First glance: Make yourself at home
I have to start by telling you how much I enjoyed the Volvo V70, which really came as a surprise. I spent the week before the Volvo's arrival testing a Dodge Challenger SRT8 -- basically a block of testosterone with a steering wheel -- and the significance of swapping this icon of vehicular virility for a sensible family wagon wasn't lost on my thirtysomething father-of-two self. I braced for a week of motoring mediocrity, but I wound up becoming quite attached to the Volvo.
It certainly wasn't the performance or the handling that won me over. Frankly, the V70 is about as interesting as a knitting competition. No, what I loved was how at home I felt in the V70. By the third day of my test week, the Volvo felt as comfortable and familiar as if I'd owned it for years. I drive a new test car every week, sometimes two a week, so I don't have time to get attached to anything. Even my own car doesn't feel like my own car. So while this at-home feeling may not seem like a big deal, believe me, it is.
It's difficult to make a station wagon attractive, and I give kudos to Volvo for not even trying. The V70 is boldly boxy, as decreed by God in the 11th commandment ("Yea, thine wagons shall not be rounded or racy, but shall be square and boxy, that ye may delivereth My bounty to thine begatten's soccer games; and ugly, so the maiden and the harlot and the newly-divorced shall not spare a second glance at thee.") But there are subtle cues from Volvos past, like the 850 and the 245, which I, being a big honkin' geek, thought was pretty cool.
In the Driver's Seat: Push the legs
I'm not all that fond of most European car interiors -- all those buttons! -- but the V70 suits me just fine. The stereo is simpler than it looks at first glance, and the climate controls are brilliant. Want air on your legs? Press the little climate-control-guy's legs. (And if someone cuts you off, poking the head button repeatedly is therapeutic.)
Volvo has a reputation for excellent seats. I didn't find them particularly impressive at first, but after an eight hour drive with nary a complaint from a single muscle or joint, I became a believer. My kids liked the back seat, though they're too big to take advantage of the nifty built-in child boosters. And the cargo bay is a work of art -- at 33.3 cubic feet it puts the Mercedes E-Class wagon (24.4) to shame, though it trails the Saab 9-5 (36.8). My test car had a dealer-installed flip-down cargo gate (photo: down/up), a must-have for dog owners.
What really surprised me was the value-for-money equation. Standard features include dual-zone climate control, power driver's seat, steering wheel audio controls, 6-disc CD changer, and 3 years free maintenance. (Volvo still charges $525 extra for metallic paint, though -- go figure.) My test car had one option package (heated seats, rain-sensing wipers, headlight washers, $725), and the sticker price was under $35,000. I was genuinely surprised that a V70 could be had so cheap -- it certainly felt like a $40,000 car. For comparison, the Saab 9-5 wagon starts at $41,675, though that includes leather, sunroof, and other bits that are optional in the V70.
On the Road: Let's take things slow
Handling is not the V70's strong suit. The ride is soft, cushy and commendably quiet, sort of a modern-day Country Squire. I took the V70 on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, and the car made it clear that it would rather be doing something else -- sitting back home in the garage, perhaps, sipping a cup of hot tea and watching Ronin. The steering was sharp enough, but the tires protested each turn with squeals of anger and mid-corner bumps sent the Volvo scurrying sideways. The electronic stability control system -- standard, natch; the Swedes are obsessed with safety -- had a laissez-faire attitude, though, a nice change from the systems in wagons like the Audi A6 Avant and Mercedes E-Class, which step in abruptly at the first sign that you're attempting to have fun. And although the V70 is based on Volvo's full-size S80, it doesn’t feel that big -- it parks and maneuvers like a smaller car, which I really liked.
Journey's End: Being boring isn't so bad
I've saved the bad news for last. Over in Europe, Volvo sells a hot-rod version of the V70 called the T6. Volvo used to sell a "T" version of the V70 here in the States, but they don't anymore. That's a major bummer. Consider how much I liked the V70 in its soft-riding, adequately-accelerating, let's-call-it-an-early-night 3.2 version. Can you imagine what the hard-drivin' T6 must be like? Heck, I'd probably have to be institutionalized. Come on, Volvo. Bring us the T6. You know it's the right thing to do.
Boring or not, I think the V70 is a great family car. It's one of the most practical, most utilitarian, most comfortable, most likeable and easiest-to-live-with cars I've ever tested. It's reasonably priced and reasonably economical. It may not be everything a family car could be -- but it certainly is everything a family car should be.