Never Drive Your Heroes Vol. 1: 2004 Volvo V70R

On paper, it was everything today’s enthusiast professes to want: a high-performance, all-wheel drive, stick-shift station wagon, your basic Car and Driver subscriber’s wet dream. Then I bought it.

Welcome to Never Drive Your Heroes, wherein I engineer opportunities to slide behind the wheels of cars I have idolized. There are many; I am wanton and fickle. This introductory feature is a little unusual because it’s about a car I actually owned, but usually I will be living vicariously through some other poor sap who actually has to foot the repair bills, and in those cases (spoiler alert) I’ll probably be a little nicer.

The hero

The 2004 Volvo V70R AWD, the first year of production for the hot rod version of Volvo’s P2-generation (2001-07) V70 wagon; an S60 sedan version was also available. For the R, Volvo cranked up the boost on its inline five to the tune of 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque with the standard six-speed manual (or 260 with the optional automatic). A Haldex-supplied system routed power to all four corners, while electronically-adjustable Öhlins shocks provided three ride and handling flavors. Sounds good, right?

Why idolize?
Check out the sweet blue gauge faces and the funky "space ball" shifter. Not visible: the broken cupholder cover that apparently came standard.

Check out the sweet blue gauge faces and the funky “space ball” shifter. Not visible: the broken cupholder cover that apparently came standard.

You’re here, you’re into cars…so you know that a stonking, manual Q-ship wagon is what we’re all supposed to want these days, all the better if it has all-wheel drive for some reason (but ISN’T a crossover, how dare you suggest such a thing), and we’d buy gazillions of them IF ONLY anyone would deign to sell us such a thing. Well, Volvo deigned, and all of 3,400 Americans and Canadians took the bait in four years. Oops.

Still, the V70R seemed to have the goods. The specs were right; the P2 V70 was perhaps the loveliest of Peter Horbury’s strong-shouldered Volvos and the R kit added an appealing dose of menace without looking dumb; mine even had roof rails and a rear-facing third row seat just to ice its cake of station wagon-y goodness. The shift knob sprouted from the super cool “space ballyears before Tesla’s Ludicrous Mode silliness, and the seats were as good as those Volvo thrones you’ve heard so much about, only better. Sounds great, right?

So…?

I owned the damn thing for four months.

Now, this feature is called Never Drive Your Heroes, not Never Own Your Heroes, and if you get a chance to drive a V70R and that’s something you want to do, sure, go ahead. I’m fond of Volvo wagons. This was the second one I’d owned and I’ve had opportunities to drive several others both before and after my dalliance with the R. Frankly, it ranks pretty low in my personal Volvo wagon pantheon.

The P2 platform shoulders most of the blame. It started life in 1998 under the S80, where it was designed for a transversely-mounted inline six, a fairly unusual configuration. There’s a reason for this. Mounting a long engine sideways between wheels that have to, you know, turn tends to engender compromises. The V70 has the turning radius of the RMS Lusitania, a stark contrast from the first Volvo wagon I’d ever driven, a 740 that was shockingly wieldy for such a large car.

Around town and especially in tight quarters, the R’s ponderousness is exacerbated by light, lifeless steering. Also, most of the time that prodigious turbo boost is MIA; when it decides to come onboard, it does so abruptly, making power delivery challenging to modulate. Most of the time, though, the R is exactly what an enthusiast-baiting boss wagon shouldn’t be, which is boring.

Not all is bad. The seats, as I mentioned, are superb and the sparkly blue leather in mine smelled delicious, although the backrests are very thick, resulting in a tighter than acceptable rear seat for the size of the car. The Öhlins shocks give the car a creamy, composed ride that turns surprisingly aggressive and communicative in Advanced mode. And the six-speed is pleasant and easy to use, if not particularly crisp or engaging. On the right back road, with the Advanced setting dialed in, the R can come alive, but it fails to bring the sense of occasion to all driving situations that is the hallmark of a truly special car.

At least my neighbors thought I was cool...

At least my neighbors thought I was cool…

Probably the biggest problem was that I went ahead and put my money into the R…and then kept putting in more money, then some more, then some of my parents’ money, then some money I didn’t have, then some money I still don’t have, and on and on and on. In four months I doubled my purchase price, easily.

And I should have known this would happen. You probably skipped right past it, but I mentioned before that this was my second Volvo wagon. The first was a 1996 850GLT, a sweet little non-turbo front-driver that I bought when it was ten years old and had about 130,000 miles on the odometer (which promptly broke, as had been written in the ancient texts of the Swedish gnomes that designed the 850 and its infernal plastic odometer gears). I loved it dearly. In two years, the “Check Engine” light was off for maybe all of twelve days. I poured money that I didn’t have into that car. Finally, I gave up, heartbroken and confused.

Then, several years later, I bought a ten-year-old V70R with 130,000 miles on the (thankfully digital) odometer. A turbocharged, all-wheel-drive V70R, with electronically adjustable shocks and huge Brembo brakes and HID lights and sensors and widgets and gizmos that hadn’t even been dreamt up in 1996. How could anything but heartbreak and confusion ensue?

Now, lest you say that I bought a lemon, or just a particularly poorly-maintained used car – and I have no qualms about the integrity of the guy I bought it from – check out the V70/S60R forums over on Swedespeed. The short version? Not only are they all money pits that aren’t even that fun to drive, it is expected, nay, demanded that owners adopt a “pay to play” mentality for the privilege of owning these delicate beasts.

To which I say, no thanks. I still feel a sad twinge every time I see an 850 wagon, and a moment of admiration for the styling and stance whenever I spot a V70R, but I’m cured of the urge to actually own a Volvo wagon.

Of course, there are the classic rear-drivers….

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