2009 Volvo XC90 Design-R: Santa’s Got a Whole New Sled

Egg Lake, BC — It’s -36, Celsius or Fahrenheit, take your pick no conversion is necessary. That’s at 10AM. In the sun. The air has warmed since it hit -38 last night. What possessed us to test the Volvo XC90 Design-R in such temperatures? An attempt to test this luxury SUV at the limits of human endurance? In a way yes, it’s my annual pilgrimage north for a pre-Christmas family visit.

The XC90 Design-R fires to life without hesitation, but with complaint. Belts squeal. Deep in the dash a climate control fan grinds as if wrestling with something too callously brutal to be considered climate. The BLIS (whose cameras detect vehicles on the left and right of the XC90 and warn the driver by flashing an indicator mounted on the A-pillars) franticly blinks a failure. The rear parking sensors wail a constant warning. To be honest I’d expected worse.

These are temperatures that develop their own mythology. Plastic brittles and breaks. My mother tells of a friend whose steering partially shattered while driving. People and animals die in this cold. My father eulogizes a moose that froze to death while sleeping standing up. It thawed out enough to collapse a week later once the temperatures rose.

It’s not the North Pole. British Columbia is in the province wide grip of a cold snap, and this is the worst of it. Actually, that’s not true, here your vehicle needs to start and run with utter life-supporting reliability. Driving itself is straight forwards though, because the police have politely suggested that people not travel unless absolutely necessary.

The roads are near empty. Most people step outside take a stabbing inhale of cold air, and sensibly retreat indoors. Instead, we’re heading southwards, appreciating that the XC90’s buttons can be operated while wearing gloves.

Even after sitting and warming up for 15 minutes, the next 10 reveals the seat heaters are only “seat not colders”. The tires are frozen flat-spotted from having sat all night, and the XC90 is a 50kph vibro-matic massage as it thwump-thwump-thumps down the road. Soon enough, we’re powering along in utter refinement thanks to the transversely mounted 4.4L V8 and it’s buttery smooth 325lb-ft of torque and 311hp.

Cold then is one thing, but four days earlier snow, ice, wind and traffic were completely another…

It’s taken an hour to cross the Port Mann bridge northbound out of Vancouver, and on the far side a White Christmas has turned to fluffy white automotive Armageddon wafting from the sky. Tractor-trailers are strewn across the road at various angles, on what has become a sheet ice hill. Despite early long range warnings, highways crews have failed to salt, gravel, sand or prepare, and the trucking industry has demonstrated equal incompetence on a driver-by-driver level. These two parties might owe Vancouver’s commuters an apology, but then the commuters are no better.

It’s a symposium of how not to drive in winter conditions. A mob of tailgating, brake slamming, cell-phone yapping, latte-sipping, steering wheel jerking idiocy demonstration the nadir of Vancouver’s driving skills.

It is chaos.

Through it all the Volvo XC90 Design-R dances completely un-phased. The XC90 is as perfectly adapted to this environment as a diplomat from the Ice Planet Hoth dropping in for tea. It is the automotive equivalent of a politely delivered, “What’s all this winter fuss about?”

Admittedly a quick call to Volvo this morning saw the XC90 swap its low-profile Pirelli Scorpion Zero sprinters for a set of Bridgestone Blizzak Winter Hiking boots and crampons on its 20-inch rims. So shod the XC90, with All-Wheel-Drive developed by the Swedish company Haldex, feels like it could climb trees.

Should things get really slick, you can press the “W” button putting the XC90 in winter mode, which even further smoothes out the 6-speed Geartronic transmission and gentles it from starts in third gear. Volvo, then, is reclaiming “W”’s good standing from Mr. Bush one XC90 at a time.

Implacably the XC90 pushes through snow, blizzards, whiteouts and traffic’s stupidity – there’s going to be a long naughty list this season.

I’m galled to watch a school bus nearly push another car off the road as the driver changes lanes without even glancing in the mirrors. A pity the kiddy-mover ahead isn’t sporting some of the Volvo’s safety kit.

The XC90 has an arms-length long list of active and passive safety features, all nice. These include a Roll Stability Control to keep the XC90 from tipping, a rollover protection system that shields occupants should a rollover occur, a roof structure fashioned from high-strength steel, a lower front cross member engineered to inflict less damage on small vehicles if an accident occurs, and a festooning of airbags ready to cushion impact from near every vector. By comparison if the school-bus ahead continues its antics children are going to be imitating blood splattered pinballs knocking between bench seats.

Admittedly the whiteout has fowled the BLIS, the blind spot indicator system. I’ll use the mirrors and shoulder check if I must, even if no one else is bothering. Helping me cope with gale force winds and driver stupidity is Safety’s own suite of designer acronyms; Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), Dynamic Stability and Traction Control System (DSTC) and Emergency Brake Assist (EBA).

Beyond safety, design is something the XC90 Design-R has down pat. Quietly handsome, the R-Design package primarily gives you Sport-Tuned Suspension, 20″ alloy wheels, a growly and feral sounding dual exhaust system with 4 chrome tailpipes, a suite of leather upholstery that saves the XC90 from its sibling XC70’s grandma-ABBA interior and R-Design watch dial inspired instruments that would make Timex say, “Ooooh, a bit bling no?” And a decidedly immodest number of decals, logos, and badges.

Four hours later and we’ve reach Chilliwack, normally it’s an hour drive from downtown Vancouver, but weather and traffic haven’t been cooperative. The drive north to our cold destination lays ahead, but the Volvo XC90 is comfortable and offers an easy driving demeanor its chief competition lacks.

The Audi Q7 feels pathologically twitchy in comparison to the XC90, while the BMW X5 just offers up a bruising ride. Plus, this is a Christmas run so there are practicalities to consider.

There’s a maximum cargo volume of 2,403L. Which makes our fulfillment of the Christmas gifting-onus look truly paltry. If you choose to eat into that volume, then there are three rows of seating. So if you do have to fill the XC with nieces and nephews on Christmas concert duty you’re set. We haven’t been asked of course, as telling kids that Black Peter is going have them wishing for coal if they’re not quiet is out of vogue.

Regardless of conditions the XC90 makes crossing town or the province with a relaxed sophisticated confidence. Until you tromp the pedal on a pass, spin up the mighty V8 and unleash its feral growl through that raughty dual exhaust. Suddenly 4.4L seems like a huge space to fill with internal combustion, putting the XC90 on the fuel consumption naughty list. Then again the XC90 puts out about 322g/km of carbon dioxide, that’s less green-house gas emissions than eight tiny reindeer.

In honour of the season and our mission I can’t help but think of the XC90 as the big red sled. A roaring, rocket powered one at that. Suddenly, Santa’s got a whole new sled, baby.

It takes $69,195 as tested to put the Volvo XC90 Design-R under the tree. For sale, a lot of reindeer.


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