I wish I liked the idea of crossover vehicles more. Then I'd have only nice things to say about the new Volvo XC60, which I'm thinking is probably the best of the not-so-big, not-so-small, near-luxury crossovers. It's an important segment in today's depressed market in that it's not dying outright, although sometimes I wish it would.
Yeah, crossovers make more sense for most Americans than those hulking, truck-based SUVs on which we've wasted gazillions of hydrocarbons over the years, while simultaneously sacrificing so much driving pleasure. Yet crossovers are rarely as fun or make as much sense as the cars they're based on. They are a step in the right direction, but - attention, carmakers - why can't we just be in the right place to start with? Just because a fat midget weighs less than an overweight linebacker doesn't mean he's not fat.
The analogy breaks down, however, because even the most obese midgets have centers of gravity that are nice and low, which is not something you can say about crossovers. With their bodies jacked up to provide seldom-used ground clearance (the Volvo's 9.1 inches leads it class), their looks (bloated), handling (tippy), aerodynamics (bluff), and economy (what economy?) are invariably compromised by their height. So, too, the five-seat XC60, which weighs a decidedly non-Lilliputian 4174 pounds in its stocking feet. Based on the platform that underpins the large S80 and its XC70 sibling, as well as some hefty Fords, the all-wheel-drive XC60 returns an un-Volvo-like 15 mpg in urban use and 22 mpg on the highway, serious demerits in my book.
But then I drove the XC60, and I'll be damned if it didn't start melting my frozen heart. The flip side of the XC60's thirst is lusty performance. Its standard turbo in-line six makes 281 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, every bit of the latter accessible from 1500 rpm. Quick, smooth, and pleasant, the engine runs happily on regular unleaded, which will limit your output of cash, if not CO2 emissions. Less thirsty alternatives - possibly a nonturbo six - are on their way, although one can't help wondering whether the Swedes might not wish they'd diverted all the money spent developing a low-volume V-8 into federalizing an abstemious but torque-crazy diesel. They could sure use it now.
In a segment marked by snoring similarities, the XC60 looks distinctive, with a good deal of Volvo character, but we note (as we did when the new XC70 debuted) how the coherence of Volvo design seems to have crested with the brilliant C30. The swoopy new S60 concept is cool, but as Honda found out with its third-generation Civic, which achieved a never-to-be-repeated level of design rightness at its 1984 launch, sometimes there's nowhere to go but down.