Volvos were once regarded as little more than boxes with wheels, big on safety but low on appeal except to safety-conscious types who wore sensible shoes and had a serious attitude to life.
They were seldom seen as vehicles to set the pulse racing, even though a Swedish taxi, as the 240 series was nicknamed, won the inaugural Wellington Street Race and an Australian Touring Car Championship; or that the Swedish outfit marketed the P1800 sports coupe (driven by Roger Moore as The Saint on TV) and its wagon derivative in the 1960s and ‘70s.But though it’s a small seller in the New Zealand market, Volvo sent us some of the most memorable cars of our road tester’s year.
The first Volvo to arrive at our Westhaven office was one of the sleepers among the executive cars on the New Zealand market, the S80 sedan.
This is a Volvo that adds zing and zest to the marque’s solid, sensible virtues.
Unlike the angular 760 and 740 Volvo executive cars of former years, this luxury sedan is lithe and elegant, its angles softened by curves.
It’s driven by a Yamaha-developed, naturally-aspirated 4.4-litre V8 engine that delivers 232kW of maximum power and 440Nm of peak torque.
The V8 drives all four wheels via an ultra-smooth six-speed automatic gearbox with a manual shift capability.
The latter is useful mainly if you’re pushing hard in winding country where you’d usually spend a fair amount of time in second or third gear in a manual.
Third is ideal here in the Volvo, though slipping down to second gives an exhilarating rush out of the tightest corners.
The S80 will accelerate to 100kmh in 6.5 seconds and has a top speed of 250kmh.
At idle or in steady running there’s a muted burble from the V8.
Open the throttle wide and as the revs rise, the soundtrack intensifies, the exhaust note shrieking and howling. It’s absolutely intoxicating, if ultimately wasteful of petrol.
Volvo says the S80 can deliver fuel economy of 11.9 litres/100km on the combined cycle, though you’d have to resist the urge to get that engine shrieking and howling.
The chassis grip is phenomenal, the permanent four-wheel drive and the 245/40 R18 tyres combining to provide unshakable roadholding.
There’s a shade of understeer in the tightest corners when you’re pushing on, but there’s also a satisfying feeling of tightening the line out of a corner as the rear wheels bite under acceleration.
On favourite, very demanding roads the Volvo was a revelation, revealing an agility and poise that belied its bulk.
Also from Volvo came the V8 version of the XC90 luxury SUV, which shares the S80’s powertrain.
The XC90’s 4.4-litre petrol V8 produces 232kW and 440Nm and drives all four wheels through a Haldex electronic AWD system and six-speed automatic gearbox.
It’s a two-tonner and will tow a 2250kg braked trailer.
There’s plenty of safety kit – both active and passive – as you’d expect in a Volvo, and the creature comforts list is long.
It has typically-Volvo styling that sets it apart from the throng, and is a fast and agile on-road performer.
But the Volvos that really stole our heart were the coupes – the elegant C70 and the new small, three-door hatchback C30.
The C70 is a coupe/convertible with a retractable hardtop and comes in a range of engines and outputs from the 2.4-litre 140-horsepower petrol to the 220hp T5, five-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and the 180hp five-cylinder diesel.
It’s an elegantly-styled, front-wheel-drive car with excellent roadholding, secure handling, comfortable seats and sophisticatedly-simple cabin styling and controls.
There’s little in-cabin buffeting with the roof lowered, and it’s a car with a high feel-good factor. It’s only real drawback is that in comparison with competitors like Volkswagen Eos, it’s too pricy.
The C30 is a real gem. We’ve driven it in T5 five-cylinder and 2.4-litre four-cylinder form and were impressed by both.
We drove the T5 extensively on gravel where it proved rock-solid and endowed with predictable handling.
Both C30s have an excellent ride and a feeling of real strength and robustness.
The 2.4 offers good performance – though not a patch on the T5’s – and has agile handling, though there was a little too much understeer for my taste.That said, it’s a car I’d have on my shortlist.
Speaking of gems, the triple diamond brand, Mitsubishi, has finally replaced its ageing Lancer with a thoroughly up-to-date, larger and much better new model.
The old Lancer was decidedly long in the tooth, and showed it. Its diamonds weren’t just flawed but were clouded and had lost their lustre years ago – it was always a mystery to me that Mitsubishi could build such a bland and dull standard car yet turn it into such high-performance masterpieces as the Evos.
The new car, tested in VR-X sports trim, is quick, refined, well-designed and stylish.
Its handling is good, though there’s a little initial stodginess on turn-in to corners, and it delivers a generally involving driving experience.
The three-diamond light middleweight has regained sparkle and is now a competitive entry in its market segment.
Land Rover’s V8 diesel version of its line-up-topping Range Rover runs a 3.6-litre turbocharged diesel V8, matched to a six-speed adaptive automatic transmission.
The engine develops 200kW of power (up from 130 in the previous six-cylinder diesel) but the real story is the torque – a massive 640Nm.
The interior of the car we drove eschewed the traditional lashings of woodgrain for a more contemporary, technical look that somehow made the cabin seem roomier.
On the road the Range Rover was smooth, well-mannered and composed with excellent ride quality and a feet-well-planted feel. The torque delivery was creamily seamless.
The standard equipment list is near-endless, though Land Rover NZ boss Wal Dumper says few Range Rovers are delivered with standard specification, despite their pricetags – $179,990 for the TD V8 diesel, and $199,990 for the supercharged petrol V8.
Also on the SUV front, in an age where most new models are of unitary construction, Korean high-stepper Kia launched a new version of its Sorento large SUV with a separate chassis and body on frame construction.
Kia says this makes the vehicle more practical as an off-roader and gives it a ruggedness not possible with unitary construction.
It also says it has improved the vehicle’s on-road behaviour.
That may be so, but where some large SUVs are now rather car-like in their on-road feel, the Sorento has a traditional off-roader-on-tarmac character. It seems rugged, value for money, is capable off-road and handles tarmac reasonably tidily.
Also from Kia came the Carens MPV. It’s a seven-seater, though if you use all seven seats you won’t get much luggage in.
It’s based on the accomplished Magentis sedan platform and offers very high levels of chassis grip and agile handling.
Two bugbears: it seems a little expensive, and the seats don’t offer the amount of support required when you’re pressing on.
The grip levels are high, and you find yourself looking for somewhere to brace yourself to keep from rolling around too much.
Also from Korea came one of the gems of 2007, Hyundai’s outstanding Accent diesel.
Again it’s a chassis with plenty of grip, it has a compliant suspension and the handling is dependable and tidy.
We used it to cover the Whangarei Rally, making the round trip from Auckland two days in a row and pushed it very hard indeed on some of Northland’s most sinuous, bumpy and demanding roads – including an ultra-tight gravel road that we went down by mistake – and it never put a foot wrong.
The real plus is fuel consumption in the mid six litres/100km range, no matter how hard the car was thrashed, which says a lot about its potential if you drive it with an eye for economy.
Another diesel that stands apart from the bunch is Peugeot’s 407 – a car with daringly different looks that you either love or loathe.
We used a 407 diesel to commute between Rotorua and Taupo during the three days of the A1 GP meeting.
If you needed an affirmation of the potential of diesel cars, then the 2.7-litre turbo V6-powered 407 HDi is it.
It has a particulate filter which makes its emissions ultra-clean, and it uses much less fuel than a petrol equivalent.
Our overall consumption averaged 7.7 litres/100km in a mix of city and highway running – only a shade more than the Peugeot 307 XSi HDi we ran over the Christmas break.
Rolling along the highway at a steady 98/100kmh, the 407 diesel’s fuel use was in the six litres/100km range.
Performance is strong, the chassis well-sorted, and in diesel form, the Peugeot 407 is another statement of difference, and you have the added satisfaction of driving a car that is clean, green and fuel-efficient. The only real downside is the hypocritical road-user tax on diesel-engined vehicles.
The 407’s major handicap will always be the rather cramped rear cabin.
In the oddball stakes, two of the standout vehicles to come our way in 2007 were Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicles.
I hesitate to say light commercials, because the only thing light about the Sprinter Van and Sprinter cab/tray was the airy-feeling cabin.
These are big vehicles – the van interior is massive – and the passenger cabins are exceptionally roomy. Short people like me can stand up in the cabs and walk around – when the trucks are parked, of course.
The big commercials proved easy to get in and out of and exceptionally easy to drive; impressive vehicles in every way.