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Volvo All-Wheel Drive Vehicles

2005 Volvo S40/V50 All Wheel Drive & XC70 AWD

by Steve Siler

If you walked around a mall and asked average people what word comes to mind when they hear the name “Volvo,” I’d bet nine times out of ten—perhaps ten times out of ten—the response would be “safety.” Like you had to ask, right?

Of course, we know that Volvos are brimming with appeal in other ways, such as expressive Swedish design, sweet-sounding stereos and perhaps the world’s best line of seats. Still, even to us, the Volvo name will be permanently synonymous with the relentless pursuit of protection.

Volvo V50

Upon reflection, however, it’s seems sort of odd that, of all carmakers, Volvo has been relatively slow to offer American consumers a full range of products with grip-enhancing all-wheel drive—a safety feature if there ever was one. Sure, Volvo has sold the niche-marketed Cross Country since the late ‘90s, but Audi has offered “quattro” on nearly all of its cars since the early ‘80s, and Mercedes-Benz and BMW are also charter members of the four-wheel club. How many Swedish blizzards does it take to drive home—pun intended—the benefits of all-wheel drive?

Well, better late than never, right? And so we enthusiastically accepted Volvo’s invitation this winter to beautiful Quebec City, Quebec, to experience what promised to be two of its safest family cars to date: the new V50 AWD and the raised wagon formerly known as the Cross Country, the XC70.

First, a bit of background info about front-wheel drive and why Volvo shouldn’t be faulted for favoring that setup in the interest of safety. Front-wheel drive is an inherently cautious setup (perfect for Volvo) that sends power to the steering wheels, enhancing directional response when driving moderately in slippery conditions. Moving drivetrain components from the rear to the front also places a majority of the vehicle’s overall mass on top of the front wheels, which effectively presses the tires more firmly into the road surface, further enhancing traction. It’s like charging the front wheels with the tasks of steering and propelling the car, and the extra front-end mass gives it the grip when starting from a stop to get moving. Thus, front-wheel drive cars are genuine foul-weather friends. Furthermore, compared with a rear-wheel drive (and all-wheel drive, too), front-wheel drive is generally lower in weight and less intrusive to the cabin footwells.

But front-wheel drive has its drawbacks, too. Specifically, nose-heavy front-wheel drive vehicles tend to plow more during hard cornering than rear-drivers, rendering them somewhat less eager to “play.” Also, today’s ever-more-powerful engines—especially Volvo’s own turbocharged five- and six-cylinders—can quickly overwhelm the front tires as the weight shifts rearward during acceleration. Powerful front-wheel drivers are also prone to “torque steer”: that disconcerting tugging of the steering wheel when you stomp on the gas.

So it’s clear that front-wheel drive is good enough to get by. But all-wheel drive is better. Distributing power to all four wheels dramatically reduces the chance of one or more drive wheels breaking loose on slick roads, thus destabilizing the car.

All-wheel drive also helps get you moving from a standstill, since all four wheels are being commanded to march simultaneously, rather than sending all of the engine’s power to the front two while the rears just come along for the ride. Other benefits include mitigating the destabilizing effect of hydroplaning, cross winds, or the occasional icy patches that are quite common in Canada in January.
Testing All-Wheel Drive

Speaking of Canada, historic Quebec City proved to be an ideal place to showcase the Volvo’s full-time Haldex all-wheel drive system, as the temperatures hadn’t climbed above freezing for weeks, if not months, by the time we got there (the high while we were there was -19 degrees Celsius). Driving the V50 and the XC70 at normal highway speeds felt, well, normal. Why is this remarkable? Because we could see those dark, dreaded ice patches streaking across the rural roads, yet we never felt either car squirm. In a two-wheel-drive automobile, we would've had to slow down considerably.

A frozen lake provided a fun opportunity to see what, if any, help all-wheel drive and stability control can offer when all four wheels have little or no grip. On an acceleration run and slalom course in the XC70, we found that if you drive responsibly, or at least as responsibly as one can when flogging two-tons of metal and rubber merrily about on a surface that plays host to motorboats and canoes eight months out of the year, you’ll find confident straight-line stability and surprising steering response. Then, on the “road course” Volvo created on the ice (which I assure you looks remarkably different in the summer), we found out that no matter how much technogadgetry Volvo can stick in its cars, momentum does not mix well with low friction surfaces—we slid all over the place. That is, until we slowed down a bit and concentrated on turning in earlier, with less steering angle (which helps the tires stay more closely aligned with the direction of travel). Then we were getting somewhere.

As for the cars themselves, the $35K XC70 is still a splendid car, based on the stellar V70 that just received an interior and exterior freshening this year. We’ve always had little, if anything, to complain about with this vehicle, as it has always had enough power (208 hp), a great view of the road ahead and handling that puts traditional SUVs to shame. And it’s all wrapped up with beefy, yet tidy styling.

Testing All-Wheel Drive

The V50 is the newest member of the Volvo family, and is easily one of the sexiest wagons on the road. The V50 and its sedan counterpart, the S40, have been well received on account of their hip looks and fresh interiors. Unlike the XC70, the S40 and V50 do not offer all-wheel as standard equipment, and at that, the option is only available on the more powerful T5 variants of each. At just $1650, however, the benefits of the system are well worth the cost.

With all-wheel drive now available across the Volvo lineup, Volvo has plugged one of the only holes in its safety net while making its vehicles even safer.

For more information on Volvo 4-Wheel Drive Vehicles vist