How Volvo made the station wagon sexy

They've long been safe as houses, but the latest breed of Volvo wagons doesn't look like a block of flats.

Witness the second generation XC60, the latest interpretation of Volvo's most popular model – and an SUV primed to take the fight to the modern luxury heartland.

An evolution of the original, the latest XC60 packs more design details into a lighter, more spacious body.

It competes in the sweet spot of the modern luxury market against heavy hitters such as the Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, BMW X3 and Lexus NX.

Scroll through the gallery at the top to see the latest game-changing station wagons. 

Numbers game

Along with most luxury rivals, Volvo uses an alpha-numeric naming system.

Letters denote the body shape (S for sedans, XC for SUVs and V for hatches and wagons) and a larger number means a bigger car.

The XC90, S90 and V90 introduced an all-new architecture that has now made its way down to the mid-sized 60-series cars, the XC60 the first to utilise it.

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Its significance is how it has transformed the driving experience of Volvos, once known for safety well ahead of excitement.

The finer points of driving dynamics – particularly steering feel – are still underdone, with an overly light and remote feel.

Blame that in part on the excellent competition.

But the core driving manners of the XC60 are sound, something that allows for the occasional spirited backroad punt.

And it's quiet and comfy.

Four thought

Every Volvo sold these days has a four-cylinder engine (and a three-cylinder is coming).

The diesel and petrol engines cover everything from the baby V40 through to the S90 limousine.

And they're available in a range of outputs; a T denotes it's petrol powered and a D diesel, with larger numbers signifying more power.

Not that the engine is left on its own in all applications.

Buy a T8 model, for example, and the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged and supercharged engine is teamed with a 65kW electric motor, enough to propel the SUV to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds.

So, it's quick. Plus, if you want you can recharge it from a household powerpoint and drive up to 45km purely on electricity (albeit with significantly reduced performance).

Even the base D4 diesel is a sweet engine, with decent performance (the 100km/h sprint takes 8.4 seconds) and a smooth, flexible nature.

And the D5 adds some innovation in the form of PowerPulse, which uses an air compressor to inject air into one of the two turbochargers to reduce lag, thereby improving response when you press the accelerator.

Safe as…

Despite the focus on style and luxury Volvo still rates safety among its brand pillars.

While the core of the car is designed to protect in an impact, the emphasis is swinging to avoiding a crash in the first place.

Auto braking (part of the City Safety system) looks out for other vehicles and pedestrians, as well as large animals (think cows and horses); Volvo has also sent engineers to Australia to evaluate the movement of kangaroos, with the view to expanding the system to those in future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the erratic nature of kangaroos on the road is causing challenges for engineers.

Most cars place the forward-facing radar that is part of the auto braking system in the grille, where it gets a good view of the road ahead but can be easily damaged.

But Volvo now locates it in the windscreen, where it's less susceptible to damage.

Wagons ho

It's not all SUVs over at Volvo, a brand that once sold more luxury wagons than any competitor.

These days the V90 is left to do the heavy lifting at the luxury end of the wagon scale.

Adopting the Cross Country moniker, it's more crossover wagon than pure luxury machine, riding slightly higher and using all-wheel drive to tackle snow or gravel.

Think of it as a limousine antidote to the larger XC90 SUV.

The Cross Country is not alone in that crossover space – Audi has its Allroad and Mercedes-Benz the All Terrain - but Volvo is something of a stalwart in utilising a traditional wagon but tweaking the design to give it a new personality.

At $99,900 it's an acquired taste in a broad field of SUVs – many of which have an extra row of seats – but the generous space and competent driving manners highlight the luxury over functionality.

Clever and comfortable

Modern Volvos don't bother with the boxy lines that once defined the brand, instead adopting a more fluid design characterised by shapely LED tail lights that hug the elegant curves.

But it's the interior that best screams Swedish style.

Some luxury cars look busy and cluttered, but the interiors of the XC60 and V90 are a perfect example of form meeting function.

There are large dials when they're needed (the volume control, for example) and a steering wheel that controls the digital dashboard and other major functions, while controls for lesser used features are incorporated into the central touchscreen (which even has a digital owner's manual).

And the selection of woods, metals and leathers look and feel authentic, adding to the ambience.

There's also hints of cleverness.

Some models, for example, have pop-up booster seats in the rear, something that creates a toddler seat at the pull of a lever.

Not that all is perfect. Some things seem to be different for the sake of being different.

The twisting stop-start button, for example, or the 9.0-inch touchscreen that is mounted vertically rather than horizontally, reducing the size of the reversing camera display.

Sound off

Volvo was one of the pioneers of highly quality audio systems in luxury cars.

In the 1990s, for example, German brands typically went for basic sound systems, but Volvos had a bit more boost and aural excitement.

These days the competition has caught up, although Volvo is still punching hard.

Whether it's the standard Harman Kardon system or the premium Bowers & Wilkins, the latter laced with Kevlar speakers and beautifully finished metal grilles.

Out back

There's a little bit of bush thinking in the latest Volvo wagons.

But it's their elegant interiors and sweet four-cylinder engines that define the XC60 and V90 Cross Country.

Sure, each has its foibles, but together they demonstrate how far the brand has come.

Scroll through the gallery at the top to see the latest game-changing station wagons.