Does the Volvo station wagon have a future in America? We've come to the French Riviera to drive the 2015 Volvo V60 tomorrow and find out, but tonight we're sitting down to an alfresco dinner with brand executive Joe Haslem, who pointedly states the obvious: "We have so much equity in wagons." Indeed, the station wagon is a defining part of Volvo's identity. It all started with the 1953 Duett, a cargo hauler that could be used for work during the day and personal chores at night -- thus the name. It was followed by the transformational 1960s P220 Amazon estate, which was less of a commercial truck and more of a true family car. With the stylish Amazon, Volvo had found its niche. Through the 1970s and 1980s and well into the 1990s, station wagons helped the brand cultivate the loyalty of customers ranging from tweedy college professors to upscale suburban families.
Even as Volvo bowed to market pressures and introduced the full-size XC90 SUV in 2003, it unveiled its modern take on the full-size station wagon, the V70, and its many variants. As good as they were, the golden age of the Volvo wagon was waning, and as Volvo transitioned from Ford ownership to its new parent, China's Geely Automotive Group, it dropped the base V70 from its U.S. lineup, then the V70-based Cross Country, and then even the small V50. For the past several years, Volvo -- the company known for safety and station wagons -- didn't have a single wagon in its U.S. lineup.
Yet Volvo never stopped selling wagons in Europe, where V60 and V70 remained staples of its lineup. Volvo decided to wait until its new Drive-E powertrain -- consisting of a turbocharged, 240-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to an all-new eight-speed automatic -- came on-stream to reintroduce the full-size wagon to American audiences. The 2015 V60 also will be offered in America with Volvo's existing turbocharged inline five- and six-cylinder engines, but no U.S.-spec V60s were on hand in St.-Paul-de-Vence. A gray, Euro-spec V60 with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbodiesel would have to do.
On a bright September morning, we toss our laptop bag into the V60's spacious rear cargo area and plop down in the sculpted driver's seat, which provides an excellent driving position and an elevated view of the road. Look around, and you know you're in a Volvo. Simple, clean lines; tasteful black leather accented with crisp white stitching; attractive silver-colored plastic trim; the usual Scandinavian goods. Easing out of our hotel parking lot onto the Route des Serres, we're immediately aware that we're driving something that's different than an S60, even if the steering is similarly accurate yet light on-center. Before long, we find the corners of the car and are tearing up mountain roads, braking hard into switchbacks, and steering the V60 between the tall stone curbs that line the roads and might, just might, keep us from tumbling into a ravine if we get it all wrong. Who would have thought a wagon could move this nimbly? Still, there's no forgetting we're not in a sports car. The V60 has enough body roll and chassis flex that we're feeling a little queasy in the quickest, off-camber turns.
During the lunch stop, Volvo's Haslem isn't surprised to hear about our driving exploits. "The V60 is basically a version of the S60," he says. "It's not a big estate. It's a styled wagon." You can see what he's saying in the V60's sleek silhouette and in the way the roof tapers in the rear. The body is clean and simple, devoid of excess trim, with crisp side lines that run from the headlights all the way back through the doors to the taillights. If you like styled wagons, you'll like the 2015 Volvo V60. However, if you care more about utility than style, the existing XC60 crossover has more much more room in the second row and space for cargo, and the aging XC90 seats seven.
The truth is, Volvo only expects to sell 4000 V60s in the United States each year, a small fraction of the S60's sales. So why bother to offer a station wagon to Americans at all? Because people who believe in Volvo believe in station wagons, even if they don't necessarily buy them. Symbolism does matter.
2015 Volvo V60
|On Sale:||January 2014|
|Engines:||Turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4, 240 hp, 258 lb-ft; turbocharged 2.5-liter I-5, 250 hp, 266 lb-ft; turbocharged 3.0-liter I-6, 325 hp, 354 lb-ft|
|Drive:||Front or 4-wheel|