Good: classy, comfortable, remarkably good under duress on poor roads
Not so good: annoying partnership between engine and gearbox
Everyone knows that Sport Utility Vehicles are rarely used for Sport or Utility these days, but in a vague nod towards the 'lifestyle' side of SUV marketing I decided I may as well bring the Volvo XC60 test car with me to Ballyhoura in Co. Limerick, where one of the country's best downhill mountain biking facilities exists. While there's nothing sanitised about the trails themselves (I have the bruises to prove it) the wet gravel car park didn't present much of a challenge for the Volvo. That's despite the fact this model sends all of its power to the front wheels.
That's not unusual these days, as car makers cottoned on long ago to the fact that most buyers care more for the SUV status, looks and lofty driving position than they do for the usefulness of four-wheel drive, especially when the deletion of the latter means a reduction in the annual tax bill and an improvement in economy. Yet, that thinking doesn't really work for the Volvo XC60. The D4 model (163hp five-cylinder turbodiesel) sits in the same tax band whether it has four-wheel drive or not so going for front-wheel drive just saves money on the purchase price (and probably a little on fuel economy in reality).
A bigger saving again can be had by sticking with a manual gearbox. The Geartronic automatic fitted to our test car adds a whopping €3,500 to the purchase price, but also moves the XC60 D4 from a reasonable Band B2 (€280 per year) to a rather costlier Band D (€570). If that was the only downside then we'd suggest buyers weigh up the potentially higher residuals of a car like this when fitted with an automatic gearbox, but we also found the gearbox to be quite frustrating.
Actually, that's a bit strong. On the open road it's good, smoothly shifting when in fully automatic mode and responding crisply to manual input when you want to take control for yourself. But in traffic and around town it's plain annoying and even at times a little jerky. It seems, in this environment, to conspire with the engine to make it all but impossible to drive smoothly at low speeds. Pulling out of a junction for instance, you either amble languorously out waiting for the turbo to spool up or one of the large front tyres chirrups as the engine's torque is delivered in one hit as you surge forward. I never did quite get to grips with this and suspect that the same car with a manual gearbox (and all-wheel drive for that matter) might be a lot more satisfying.
Nonetheless, I did warm to the XC60 overall. To get the photos you see here we took to the Wicklow Mountains and I was genuinely shocked with how well the XC60's chassis coped with one particularly 'spirited' drive (the photographer needed coffee, and fast...). Body control is really very good in these conditions, and even individual wheel bounce was kept well in check. The brakes also coped admirably, which bodes well for towing, incidentally. Through it all, the distinctive five-cylinder diesel engine note was audible, yet not intrusive.
And the XC60's cabin is a nice place to be. The leather seats are comfy and supportive in equal measure, there's plenty of space for passengers and their bits and pieces alike and the whole thing is very well put together. The only aspect of it I didn't like is the digital dashboard, but I've mentioned that before and it's quite subjective.
Actually, I did notice that the boot floor is quite high as well, which prompted me to check its capacity against the three rivals below. The XC60's capacity is quoted as 495 litres, vs. 540-, 550- and 496 litres for the Audi, BMW and Lexus respectively. Not that I actually muddied the nice beige carpet with the wheels of the mountain bike you understand. Interior cleaning isn't on the agenda of most SUV owners these days.