The new V90 marks the return of the Volvo station wagon
The Swedish car maker is shifting upmarket, and the V90 is a far more complex and expensive beast than its forebears
It is said that the woods and frozen lakes around Halifax are littered with Volvo boxes. Hundreds of hunting and fishing huts, tucked here and there throughout the landscape, are made from Scandinavian timber reclaimed by thrifty Maritimers. They're the remains of the shipping crates once sent to the Clayton Park Volvo assembly plant, which operated successfully here right up until 1998. We Canadians love our Swedish boxes.
Four time zones away, in Burnaby, B.C., three Volvos wedge themselves into the loading bay at the local IKEA, another Swedish success story that just keeps growing. IKEA's founder, Ingvar Kamprad, died earlier this year at the age of 91, but he assembled a lasting empire. No word whether he needed to use an Allen key to do so.
In Canada during the 1980s, the company's tagline was once "IKEA: Swedish for common sense." So it is with these three Volvo station wagons, two Canadian-made, the newer one from Torslanda, Sweden. Each pops open its tailgate to reveal prodigious cargo space, enough to swallow a Liatorp bookcase or an Anvandbar table. Ever a pragmatic choice, the Volvo station wagon has been part of the Canadian driving landscape for years and this new V90 celebrates and advances that legacy, combining practicality with style.
First, we have Gregg Morris's 1967 122 wagon in all its gleaming perfection. Morris is a founder of the Volvo Club of BC, which has a large and active membership, and he owns too many Volvos to list.
"A 544, an 1800ES, a 142, a 123GT," he begins ticking them off. "I probably forgot a couple. Of all of them, I find myself using this one the most, for its utility."
In retrospect, the Volvos of the 1960s are quite beautiful things, particularly the P1800 and 1800ES. Built to handle conditions on Scandinavian roads, they fired right up in the cold and were nimble enough to dodge the occasional errant moose. The wagon variants became popular with Canadians who, like Morris, needed to haul stuff around.
Next to the 122 is Greg Kennelly's 1982 245, which is perhaps less shiny, but still well-preserved and faithful. If Morris is the dedicated classic Volvo enthusiast, then Kennelly's story is perhaps more familiar to most of us. He and his wife bought their first 245 wagon (this one is a replacement) in 1985, to ferry their son and his schoolmates around.
Any child of the 1970s and 80s can look at the squared-off lines of a 200-series Volvo and immediately be filled with nostalgia. After decades of a somewhat laissez-faire approach to safety, with kids sleeping on the back parcel shelves and so forth, parents everywhere suddenly decided that their kids needed some proper protection.
Volvo built the 200 series for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1974. The cars were a bit like the Swedes themselves: stoic, stolid and practical. Their durable four-cylinder engines might as well have been made of granite and the deceptively simple square bodywork maximized the available space.
As such, Volvos became the default school bus for many families. Kennelly's original 245 even had the fold-out, rear-facing child seats in the trunk.
Gearheads love to natter on about cars having "soul," usually referring to some fizzy-to-drive Italian exotic or quirky French runabout. For "soul," please read, "impending mechanical catastrophe."
On one hand, seeing the touch (and frailty) of human hands in your machine is one way that a car can express a bit of character. On the other hand, a car doesn't have to be born with a soul, it can grow one.
It can be part of your childhood, picking up memories as it goes, becoming a nostalgic link to the past. Volvo station wagons aren't nearly as sensual as something like an Alfa Romeo, but if you grew up around or in them, you might, as I do, have a certain inexplicable fondness for them.
Which brings us to the 2018 V90 CC that's currently ferrying around a pair of kid's car seats this week. The CC designation is for cross-country, essentially Volvo's raised-height version of the Subaru Outback formula, but it's otherwise much the same recipe as the standard V90 and our two Canadian-made vintage wagons.
These days, even Volvo sells more crossovers than any other type of vehicle, but its wagon variants seem to be making a comeback. Some credit must be given to the German marques, who continue to play the niche-market game. Mercedes, for instance, sells both a C-Class and E-Class station wagon.
To compete with the luxury brands, Volvo has shifted upmarket and the V90 is a far more complex and expensive beast than its forebears. Its twin-charged, four-cylinder engine can't possibly be as long-lived as the unstressed Swedish tractors of the past, and its glitzy touch-screen system is a thing of the moment.
However, the V90 is still charming to drive and seems to attract an unusually large amount of admirers. Over the course of a week, I was approached by everyone from an older gent with a manual-transmission BMW 5 Series to a young mother in a Honda Odyssey. The latter says, "That's what I want. Is it fun to drive?"
It doesn't have the cut and thrust of a BMW or Mercedes-AMG (for that, you'll have to look to Volvo's Polestar editions), but yes, the V90 is fun in its way. It's certainly a good deal more interesting than your average crossover vehicle.
The V90 is no longer a box. It is no longer assembled in Halifax and the hunters and fishers of Nova Scotia will have to find other materials to build their winter huts. But if you've got a young family or a bunch of gear to haul around, then good news: The Volvo station wagon is still all about what it carries on the inside.