Cars

Can Volvo's V60 Make the Station Wagon Sexy?

It's a tough sell in an SUV nation

Blame the striving SUV, Clark Griswold’s Family Truckster, or the PT Cruiser, but somewhere along the way the station wagon lost whatever scrap of sexiness it had. In today's car market, it's an anachronism, the automotive equivalent of an Atari T-shirt or a record player.

The thing is, vinyl still sounds pretty smooth. And Volvo’s V60, a wagon in every way, is a curvy looker. The Swedes are bringing back a little of that sexy, or at least a quirky charm. The car company, now a unit of China-based Geely, never stopped making wagons since its boxy chariots became ubiquitous in the suburbs of 1980s America.

In March it doubled down, rolling out a Cross Country version of the V60 that is slightly taller and comes with all-wheel drive standard. Less than 2 percent of car buyers last year went with a station wagon, according to Edmunds.com. The Cross Country is the type of vehicle that could change that.

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The V60 Cross Country in its element, Brooklyn's blocks of brownstones.

The engine is a bit of Scandinavian sorcery. Its five cylinders (yes, five) make 250 horsepower and, on a sober highway cruise, burn a gallon of gas over 28 miles. A driver won’t be inclined to practice that much restraint. Thanks to a turbocharger, the V60 steps out with a bit of quiet urgency that’s hard to find in a bigger, bulkier SUV, unless it has a Porsche badge on the hood. Apparently, the little power plant will also tow 3,500 pounds, although we didn't get to test that.

The suspension is somewhat soft, which is great for potholes and not so great when carrying a bit too much speed into a cloverleaf offramp. The brakes also feel kind of soft—totally capable, but there's a fair amount of pedal before they really bite.

Then there is the “luxury” stuff, the leather, technology, and myriad cockpit trimmings that make the difference between the Cross Country’s $41,000 price and the $25,000 tag on a starter Subaru Outback. The Harman speakers and hushed cabin make for a sonorous ride, custom-tuned for the NPR set. The seats are just right, and the steering wheel is amazing, a rim of leather with just enough squish and two slightly flattened segments at 9 and 3 o'clock.

The V60 steering wheel is a nearly perfect piece of leatherwork.
The V60 steering wheel is a nearly perfect piece of leatherwork.

There is also a fairly full boat of safety features one would expect from Volvo, including adaptive cruise control and active braking. These are table stakes in the luxury car market these days. What this Volvo won't do is park itself and keep itself in a lane, as more current Volvos will. It also doesn't have an air bag tucked into the hood, a feature its siblings have, to protect pedestrians you hit with your car. (Don't hit pedestrians with your car.)

There are some inconveniences. You can't close the tailgate with the touch of a button. Meanwhile, the center stack has too many buttons, a dense cluster of controls that calls to mind a financial calculator. There is no obvious place to seat a smartphone, a glaring oversight in a contemporary car no matter how seamless the Bluetooth may be and how many apps sync with the in-dash screen.

The center-stack is a little retro and not in a good way.

The center stack is a little retro, and not in a good way.

There’s a reason die-hard car folks, and many Europeans, still love wagons. They offer about as much space as SUVs, but they drive better and are in some respects safer, because they have a lower center of gravity.

The V60 falls a little short on the utility part of the SUV fight. A jaunt to LaGuardia Airport maxed it out. With two adult passengers, two medium-size suitcases, a stroller, and a car seat, there was barely room for the baby. With the seats folded, the V60 has 44 cubic feet of cargo room. In comparison, BMW’s 328i Sports Wagon boasts 53 cubic feet, and a Subaru Outback can haul all the aquavit one could want, with 73 cubic feet.

Volvo traded cargo space for cool taillights and jutting hips.
Volvo traded cargo space for cool taillights and jutting hips.

Make no mistake, Volvo doesn’t sell a lot of these cars. The company's big bet these days, like most of its competitors', is in the SUV segment, with its XC90. Volvo customers keen on a wagon are better served by the XC70, which has similar performance specs and price but a lot more space.

So who buys the V60? Drivers who want a wagon that doesn’t look as shabby and massive as many sport utilities. With the Cross Country treatment, the V60 gets just a touch of the height SUV drivers are always yammering on about.

Volvo has long played at the margins of the auto market. It survives by selling cars that are a little different from the shipping crates full of machines coming out of Germany and the American South. From that perspective, the V60 is useful. At worst, it’s a marketing vehicle, a way to remind buyers of Volvo's glory days before it was subsumed by Ford in 1999. At best, the V60 represents the next hot segment. If SUVs continue to dominate the market, a whole class of drivers might soon be looking for something different—something sleeker, subtler, and just a tad retro.

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