Updated: January 2, 2016
Let us drive across another country in Europe, shall we. This time, our destination is the Netherlands, not the Caribbean islands part mind, although that could be awesome, just north and west of Germany and Belgium, which we visited the last time. A flat country, with no driving obstacles, it should be fun.
Our transporter is Volvo XC60 T5 R-Design model, a compact luxury crossover, with a four-cylinder 2.0-liter turbocharged petrol engine, and an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission going to the forward pair of wheels. We shall discuss the car in more detail in a separate review, as it merits all sorts of mention and gossip, but for the time being, let's focus on the country experience. Like that Dire Straits song. These mist-covered autobahns are a road now for me, but my home is the low lands and always will be. Yes, follow me. Three days, 771 km. Off we go.
I am a model, you know what I mean
I have to admit I was a little confused fact finding all the necessary details about my test vehicle. The Netherlandish Volvo domain lists T5 as an AWD vehicle with an 8-speed automatic transmission. Other sites list the car with a 6-speed automatic transmission and either the front-wheel or 4x4 drive, and the owner wasn't knowledgeable enough to tell me which one he had. All he cared about was to own a Volvo. Truth.
It took me a while digging around to figure out what gives. XC60 T5 is available in a four-cylinder version, with 245 PS and 350 Nm, mated to an eight-speed auto and front-wheel drive. The five-cylinder version comes with all all-wheel traction, a gearbox with two fewer cogs, and an output of 250 PS and 360 Nm. Confusing indeed.
The specific model was also adorned with the stylish, somewhat sporty R Design trim, which means lots of comfort, leather, gadgets, and lumbar support, plus a dashing line that promises good speed. This is not how you normally imagine Volvo, so it's nice to see a bit of spice in the Swedish surstromming. Twin tail exhausts also hint at a sporty pedigree.
So our journey begins ... to commence
Well, it begins with frustration. The Netherlands comes with some rather strict speed limits, mostly 100 km/h and 120 km/h, often enforced using average speed cameras, similar to Italy. But in Italy, the numbers are higher and the laws more lax, so you can drive 140 km/h without any fear of severe repercussions. On the other hand, the Netherlands has a combination of a beautiful, well-maintained public infrastructure, with straight five-lane roads, in each and every direction, modern cars, and a no-nonsense approach to traffic regulations, which makes the boy racer inside your soul weep. Not that I'm in favor of any big speeds or road banditry, but slightly higher limits would definitely make the overall driving experience more pleasant.
With its wings clipped, Volvo XC60 assailed the ruler-sharp stretches of tarmac with gusto and elegance. It is a comfortable cruiser, and a high seating position gives you a sense of dominance over other cars, so you don't feel like you need to pee on them to assert it. Visibility is good, and despite its bulk, Volvo carried well, although the opportunity to check lateral grip is tricky, as all you have is arrow-straight lanes leading into infinity.
My first leg of the journey took me from Amsterdam to Maastricht, about 220 km total. XC60 comes with a built-in navigation, and it is a good, capable system. Not without faults though. It usually does not announce the next waypoint, so you need to be attentive, especially if you're driving near junctions or roundabouts. However, the overall logic is very similar to HERE Maps in my Lumia phones, and I would not be surprised if it's not the same engine under a different skin. The map software looks okay, it feels slightly outdated, but it's useful and clear enough. The display will change color based on day/night driving, and hush the radio or Bluetooth-connected media for waypoint updates. You also get live traffic updates from the country's transportation authority or whatnot, but they happened in a language I did not understand. Well, no matter.
Next, I fiddled with the steering and throttle to get the feel of the car. I didn't play with the cruise control, as I don't like it. Volvo XC60 is a decent car, but the focus is not on driving dynamics, despite the Ford DNA under the hood. The engine has bite, but not enough of it for the car's size and weight, and the eight-speed auto is fidgety. The thing is, I've seen a similar piece of machinery used in BMW X3, and there, it worked wonderfully, without any problems. The changes were so smooth you wouldn't know the vehicle even had transmission. But it sure did have a twin-turbo diesel with monster loads of torque, so it didn't have to work hard.
In Volvo, the dollop of elasticity measures only 350 Nm, which is okay but nothing stellar. The same amount didn't make Skoda Octavia vRS a driving miracle, and even the smaller and less powered Corsa OPC had more mid-range grunt. Likewise here, two liters and petrol, turbos notwithstanding, is just not good enough to have burst power at whim without some serious downshifting. And that is what the auto does, and with eight speed under its belt, it shifts almost erratically. It just might be the algorithm, or the fact the engine's power band is too narrow.
Recall my Astra review, if you will. The same thing happened there. Trying to save fuel is one thing, but long gears definitely don't help when you need instantaneous reaction. Judging from my experience with the seven-speed DSG in smaller Volkswagen-family cars, the symptoms are the same. Even gentle prods and nudges on the throttle will make the computer shift down to maintain the optimal torque band, which can really be annoying when you're cruising. You simply don't expect so much noise and fretting.
On paper, eight-speed auto sounds like cool technology, but the thing is, it's not suitable enough for the task. Volvo XC also comes in the T6 flavor, with some 300 HP and 450 Nm of torque, which is really neat, and the diesel versions also offer similar might, through all four wheels, and with only six gearing ratios, the experience should be smoother and less eventful. Not something that I can confirm in this review, though.
The steering is well-weighted, but the tall, heavy ride doesn't let you blast around like you would in a smaller car with a much lower center of gravity. The engine has a nervous note, and it will rev up and down angrily, shifting, whenever you press the rightmost pedal. Overall though, XC60 handled the Netherlands competition well, keeping pace with the rest and often leaving most of the cars behind. The sprint to 100 km/h takes 7.2 seconds, but it never feels quick.
With the speed limits in place and observed, you know exactly how long the journey is going to take. In this regard, Volvo XC60 does its job very well. The seats are quite comfortable, although you may get a bit of a tingly feel in your butt checks because, uhm, well, something. The next day, the same leather can be a bit cold early in the morning, which is why you have the seat heating and it works wonderfully.
Overall though, the Netherlands is a boring country driving-wise. Straight roads and then some more. And then some more. Still more. In the south, there's a bit more geometry, and you can actually encounter a long, sweeping sort of curve, calling it a corner would be too much, good enough for USS Enterprise, the aircraft carrier, to turn in at full speed, without any problems. There's no action. Well, except that now and then people doze off and then drift into your lane. Caught with my lovely onboard camera, to wit: