Friday, 22/9/2017 | 10:34 UTC+0

The wagon is back: Into thin air with the Volvo V90 Cross Country

I’ve borrowed a 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country for an entire month, and will document my experience every week. This week I drove the V90 from my home in Durango, Colorado, up over Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass to the tiny mountain hamlet of Silverton. It was a great test of both the heated seats and steering wheel, as well as the Volvo’s small, but powerful, engine.

I live in Colorado at 6,800 feet, or a bit more than 2,000 meters, above sea level. Living at this altitude means a few things: pasta and rice take a bit longer to cook because water boils around 200 degrees Fahrenheit or 93 degrees Celsius; visitors sometimes need some time to catch their breath after doing something as simple as walking up the stairs; and when you jump on the gas in most cars, there’s a lot less oomph than you’d find in that same car at sea level because there’s less oxygen in the air — and engines need oxygen to work.

According to a number of engineers I’ve spoken to, engines in most cars lose as much as 20 percent of their rated power simply by being at this high altitude. Cars without “forced induction” — engines that include superchargers or turbochargers that push extra air into the engine to create more power — lose around 3 percent of their horsepower per thousand feet in elevation. And, when I drive over a nearby mountain pass like Wolf Creek (10,852 feet) or Molas (10,910 feet), naturally aspirated engines (cars which let air into the engine naturally) lose more than 30 percent of their horsepower. And that’s something you notice when driving up a steep mountain pass.

But, by using forced induction in their engines, carmakers can “return” some of that lost power by using a super or turbocharger to force more air into the engine, increasing the amount of oxygen available to make tiny explosions and creating more horsepower. It’s something that a lot of carmakers have done to get more power out of smaller, more fuel-efficient engines. For example, Ford uses turbochargers in many of its newer engines, branding it as EcoBoost.

Volvo’s solution, luckily for us mountain-dwellers, is to equip the Volvo V90 Cross Country’s two-liter, four-cylinder engine with both a super and a turbocharger — and that means that it can actually produce most of its rated 316 horsepower even here in the Rocky Mountains. As a result, we have an engine and a car that performs similarly at 100 or 10,000 feet.

Coal Bank and Molas are steep mountain passes, with stunning views of snowy mountains and canyons, and grades as much as 8 percent. Most cars struggle to accelerate up the hill, either revving well over 4,000 RPM to get up to speed or simply going slow the entire way (though it does give one time to enjoy the scenery). The Volvo had none of these problems; pressing the accelerator to take advantage of one of the few passing lanes sent the brown Volvo surging forward and around a slow-moving RV much more quickly than I might have expected.

Accelerating from 50 to 70 mph to quickly make a pass is a much more useful real-world test than a 0 to 60 run and this car made quick work of it, even on a steep grade. It’s no Ferrari, but it’ll get around slow-moving trucks without any issues. If a car can deftly handle the San Juan Mountains, it’ll easily handle a run through the suburbs.

My wife joined me on the trip and reported that the seat heaters in the Volvo worked well, though as far as she is concerned they are never warm enough in any car. There is not, however, a terrific place to put an iPhone 7 Plus when there are drinks in the cupholders located in the center console between the two front seats.

There are a number of excellent explainers to show how superchargers and turbochargers work, but to put it in simple terms, a supercharger uses a small amount of engine power to spin rotors that pump air into the engine, while a turbocharger uses exhaust gases from the engine to spin the rotors and pump air into the engine.

Turbochargers tend to perform poorly at low RPMs and ramp up their power as the engine speed increases, while superchargers are less dependent on raw engine speed to push more air. The Volvo engine in this car gets the best of both worlds by using the supercharger at lower RPMs, before switching over to the turbocharger once the engine revs past 3,500 RPM.

In the V90, you don’t really notice either piece of equipment. There’s no loud whine from the supercharger, nor a whoosh from the turbo — they just do the job, quietly and effectively. The V90 is hardly a performance car, but Volvo says it’ll go from 0 to 60 mph in a zippy six seconds — I didn’t perform any official tests, but I think that claim is probably reasonable. The car certainly has enough oomph to accelerate to highway speeds more quickly than you’d expect from a brown wagon.

Volvo has basically bet its future on these small, two-liter engines, building a single engine block that it can sell around the world with various bits attached to it depending on how much power the car needs to produce. There are versions with no forced induction at all, turbocharged-only variants, and then the twin-charging T6 engine that I have in the V90. The company even has a prototype engine that has three turbos, with one of them powered by electricity to provide additional power even at low RPMs.

Of course, the Volvo sports a much more complicated engine than most as a result of all those moving parts — but Volvo knows a thing or two about building robust powertrains, including a 1966 P1800 that has famously gone more than 3 million miles. The company has only been selling these engines for a couple of years, but widespread issues haven’t surfaced.

When it come to testing the reliability of Volvo’s engine lineup, executive publisher at Kelley Blue Book Karl Brauer told me we’ll need another five years to know for sure. “With all that complexity, we’d easily be seeing some evidence of problems by now. But we haven’t, and that’s a good sign,” he said.

My test car is brand-new, with just 500 miles on it when I took it home, so I don’t anticipate having any engine problems in the month that I’ll be living with the car. One thing I can judge, however, is fuel economy. Improved mileage is a bonus of small engines, though the V90 doesn’t deliver quite as well as one might think. EPA estimates for the V90 are 22 / 30 / 25 mpg city / highway / combined, and my experience so far is within that range. In comparison, a BMW 328d xDrive with a similar two-liter, four-cylinder diesel engine gets EPA-estimated numbers of 30 / 40 / 34.

The “T6” version of the powertrain that I have in the V90 Cross Country is the only version Volvo plans to offer in this model in the US, though there are several other powertrain variants that Volvo offers in other models.

This week I’m planning to put the wagon’s roomy cargo area to the test by making a bunch of runs to the recycling center to get rid of moving boxes that have been sitting around my garage for six months, and perhaps even a run to Sam’s Club to stock up on paper towels and toilet paper.

If you have questions about the Volvo V90 Cross Country, please reach out in the comments or via email (jordan.golson@theverge.com) and let me know what you’d like to know. I’ve got a month with the car, so there’s plenty of time to find the car’s strengths and weaknesses — and to decide if it’s worth nearly $70,000.

And don’t forget to go back and read part one of the Volvo V90 Cross Country review if you missed it.

Photography by Jordan Golson / The Verge

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