By Tim Grey
The saying goes that they just don’t make bad cars anymore. Sure, they make annoying ones, inefficient ones, badly thought-out, uncomfortable ones and ones which are clearly not worth the high-strength steel they’re built on.
But as far as actual bad cars go, as in “bad for your health”, today’s new cars are light years from the death traps which used to come our way before companies like Volvo developed things like inertia reel seat belts and collapsible steering columns.
When you think about it, this is a bit of a minor miracle given the fact that consumers traditionally can’t be put off a car quicker than by being told how safe it is. This has been so ever since Ford tried to introduce its Lifeguard safety package back in 1955 after the results of its first year of product crash testing prompted its future president, Robert McNamara, into action. The following lack of sales led to Henry Ford II’s famous quote “McNamara is selling safety, but Chevrolet is selling cars”.
This is why, even if it cost less than two packets of Marlboro Lights, I don’t think the XC60 D5 ($76,990) would stop people lusting after cars which may be less safe but a whole lot sexier.
In fact, other cars may well be comparably safe, but it’s probably just that their makers are too scared to tell us, lest that puts us off.
The big assumption is, if it’s built for safety it’s going to be about as much fun to drive as a Victorian steam tractor. Fortunately, the XC60 is more than the sum of its airbags.
Obviously, being a Volvo, it’s smarter than your average Yogi Bear, but what’s really drawn the “safest car” tag is something called City Safety, which basically takes over in incidences of rear-collision up to 30kmh. Lasers pointing out from behind the rear-view mirror measure distance from the car in front. The system then pre-charges the brakes if a risk of collision is there and then brakes for you and cuts the throttle if you fail to react.
It’s all a bit big brother but I can attest, unlike some traction systems, that it doesn’t butt its head in where it’s unwanted. Elsewhere you’ve got Roll-over Stability Control to keep you on an even keel and all measure of passive and active safety systems to protect you and your family.
While this is all probably appealing to your brain right now, I doubt if any of this is pulling at your heart strings. This is where the five-cylinder diesel comes in. You can also get it in a six-cylinder petrol turbo if you wish, but quite frankly this frugal common rail diesel is all that you’d ever need.
At 8.3 litres per 100km (combined) and a sub 10 second 0-100kmh time is a fine balancing act, but one which uses its 400Nm of torque to good use.
You have to use a heavy foot to start with, but the direct injection diesel doesn’t have you suffering any turbo lag.
Despite its off-road pretensions it is also pretty nimble and accurate to drive. In fact, it’s probably the most honest soft-roader on the market. It has such an urban ride so perfectly set for the road that as soon as you even think about taking it over anything hairier than flattened gravel it starts booking an appointment for you at your local chiropractor.
Keep it on the road and the XC60 proves both comfortable and well-appointed, caked in leather and supported by a typically Volvo level of automated understatement, from its electronic climate control back to its power-operated tailgate.
It’s just a shame its interior is let down by some decidedly rubbery plastics and a TV-shaped space in the centre console, clearly left vacant by the lack of sat-nav, which seems to mock you for your stinginess on the options list.
The XC60’s biggest competition always used to be from BMW, who’s X3 set the standard in this segment way back in 2003, but now looks a bit boxy (the usual Volvo complaint) compared to the sleek lines of the XC60.
No, the real benchmark for the XC60 is the new Audi Q5 TDI Quattro, which comes in a choice of two or three litre diesels. With its typically aggressive and sporty design the Q5 ($79,500 upwards) is possibly Lennon to the XC60’s McCartney, a vehicle which is a clear attention-grabber to the XC60’s more sober stance.
All the same, though — don’t underestimate this Swede. It may be safe as houses but it’s just as eager to take on the Autobahn as its German competition.