World Car of the Year takes on Etosha
The Volvo XC60 is the current World Car of the Year but the world is a rather big place. We’re sure it’s worthy of that title in Europe, where routes are paved and cattle are kept well away from roads but can it still claim the title of supreme when you take it way out of its comfort zone?
Our first encounter with the XC60 was a relatively nondescript one and we didn’t get nearly as much time behind the wheel of the first test unit as we would have liked. Still, we could tell it was a special car. You see, the Volvo XC60 is the reigning World Car of the Year, which is a huge accolade. A jury of international automotive journalists, including two from South Africa, voted the Volvo as the best of the lot.
But this whole ‘World Car of the Year’ title got us thinking. It may be an epic vehicle in European countries with silky smooth roads and petrol cleaner than drinking water, but can it rightfully claim the throne when you take it deep into Land Cruiser country?
To find out, we decided to subject the XC60 to two very different extremities.
EXTREMITY ONE: JOHANNESBURG
Okay, so to those of us who live here, Johannesburg may not seem like an extremity but that’s only because we’ve become accustomed to the chaos. Drive around Europe or America for a week and you’ll realise just how dangerous the average commute in a South African city is.
Apart from potholes and poor lighting, we have to contend with unroadworthy vehicles, drunk drivers and the kinds of idiots who seem to be under the impression that the law doesn’t apply to them. And we’re not just talking about taxis.
Luckily, the XC60 has an ace up its sleeve. The European Union decided 21 years ago to establish the Euro NCAP crash test, as it needed a standardised test to see how new cars would cope in the event of an accident.
Prospective buyers can look at a car’s safety score to see how well they and their loved ones would fare should the worst happen.
As things currently stand, the XC60 is the safest car in the world, as tested in the Euro NCAP process. For many, that’s reason enough to buy it.
It scored 98% in the protection of front passengers and, more importantly, 87% for child occupants. It’s only three percentage points ahead of its main rivals but when it comes to the most precious possessions you have, three points matter a whole lot…
The best part is you don’t have to pay extra for the most important safety systems. As standard it’s equipped with City Safety, which brakes the car automatically for pedestrians, cyclists, animals and basically everything else that might jump in front of the car when you aren’t paying attention.
Then there’s the intelligent driver information system, lane keeping aid, road sign information display and rear park assist. Heck, it even detects when the driver is tired after a long stint behind the wheel and subtly suggests that a break might be in order.
On paper, it’s an impressive vehicle. But it’s the driving experience that really sells it. It’s the kind of car you don’t mind spending time in, even if it’s in peak hour traffic. You simply sit back in the leather-clad chair that feels as if it was designed specifically for you, safe in the knowledge that this Volvo can cope with whatever hazard Jozi may dish up next.
The Sensus infotainment system is easily the best in its class and the quality of the interior materials is impeccable.
It honestly feels like a smaller, yet equally luxurious version of the XC90, which is probably the highest praise we can give it.
EXTREMITY 2: ETOSHA HEIGHTS
Driving from Joburg to Windhoek is hardly a challenge for a properly engineered vehicle. It’s more of an endurance challenge for both driver and passenger. How long can they last before back pain, boredom or frustration bring the journey to a halt?
In a car as comfortable as the XC60, Windhoek is just around the corner. Even if that corner is 1 400km away.
From Windhoek, we set off for Etosha Heights and arrived there just
in time for an epic sunset, some giant-sized steaks and a few cold Tafel beers.
Former regimental sergeant major (RSM) of the South African National Defence Force, Koos Moorcroft – and one of SA’s most legendary special forces soldiers with 40 years service – was our host. We felt pretty safe in his company.
Then we heard that familiar roar of a wild lion. It sounded close, which made us slightly uncomfortable. Suddenly the two-metre electrified fence surrounding our abode seemed comically inadequate. The Volvo might be the safest car in the world, but the press release didn’t mention anything about it being lion proof.
We got into bed early. The rough-road driving would start the next day and we were armed with a Swedish SUV on gravel unfriendly 20-inch alloys. At least we had brought an extra spare wheel, just in case.
Then again, nobody was too keen on changing a tyre in this lion-infested place.
RIDING A CUSHION OF AIR
Namibian gravel roads have a distinct loathing of low-profile tyres, and sharp rocks cut thin sidewalls to smithereens. While our Volvo’s 20-inch tyres provided excellent grip in the corners, they were as out of place in Namibia as a nun in a bikini.
Punctures are just one part of the problem. Because there’s so little air between rim and road, the ride on these low-profile numbers tends to be hard, jarrish and uncomfortable.
Our T6 was equipped with the optional air suspension. It’s R26 750 extra but we reckon it is money extremely well spent. Unlike older air suspension systems which were a bit wonky and tended to crash and wallow even long after the potholes have subsided, these new-fangled units can adapt within milliseconds.
The result is a comfortable and compliant ride and predictable handling, despite the lack of a lengthy sidewall. No matter what the surface, the XC60’s air suspension will adapt to cope.
In default Comfort mode, which gives you 213mm of ground clearance, we found this to be plenty on Namibia’s well-kept gravel roads as well as the slightly rougher sections within Etosha Heights.
The Off-road setting raises the Volvo by another 40mm, which we found useful for the technical sections we had to drive through to get to open fields and water holes. This setting also locks the drive in a 50/50 split between the front and rear axles at speeds of up to 40km/h. If you exceed that speed, the Volvo automatically returns to the default Comfort mode.
There’s also Eco mode, which drops the Volvo by 10mm (to 203mm) to reduce drag at higher speeds, while Dynamic drops the ground clearance to 193mm to reduce the centre of gravity.
That’s usually where the benefits end but the Volvo’s air suspension is useful even when the car isn’t moving.
When it’s parked, it can drop by 35mm to make it easier to get into and out of the vehicle.
And, finally, the proof that this car was thoroughly thought through before it was built; you can lower the rear suspension (50mm) via a button neatly located in the boot. Why? Ever try loading something heavy into the back of a tall SUV?
But it’s not just the suspension that changes every time you select a different driving mode. Each of the modes has its own unique set-up for the steering, brakes, engine, gearbox and all-wheel drive.
In Comfort, for example, you have access to all the engine power, though it takes a decent amount of throttle input to access it. The all-wheel drive is also on full alert, though we rarely felt it intervene even at higher speeds.
As mentioned, the XC60’s Off-road mode is available only up to 40km/h. The steering feels extra light and the throttle response is relaxed by a fair amount. In this mode, the Volvo does most of the hard work, which is probably what most customers who pay close to a bar for their luxury SUV expect. This mode also includes hill descent control.
We arrived at an axle twister. With Off-road mode selected, we slowly edged forward. First one of the front wheels lifted... then the right rear wheel departed from terra firma. Of course, this is no pukka off-roader, so wheel travel is not its forte. That’s why it has smart electronics and with the computer delegating 400Nm of torque in a most appropriate fashion, the Volvo simply kept on moving.
Meanwhile photographer Peet was doing his best acacia tree impersonation while snapping away, keen not to attract any lion. Thankfully, no lion crashed the party but a male ostrich seemed rather upset about our presence and ambled over, keen for a rumble in the jungle.
The male ostrich clearly had not heard of Koos Moorcroft before. “Voetsek you
&%%$$$!” commanded Koos in his best RSM voice. This was accompanied by a flying rock, aimed, not to hit the ostrich, but to serve as warning. And the warning was heeded, the territorial male retreating to the side of his female companion.
Although we’re not fluent in ostrich, we’re pretty sure she scolded him with a “I told you it was him! But noooo, you always know better! You and your ego... gmmpf!”
By mid-morning, the Volvo’s outside temperature was showing 37⁰C, which meant it was time to retreat to the shade for a siesta. We’re sure all the animals did the same, too.
Once again, Namibia provided an astounding sunset, made better by decent company and the knowledge that we’d be driving back the next day in the safest and one of the most comfortable vehicles currently on sale in South Africa.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL
The next morning, Koos Moorcroft had other matters to attend to. Matters that were far more important than our photographs, it must be added.
So we bade our farewells and left the tranquillity of Etosha Heights for the long slog home. With around 1 800km to cover, and our music playlists on repeat for the fourth time, we had ample time to discuss the Volvo, the World Car of the Year.
First, we noted that we had survived hundreds of kilometres of Namibia’s dirt roads without picking up a puncture, despite the 20-inch rims. The ride on even the worst gravel sections had been amazingly comfortable and compliant, courtesy of the air suspension set-up.
Overall, this Volvo had impressed us no end on this journey. It was not difficult to understand why the XC60 has received so much praise around the globe.
Negative comments? Er... ah wait, we have a few!
The petrol engine can be thirsty if you tap into the 235kW and 400Nm, but petrol engines seem to be the way forward and if you drive sensibly it’s not bad at all. After some experimention, we settled on a true 116km/h in the lower Eco mode on the open road and, measured tank to tank (not the trip computer reading), the Volvo sipped just 8.3 litres/100km.
In the combined cycle you can expect around 9.8 litres/100km. So yes, the diesel version will probably drink a bit less, but the diesel also doesn’t have 235kW and doesn’t spin to 6 000r/min.
The Volvo’s fancy head’s up display (HUD) – another optional extra – proved a moot point. In the dark, on a bad gravel road, that display is projecting in the windscreen exactly where you want to be looking for sharp rocks that want to kill city-slicker 20-inch tyres. Thankfully, the system can be easily deactivated by swiping the Sensus screen to the right, and to turn the HUD off until you want to use it again.
Finally, there’s the price. The list price is reasonable enough at R775 100, but this model, fitted with virtually every accessory in the book, would retail at R951 984, which puts it up against some pretty serious hardware. This is the most expensive scenario though and we reckon few owners will tick so many accessory boxes.
We’d probably just go for the R26 750 air suspension option. And if we’re really feeling generous and self-indulgent, we’d opt for the premium pack inscription, which will add another R70 000 to the asking price. This does include the excellent premium-quality Bowers & Wilkins sound system, keyless entry, park assist and and heated seats.
IT CAN GET SPORTY, TOO
In the sporty Dynamic mode this Volvo is very un-Volvo-ish.
Volvos are supposed to be driven in a respectful manner, by esteemed members of the community. They aren’t loutish, or meant for robot racing. Well, in Dynamic mode you’d want to go robot racing in the T6!
The four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol engine is both turbocharged and supercharged. It produces 235kW and 400Nm of torque, which you never really feel in any of the other driving modes, mostly because you’re too busy being refined, comfortable and safety conscious.
In Dynamic mode, the eight-speed automatic gearbox holds onto the gears for longer, the throttle response is much more sensitive and the steering weighs up a fair amount. It’s not as brutish as, say, a Honda Civic Type R... more like an oversized VW Golf GTI that’s so safety conscious it won’t let you drive it if you are not buckled up (really) and the top speed is limited to 200km/h.
The award-winning twincharged engine is a true modern technological marvel. The aim of this powerplant was to provide a more efficient alternative to bigger and heavier V6 and V8 powerplants, but with still enough grunt on tap. A supercharger provides more low engine speed torque, and the turbocharger provides bigger boost at higher revolutions. The result is a lag-free surge of grunt, all the way through the rev range.
AND IT CAN DRIVE ITSELF! WELL, SORT OF
Volvo’s semi-autonomous driving technology is called Pilot Assist and it’s not a fully autonomous driving tool (yet) but rather an advanced form of cruise control.
As old-school drivers, it took us a while to get comfortable with this system. After decades of being solely responsible for the task of steering a car, leaving the task of steering to a computer is not as easy as you’d think.
But during a 4 000km road trip one tends to have some spare time at hand so we did our best to embrace this new technology and get better acquainted with Pilot Assist. Now, after spending many kilometres using it, we reckon it’s worth the extra moolah, if only for the added safety net.
Pilot Assist is useless when the lines on the road aren’t clear. But engage it on a road with clearly marked lines, like a highway, and the Volvo will steer, brake and accelerate, all by itself. That is, as long as the driver’s hand or hands remain in contact with the steering wheel.
Let go completely, and the XC60 will happily steer itself, but only for a short time. Then an alarm sounds, warning the driver to put his hands back on the tiller.
If you still keep on waving your hands in the air at other motorists, the system will automatically disengage Pilot Assist and the cruise control function, slowly decelerating. The lane keep assist system will, if there are clear lines on the road, keep the Volvo from driving off the road. If there are no lines, and you still don’t pay proper attention (which is rather unlikely), you and the Volvo might end up in a ditch.
Another bonus is that, when Pilot Assist is activated, you can override the steering
inputs without the Volvo throwing a tantrum. This is good thing.
IS THIS THE BEST CAR IN THE WORLD?
The world is a big place and stuff that’s important in Europe doesn’t necessarily matter over here. Emissions figures is a prime example. In the United Kingdom it’s the hottest of topics, but over here we couldn’t care less. Do you know how many harmful exhaust gases your car emits per kilometre?
Luckily, the XC60 pushes all the right universal buttons. Everyone likes a good-looking SUV with lots of power that also happens to be frugal when it needs to be. And let’s not forget about the safety, which is particularly relevant in a country with 35 road deaths per day.
Looking at it, you might not think it’s a proper overlander and you’d be right. If you are going to traverse Namibia’s worst roads on a daily basis, the Volvo just won’t be as happy as a bakkie or a ladder-framed SUV would be. Not with those 20-inch wheels, at least.
But if you are a weekend warrior who wants a safe and capable SUV to transport your mountain bike to that secluded track, accessed via a rough dirt road, then this Volvo can do the job, and then some.
It may have been designed in Sweden and funded by China (through holding company Geely), but it’s pretty much home in Africa, too – no matter whether it’s in Joburg or Etosha Heights.
It really is worthy of that World Car of the Year title, we reckon.
This page: Smooth, modern and decidedly good looking… the Volvo XC60 strikes a pretty pose as the sun rises over the Etosha landscape.
Above: For a car riding on fancy 20-inch alloy wheels, the XC60 comfort levels are extremely high on gravel roads.
Below: For a city-slicking SUV, the XC60 is totally at home in the mostly deserted parts of Namibia.
Clockwise from above: Getting the Volvo to pose pretty like this required going off the established gravel roads. With the air suspension set to off-road mode, it proved to be no problem at all. Impressive wheel articulation for a city dweller. One of the best interior in the business. The Sensus system is easy to use, the materials of a high quality and the safety systems next level. Far right: The sun sets after a full day of driving around the reserve. Gerhard wanted to hold hands, but Oom Koos said no.