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By Bill McKinnon
The Sydney Morning Herald

Volvo's hot rod V70R wagon is spacious, comfortable, loaded with gear -- but, says Bill McKinnon, the suspension has major flaws.
Good: Safe in a crash and strong. Quick. Powerful brakes. Plenty of occupant and load space. Versatile load area. ractical touches such as child booster seats and cargo barrier. Tyre grip.

Bad: Overpriced and ponderous. Something seriously wrong with the suspension. Feels nervous and unstable on all but smooth surfaces. Harsh, uncomfortable ride. Unrefined engine and gearbox. Some turbo lag. Huge turning circle. Front seats lack lateral support.

Verdict: Bloody awful drive.

Stars: 2 (out of 5).

Volvo sold 130 cars in January. Boy, that "Bloody Volvo Driver" campaign worked a treat, didn't it?

Perhaps one of the reasons why Volvo's sales are so poor is that, with a few exceptions, their cars are not particularly good. In terms of on-road performance and value for money, Volvo seems to have stood still for the best part of the last decade, while the rest of the industry has, as a rule, raised its standards with each new model, delivering better cars at sharper prices.

Look no further for evidence than Volvo's attempts to build credible sports machinery. Its base model sedans and wagons are honest family transport; the steroid-injected spinoffs, starting with the 850 T5-R in 1995, have usually involved taking a competent car and stuffing it up.

Volvo's latest hot rods, the S60R sedan and V70R wagon, are $98,950 and $102,950 respectively. On paper, they look impressive. Under the bonnet is a turbocharged 220kW 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine; with the five-speed automatic it produces 350Nm of torque and with the six-speed manual, 400Nm.

Drive goes to all wheels, and the split can be varied from 95 percent front to 70 percent rear depending on grip and overall stability. The lowered suspension, developed with renowned Swedish firm Ohlins, has electronically controlled adaptive damping, and three manually selectable damping rates.

The brakes, with four-piston calipers, are from Brembo; the 18-inch alloy wheels are shod with 235/40 Pirelli P Zero tyres.

Volvo is hyping its R cars as genuine hoonmobiles. The stability control system can be disabled so the driver can slip and slide to his heart's content. The press material even boasts that the all-wheel-drive system disengages so you can do handbrake turns. Could be a few bloodied Volvo drivers about if they're not careful.

The 2.5 turbo has no shortage of punch, but we were not able to get close to Volvo's claimed 5.9 seconds for the 0-100kmh sprint in the manual V70R. Add a second for a realistic figure.

It pulls easily from about 2000rpm, then kicks into full boost mode and rockets the car forward from 4000-7000. Some turbo lag is evident in the lower mid-range but, if you keep it spinning above 4000, responsiveness is snappy. Refinement is not a strong point. Vibration is quite intrusive under hard acceleration; some surge is also apparent when backing off at high revs, accompanied by a pop from the turbo.

The gear ratios are close and low, with sixth turning the engine over at 2300rpm at 100kmh. The gearbox action is a touch stiff and notchy, while clutch take-up is abrupt.

Volvo's main area of difficulty with its sports variants has been suspension. It has been unable to deliver the tuning finesse required for taut, disciplined handling and a tolerably compliant ride, especially on less than perfect surfaces. Granted, this is the most difficult task in the suspension engineer's textbook, but Volvo's learning curve seems to have flattened out.

The V70R, despite its price, equipment and sports pretensions, is a dreadful handler on all but the smoothest roads. The adaptive suspension system, Four-C, has three damper rate settings: Comfort, Sport and Advanced, which also enhances accelerator responsiveness.

Four-C works with the stability control, in theory, to keep the car balanced when cornering; the drive bias is also apportioned to the rear wheels when entering corners, promoting slight oversteer, and to the fronts on exit, where some understeer is deemed desirable.

The Advanced setting is largely impractical; it firms up the damping rates to the extent that the ride becomes intolerably hard. Ride is slightly more compliant on Sport, but still too harsh to endure for long; the suspension also bangs and thumps on choppy surfaces. Mismatched compression and rebound damping, and a lack of suspension travel, can cause the front end to trip on a rough patch of road, throwing the car off balance and inducing a nervous twitch at the rear.

In Comfort mode, even around town, the car feels unstable at times as the body also moves vertically and laterally on the suspension -- at highway speeds, this becomes scary. The ride alternates between float, bounce and crash, as the damping is too weak to control body movement or, when the road becomes rougher, prevent the suspension slamming against its stops.

The V70R feels heavy and ponderous. Grip saves it to a certain extent in tighter corners, as does passable steering precision however, it lacks steering wheel "feel", steering rack shake is apparent on choppy bends and the turning circle is huge. The brakes are excellent.

Inside, the V70R is spacious and comfortable -- as Volvo wagons always have been -- and loaded with gear. The test car's optional bright orange leather upholstery prompted unflattering remarks from some passengers.

Big and luxuriously padded, the driver's seat has long travel and substantial bolstering. It's a bit too wide to hold securely those of moderate build, though, and the lumbar adjuster is difficult to get at and has insufficient adjustment range.

The steering wheel is adjustable for height and reach. Vision is clear around the car. The instrument panel features iridescent blue faces on the dials, with fake metal bezels.

Audio and air-conditioning controls are easy enough to nut out; the display screen monitoring their status is impossible to read if you're wearing sunglasses. A satnav screen pops up from the top of the dash. Oddment storage is minimal.

Standard equipment includes automatic air-conditioning, high-quality audio system with an in-dash four-stack CD player, Volvo's full suite of safety features, heated front seats, cruise control (on the wheel) and Xenon headlights.

Rear seat space is sufficient for most adults. The seat has a long, flat cushion and the back rest is lightly contoured for two. It is wide enough for three but, as with most cars these days, the middle passenger sits on a hard, raised centre section. Volvo's integral child booster seat is provided on the two outboard positions.

The cargo area is long and wide; the low floor is very easy to load. A load cover and net are included; a mesh barrier can be secured to the roof with the cargo area in normal or extended capacities. The rear seat splits 60/40 and can be folded to create a flat 1.72 metres of floor length without compromising front seat travel or requiring removal of head restraints. A space-saver spare, plus a storage bin, are underneath.

The Volvo V70R is overpriced and unrefined, with incoherent dynamics and an equally weird ride. How Volvo could let it loose when it so obviously requires major remedial work on the suspension is beyond me. If Volvo can come up with an advertising campaign that gets potential luxury car buyers into dealerships, they are likely to go no further in the V70R than a brief test drive and a "No thanks".

Vital signs
Volvo V70R
Engine: 2.5-litre, 20-valve turbocharged five-cylinder.
Power: 220kW at 5250rpm (above average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 7.0 seconds (quick).
Brakes: Discs with ABS, EBD and DSCT (excellent).
Economy: 9.4 litres/100km highway; 15-18 city (98 octane; average but, as with all high-performance turbos, consumption increases dramatically with a heavy right foot).
Price: Recommended retail -- $102,950. Street price -- $2500 off.
Main options: Metallic paint $1350; sunroof $2150; Atacama leather upholstery $2500.
Warranty: Three years/unlimited kilometres (above average).
Safety rating: Four stars out of five (S70 sedan; Euro NCAP crash tests).
Residual value: 64 percent after three years (V70 T5; average).

Audi S4 Avant 2.7 turbo -- $112,120
BMW 530i Touring Sport -- $107,300
Mercedes-Benz E320 Elegance Estate -- $128,500
Saab 9-5 Aero Estate 2.3 turbo -- $87,900

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