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Sometimes Volvo engineers and marketeers think and do very differently from the rest of the auto industry. If, as expected, the Chinese car company Geely shortly completes its planned purchase of Volvo, it will be a toss-up as to who finds whom most inscrutable.

The ice camp is very real. On the shoulder of the 10,500ft Kitzsteinhorn, about an hour’s drive from Salzburg, it towers above Kaprun, one of Austria’s better-known ski resorts. This is the fourth year in which Volvo has paid to have it created, with two months of labour and 60 tonnes of ice deployed to build its seven igloos and various bar, lounge and dining facilities. When Volvo has finished whatever eclectic uses it has for it each year, it is rented out to adventure-seeking groups from around the world, alternatively known as masochists. The rentals continue until shortly after Easter, when the sun starts returning it to the earth from whence it came.

The men from Volvo were right about the motoring scribes wanting to escape. Temperatures ranged from -10°C within the igloos to almost -20°C without. Less certain, however, was whether they would gratefully exalt the Volvo XC60 R-Design getaway cars beyond their proper station, or simply want to kick them.

The final outcome, after a day of driving in conditions in which few carmakers would want their products to venture out, was grudging respect for this latest iteration of Volvo’s compact SUV.

Down off the Kitzsteinhorn, it snowed. The snowdrifts piled up feet deep. Even the lower mountain roads were treacherous ribbons. The conditions, in short, brought us face-to-face with all the carmaker’s hype about its rugged, go-anywhere SUVs and the spirit of derring-do it insists is intrinsic to all who buy them – even if they do live in Chelsea and rarely travel beyond John Lewis. Overall, the XC60 acquitted itself well; proving competent on road and off, if not spectacularly so.

Rear view of the Volvo XC60 R-DesignOf similar size to Ford’s Kuga and the new BMW X1, it embodies the difficult metamorphosis through which Volvo is putting itself in order to redefine its relationship with the motoring world once outside the protective ownership of Ford. The buzz-word at Volvo is no longer “safe” but “sporty’’; almost obsessively so. The R-Design (pronounced reedesign) label is not so much a name-tag for the latest XC60 as a concept for a new Volvo persona.

In the XC60 it manifests itself in a number of exterior cosmetic changes, including paintwork, body mouldings and side and rear scuff plates, which combine to give the car a significantly more extrovert personality. The same goes for the inside: there are new body-hugging sports seats for brisker cornering; brushed aluminium for all door, steering wheel and centre console inserts; aluminium sports pedals and various other sporting tweaks.

The key transformation comes with the chassis and the handling dynamics. Both body and dampers have been made considerably stiffer. A higher-ratio steering rack has been introduced, further amplifying a sense of new-found agility. A sports car it is not, but there is a sense of sprightliness absent from XC60s of yore.

This was underscored in dramatic fashion by four winding tracks laid out at a specialised ice-driving centre near Salzburg, where the XC60s were let off the leash to be driven as flat out as a 4in coating of snow over glare ice would allow. Cars and drivers could revel in lurid side slides, but with an effective electronic stability programme (ESP) at hand to save the determined law-of-physics defiers from themselves. Ironically, it was the ESP which turned out to be the party-pooper. Not capable of being switched off, it would kill the throttle completely in mid-bend at the very time a driver could have wished for opposite lock and acceleration. Safe, but not off-road fun. Old Volvo values die hard.

The XC60 comes with a choice of two diesel engines and one petrol. The most powerful diesel is positively sports car-like, its 200bhp and 310lb ft of torque providing standstill to 62mph in 8.5 seconds and a top speed of 130mph. That’s with the standard six-speed gearbox; the automatic version is marginally slower. The entry-level diesel has 170bhp and the 2.4 litre petrol unit a mighty 285bhp, although with almost twice the fuel consumption of the 40mpg-plus diesels and with only an automatic gearbox available.

With prices ranging from £30,000 to about £37,000 ($47,100 to $58,100), the R-Design XC60 does not come cheap. But all versions do come well equipped. Climate and cruise control are standard, as is Volvo’s unique City Safety crash-avoidance system, which keeps safe distances from the vehicle in front during stop-start urban traffic. There is also a useful side mirror blind-spot warning system. Higher specification models come with all the usual toys, among them satellite navigation, electrically adjustable seats and leather seats and trim.

The XC60 is just one of a rash of updated and new models currently being brought on stream by Volvo, with its smallest C30, now “Sports CoupĂ©”, model receiving the external go-faster cosmetics along with sharpened steering and chassis. The same applies to Volvo’s C70 metal-roofed coupĂ©/convertible, while an all-new S60 model being launched later this year will also have sporting credentials.

Becoming a Ford cast-off has hit the company’s morale. But with luck, and the prospect of substantial long-term Chinese funding, the new models might just transport Volvo back in from the cold.

source: ft

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