A long time ago, when it was cool to wear a sheepskin jacket and smoke a pipe, a man at Volvo had a novel idea. He wanted to build a vehicle that wasn’t shaped like a brick.
Back then, all Volvos still looked like they had been carved from a slab of concrete. They were usually driven by men in cardigans, who owned a Labrador and thought newsreader Angela Rippon was “racy”.
The wedge-shaped design of his 480 model was radical. It had pop-up headlights and a sleek design never seen before in Sweden. Not surprisingly, it took six years for the 480 to actually get built – even longer for Volvo to lose its frumpy image.
Nowadays, it’s positively hip to drive a Volvo. Celebrity owners include Sven-Göran Eriksson, Buzz Aldrin and David Letterman. Late grunge legend Kurt Cobain owned a Volvo 240 and even ranting Jeremy Clarkson has bought a string of XC90s.
One of Europe’s most desirable brands
Almost 30 years since the 480 was first revealed to a goggle-eyed public, Volvo has morphed into one of Europe’s most desirable brands. It’s a posh family car that also retains the company’s core value of being super-safe.
Smack in the middle of the range is the XC60 sports utility vehicle, equipped with four-wheel drive. It’s sleeker and more refined than a conventional off-roader, with much less bulk and sexy lines.
The XC60 competes head-on with small SUV’s such as the Land Rover Freelander and VW Tiguan. All three look equally at home parked outside Waitrose or roughing it at a pheasant shoot.
I found the Volvo ride refined and comfortable, rather than sporty. The XC60 is definitely most at home on Tarmac, though it can cope admirably with a muddy field when required.
Some car seats feel like your favourite armchair and I relished my time inside the XC60. The dashboard is especially worthy of mention. It’s fairly minimalist and doesn’t bamboozle drivers with a raft of confusing and unnecessary buttons and dials.
The Volvo is packed with neat touches, like a raised back seat to allow better vision, an integrated child booster seat and little picnic tables that pop up when required. Neat.
Safest car on the planet?
I recently attended a conference in Sweden where Volvo safety experts made a remarkable claim. They believe that within the next eight years, Volvo cars like the XC60 won’t be responsible for any passenger deaths because of the technology fitted inside.
To that end, my XC60 was equipped with all manner of safety gear. There seemed to be a buzzer or a bong for just about every possible scenario.
These include a rash of lights at the bottom of the windscreen to warn of an impending collision, alerts for other cars hidden in your mirror’s blind spot, and a sharp ‘ping’ if you drift out of your carriageway on the motorway.
Bizarrely, it can be quite nerve-wracking having so much ‘safety’ going on. I was almost too terrified to sneeze unless the steering wheel deployed a tissue instead of an airbag.
That apart, the latest D5 diesel engine can return well over 60mpg and has a decent 0-60mph sprint of 8.4 seconds. Prices start at just over £31,000, while my 2.4-litre SE Lux was mid-range at £35,490 (tissues not included).
A cheaper alternative: Citroën C5 Tourer
A cavernous estate car doesn’t have to be box-shaped, as Volvo eventually worked out. But if paying more than £30,000 makes your eyes water, Citroën has the answer.
The C5 Tourer looks fantastic. And with prices starting at under £23,000, it’s also a well-kept secret. A Ford Mondeo estate may be a better all-rounder but there’s more than a hint of je ne sais quoi about this Citroën.
There are seven petrol and diesel versions but UK buyers will almost certainly opt for the latter. The 2.0-litre HDi can cruise all day at 54mpg and has a fuel tank range of 864 miles. My 2.2 HDi test car managed 46mpg.
All C5s come equipped with a smooth, six-speed automatic gearbox as standard. While the quirky, hydropneumatic suspension serves up a magic carpet ride on motorways, it means the C5 can wallow a bit on corners.
I found the C5 dashboard took a little more time to get used to. Especially the steering wheel, with an outer rim that turns while the centre itself stays fixed. Typical Citroën quirkiness!
But there’s tons of room in the back for a load of bric-a-brac. You can fit three full-size adults on the back seats and still have space for all the luggage and more in the rear.
Owning a large French car can have its pitfalls – especially the re-sale value – but the C5 has an air of understated elegance sadly missing from many of its rivals.