2008 Volvo S80
2008 Volvo S80. Click image to enlarge

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By Paul Williams; photos courtesy Volvo

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Volvos on Ice

Kiruna, Sweden – “Iron and Ice” was the theme of Volvo’s recent Nordic automotive adventure in Kiruna, Sweden. “Iron” because Kiruna’s iron ore deposits have contributed to Sweden’s industrial foundation for the past 100 years (the grille badge on Volvos is actually an ancient Swedish symbol for iron). And “Ice” because, well, there’s not much else to be found on the moonscape that is Kiruna in February.

Situated well above the Arctic Circle, Kiruna is the frozen home of cute, unsuspecting reindeer, and hungry skiers and journalists visiting from the south (yes, you can put two and two together). Look hard, and you may also find Volvo’s winter testing facility.

2008 Volvo XC70
2008 Volvo XC70. Click image to enlarge

“[An] extreme winter climate is probably the toughest test to which one can subject a car” says Jan Inge Eliasson, head of the Complete Vehicles Testing department at Volvo Cars. “The stresses on the engine, steering, climate unit and other systems are immense. As far as I know, we are alone in carrying out tests down to -40 degrees.”

Volvo engineers drive a total of 200,000 kilometres each winter in and around Kiruna, from December to April. All Volvo models are tested on the road, and undergo controlled tests frozen solid in special chambers, then started and monitored to see how the numerous components function.

In truth, during our visit it wasn’t that cold by Canadian standards. Daytime temperatures hovered around -10 degrees Celsius, and at night it dipped to -20. But it’s a dry and constant cold, and the lightly travelled roads have a permanently slick surface (the locals don’t use salt on the roads, and barely sprinkle gravel at intersections). Volvo set up some test tracks on the frozen surface of a lake near our Riksgrensen hotel to supplement the slippery on-road experience.

Studded Nokian Hakkapalita tires
Studded Nokian Hakkapalita tires; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

It should be mentioned that the cars we drove – XC70 3.2 and S80 T6 – were fitted with studded Nokian Hakkapalita tires which certainly enhanced traction in all driving situations. While studded tires are allowed in most Canadian provinces, there are some restrictions on their use that vary by province (Check here for the specifics).

So what did we learn? In general, that winter in Sweden is very much like winter in most parts of Canada. If a vehicle performs well there, it’s likely to fit right in here. Judging by the number of Volvos on the road in Sweden, both old (very old) and new, Volvos do indeed perform well there.

But here are some more specific observations. When Volvo introduced its all-new 2008 XC70 in 2007, some auto writers noted that at 1891 kilograms (4116 pounds, this all-wheel drive “crossover” wagon is quite heavy, and could use the option of more power. Not that it’s glaringly deficient in this area, but something over 250-horsepower seems the norm for midsize vehicles these days, and the 236-hp XC70 may be a few ponies short for some drivers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Volvo Canada recently announced that the 3.0-Litre turbocharged version of the XC70’s 3.2-litre inline-six cylinder engine will soon be available as an option here. Making 281-hp and 295 lb.ft of torque at a low 1,500 rpm (and adding approximately $5000 to the $46,495 base price) the “T6” should address any need that some XC70 buyers may have for more performance. The XC70 T6 will arrive in Canada mid-year as a 2009 model.

2008 Volvo XC70
2008 Volvo XC70. Click image to enlarge

A good thing, too, as it’s a terrific engine. The T6 is refined at all speeds, specializing in low-end punch and relaxed high-speed cruising. Our experience was limited to its application in the S80 sedan (a version of this model that we are unlikely to see in Canada) but this gave us a good sense of the engine’s general characteristics. Propelling the1654 kg (3660 pound) S80 with authority, it should work very well in the XC70, despite that car’s heavier weight.

And speaking of the S80 T6, on the prepared ice tracks it was notably stable – sporty even – and could zip through the courses at a surprising pace. Like the XC70, it’s an all-wheel drive vehicle, but its lighter weight and lower centre of gravity is a real advantage in slippery conditions. The performance of this car was a big surprise.

2008 Volvo XC70
2008 Volvo XC70. Click image to enlarge

What was evident in both the XC70 and the S80 was the fundamental suitability of these vehicles for the climate and environment in which we drove. By now it probably goes without saying that Volvo has built its reputation on reliable, safe cars that can handle a tough climate. The company clearly does its homework, focusing on even the smallest details of comfort (the seat warmers heat up very quickly, for example) and safety (the electronic stability systems inspire a high level of confidence in challenging conditions; the anti-lock braking system operates quietly and effectively; the XC70’s now standard Hill Descent Control enhances driver confidence).

A feature that I particularly liked was the emergency braking alert, which activates in an emergency braking situation by automatically starting the hazard flashers and rapidly pulsing the brake lights to warn the driver behind. If following motorists don’t see that, they are truly distracted. I mention this because what seems like a useful and simple technology is not allowed in Canada, and Volvo has to ensure that its vehicles are shipped with this system deactivated.

The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights. Click image to enlarge

It occurred to me, while dislodging a piece of reindeer from between my teeth, that Canada and the Swedes have a lot in common. We have similar climate and landscape, we have big cities and vast remote areas, our people wear parkas and big boots, we share a love of hockey, and the Swedes can even see our Northern Lights. We also have white-outs, blizzards and the potential for very dangerous driving conditions in the winter. Chances are, if we ever get off our duffs and build a truly Canadian vehicle, it would end up being something like a Volvo.

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