1998 Volvo XC

By November 10, 1999
1998 Volvo XC

Navigating Alaska's rugged Chugach mountains is not a challenge we'd normally accept in a car designed for an affluent urban lifestyle. But with the introduction of the V70 XC Cross Country wagon, Volvo is boldly going where no Swedish automaker has gone before.

For years, Volvo has enjoyed a distinct identity. Long the leader in automotive safety, Volvos were popular among people with families. But along came minivans, sport-utility vehicles and pickups and they now account for nearly half of all sales.

Unwilling to get into the sport-utility business, Volvo has introduced the V70 XC AWD. XC is short for “Cross Country” and is among a growing new breed of vehicles designed to blend the best features of passenger cars and sport-utilities.

Volvo's V70 XC AWD is based on a conventional Volvo V70 station wagon, so it handles like a European sports sedan and comes loaded with an attractive interior and a range of luxurious options. A sophisticated all-wheel-drive (AWD) system dramatically improves traction on wet and snowy roads. An increased ground clearance gives the XC better capability over backwoods trails.

In short, Volvo's new XC wagon adds off-highway capability to Volvo's legendary level of safety engineering, comfort and driving pleasure. But is it going to meet the needs and wants of buyers interested in sport-utilities? After spending time driving this car down highways and rough unpaved roads, we think it more than exceeds the needs of most people.


Image has a lot to do with the huge popularity of sport-utility vehicles. Volvo engineers recognized that simply adding all-wheel drive to their superb V70 wagon wouldn't be enough to compete in the booming sport-utility market.

So they raised the XC body a bit to give it not only more ground clearance, but also a more macho appearance. The exterior is sportier, with an aggressive grille, front air dam and aggressive, gray body moldings unique to the XC. Fog lights are standard, as is the roof rack. Taller 205/65HR15 tires add to the XC's heightened stance compared to the more conventional V70 and V70 AWD wagons.

Drivers sit higher, giving them a more commanding view of the road, a big draw for SUVs and other light trucks. That feature seems to be especially appealing to women, who are expected to make up a significant share of the XC's buyers.

Volvo provides buyers plenty of ways to personalize their XC in keeping with both taste and lifestyle. There are 15 different colors on the palette. Special bike, ski and snowboard carriers are designed to easily mount on the XC's heavy duty roof rack. There's even a dog cage available to keep Rover safely ensconced in the expansive cargo hold.

Interior Features

While the XC's exterior is unmistakably Volvo, its interior is soft and friendly and, in keeping with a $35,595 price tag, it is decidedly upscale. Standard features include an eight-way power driver's seat with three memory settings, trip computer, premium sound system with cassette, sunroof, and automatic climate control.

An attractive “Arctic Canvas” fabric covers the seats, with leather bolsters. An all-leather package is available for an extra $595. And for another $595, you can upgrade to the Grand Touring package, which gets you walnut trim, an in-dash CD player with Dolby Surround Sound and a power passenger seat.

The XC provides a roomy 67 cubic feet of cargo space. That's not as much as some of the larger sport-utilities, but the layout is extremely functional. Indeed, “utility” is a word Volvo designers took to heart. A fold out mat is tucked into a hidden compartment under the rear carpet. Fold it out and over the bumper when you're loading cargo-or use it for a clean place to sit and tug off your boots or your waders. The carpet itself can be turned over, its vinyl backing better suited to carrying muddy dogs or cargo. There's a safety net designed to keep cargo from flying into the front seat. And there are pockets on both sides of the cargo hold for small items. We wish sport-utility vehicles had this many utilitarian features.

And if you're planning to haul a clutch of kids to Cub Scout meetings, an optional rear-facing third row of seats give the XC room for seven passengers.

Driving Impressions

The XC was never intended to be an off-road vehicle. At least that's what the folks at Volvo warned as we headed off for the Alaskan hinterland. It won't get you across really deep ditches, our guide stressed. And we learned to take him at his word rather quickly when one of the drivers in our small group mistakenly tried to ford a rocky stream. About halfway across, he high-centered his XC on a small boulder, then spent the next 20 minutes knee deep in glacial runoff pushing the car free.

It's estimated, however, that 95 percent of the sport-utility vehicles sold today never see anything rougher than a dirt road, and the XC handles those very well. Its aggressive tire and suspension package add 1.4 inches to the ride height. That translates into an extra inch of ground clearance. That can make a big difference on snowy streets, so there won't be any excuses for staying home from work in even the worst weather conditions.

It was on the potholed roads leading us down from the Chugach Mountains that we began to understand the logic behind Volvo's decision not to design a true SUV. Read the ads for conventional sport-utilities and they all boast about having a “car-like ride.” But the simple fact is you can only do so much with a body-on-frame truck design. A passenger car's unitbody construction is better suited to everyday driving, and we found that the suspension and tires designed for the XC provided a more comfortable ride on rough roads than the conventional V70 wagon.

This hybrid approach also means a lighter vehicle and that has several distinct advantages. Fuel economy is notably better than with a conventional, gas-guzzling SUV: 20 mpg in the city, 32 on the highway, according to the EPA.

When it comes to performance and handling, the XC has a big advantage over sport-utilities. This wagon handles like a fine European sports sedan. Volvo's 190 horsepower turbocharged 2.4 liter 5-cylinder engine provides instant response on the highway and is capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in about 9 seconds. Adding greatly to the engine's performance is a responsive electronically controlled four-speed transmission that has the feel of high-quality machinery.

The XC AWD's all-wheel-drive system is shared with the more conventional V70 AWD wagon. Under normal driving conditions, it's essentially a front-wheel-drive car, with 95 percent of the engine's power going to the front wheels. But if one of those tires begins to slip, a viscous clutch instantly shifts up to 95 percent of the power to the rear wheels. This is all done seamlessly.


If a Volvo wagon appeals to and is in your price range, then by all means you should drive one. It handles like a German sports sedan. Its interior controls are flawlessly designed and a delight to use. And the more time we spent in the car the more we liked the striking wood treatment. In practical terms, the V70 offers as much seating and cargo capacity as many sport-utilities, yet it's more comfortable and rides much better. The all-wheel-drive system gives the V70 all-weather capability, while the raised ground clearance helps it pass over rough, primitive roads.

Volvo's XC may not win over drivers who want the rugged image of a sport-utility vehicle. And it certainly won't serve the needs of those who really need a vehicle capable of serious off-roading. But the XC is a great choice for buyers looking for a high-performance wagon that can deal with Mother Nature's worst.

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