The little town of Kall in northern Sweden bills itself as being ‘in the middle of nowhere’.
This white winter wonderland of frosted trees and frozen lakes is indeed a long way from anywhere. The trip to reach it took one flight to Stockholm, another 400 miles further north to Ostersund-Are, Scandinavia’s biggest ski resort, then a two hour car trek through a deep-freeze landscape into the wilderness bordering Lapland.
So why go to all that effort to shiver in mid-winter at -14 deg? Two reasons. It is the location of the Kall Auto Lodge, a tiny hotel that specialises in ice driving courses, and it was chosen by Volvo to stage its Volvo Winter Test, an annual event to which intrepid writers from around the world are invited to sample its cars in extreme conditions.
The cars we were there to drive were the new V40 Cross Country T5 AWD and the V60 Plug-In Hybrid. One is the rugged all-wheel-drive version of Volvo’s acclaimed latest model, and the other is the world’s first diesel-electric plug-in hybrid.
Past experience of driving on the packed ice of a frozen lake – it has to be at least a metre thick to bear the weight of a car – has taught me to respect the difficulty of near-zero-traction surfacesand trust the efficiency of studded tyres. These have special grooves that house compacted snow (snow grips better on snow than rubber does) and are equipped with hundreds of metal studs embedded in their treads to achieve grip on sheet ice.
The big lesson of this Winter Test was how remarkably efficient a modern car with advanced electronics is at mastering such treacherous conditions. With traction aids engaged, you can drive a twisty ice course with precision and control. Switch them off, and driving become a perilous pirouetting ballet.
The Cars – V40 Cross Country T5 AWD
The V40 is notable as the first car in the world with an external airbag. As a result, it has achieved the highest-ever Euro NCAP crash safety rating for its exceptional pedestrian protection. Appropriately for where we’re testing it, the car comes with ice-scraper storage in the driver’s door. This Cross Country variant is based on the V40 R Design, at the upper end of the range. It has cosmetic body treatment to give it a more rugged look, sits 40 mm higher than the standard car, has larger wheels and two-tone seats, and is the most fun to drive of any Volvo we have yet experienced. The engine in our test car was a five-cylinder two-litre petrol unit, but the version mooted to be most popular in the UK is the V40 Cross Country D2 with a 1.6 litre diesel engine.
The Volvo Winter Test Cars – V60 Plug-In Hybrid
The car awaited our arrival in deepest wintry Sweden with its umbilical cord plugged into an electrical supply. A full charge at 10 amps (the same as a standard UK charger) takes four and a half hours. That ensures that the car can cover 31 miles in urban areas on stored battery power, with the 2.4 litre turbodiesel engine ready to take over seamlessly out of town. It’s a powerful car, with 215 hp from the diesel engine and another 70 hp from the electric motor. It’s no slouch, with a 0-62 acceleration time of around eight seconds. True to Volvo’s safety ethos, this car achieved the highest Euro NCAP score ever recorded for an electric car. It will be a rare sight on the road,only 150 are destined for the UK during 2013. It pricey at £48,775, but it does qualify for the government’s £5,000 Plug-In Grant.
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