Deep within the Donner Pass, there are giant redwoods on my right, a jarring cliff face to my left, and a very sharp hairpin coming up that's suddenly elevated my heart rate. I’m cognizant that if I push harder than what I, or the car, can safely handle, I’ll be labeled as that guy for the rest of my career…assuming I survive to shoulder the embarrassment. Did I mention I'm in a station wagon? The Volvo V60 Cross Country to get specific.
It’s a lifted, all-wheel drive version of Volvo’s ubiquitous wagon, and after testing its boundaries, I think it's ready for prime time.
When Volvo first asked me if I wanted to take a road trip from California’s wine country to Tahoe, with the chance to do some proper ice driving on a specially prepared runway,* obviously I was in. I had to go see what kind of fun you can have when you take what some would call a soccer mom car (albeit and AWD with 250 hp) and run it some fantastic roads.
*Ultimately, some unusually warm weather scuttled the ice driving. I think Volvo's communications team was as disappointed by that as I was.
Of course, this is the Cross Country, which means the intended buyer is someone who's going to take it camping and has a need for some legitimate off-road capability. Nearly eight inches of ground clearance does the trick.
Anything with 8" of clearance and all wheel drive can get you through most passes, so this isn't about dirt. This is more about what it’s like to drive very important car for Volvo across some of the most scenic and twisty roads in America.
Driving as an everyday driver would, the car’s tame, well behaved, and about as good a vehicle as you’d want for a long road trip. The seats are especially fantastic.
From a performance standpoint, the V60 CC is setup to let you take care of exactly as much or as little of the car control as you’d like. In other words, if you want to go plowing into a corner, the Volvo's various systems will activate and bring the car down to a speed more in-line with the laws of physics.
However, if you should decide to really stretch the off-roadsy station wagon's legs, it'll respond happily. Technically, the V60 CC is an all wheel drive vehicle, but it's only AWD if it senses a loss of traction. I found that, when trail braking quite heavily, I could get the rear end loose, and as a result the rear wheels had power the moment I was back on the throttle.
While I haven't had to use such a heavy-handed approach in years, it was actually pretty fun—much more so than one would expect to have on the street from Volvo's dirt-loving wagon. The V60 CC is a car that needs to be manhandled. You don't ask it to get through a corner, you tell it how to get through a corner.
I do doubt that many of Volvo's prospective buyers will ever seriously attack the road like I did, and that's a shame. If you drive it meekly, you'll simply never come across its feisty side. Inevitably, some will try, and a few will drive faster than they know how to handle. For those people, all of Volvo's safety mechanisms exist.
After arriving in one piece at Tahoe, Volvo let me play with the various traction and stability systems. And yes, if you slam on the brakes while trying to turn, or if you try to navigate a slalom course while keeping your right foot absolutely glued to the floor, electronic wizardry reigns everything in with absolutely no drama.
If you press the fun button, though, the one that shuts down the system...it's game on. Letting off the throttle and transferring as much weight to the front as possible results in surprisingly good turn-in, while constantly balancing the weight fore-and-aft lets you get the rear loose enough to have some serious fun in the slalom. Does it cut across the pavement like a bona-fide sport sedan? Of course not. But it's not that far off, either.
I'll readily admit I was caught off guard when I was able to kick the tail out. I went into this drive expecting something along the lines of a more refined Subaru, but what I've found is that it's really an alternative option to the Audi Allroad for people that don't want all the theater that comes with driving an Audi down the street. Considering the two cars cost about the same, that's a good thing.
What I can say with absolute confidence is this: I successfully proved you can have legitimate fun in what one of my colleagues referred to as a "soccer mom car."
And I'm still not "that guy."