The "spouse trip" used to be a common perk in the car-hack game, but in these austere times it's a rare sight, a mountain gorilla or a patch of open road on the 405. So when Volvo announced it was inviting writers to bring along a guest for "A Midsommar Drive" of the 2013 Volvo S60's new all-wheel-drive system, writers jockeyed for the slots like parents trying to get their five-year-old into a charter school. Well, honey, we'd be able to say, you may not have gotten to go to Barcelona, Lisbon, Hawaii, France, or Maine with me, but we'll always have Park City.
My wife Regina and I love driving together. We drove the Smoky Mountains on our honeymoon, and all over the United States and Canada for my first book tour, singing "On The Road Again," imagining ourselves as some nerd-couple version of Willie Nelson And Family. All of our best vacations have been driving ones. Now this trip would join the roster.
The S60 AWD, a brand-new $38,000 car with a 2.5-liter, 250-hp five-cylinder engine and a rich-smelling brown leather interior, was waiting elegantly just outside baggage claim in Salt Lake City. Clad in a Swedish "Ice White" exterior, it was ready for us to drive it up to the five-diamond mountain lodge that would be our home for the next 72 hours.
"Classy," Regina said.
"Only the finest for you, babe," I said.
"Don't be obnoxious," she said.
The spouse trip was on.
The S60 has been around in one guise or another since 2001, but this was my first time in one, a sin of omission. Immediately the car compared favorably with other luxury couches on wheels. I'd hesitate to recommend the S60 over the BMW 3-series, but it's certainly in the same league as the Mercedes C-Class, the Audi A4, or the Lexus E350.
The interior was comfortable, spacious, and unfussy, like a Pacific Palisades doctor's waiting room. It was nice to sit in, but what was it like to drive? As soon as we got it onto a clear patch of I-80, I jacked the S60 into sport mode and started fiddling with the manual shift. The car revved healthily, and bolted forward. I was having lots of fun.
"That's too many RPMs!" Regina said.
"It's only dangerous if it goes into the red," I said.
"You don't know what you're doing," she said.
"Partially true," I said, jamming it down to first.
"Stop driving in Sport mode. You don't know how to use it."
"Sure I do."
"Stay left in 5.1 miles. Assuming you don't get us killed before then."
It was nice to have her along.
When Ford cut Volvo loose during the "troubles" of 2009, it freed the iconic Swedish brand, which no longer had to be Ford's in-house safety patrol. But it also left Volvo with a nine-month gap with nothing new. The S60, which now sells 30,000-plus units annually, was the vehicle that returned Volvo to the spotlight in 2010 -- and it's been incremental improvements since then.
Volvo's still dealing with the product lag that sprung up after getting bought by China's Geely Motors. An executive told me over breakfast one morning that there's a plug-in car somewhere in engineering, and a company spokesman murmured something about a raft of four-cylinder vehicles coming soonish.
Therefore, with the exception of a Haldex all-wheel drive system, which adds a couple thousand to the base price, the S60 we drove was essentially the same one that everyone's been testing for the last year: 250 hp and 266 ft.-lbs. of torque. Some changes in the compression ratio have increased the 0-to-60 speed from 6.8 seconds to 6.4 seconds in sport mode, not that most Volvo drivers keep track of such stats.
For 48 hours, Regina and I consumed the fruits of corporate largesse. We hiked in the hills of Deer Valley, ate gourmet lunches, went for a horseback ride, enjoyed a lavish family-style traditional outdoor Swedish summer feast while a band played lounge versions of Abba hits, and sat in the hot tub on the private deck of our 1,000-square-foot hotel suite, gazing at the toenail moon, feeling somewhat compromised and very relaxed.
Finally, we got to go for a drive. She took the wheel first. We were two minutes down the hill when she said, "how do you put it in Sport mode?"
"I knew it," I said, and I clicked it over for her. It revved. She scooted down the hill, as fast as 250 hp of Swedish engineering could muster.
"Whooo-hoooo!" she said. "I have the power!"
"OK," I said.
"This baby can take the turns!"
"I want this gig."
"I bet you do."
We drove through more changes of scenery than Gandalf saw while leading the Fellowship Of The Ring. There were steep green mountain passes and dried-out reservoirs, birch forest, rural towns, red rocks, sandy hills, and big Wyoming skies. Regina and I drove for almost five hours, more than enough time to make certain judgments about the S60.
Though the S60 showed some juice in sport mode, it wasn't really a powerful car, not by contemporary standards. That said, it had a marvellously competent suspension, and it cornered beautifully through some very tight turns. The AWD system made mountain climbs, which would have been a chore in a lesser sedan, really fun. Braking wasn't a problem either. In the course of our morning on the road, several deer darted in front of us. Our response time was good, the brake system's was better. There was never a hitch or shudder. The S60 AWD was, in just about every way, a really nice car to drive. It sure was a hell of a lot better than anything we'd ever taken on our actual road trips.
The car cruised through Wyoming, about an hour from the finish line.
"We gotta pull over," I said. "I have to pee."
"Seriously, dude?" Regina said. "You went an hour ago."
She looked at me and I sighed.
"Tell you what," I said. "After I go, you can drive the rest of the way."
Regina tossed her hair, her voice chirpy.
"OK!" she said.
A few minutes later, we got back on the highway, with Regina behind the wheel. Almost immediately, she knocked the gear shift over.
"I like the Sport mode better," she said.
We roared away in the S60, and then, like Willie, but with a distinct lack of weed in the car, we were on the road again.