Going Gaga in Baja 

Volvo's XC70 CrossCountry displays unexpected prowess in harsh terrain

Volvo's XC70 CrossCountry displays unexpected prowess in harsh terrain

I have never, in two decades of writing about cars, been welcomed to an automotive event by a gaggle of turkey buzzards perched atop stately cardón cacti. There was reason to swallow hard at Volvo's introduction of the 2005 XC70 CrossCountry wagon. Picked-over corpses of abandoned vehicles are strewn throughout Mexico's Baja California Sur. The buzzards aren't especially picky about the nature of the carcasses they scour.

El Malarrimo Enduro was Volvo's curious strategy for showcasing unexpected qualities of its popular sport/utility wagon. This 750-mile driving enduro through the harshest terrain imaginable—that is, through conditions malarrimo or "close to danger"—was meant to dispel notions that a suburbanite's wagon couldn't tackle obstacles much larger than a speed bump. After hundreds of miles inching over boulders at walking pace, slogging through axle-sucking mud and speeding blindly through sand-cloud whiteouts, a dozen Volvo XC70s stood as a mud-caked, salt-stained, pebble-pocked testament to the wily deception of good looks.

The enduro was the result of unintended consequences within the Volvo family of vehicles. According to Volvo's in-house adventurer-in-chief Sören Johansson, after the debut of the seven-passenger XC90 only two years ago, "we noticed that families were trading their old wagons for the new SUV; but at the same time, folks more serious about outdoor sports were flocking to the XC70 wagon like never before."

CrossCountry wears armored spats around the wheel wells and sports muscular front and rear bumper cladding. Otherwise, it appears little more than a leather-upholstered V70 station wagon in L.L. Bean drag. There's nothing conspicuous, in other words, about the sophisticated Haldex all-wheel-drive system governing the powertain. As for two buttons at the bottom of the instrument console, their labels—"FOUR-C" and "DTSC"—couldn't be more innocuous. They all lie, nevertheless, at the heart of CrossCountry's ability to defy Mother Nature herself.

Dynamic Traction and Stability Control (DTSC) is Volvo's computer-managed system for detecting unintentional misdirections of a vehicle, then redirecting engine power, wheel traction and braking action accordingly. For 2005, the XC70 CrossCountry is available not only with DTSC but also with an optional Four-C active chassis ($995). Four-C integrates with DTSC to micro-manage ride quality by constantly adjusting suspension damping in real time.

When severe cornering forces, say, induce dramatic body lean, Four-C counteracts by stiffening outboard suspension elements to restore a near-level ride. In both "Comfort" and "Sport" modes, it is making infinitely graded adjustments at all four wheels in response to ever-changing road conditions.

Or, as the case may be, in response to the absence of any road conditions whatsoever. For such is the charm of Mexico's Baja that it is difficult to decide whether roads are disguised as desert or desert as roads. This is why the world's most famous off-road torture test, the Baja 1000, has laid claim to the peninsula for the last 37 Novembers. With the dust scarcely settled upon the senderos, arroyos and vados comprising the 2004 race route, Volvo put journalists behind the wheels of its XC70s to retrace for ourselves several hundred miles of the same conditions.

When it takes almost five hours to rock-climb 45 miles from Mulegé to the heart of Baja's Sierra San Pedro mountains, a driver can be forgiven for imagining things could hardly get worse. The CrossCountry gingerly negotiated a so-called roadway paved with what can only be described as pumpkin-sized cobblestones. The DTSC system worked overtime directing precious all-wheel traction to the corner where it was needed most and away from the corner—and the precipice—where wheelslip was simply not an option.

By Los Panales, the corrugated ridges rising from 3,000 to 5,600 ft. were behind us. Ahead lay a sea of powdery sand as fine as talcum and slippery enough not only to defy steering but also to swallow a vehicle outright. With mischievous pleasure, Mother Nature has studded the track to La Ballena with boulders hiding under the sand's surface.

The XC70's Four-C system seemed to sense every sub-surface confrontation and to firm up the affected suspension elements accordingly. We weren't loafing along. San Ignacio was still more than 100 miles away and midday was already past. Not wanting to negotiate a Baja desert in the dark worked a profound incentive upon us as we sped at 50-plus miles-an-hour—near racing speeds—into disorienting cumulus clouds of sand kicked up by each vehicle ahead. Blood stopped flowing into thumbs and fingers, so tightly were our steering wheels clenched in rapt concentration.

For the 150-mile stretch from San Ignacio into tiny Punta San Francisquito aside the Sea of Cortez, what could charitably be called roads were transformed by squalling rains into streaming gutters. Mile after mile of washboard surface was now pocked with standing waters of unknown depths. Iceberg boulders hid their greater parts beneath opaque surfaces.

At insane speeds of 60, 70, 80 mph, we rattled north, with DTSC straining palpably to tuck in a slide here, control a hydroplane there. Without fear of exaggeration, I can truly say that I have never experienced so severe and so incessant a jarring in any vehicle I've ever occupied, let alone driven. Through it all, the only rattle or squeak to be heard was from a water bottle—Mexico's precious agua potable—bobbing in the cupholder.

There is something distinctly like Cinderella about XC70's performance in the Mexican wilds. This erstwhile wagon-for-a-princess that graces so many tony suburban garages in the U.S. deftly managed to exchange glass slippers for hobnailed boots in the Baja desert. It's a transformation that even Volvo hardly expected just a few years back; now there's proof positive that CrossCountry is as much an off-roader as it is a city-slicker, as much an action verb as it is a proper noun.

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