2009 Volvo XC60 – Noise Vibration & Harshness

I wish I liked the idea of crossover vehicles more. Then I’d have only nice things to say about the new , 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.

Most surprising, the XC60 is no drag to drive. Not only is it quick, quiet, and refined, it’s less ponderous than many other crossovers, with alert steering, a taut structure, and a decent ride. Volvo‘s admission that it will be recalibrating dampers on U.S.-bound cars to compensate for American highways’ “expansion cracks” sent a shiver up my spine, as no car that’s been “retuned” for America has ever been better for it. At least Volvo won’t be fiddling with the brakes, which have stopping power to beat the band and offer more feel, in my subjective estimation, than anything this side of a Lotus Elise. No one could explain why.

The XC60 is a potent reminder that Volvo continues to have serious design and engineering smarts at its disposal. Once again, it has put the lie to the, er, lie that you must sell a million cars a year to be competitive. Volvo says it will be happy with annual North American sales of about 12,000 XC60s.

Pricing it at $38,000, Volvo shouldn’t have trouble. The XC60 comes well equipped, with leather seats, all-wheel drive (the fourth-generation Haldex system), and all manner of traction control and stability devices standard.

Ever keen to reinforce its safety heritage, Volvo talked up City Safety, a laser-based, low-speed version of Mercedes-Benz‘s more costly and complicated driver-override system, the radar-based Distronic Plus. It automatically stops or slows the XC60 to avert impending collisions (with cars, but not pedestrians, cyclists, or fire hydrants) at speeds up to 19 mph. It worked well in parking lot demonstrations, but one could write a book about the legal, political, and philosophical implications of such intrusive nannying systems, however useful or well intentioned.

Important as it is, safety isn’t everything. Volvos were once known for decent fuel economy, too, not figures barely better than a Hummer H3‘s.

Frankly, the XC60 is so good, if Volvo could get the mileage thing straightened out, I might even forgive it for being a crossover.