A love letter to driving Volvos through snowy Canadian winters

A love letter to driving Volvos through snowy Canadian winters
I test-drive cars for a living in Sudbury, Ontario, and have for 15 years now. Every week, this requires an eight-hour round-trip drive to the GTA and back. In the winter months, this often involves plenty of time spent in the Snow Belt — a sometimes-angry stretch of Highway 69 that can be really, really nasty.

I’ve put a lot of miles on a lot of different cars in a lot of really crappy winter weather. In the process, I’ve learned three big things.

First? Keeping your eyes up the road and leaving a ridiculous-looking amount of space between you and the next vehicle in traffic can literally save your life.

Second? Virtually any modern AWD-equipped vehicle will back capable drivers up very nicely for use in inclement winter weather. Some cars have better lights and safety systems than others, but today’s AWD tech, combined with the latest electronic controls, works wonders when you enable those enhanced capabilities by installing good winter tires. I prefer X-Ice or Blizzaks. (Translation: Put good winter tires on a new car with AWD, and you’re going to do great.)

Third? Various things have led me to hold in my heart various Volvos as my personal favorite winter driving machines.

It started so long ago that my bright-red XC90 T8 R-Design tester actually had a V8 engine under its hood. It wasn’t the gutsiest, but the little Yamaha -built unit sure was a sweetheart.

Its mellow burble was my constant companion when one of the worst blizzards in my memory banks appeared between me and my destination. On that drive, and at that point in time, I got the strongest taste I’d had yet of smugly and comfortably conquering the elements with engineering and technology.

The lights offered laser-sharp aim and lightning-white light. The wipers worked flawlessly. The thing felt heavy and confident and in control. More wheelspin was available with an added millimetre or two of throttle, if a snowbank threatened to suck us up.

New tech means the AWD in today’s cars is smarter than it’s ever been

So I confidently pressed through this storm as I often do — but thanks to some combination of its feel and lighting and steering and winter tires, this was the first time I felt really comfortable in this setting, as all winter driving hell broke out outside.

Next was the S60, somewhere around the beginning of the last decade. Several of these came and went in various configurations, all AWD-equipped. Common to each? An AWD system that always seemed to know just what you wanted it to do, plus great lighting, great wipers and some of the best seats in the business to help take it all in.

My fondest winter motoring memory from the S60 involved calling my camera man after a city-stopping snowfall the night before. “We need to go film this, right now,” I told him. “I’ll pick you up.” I was positive we’d need a tow truck at some point.

Instead, we got heaps of great footage of the S60 plowing through nose-deep powder, chucking snow into the air, and allowing us as much wheelspin as we needed to keep the momentum going, even if it bordered on excessive. This was the deepest snow I’d probably ever driven anything through. Put simply, this thing was a beast in the snow and turned what might have otherwise been a bad idea into a whole lot of fun.

Then there was the 2017 V60 Polestar, complete with 367 horsepower, super-sporty dampers and a list of hardware that reads like a boy-racer’s Christmas wish list. This was a station wagon you could take lapping on weekends. In the snow with proper footwear, it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on four wheels.

Oof — point-and-shoot AWD that picks up on your vibe . Traction control that you don’t need to switch off, because it knows what to do. Same great lighting. Tons of power. And again, even after staying up late on a weeknight to enjoy a foot of fresh snow before the plows hit the city streets, it felt confident, sporty and entertaining.

The 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar Justin Pritchard

My biggest memory here? The way the racetrack-inspired performance translated into the winter drive. It’s not a super-duper drift monster, but it is ultra-keen to go exactly where you point it. I’ll skip the intricacies and put it thus: everything felt laser-honed to give me a single and overwhelming sensation when driving in deep snow, that of the car absolutely chomping into the road with an eagerness that left a lasting grin.

This thing turned what might have been a bad idea into a whole lot of fun

In more recent test-drives, I found plenty of the above, as well as a few additional touches that stand out.

For instance, the wiper system. Using a timer-triggered sprinkler bar that efficiently applies fluid directly to the glass, you get a better wipe using less fluid. Better visibility, less time refilling the juice in the Costco parking lot mid-blizzard.

Or, the extreme-cold drive. At 30 Celsius below, many vehicles make noises they don’t usually make. Usually, it’s little clicks and buzzes and rattles from body panels and suspension parts prompted by frigid temperatures. The suspension can react differently when it’s extremely cold, too. Some feel stiffer, others make unusual noises. It’s a fact of life when it gets really cold out.

I’ve noted time and again that the latest Volvos tend to keep this all to a minimum. Other than an extra second or so of cranking at engine startup, setting off straight away on the coldest morning of the year is done with the same refinement, noise levels and overall feel as on a warmer day.

And there you have it, a list of memories and observations that have firmly cemented the modern Volvo as a personal favorite means of conveyance when the weather takes a turn for the worst. These are machines engineered in a country where people go skiing on their lunch breaks, and it shows.

Volvo not in the budget?

You may also be interested to know you’ve got some new options in an affordable AWD car in the past year or two, including the Toyota Prius, Nissan Altima, various Volkswagens and the latest Mazda 3. These join other staples like the Impreza, Legacy, Fusion and LaCrosse as some of the more affordable AWD options on the scene today.
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