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A couple of weeks ago, when the temperatures dipped into the 40s -- or as we call it here in Southern California, the extremes of human endurance -- I went shopping in West L.A. It was like base camp at Annapurna. High-heeled hotties had turned in their sex spurs for pairs of Merrell hiking boots. Guys were walking around in zero-degree quilted Marmot jackets. I'm sorry -- I just don't think crampons and bottled oxygen are necessary to make the traverse to the valet stand.
God knows, high-end technical gear is fun. Suunto watches, Adidas glacier glasses. I love it when people use Black Diamond trekking poles and Platypus hydration packs to assault the untamed reaches of Griffith Park. You sure don't want Jon Krakauer writing a book about you.
Technical gear -- clothing and accessories that are engineered for specific and demanding performance -- makes the translation to streetwear because it constitutes garments of proclamation. They are vigorous assertions of personal branding: I'm outdoorsy, I'm discerning, I'm technical. Sure, a sweat shirt would keep me warm, but my Arc'teryx Alpha Comp Hoody attests to the fact that, when I'm not shopping at the Beverly Center with my mom, I'm a death-cheating master of the plunging piste.
Naturally, I'm guilty. I used to wear a rather large and obvious diving watch. Oh, do you scuba dive? Why, yes, I do, and thank you for asking. . . . One fun fact about this watch is that it was guaranteed watertight to 300 meters, or 984 feet, which means that at that depth my lifeless corpse would know exactly what time it was.
So now we come 'round the mountain to the Volvo XC70, the Scandinavian company's redesigned-for-2008 all-roading wagon. Essentially a V70 wagon wrapped in a Vibram boot sole, the XC70 is distinguished from its wagon kin by the hip-high composite cladding encompassing the vehicle, a couple-inch higher ride height and all-wheel drive as standard equipment. Think what happens when a Polaris ATV has carnal knowledge of a V70 wagon. The most distinctive design feature is the carabiner-shaped brightwork around the fog lights and rear side marker lights. The new grill, also surrounded by hazy alloy trim, sits in the center of a newly aggressive front clip that is cinched together visually as if by a backpack's compression straps.
Volvo design is on a serious hot streak these days. Note how the rear lift gate is a scaled version of the C30's handsome hatch (a shape that comes to us from the ancient days of the P1800). Note also how the tumblehome of the cabin -- that is, the inward tilt of the side glass as it rises to meet the roof -- is at exactly the same angle as other Volvo products, marrying with the distinctive shoulder bevel. No other company, outside of perhaps BMW, has so artfully ginned a single design vocabulary into a whole portfolio.
It looks the part
So it looks cool, OK? And yet the XC70 is such a lifestyle accessory, such a proclamation, it verges on automotive typecasting. If you like bashing up to Big Bear for some snowboarding, you're going to like this car. If you have a cabin around Tahoe, you're going to love it. If you attended the University of Oregon, donated to the World Wildlife Fund, explored your roommate's sexuality, got a member's refund from REI or blew out a rotator cuff while kayaking the Snake River, forget it: You'll be utterly smitten. Your knickers are going to wind up on the rear-view mirror.
The 2008 XC70 and V70 are both based on a new, larger platform, with an additional 2 inches in wheelbase (110 inches) under a body several inches longer overall. The XC70 is 2.1 inches taller than the V70, owing to its longer legs, but otherwise the vehicles are almost identical. Both are powered by the company's 3.2-liter inline six (235 hp at 6,200 rpm and 236 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm) bolted to a six-speed Aisin-Warner automatic transmission with manual-shift programming. The XC70's all-wheel-drive system is cribbed from its corporate cousin, the Land Rover LR2. Both use a Haldex clutch-pack to route torque to the rear wheels when the front wheels slip. Also, the Volvo and the Land Rover appear to have the same supplier for their hill descent control. Cool.
I found the XC70's AWD system of particular note in the annals of metallurgy. It appears to be made of lead, or depleted uranium, or magically corralled bits of super-dense star matter, because the XC70 weighs a stunning 565 pounds more than the front-wheel-drive V70. Are there drunken Norsemen hidden under the cargo load floor? Are the tires filled with gravlax? Are there 80,000 CDs of ABBA music stored in the in-dash player? What the heck weighs so much?
Here's where the XC70 and all that technical outdoor gear in my garage are quite different. Technical gear is designed to be lightweight. That's what makes it so ridiculously expensive. The XC70 is also supposed to be trail-ready, but as anybody who has ever locked a wheel hub knows, weight is a problem off-road too. I'm sure the XC70 can muddle competently over dirt roads and ford the occasional creek -- the ground clearance is a rangy 8-plus inches -- but I would think twice about putting this thing in anything slippery, not with this overloaded pack. And not, may I say, with the stock tires. Exploring the power of suggestion, Continental calls these 235/55 R-17's their "4x4 Contact" tires. Please, my chin has more stubble.
The poundage is the sum and substance of my issue with the XC70, which is otherwise a beautifully made, exquisitely detailed car. I love the crosshatched stitching on the leather seat upholstery. The new hatch design, with the vertical taillights integrated into the liftgate, opens up a huge hole for cargo loading. With the rear seats down, the car will hold 77 cubic feet of pricey Gore-Tex gear. Honey, where's my ice ax? Another nice feature is the car's built-in child booster seats. Naturally, it's super safe, with air bags, anti-lock, anti-spin everything, smart cruise control and plenty of optional driver aids, like the side-object warning system (which as far as I can tell alerts you that you've hit a motorcyclist).
The plod thickens
Oh, but there's that weight. The XC70 is painfully slow to accelerate -- at least nine seconds to 60 mph -- and once at highway speeds isn't particularly interested in passing acceleration. I tried using the manumatic shift-gate, but it didn't really make a difference. The engine made unwilling sounds at low speeds too, and there were moments of truly ignoble shift shock, when the car lurched a bit when it changed gear. Also, the fuel economy is just a little bit awful: 15 mpg city, 22 highway. With a six-speed tranny and a six-cylinder engine? BMW engineers have been marched off the building for results like that.
The XC70 is the 7,000-cubic-inch Gregory expedition backpack of station wagons. So cool, so tech, so, well, me, and my extra-parametric outdoor lifestyle. And yet, all things considered, I think I'd do better with a V70 with a bit more aggressive tire tread. That would be more than enough to get me to Aspen, and I wouldn't have to stop so often for gas.
2008 Volvo XC70 AWD Base price: $36,775
Price, as tested: $44,065
Powertrain: 3.2-liter DOHC inline 6 with variable valve timing and variable intake geometry; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 235 at 6,200 rpm
Torque: 236 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm
Curb weight: 4,092 pounds
0-60 mph: 9 seconds
Wheelbase: 110 inches
Overall length: 190.5 inches
EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway
Final thoughts: The heaviest piece of backpacking gear you'll ever own