Ice and easy – Volvo’s new soft-roader slip slidin’ away
- Credit: Volvo
An airfield on the frozen surface of a Swedish lake isn't the most conventional of proving grounds, but if any car can cope, it's the new Volvo V90 Cross Country. James Fossdyke takes it for a spin.
The digital needle on my speedometer is reading three figures, trees are flashing past and white rooster tails fly up behind me, coating the tailgate in a fur of icy shards.
I'm going so fast that the runway beneath the chunky winter tyres is cracking under the strain, the ominous sound flooding through the open window along with the chilly winter air and a thin mist of ice.
The cracking reminds me of the peril of what I'm doing. Ordinarily, driving along a runway at motorway speeds is not scary in any way, but this is not any runway. In fact, calling it a runway is probably a bit too generous, for this is little more than a landing strip carved into the frozen surface of a Swedish lake.
After half an hour or so of generally larking about in the snow, I've become accustomed to this flat and open space, but the sound of the ice cracking has reminded me of just what it is I'm doing.
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Yes, this patch of ice has been fortified to cope with the demands placed on it by mankind's insatiable appetite for speed, but it's just ice. It's the same stuff that cracks the moment you drop it in a drink and melts when the sun comes out.
In short, I don't trust it, despite reassurances from the locals that:
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a) There's 50cm of solid ice between me and certain death.
b) Hearing the ice crack is actually a good thing.
Even so, this is far too much fun to stop now.
I've come here in Volvo's latest four-wheel-drive estate car, the V90 Cross Country, and though it's hardly the fastest, or most exotic, car to drive quickly on what is, effectively, an empty airfield, it was actually a good choice for getting here in the first place.
The journey required a high-speed dash along Sweden's irritatingly speed camera-infested and snow-covered highways, followed by a couple of icy switchback roads and then a bumpy track through a small wood to reach the shelving shores of the lake.
Few cars this side of a Range Rover can deal with that combination easily and even fewer could manage it with a family of four and all its luggage on board. Aside from some exuberant moments on the switchbacks, though, the Volvo took it all in its stride.
Now it's facing an equally tough task. With traction at a premium and a driver who's paranoid that the whole kit and caboodle is about to fall through the ice, I'm now asking it to maintain its composure at high speed.
Winter testing is something all car manufacturers do, and it's a great way to make sure the onboard gizmos, such as anti-lock braking, all work as they should.
It's also a good chance for car makers to make sure the vehicle can cope with the constant cold of a Scandinavian winter, with the battery and mechanical components all coming up to scratch.
It's a really good way of honing your driving skills, too, and it's something that the locals practise when they learn to drive.
Of course, the chances of you and your car meeting a British road made entirely of sheet ice are slim, to say the least, but a little low-grip experience can go a long way when it comes to controlling a skid on the open road. It's also useful practice for racing drivers planning to drive on low-traction surfaces and – more importantly – it's immense fun.
Approaching the end of the runway, I lift off the throttle and jam the gearbox down through the gears to slow the car (there isn't all that much point in braking on this stuff), before turning in and feeling the nose dart towards the apex. Once I've got that pointing roughly where I want it, I blip the throttle once, then twice, and I feel the tail swing around like a pendulum.
Yes, Volvo estates may not be as cool as sports coupes, but no matter what you're driving, there's something very impressive about flying across a runway sideways at 40mph, snow billowing behind and steering wheel hard over to hold the slide.
Granted, it isn't the most scientific of winter tests, but a brief taste has shown me exactly how capable the Cross Country is. I always thought of the Range Rover Sport as the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle, but I might just have to revise that.
20 years of rugged, lifestyle Cross Country concept
Since the introduction of the first Cross Country 20 years ago, Volvo Cars has become synonymous with the rugged all-road, all-weather product category, with a growing stable of Cross Country models.
Volvo's Cross Country models fulfil an increasingly important part of the Swedish brand's product portfolio as luxury car buyers seek out a more experienced-based lifestyle that occasionally takes them off the beaten track.
With some of the harshest winters on the planet and more than 77% of the country covered in forest and lakes, Sweden is the natural place to develop and test extreme durability and all-weather-capable cars.
Based on the V90 estate, the Cross Country gets all-wheel drive as standard with two 2.0-litre turbo diesel engines – 190hp D4 and 235hp D5 – both mated to eight-speed automatic gearboxes.
The D4 is priced £39,785 on the road with the D5 £43,585.