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Story and photos by Paul Williams
Baja, Mexico – Long known as a manufacturer of safe, sensible vehicles, Volvo’s XC70 (Cross Country) added a dash of adventure to the brand when it was introduced in 1997, and updated in 2001.
For 2005, the dash becomes a generous helping, as the $46,495 all-wheel drive XC70 can now be purchased with Volvo’s second generation Four-C chassis, a $2,200 “sport package” option that brings a new level of ride control to the vehicle.
Four-C stands for Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept, a technology previously found only on Volvo’s top-line S80, and high-performance S60 R and V70 R vehicles. Effectively, this is an active suspension, with sensors that detect road surface and adjust shock damping accordingly. Two driver-selectable settings – sport and comfort – enable the driver to choose between firmer and softer calibrations. This, in conjunction with DTSC (Volvo’s electronic stability control) makes the XC70 a formidable handler over all forms of terrain.
Volvo recently went to some extreme lengths to make that point. All the way to Baja, Mexico, in fact.
Last month, if you asked me to recommend a vehicle for Baja 1000 endurance race, a Volvo wouldn’t have made my list. But that would have been a month ago. Now I can report that after three days hard driving, a fleet of 2005 Volvo XC70s survived terrain that would have shaken lesser vehicles to bits. The result for me is a new perception of the brand and its capability.
Piloted by a team of Canadian Drivers (one of successive groups of international auto journalists), the Volvos pretty much shrugged off whatever Baja could offer (we drove about 250-kilometres of the route). Then they turned around and did it again, and again.
We had been warned that this would not be the usual press introduction, and our arrival in tiny San Francisquito, Mexico direct from Phoenix, Arizona in a pair of Beechcraft KingAir 200 aircraft was proof of that.
The runway was dirt, marked by white stones, and the planes pretty much landed sideways in a sandstorm. Apparently the temperature had plummeted just before we arrived (wouldn’t you know it?). The cold front brought a stiff wind that blew sand everywhere, turning the silver fleet of Volvos beige, and adding an authentic local crunch to the fish tacos with which we were provided before setting out.
Bryon Farnsworth, two-time winner of the Baja 1000, devised the route and led our convoy. The first day’s drive to San Ignacio with my co-pilot Harry Pegg of the Calgary Sun, took us over some of the worst “roads” we’d ever experienced. No wonder the Baja 1000 has such a reputation. Shouldn’t we be in something like a dune buggy? A Jeep? Maybe, somebody murmered, a Subaru Outback?
The surfaces started with broken pavement and treacherous potholes, and degenerated from there. Rutted mud trails, sharp rocks, deep sand, dry river beds, corrugated gravel, salt flats, you name it, we drove on it. We probably went through a few craters, such was the Mars-like lay of the land at some locations.
Why would Volvo run the risk that you could crash, break down, under-perform or otherwise fall short in these vehicles?
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“We wanted to demonstrate how capable the XC70 is,” was the simple answer from Dan Olsson, one of Volvo’s global marketing executives who shared the Mexican driving experience.
It turned out that Day One was a Sunday drive compared with Day Two. Weaving between the rusting hulks of inverted vehicles picked clean of their useful parts, and likewise scavenged remains of cattle and horses that must have dropped dead in their tracks from last summer’s desert heat, we began to get a sense of the Baja 1000 challenge.
We would travel at a speed of maybe 140 km/h on the salt flats, 100 km/h on some of the trails, and down to 10 km/h traversing jagged rocks, narrow mountain passes, and areas where wheeled vehicles had no business at all.
Eight-hours of driving on the second day pummeled our XC70, which was showroom stock except for the addition of a rear skid plate (front skid plate is standard), Pirelli Scorpion S/T tires (in place of the Pirelli STRs) and heavy-duty power steering fluid (because of the heat, which we didn’t get).
You might think that in such bone rattling terrain, the “Comfort” setting of the Four-C active chassis would be the obvious choice. However, this setting was entirely unsuitable for such an erratic surface (especially when travelling at high speeds). The “Sport” setting provided a remarkable improvement in handling and control in these tough conditions, preventing the vehicle from diving, lurching or rolling, and counteracting lateral forces as it instantly compensated for the sudden appearance of ruts and rocks that wanted to throw the car sideways.
For most of Day Three, we were back on paved roads, surprisingly without a squeak or a rattle in the car. Hard to believe really, after the punishment we’d exacted on the XC70. One suspicious creaking noise turned out to be our snazzy hard-shell Boblbe-B packs that we had strapped into the rear seat. Shifting those eliminated the problem.
Furthermore, this wasn’t the first Baja journey for our fleet of XC70s. As I said, several groups drove the cars before us (and another was replacing us). The only issues our group experienced was a 7.5-centimetre bolt that perforated one of the tires, and a confused key that wouldn’t start its car (the car was “rebooted” and started right up).
Power from the 208-h.p., 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo engine was ideal, even when pulling the Volvo through deep sand and up steep inclines. The five-speed adaptive transmission was quick to respond, and the punishment at the front wheels never intruded up the steering column and into the steering wheel.
Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
The “comfort” setting of the Four-C chassis? We didn’t use it even on paved roads. The “sport” setting was preferable, even on the chunky tires.
Other changes for the XC 70 this year include new headlights with washers replacing the wipers, new taillights, brushed aluminum roof rails, new grille, wheels and special windshield wipers.
Safety is a strong suit, with side curtain airbags, side impact protection system, seat-mounted side airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control and whiplash protection system.
Inside you’ll find new seats, centre stack, centre console, grab handles and cloth-covered A-pillars and sun visors.
But it’s the new personality that’s the real story… Volvo XC70: Baja survivor.