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Nashville Scene Us and Them

Volvo Cross Country wagon takes SUV battle to new level

By Marc K. Stengel

JULY 17, 2000:  By the most curious sequence of serendipities, I have found myself lately with a unique opportunity to make sweeping generalizations about us and them. And why stop there? I can also say that I have seen the future--albeit dimly and through insect-smeared windscreens. Just the same, I'd like to propose to you a few automotive inevitabilities.

The basis for my self-confident clairvoyance is simple enough I have spent most of the early summer behind the wheel of one or another version of Volvo's newest V70 wagon. For two weeks in June, while on vacation in England and Wales, I sat side-saddle on the right, negotiating the wrong way through traffic in Volvo's odd interpretation of a hot rod, the V70 wagon in hi-po-turbo "T5" trim worth 247-horsepower. By the time I'd returned stateside, the Americanized, all-wheel-drive "XC" or Cross Country version of Volvo's mothership was making its international media debut in Vermont.

It was not until both vehicles were parked and my bags were unpacked that I began to intimate certain lessons learned. I'd driven two similar vehicles in two different cultures on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Each car created significantly different impressions in its respective "home territory," and yet both may well point to a shared automotive future where these impressions converge.

Specifically, I'm talking about evolving public interpretations of automotive practicality, affordability, and fun. In a nutshell, we Yanks understand these terms in very different ways from them Brits. For us, the ideal of practicality has historically been synonymous with "no limits": no limits on capacities for people and cargo; no limits on horsepower and torque necessary to move all that capaciousness; no limits on what kinds of terrain we may choose to traverse; no limits on how many gallons of inexpensive fuel we may squander.

Now consider these all-American aperçus in light of certain inflexible features of the British automotive landscape: pre-Christian Roman roads, scarcely wide enough for single wagons, now serving as the main connectors between major towns; village lanes scarcely wider than two villeins standing abreast; off-roading that is traditionally off-limits to all but the privileged, gentry few; and gasoline that people manage to pump for nearly $5 per gallon without any apocalyptic wails or disconsolate pullings of hair.

It can come as no surprise, then, that Volvo's swift T5 wagon cuts quite a figure in the UK. Although "normal" in size and power by U.S. standards of taste, the 2000-model V70 wagon is beastly big to the Brits, not to mention irreverently fast and guiltlessly thirsty for premium fuel, even with its 21 mpg/city, 28/hwy. mileage rating. Curiously, though, the car is bigger inside than its predecessor, despite some nominally smaller exterior dimensions. Moreover, its ability to seat seven occupants--with an optional two-kiddie bench seat in the back--bears tacit witness to the universal appeal of America's high-capacity mind-set. But instead of people and cargo inside a vehicle that already tests the limits of a typical British parking space, the V70 relegates cargo to the rooftop inside optional roof pods available through Volvo.

Of course, these same accommodations for roof pods and a third-row bench seat are available stateside in the new-for-2001 Cross Country version of Volvo's wagon. Yet their impact is seen as perhaps less clever and more desperate in our automotive Brobdingnag full of Suburbans, Yukons, Excursions, and Durangos. I'm sure similar charges will be laid against the XC's sophisticated all-time all-wheel-drive system, which uses computer-managed traction control to achieve surprising maneuverability that very nearly qualifies as "all-terrain." In a land where trucks presently trump all challengers, a curious-looking "hybrid" station wagon like the XC risks looking like an SUV wannabe.

I contend virtually the opposite, however. In the future that I dimly perceive, it is the tried-and-tired American truck that will before long be looking to adopt certain European civilities. If gas prices are already excruciating at $1.60 per gallon--and unthinkable at $2--it's time for stakeholders in American-style V8s to "sell short" and consider making psychological investments in more unorthodox and efficient powerplants like Volvo's five-cylinder, low-pressure turbo in the XC. I don't care to quibble about this: Despite short-term electioneering and OPEC cartel games, fuel costs can only rise. When they do, the consumptive features that American drivers presently consider "needs" will revert to "wants"; and what Europeans already take for granted--smaller motors, trimmer exteriors, inside/outside arrangements for people and cargo--Americans will eventually embrace as novel, even revolutionary, breakthroughs.

The very idea of all-wheel-drive is already a case in point. Derived from European roadracing experiments in the '60s and perfected by the likes of Subaru and Audi in today's rally car wars, AWD helps road-going cars manage traction in unpredictably variable conditions. Traditional four-wheel-drive, by contrast, has been the hard-core technology that gives military, construction, and commercial vehicles their mastery over predictably uncharted or unpaved terrain. I can dimly see a future when it is no longer conscionable to buy or drive inefficient, power-hungry, brute-force 4WD vehicles for their occasional skirmishes off-road.

Into this same future we will welcome the crisp-handling, fun-loving, fuel-conserving AWD "hybrids." Subaru already deserves credit for setting the precedent with its Outback wagon, which beat Volvo's larger Cross Country to market by several years. And now, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and Audi are all piling on with contending AWD wagons of their own--Europeans all, mind you, with not yet a hint of an American countermove or reply.

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