Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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by Greg Wilson

New engine, improved all-wheel-drive for 2003


It’s amazing what a little plastic body cladding, chunky tires, and a higher ground clearance will do. The all-wheel-drive Volvo Cross Country wagon (now called the XC70) has become the Swedish automaker’s most popular wagon, eclipsing the cleaner-looking and less expensive V70 AWD wagon. Volvo, like most other automakers, is taking advantage of the current SUV craze with its rugged-looking XC70 and the new XC90 – and is doing very well, thank you. But as you will see, the XC70 has little in common with taller, heavier sport utility vehicles.

It will be interesting to observe whether the new XC90 draws customers away from the XC70. My guess is that those who can afford the higher price of the XC90 will forsake the XC70. Still, that leaves the XC70 ($49,495) in a niche of its own mid way between the V70 2.5T AWD ($45,495) and the XC90 2.5T AWD ($54,995) models.

Changes for 2003

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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Changes to the 2003 XC70 are mostly mechanical. A new 2.5 litre 5 cylinder engine with continuously variable valve timing and a ‘light pressure’ turbocharger replaces last year’s 2.4 litre turbocharged five cylinder powerplant with CVVT. Horsepower is up to 208 @ 5000 rpm from 197 @ 6000 rpm, and torque is up to 236 foot-pounds at 1500 rpm from 210 foot-pounds at 1800 rpm.

Despite the increase in horsepower, fuel consumption has actually improved: the 2003 XC70 offers 12.7 l/100 km (22 mpg) in the city and 8.6 l/100 km (33 mpg) on the highway – the 2002 XC70 provided 13.5 l/100 km (21 mpg) in the city and 9.7 l/100 km (29 mpg) on the highway
As well, the new 2.5 litre engine now qualifies for ULEV (ultra low emissions vehicle) status.

The other big change is a new all-wheel-drive system borrowed from the XC90. As before, the AWD system powers the front wheels in normal driving situations, but when the front wheels start to slip, power is sent to the rear wheels. The difference between the new AWD system and the old system is the speed and smoothness of engagement, and its improved poor weather performance.

2003 XC70 pricing remains virtually the same as 2002: the 2003 XC70′s base MSRP remains $49,495, but the Freight charge has gone up to $700 from $650.


Versatile, well-finished interior

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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The XC70 wagon has a wide, roomy cabin with sturdy leather seating for five adult passengers, and a roomy cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the unique split 40/20/40 rear seatbacks. A rear-facing third row seat for children is also available as an option ($1,200).

The difference between the XC70 and the XC90, or any mid-size SUV, is its height. The XC70 is about 150 mm (6 inches) lower than an XC90 or a BMW X5, and up to 250 mm (10 inches) lower than some mid-sized SUVs. That reduces overall cargo room when compared with an SUV, although that’s not to say that the XC70 is cramped: with rear seats up, there’s 1061 litres (37.5 cu. ft.) of cargo room, double that of a mid-sized sedan. With all the rear seatbacks folded down, there is 2024 litres (71.5 cu. ft.) of cargo space. As well, the right front passenger seatback can be folded flat for storing really long items.

The XC70′s extra ground clearance is noticeable when you get in and out of the XC70, but it’s not as high as an SUV or pickup truck.

As a luxury vehicle, standard equipment on the XC70 is pretty extensive: automatic climate control with driver and passenger temperature controls, AM/FM/single CD player with 8 speakers, power driver’s seat, front seat heaters with two heat settings, power windows and mirrors, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control with steering wheel controls, and front and rear fog lights. Other features include an outside temperature gauge, digital clock, and a separate digital speedometer readout. My only criticism is that I think an in-dash CD player should be standard in a $50,000 car.

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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Like other Volvos, the XC70 has a clean simple dash layout with two large gauges for the speedo and tachometer, and a centre instrument panel with large buttons and knobs with white lettering on a predominately grey background. The radio controls, while large and easy to see, are a little unconventional: for example to change from AM to FM, you must turn a dial labeled ‘Source’. A small vertical storage bin in the dash looks unusual – it’s where some models include a trip computer. A large metal grab bar next to the floor transmission lever gives the XC70 a more rugged look, and could be useful for the front passenger if the driver decides to tackle the Baja 500.

The driver’s visibility to the front and rear is good – the centre rear head restraint is lower to provide a clear view out the large rear window, however the right rear head restraint obscures the rear side window. I liked the fact that the rear window includes a defogger, washer and a wiper with an intermittent wiping feature – this is a must in a station wagon because the vertical rear window get dirty very quickly.

The power driver’s seat is multi-adjustable, but the manual lumbar dial is squeezed between the centre console and the seat, and is difficult to reach.

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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The XC70′s unique folding rear seats are split 40/20/40 so that the middle section can folded down separately (for skis, snowboards etc.) while the outboard seats can accommodate two passengers. There’s a trick to lowering the rear seatbacks: the seat cushion must first be flipped over, the headrest lowered (by pulling on a strap), and the seatback folded down almost flat, but not quite.

My test car had the optional rear booster seats, important for children aged 4 to 8 in order that they won’t slip out of their seatbelts. The booster seats are integrated into the rear seat cushions, and pop up simply by pulling on a lever. They are a $500 option.

The rear hatch door can be unlocked with the remote key fob, and there’s a well-positioned door latch to get a grip on it. When it’s open, the rear hatch is high enough that you won’t bump your head on it. The cargo area includes a sliding privacy cover, a carpeted floor, and a hidden, and under-floor storage area.

As you’d expect in a Volvo, the XC70 has excellent safety features, including standard front, side and curtain airbags, front seats with whiplash protection, five head restraints and five three-point seatbelts with automatic pretensioners in all seatbelts, upper and lower child seat tether anchors, rear child door locks, and a load protection net for the rear cargo area. As well, the XC70 is available with Volvo’s Dynamic Stability Control ($1,650), an automatic anti-skid system that helps prevent losing control in slippery situations.


Looks tough, drives smoothly

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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It’s easy to distinguish an XC70 from other Volvo wagons by its dark-coloured bumpers, higher ride height, and unique alloy wheels. The front and rear bumpers are made of an unpainted, contrasting plastic material which extends around the side and over the fenders. Presumably, it’s there to protect the paint from rock chips, mud, grass and other items that could be thrown up when travelling on a backroad. The XC70 also includes a front skid plate, fog lights, roof rails, headlight washers, heated mirrors, and a power moonroof.

Despite its tough appearance and raised ride height, the XC70 drives very much like the standard V70 AWD wagon. It shares the same 2.5 litre inline turbocharged five cylinder engine as the V70 AWD, and a smooth-changing 5-speed automatic transmission with Geartronic manual mode. The turbocharger in the five cylinder engine makes a mechanical whine on acceleration, but I didn’t find the sound excessive. With more low-end torque than the previous 2.4 litre engine (which was already considerable) the XC70 accelerates very quickly from a stoplight in a smooth, linear fashion – throttle responsiveness is excellent at just about any speed. Turbo boost comes on almost immediately, and there’s no jerkiness in the drivetrain when the power comes on.

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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On the freeway, the engine turns over just 2000 rpm at 100 km/h and 2400 rpm at 120 km/h, and I found the engine very quiet. The 5-speed automatic transmission is incredibly smooth, and its manual ‘Geartronic’ function is easy to use by tapping the lever forwards to change up and back to change down – useful for sportier driving or holding it in gear on a hill.

The all-wheel-drive system, which is completely automatic, is almost invisible to the driver and passengers even when it’s operating on slippery surfaces. The new AWD system, created by Haldex of Sweden, uses a mechanical pump and ‘wet’ multi-plate clutch to distribute the power to the rear wheels. The difference in rotational speed between the slipping front wheels and the rear wheels causes the pump (located at the rear differential) to force oil to the wet clutch plates in the rear differential, pushing the plates together to transfer power to the rear wheels. A small electrical pump is used to “pre-pressurize” the system so that power transfer can occur almost instantly. Its extremely fast engagement and disengagement make it virtually undetectable to the driver.

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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The XC70′s ground clearance of 208 mm (8.1 in.) is (72 mm 2.8 in.) taller than a V70 AWD, making it more capable on back roads where there’s a high centre ridge, rock outcroppings, uneven ground, or built-up snow. The fully independent sponson has excellent damping characteristics and can take a lot of punishment without bottoming out. Its higher ground clearance doesn’t hurt it on ordinary paved roads though – I found the XC70′s ride and handling very close to that of a standard Volvo wagon. Though it’s taller, the extra height doesn’t make it feel particularly tippy or unstable when cornering – the XC70 is easy to drive, and has much better vehicle dynamics than a mid-sized SUV. The XC70′s standard Pirelli Scorpion all-season 215/65 HR-16 inch tires look chunky, but they are pretty quiet on smooth asphalt or concrete roads. However, I noticed that they ‘sing’ slightly on smooth concrete freeways. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is both responsive and easy to use, and for an all-wheel-drive car, the XC70 has a manageable turning circle of 11.9 metres (39.0 ft.).


Pricing of features and options

Test Drive: 2003 Volvo XC70 volvo car test drives
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To the 2003 Volvo XC70′s base price of $49,495, you can add a Premium Package ($1,400) which includes a power passenger seat with memory, wood trim, auto dimming mirror, and Homelink garage door opener. Individual options include the rear-facing third seat for children ($1,200); dual rear booster seats ($500); Navigation system ($2,500); 4-CD stereo with subwoofer and Dolby ($1,700); in-dash 4-CD changer with Dolby Prologic, 9 upgraded speakers and four 50 watt amplifier ($1,200); Dynamic Stability Traction Control ($1,650). Interestingly, black is the only standard exterior colour. All other colours are a $550 option.


Competitors

The Volvo XC70 is in a unique market segment, above the Subaru Outback and below the Audi Allroad, both of which offer similar SUV traits in a wagon body style but at different price points. Other possible competitors include the Audi A6 Avant quattro ($55,900), VW Passat GLX Wagon 4Motion ($44,650), and the Audi A4 Avant 3.0 quattro ($46,255), but these cars don’t offer the higher ground clearance of the XC70. There are also plenty of mid-size SUV’s that buyers might consider as an alternative – if they want to sacrifice some ride comfort and handling prowess.


Verdict

Despite its rugged looks, the mid-sized 2003 Volvo XC70 offers the easy driving dynamics of a luxury car and the advantage of improved traction and ground clearance for winter or occasional off-road driving.


Technical Data: 2003 Volvo XC70

Base price $49,495
Freight $700
Options $4,750
Price as tested $54,945
Type 4-door, 5 or 7 passenger mid-size
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.5 litre 5 cylinder, light pressure turbocharger, Continuously Variable Valve Timing
Horsepower 208 hp @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 236 ft lbs @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission 5 speed automatic with ‘Geartronic’, electronically controlled Haldex limited slip coupling
Tires Pirelli Scorpion all-season 215/65
Curb weight 1,630 kg (3593 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,763 mm (108.8 in.)
Length 4,733 mm (186.3 in.)
Width 1,860 mm (73.2 in.)
Height 1,562 mm (61.5 in.)
Towing load 1,500 kg (3307 lb.)
Cargo capacity Seats Up: 1061 litres(37.5 cu. ft.)
  Seats Down: 2024 litres (71.5 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.7 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.6 l/100 km (33 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km




About Greg Wilson

Greg Wilson is a Vancouver-based automotive journalist and contributor to Autos.ca. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).