First Ride

First Ride: 2018 Volvo XC60 tackles Swedish test-and-torture track

Ascents and descents and a banked oval: The XC60 had to do it all.

  • Image Credit: Volvo Cars
GOTHENBURG, Sweden - The scene has just a touch of Jurassic Park about it. A gaggle of identical SUVs sit in a queue, in the middle of a remote forest, with a light drizzle falling on their glass moonroofs, the vehicles' occupants waiting for something to happen. But the dinosaur has been banished, the one these wooden stairs were built for: The original XC90 was Volvo's first SUV, and the most demanding feats of the off-road test course here at Volvo's test center north of Gothenburg were tailored to display its abilities in 2002. Now, a white new-generation XC60 T8 is perched atop the stairs, and it negotiates the descent down, step by step, without its front bumper ruining its finish. A paved 31-degree climb is quickly dealt with, the XC60's Hill Descent Control keeping progress at a walking pace on the way down.

Immediately after clearing the obstacle course and demonstrating the new XC60's creak-less body rigidity on some especially terrible road sections Volvo has painstakingly re-created for its test center, a Pine Grey turbo- and supercharged T6 is whisked to 150 mph on the banked oval surrounding the premises. The testing showcases the two things a European-built SUV is designed to do, in addition to a life on cobblestone streets: It has to play well on the Autobahn, and it has to manage the beaten - and beaten-up - path to a Scandinavian cottage in the woods. An adjustable air suspension helps, and in Off Road mode it raises the suspension by 1.6 inches.

A decade ago, Volvo started work on its new SPA platform, which stands for Scalable Product Architecture. Despite maintaining a visual connection to its predecessor, especially around the C-pillar, the new XC60 is an SPA-based car, and as such it's all four-cylinder just like its platform sisters S90, V90 and XC90, with a 400-horsepower T8 "Twin Engine" hybrid version available. The XC90's design language has been translated to a smaller size, giving the front a more aggressive and purposeful look compared to the old XC60, and the interior is also a sort of a re-interpretation of the XC90's interior, in a snugger fit.

It's still spacious, and the light leather Volvo has chosen for these demonstration cars makes the cabin look especially airy, with the glass roof doing its part. The other new platform is the compact CMA, which will include a full-electric car, according to Volvo R&D VP Henrik Green. The SPA platform's full electrification doesn't yet have a set date.

Keeping its Vision 2020 zero-fatality initiative in mind, Volvo has a new challenge with semi-autonomous tech invading cars. Starting with the blind-spot assist BLIS, there are three steering assists in the XC60: The automatic braking introduced in the City Safety Assist is now paired with steering assist to help avoid a sudden object, and there is an Oncoming Lane Mitigation assist, which steers the car back from the wrong lane. The former operates from 31 mph to 62 mph, the latter from 37 mph to 87 mph. The safety belts automatically tighten as the cars' sensors hint of an impending accident, even in the hands of a seasoned test driver on the course. Volvo's plan is to keep the driver alert despite packing the car with assistive tech, instead of the driver zoning out and mentally taking the back seat. A semi-autonomous highway driving mode called Pilot Assist is an option.

The drizzle has turned into sleet and actual snow by the time the handling course's sharp corners have been bested with the fleet of pre-production, yet complete-feeling and production-spec XC60s. There are no loose panels or unfinished-sounding noises, so I feel a tinge of regret for having dirtied the pristine light carpeting in the footwell with my Camel boots. But as is the fate of any pre-production vehicle, these will be relegated to test duty and eventually will join the ranks of beaten and crushed prototype Volvos filling the "Death Valley" yard at the center.

We move inside the facility's Vehicle Dynamics workshop, where test vehicles run through different suspension setups. There are crates and crates full of shocks, springs and anti-roll bars. An XC60 sits perched on hydraulic posts, over an underfloor vibration rig that simulates the undulation of any given road; the setup in the next hall pulls the car against its bump stops so full-suspension compression can be analyzed.

Along with physical testing using actual cars, Volvo is able to work with simulated tracks. In Volvo's Gothenburg basement sits the front half of an XC60, looking at a digital interpretation of the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife course. We get to try our track skills, and my proudest moment is a neat drift around the Adenauer Forst chicane; the least proud is a pinball tumble from one Wehrseifen barrier to another. But for a suspension simulation rig, it manages to achieve the suspension of disbelief surprisingly well. There's even an emergency barf bucket in the door if it all feels too real. It remains unused.

Actual production of the 2018 XC60 has started, with the first production car rolling off the line on the day of our visit, April 25. The old generation of XC60 was a best-seller, accounting for nearly a third of yearly Volvo sales globally. Henrik Green says replacing the first generation is a different task to the monumental switchover between XC90s, but since it involves Volvo's most profitable car, as tasks go it's perhaps the most important.

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