Volvo’s V90 Cross Country Tames the Karoo
Normally, Scandinavians visiting the African continent for a couturier safari stand out from the crowd like a red bakkie in the middle of the Bushveld. So, you can imagine my concern when I found out that I was expected to introduce a pristine Swedish model to the desolate, arid plains of the Small Karoo.
Luckily, my concern turned out to be unwarranted. Long and sleek, with fashionable, understated lines and sensible boots (well, sort of), my Swedish model came dressed for the occasion – even her Maple Brown coat blended in splendidly.
By way of introduction, I quietly consulted the brief I received during her handover. Adorned with the Cross Country moniker, this Volvo vagn shares its platform (Scalable Product Architecture, or SPA, in Volvo-speak) with the company’s latest XC90 SUV and S90 sedan. It also completes the entirely new 90- cluster of Volvo in South Africa. Essentially, this means that Volvo Car SA decided not to make the normal V90 wagon available here, but rather opted for the crossover version, as it is the only contender (for now) in the local premium crossover segment; probably a wise decision, as South Africans (for some reason) detests station wagons. Yet, oddly enough, they do appreciate four-wheel drive derivatives – judging by the number of older Audi All-Roads and XC70s still on our roads.
20 year legacy
The Cross Country heritage already spans 20 years, instigated by the introduction of the Volvo V70 XC in 1997. This crossover version of the V70 wagon featured standard all-wheel drive and an increased ride height.
Interestingly, our proposed destination, the exclusive Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, concentrated in the southern and western areas of the Warmwaterberg, and situated about 50 km from Montagu in the Western Cape, was established a year after the release of the XC.
At the time, the 27,000-hectare nature reserve was named the Cape Wildlife Reserve. The vision was to operate a resort complex within the reserve, and a total of 39 lodges along the banks of the Kalkoenshoek River were proposed, in order to make this happen. Permission for development was granted in January 2000.
Early that same year, the second-generation V70 XC was introduced. Also available locally from 2001, it featured better ground clearance (210 mm) thanks to a raised suspension, and AWD was standard.
The Cape Wildlife Reserve was acquired by a private company in 2002, and was further extended. In total, 19 farms were bought, and the reserve size increased to over 54,000 hectares, forming the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. The focus at Sanbona also shifted from private lodge development to the creation of exclusive five-star lodging for nature-based tourism.
Meanwhile, in 2003, the Volvo XC model was renamed to XC70 – in keeping with the designation of the newly introduced first-generation Volvo XC90.
A scenic route
The 250 km route from a dry Mother City to Sanbona took us along the N1 towards Worcester, from there on to the scenic R60 towards Robertson, Ashton, and Montagu, before joining the well-known R62.
Having done an extensive trip on a 90-year old road with the flagship S90 (as reported in the March 2017 edition of our sister publication **Driven**), I was already accustomed to the minimalistic, but svelte layout of the dashboard and interior, with the Sensus Connect touch screen interface taking pride of place in the centre of the dashboard.
The infotainment system, with Bluetooth, USB, aux, and radio functionality, as well as Internet connectivity, is easy to navigate. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto1 are optionally available.
With our luggage stowed in the cavernous 913-litre boot, I could set the satellite navigation via voice control – adept in understanding the multitude of South African accents; including my own …
Soon we were on the road and, while crisp and clear sounds from the bespoke 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins system floated through the car, I could play with the different drive modes, selectable via the diamond-cut Drive Mode selector on the centre console.
I settled for Comfort (the other modes are Eco, Dynamic, Off-Road, and Individual) and tried out the Pilot Assist function on the highway towards Du Toitskloof Pass. This function, an extension of the Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) of Volvo, allows the car to control steering input at speeds of up to 130 km/h, provided there are clear lane markings on both sides of the car. With this function engaged, I continued travelling down the N1 with only a finger on the steering wheel …
Our D5 AWD Inscription Geartronic model was loaded with optional extras to the value of nearly R250,000, plus an Adventure Pack, which includes a panoramic sunroof, power tailgate, Head-Up Display (HUD), an array of driver aid systems, and even a compass in the rear-view mirror. (My wife was particularly impressed by the grocery bag holder, the cargo bay liner, and the massaging front seats.)
Besides i-ART (intelligent Accuracy Refinement Technology), our mid-range D5 also had a PowerPulse system, which uses a tank of compressed air to spool up the 2-litre 4-cylinder Drive-E diesel mill’s twin turbochargers at low revs to combat turbo lag.
Offering 173 kW at 4,000 r/min and 480 Nm of twisting force between 1,750 and 2,250 r/min, I had to concentrate not to exceed the speed limit through Worcester.
A smooth tar surface combined with the elegant Active Chassis and air suspension system of the Volvo provided for a comfortable and cosseting ride on the R60 past Rooiberg towards Robertson.
With the temperature soaring, the 4-zone automatic climate control, set via Sensus Connect, brought welcome relief when we had to stop for ten minutes at a check point in Kogmanskloof Pass due to on-going roadworks.
After negotiating more detours in the picturesque town of Montagu, the smooth sweeps on the R62 provided the perfect opportunity to sample the Cross Country’s handling traits.
For a big car, it did not disappoint. Its efficient BorgWarner all-wheel drive system seamlessly distributed engine power between the front and rear wheels, and the 8-speed Geartronic auto was quick and smooth shifting. The power steering was predictable and fairly accurate, and the ride exemplary, except over small ruts when it felt like the front suspension was caught by surprise.
Close to Barrydale, we left the R62 and soon the tarred road changed to gravel. Even with its wide 19-inch tyres, the Cross Country handled the smooth dirt with aplomb. We quickly reached the main gate of Sanbona, a Big Five reserve, and then meandered our way through the Succulent Karoo fynbos and shrubs towards our final destination – Dwyka Tented Lodge.
Peace and tranquillity
Established in 2009, and now part of the Caleo Foundation, a non-profit conservation organisation, Dwyka Tented Lodge is set in a magnificent horseshoe bend of a dry riverbed. It provides a breathtaking view of the cliffs that surrounds it and, being remote and secluded, it exudes authentic Karoo tranquillity.
We were warmly welcomed by the efficient staff, and shown to our “rooms” – literally five-star tents equipped with every conceivable amenity. Nothing we requested was too much for out hosts, and they even arranged a special ranger escort for us while we photographed our graceful Swede on the reserve.
Following our escort in his Hilux 4×4 also proved to be no problem for the Cross Country. Raised by 60 mm, with 210 mm of overall ground clearance, the Volvo proved impressive off-road.
A new tyre, 42 mm in diameter with a softer compound, and more rounded profile, also helped, thanks to its ability to absorb undulations, and many vital chassis parts have been recrafted and refined.
The wagon’s electronic chassis systems – all-wheel drive, hill descent control, continuously controlled damping (CCD), electric power steering, and electronic stability control – were also reprogrammed to handle the unpredictable nature of off-road driving.
These settings, as well as its Off-Road driving mode function, helped it to overcome even a steep ascent with some serious axle-twisting ruts.
And, with its aggressive grille – each of the 23 concave vertical ribs accentuated by five metal studs – brown coat, sleek body, and feline flanks, it actually looked predatory among the shrubs and rocks.
After a game drive, delicious dinner in the communal lounge, and a spa bath, I followed Orion until it disappeared behind the cliffs. The following morning we were up early – rejuvenated by the fresh Karoo air – and, after a hearty breakfast, it was time to head home.
Available with diesel or petrol drivetrains and all-wheel drive as standard on all models, the new V90 Cross Country is available in eight derivatives, with prices ranging from R770,900 (T5 Geartronic AWD Momentum) to R921,300 (T6 Geartronic AWD Inscription).
For road trips, a host of smart V90 Cross Country accessories are available, including bike racks, scuff plates, boot mats, mud flaps, dog crates and harnesses, tow bars, roof boxes, and even a roof box lift.
It was a good introduction to the Karoo for the Swede, and while too long and bulky for serious off-roading, it has proven itself as a true all-rounder, perfectly at home in the city or on unpaved mountain passes.
The premium V90 Cross Country is quite a special vagn. No wonder Volvo calls it The Get Away Car…