Six years ago I was in the port town of Göteborg,
Sweden, at Volvo's factory, track-testing their cars. I came to two conclusions: 1) There are a lot of good-looking people in Sweden; 2) Safety is really boring. I had a lot of time to think about the former while being subjected to the latter during Volvo's endless safety lectures. My boredom only deepened on the track. No wonder these cars were so safe: They had no heart. The most fun I had was with Volvo's truck division, where I test-drove a double-decker bus and an 18-wheeler. Now those had personality.
Since then Volvo has been bought by Ford. My grudge lessened after the introduction of its snazzy SUV, the XC90, in 2002. And when the redesigned S40 sedan and the V50 wagon came out, I had to admit they seemed like ideal ski vehicles. I decided to clear the slate and give the company another chance. Here's what I found.
Though 2005 sees Volvo's SUV unchanged, a weekend in snow-dusted Colorado with a borrowed model left me feeling fine about it. It's a good-looking rig with organic lines and an overall feeling of rightness. Designers weren't trying to terrify small-car owners who see the XC90 in their rearview mirrors. Instead, it speaks of elegance, but-finally-isn't denuded of driving fun. The AWD V-6 model has a steady surge of power when you get on the accelerator and, most important, the steering is incredibly direct, an amazing feat for a heavy truck. The corollary is that it shows little body roll, even in off-camber curves. It reminded me of BMW's X5. And Volvo's release of a V8 version with 315 horsepower should give the Beemer cause to worry.
V50 T5 AWD>$28,910
Wagons are going to be the Next Big Thing in the U.S. (no faux-wood paneling, though, thank you), and Volvo's T5 has a 2.5-liter turbo engine that generates 236 foot-pounds of torque and 218 horses. What many of us mistake for horsepower is really torque-that get-up-and-go in a hurry. In a wagon as outwardly respectable as this (you know, in that mom-and-dad way), I'm impressed. I even took a buddy's younger brother and his friends from one New Hampshire mountain to another, and after they made fun of my skis in back (snowboards only for this crowd), I gave them a show on a snow-slicked gravel road. The AWD system has a bit too much pull on the front end, but it handled well enough to shut the boys up. Ultimately, wagons offer about the same amount of room as most SUVs, but are lighter and burn less gas. The AWD V50 is a fine choice for skiers.
For whatever I like about Volvo's V50 wagon, I've got to thank the S40, from which it derives. In redesigning the uninspired outgoing model, engineers lengthened the wheel base and widened the stance, making its musculature stand out. Still, the rear is arguably its best-looking end: Odd-shaped taillights mimic the sinuous rooflines, which flow into the trunk (a feature influenced by its big brother, the S60, but affected even more smartly here). The S40 comes in several versions but, as it's rather inexpensive anyway, the 2.5-liter is the way to go. With the addition of the optional six-speed gearbox, there's even a better-than-good chance that other cars on the road will be seeing more of its back end than anything else.
As I played catch-and-go on twisting New Hampshire roads with a friend in a V50, I had to admit: Volvo has finally made safety exciting.