo XC70 T6 Polestar – Brown Wagon Edition

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

If you had to pick a Q-Car, the vehicle you see above would be nobody’s first choice. Something like a Camry V6, a Pentastar Avenger, or perhaps even a Verano Turbo with a Trifecta tune would be a more suitably anonymous roller skate with enough power to pummel most “civilian” cars on the street. Or perhaps a Regal GS. In grey or some other nodescript color. I am thinking about this as I wander aimlessly within my lane on Lakeshore Boulevard, the Polestar-tuned I6 humming along at a sedate 1800 rpm in 6th gear. CBC Radio is broadcasting yet another nebulous documentary extolling Canada’s secular state religion of diversity, as my Costco grocery list scrolls through my head. How banal and bourgeois.

And then I hear the staccato vocalization of a small block Chevy V8 breathing through a set of big pipes. A glance in the mirror reveals a 4th generation Camaro convertible coming up fast behind me in my mirrors. In a flash, he’s past me by a few car lengths, and I can just make out the “SS” badge on the decklid. If I were in another T6-powered Volvo, say, my parents XC60 T6, I’d step on the gas, wait a brief second for the turbo to spool up, and hope that I’d be in the powerband long enough to catch him. With a standard T6, peak power (295 hp) comes in at 5600 rpm while peak torque (325 lb-ft) arrives at 2100-4200 rpm In this car though; 354 lb-ft comes in from 3000-3600 rpm, while all 325 horsepower are available from 5400 all the way to redline. From a roll, this car is a monster.

It doesn’t take long after nailing the throttle for the gap to close between us, and while the Camaro is droning out its V8 song, there’s just a muted hum from the Volvo’s blocky hood, while barely audible diverter valve noises can be heard through the open windows. A red light conspires to bring us next to one another, and I can see him regarding me with the faux-menacing glare typical to most underemployed 20-somethings brimming with insecurities. He’s much more handsome than I am, and his girlfriend is in the passenger seat. I smile and give him the thumbs up.

“You think you can beat me?” No change in demeanor from him.

“Actually, I do.” I respond.

There’s no revving, no theatrics, no Fast and Furious Limp Bizkit sound track despite the corny but spontaneous exchange. But when the light goes green, he disappears behind me. And I didn’t even get a good look at his girlfriend.

This is really a silly car. The XC70 sells in inconsequential numbers, even for a Volvo. Last year, the smaller XC60 outsold the XC70 by a ratio of 4:1, as Volvo customers, my parents included, opted for the higher driving position, easier ingress/egress and crossover-look of the XC60. Wagon fans insist that if only Volvo would bring back a real wagon, then all would be well, the brand would have its mojo back, and American consumers would finally learn that their enlightened European brothers had it right along., whether we’re discussing social safety nets, rail transportation networks or diesel engines. But there is good news. The XC70 and the XC60 are basically the same car. I know this because I had the chance to test them back to back. It’s true that the XC60 has a bit more ground clearance and a higher ride height, and the XC70 is perhaps a bit higher than a regular V70, but to tar either them with the “crossover” brush, is incorrect. These are as much crossovers as the last generation Outback was, and the extra cladding and slightly taller springs are red herrings. Of course, driving a wagon signifies that one has sophisticated, Continental tastes, which is more important to many than how these vehicles actually perform on the road.

What’s most interesting is the changes in spec between the XC70 and the XC60 owned by my folks. Their XC60 has three adjustable steering programs as well as the Volvo 4C system, which employs active shock absorbers made by both Ohlins and Monroe. Three modes are available, labeled Comfort, Sport and Advanced. Comfort is fairly soft, with Sport cranking it up by just a bit. Advanced, however, is truly stiff, sacrificing ride quality for flatter cornering. The XC70, by contrast, has one steering setting (equivalent to the heaviest setting on the XC60) and no 4C system. My own handling loop was illustrative of the differences: the XC70 felt as if it possessed more bodyroll, whereas the XC60 felt a bit more surefooted with the 4C shocks set to “Advanced”. But Advanced mode also makes the shocks rather unpleasant in everyday driving, and when set to “Sport” or “Comfort”, it’s a wash between the two cars.

All this talk of performance for a station wagon may seem out of place, but when the car’s main marketing proposition is the Polestar engine tuning, it’s hard to ignore it. The XC70 is also a very practical vehicle. Despite my bearishness on wagons as a commercial proposition in the marketplace, I quite like them. I tried in vain to convince my parents to buy the XC70, hoping that the giant stuffed German Sheppard in the back of the showroom demo model would sway them (it looked identical to an old stuffed dog from my childhood). Instead they hemmed and hawed and made vague remarks about the “height” of the XC60’s cargo area (for the one time of the year when they’d bring home tall garden plants) and the extra length (8 inches longer, which does count when parking in urban areas) as reasons to get the XC60. This time, I was determined to induct them in the “cult of the wagon”.

Tossing the keys to my parents for a “blind taste test”, they were more impressed with the revised interior than the driving dynamics or the lower seating position (which they also enjoyed, in a reversal of their previous stance on the car). While my folks car invokes the usual “Swedish furniture” cliche, with black baseball stitched leather and aluminum trim (no surprise if you know them: they wear more black than an amateur theatre troupe and my mother obsesses over modern furniture like we do over rear-drive BOF Fords), the XC70 is much more organic, with generous helpings of wood and natural tone leather. Volvo’s IP and telematics interface remains unchaged, and is thankfully devoid of touch screens or haptic controls.

It takes a few minutes to learn the ins and outs of the buttons-and-knobs, but once you do, it becomes second nature, and one can navigate their iPod music selections without taking their eyes off the road. The navigation system was far less cooperative – while the controls were easy enough, it failed to recognize even well known streets, forcing me to use my iPhone as a navigation aid. The XC70 also came with Volvo’s “Premium Sound System”, something my father chose to forgo when he declined the navigation system in the XC60. It’s worth the money, something he readily acknowledged after one playthrough of Gil-Scott Heron’s Bridges. Cargo proved to be one area where the extra length didn’t lend the XC70 too much of an advantage. The XC60 has 67.4 cubic feet of space, with 30.8 cubic feet with the seats up, while the XC70 has 72.1 in total, with 33.3 if the rear seats remain intact. In practical terms, it’s possible to easily fit a full-size mens bicycle with the seats down in the XC70, while the XC60 takes a bit of finagling. For most every day items, it was inconsequential, with grocery bags and suitcases fitting fine in both cars. The XC60’s reduced length does make it easier to park, something I can appreciate given that my parents live in an area with abundant street parking that seems to be sized for C-segment cars at best.

In that light, it’s understandable why they chose the XC60, but after driving the wagon, I am not ready to take their side. Nonwithstanding my mocking of the commercial viability of the station wagon, I like this one a lot. It’s difficult to find a car that does it all so well. Where else can you find something that can turn on a dime from being an invisible luxury commuter appliance, to a bike hauler to a stoplight dragster that can be used in every weather condition, 365 days of the year? It just makes so much sense. Which is its biggest problem. We as humans rarely want what makes sense for us, whether it’s choosing an incompatible lover, a consumer item we can’t really afford or voting for a politician that sways us with charming rhetoric rather than policy that may be beneficial to our station in life.

At $50,310, it’s not exactly within the reach of the common American family either. This car, even without the Polestar, is an incredibly niche proposition. But that’s a big part of its charm. It will never be loved like the Brick Volvos of yore, nor the upcoming V60 (which will be lauded as a return to form for Volvo), but it has earned its place, along with the Subaru Legacy 2.5GT and Audi S4, in the lore of “great wagons we got in America that nobody appreciated”.

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

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5 of 163 comments
  • Makuribu Makuribu on Oct 02, 2013

    All Volvos revert to brown eventually. It is their ground state.

  • Power6 Power6 on Oct 05, 2013

    Funny you mention the 2.5GT Legacy, this Volvo seems more like the creamy frosting version of our Outback XT, a car Subaru hasn't made for years now but still great. The Outback, even in turbo mode far outsold the Legacy so much so Subaru dropped the LGT wagon in the US but the Outback turbo was old right up to 2009 with 5-speed (auto or man). We make due with only 250hp but we bought ours used and did not pay anything like 50k for it. Don't have Polestar either but it is a Subaru there oh about a bajillion parts to make it whatever you want, 325hp is pretty pedestrian as the Subies go. Ours is just a family hauler its fine enough stock I already had to replace the turbo around 100k. The jacked up sport wagon is about a versatile as it gets IMO. Just sporty enough, fast enough, roomy enough, great in snow, holds tons of cargo. Does pretty much everything well, nothing outstanding.

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys i was only here for torchinsky
  • Tane94 Workhorse probably will be added to the heap of failed EV companies.
  • Freddie Instead of taking the day off, how about an article on the connection between Black Americans and the auto industry and car culture? Having done zero research, two topics pop into my head: Chrysler designer/executive Ralph Gilles, and the famous (infamous?) "Green Book".
  • Tane94 Either Elio Motors or Aptera Motors.
  • Billccm I think we will see history repeat itself. The French acquired AMC in the 1980s, discovered they couldn't make easy money, sold AMC off to Chrysler. Jeep is all that remained. This time the French acquired FCA, and they are discovering no easy profits. Assume an Asian manufacturer will acquire what remains of Chrysler, but this time Jeep and RAM are the only survivors.