Absolutely incredible. These two words sum up perfectly my experience at Volvo’s Winter Test Drive, held on January 19-21, 2005 in Quebec City, Canada. The hotel, events, food, locations and the people all contributed towards making this an absolutely amazing event. Oh yes, and the cars...
Here we test drove the newly restyled 2005 XC70 and the recently released 2005 V50 AWD
The day started at 4:00 am, up and over to Vancouver International Airport for my 6:00am flight to Quebec by way of a quick Toronto stopover. Weather on the West Coast for had been awful for the previous couple weeks and our ski season was on its last legs due to warm, wet conditions. Thus, I was very much looking forward to a change, even if that meant being subjected to the brutal Eastern winter cold!
A trans-Canadian flight in winter really exemplifies the start contrast of the Canadian topography. Within minutes the green mountainous view changed to the white Coast and Rocky Mountains, from there onto the icy Prairies and the Canadian Shield of Ontario and Quebec. In all, it was a good reminder in that Vancouver is about the only place in Canada where AWD and snow tires aren’t an absolute necessary during the winter months.
We arrived at Quebec City’s Jean Lesage Airport shortly behind schedule, but lucky to have our bags intact due to a baggage handler strike that happened in Toronto just minutes after our departure… Others weren’t so lucky. Upon arrival in Quebec, there was a light snow with temperatures in the negative teens.
The Hotel: Auberge Saint Antoine
A twenty minute car ride brought us to Auberge Saint-Antoine, one of the finest hotels in the city, as documented by Conde Naste as one of the world’s best for the past three years running.
The boutique hotel is located on a historically significant site in downtown Old-Quebec. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, an original section of the hotel was a historic river-side warehouse. Not much attention was paid to this fact until 1991 when the hotel was being renovated, workers found a number of artifacts scattered about the work site.
Work stopped immediately and an archeological dig was held onsite by the Universite Laval, in cooperation with a whole range of boards and councils including the City of Quebec, the Ministere de la Culture de des Communications du Quebec and the Consiel des Monuments et Site du Quebec.
The dig discovered hundreds of small artifacts and today a number of them are displayed throughout the hotel… There was even a small shadowbox in my room featuring small pieces of antique abalone excavated from the site.
After briefly getting acquainted with the hotel, it was time for dinner at Panache, the restaurant at Auberge Saint Antoine. Here I met up with the rest of the group, composed of automotive writers from all over North America and Volvo’s top marketing team. The group also included Anne Belec, this being her first press event as Volvo Cars North America’s president… Fitting considering she was born and raised in the Province of Quebec.
I also had the opportunity to meet a number of people I’ve known for quite some time through email and phone but never had the chance to personally meet, including Jan Nystrom of the VCOA, George Achorn ofSwedespeed.com and Dan Johnson of Volvo Cars North America.
All in all, a great night, but we turned in early as tomorrow was promising to be a busy day! Good thing too, as I was sufficiently wiped from the early morning and long day of travel.
Introduction to the V50 AWD
Next was it was time to switch over to the V50 T5 AWD. Though it was a little sad to see our old friend go, it was an interesting study in contrast seeing these two very different Volvo wagons tackling very similar terrain and situations.
With a starting price of around ten thousand less than the XC70, one would expect the V50 to be a much more Spartan vehicle when compared to its bigger brother. Generally speaking this was true, but with that said Volvo really has done an exceptional job of maintaining their trademark quality in touch and feel with the V50 as well.
Interior layout is very straightforward, with the center of attention being the aluminum console. Equipped with large, easy to use controls a sleek, easy readingLCD panel, and a handy storage space tucked in behind.
Volvo equipped the V50 with a more “technologically aggressive” electronics system. What I mean by that is the vehicle’s electronics are much more user-customizable settings than what we have in the XC70.
Now we’re not talking about something quite as in-depth as BMW’s much criticized I-Drive System... Instead, Volvo allows V50 owners to edit such things as seat heating ranges, audio equalization, lighting options and other settings which previously required a trip to the dealership.
I’m told Volvo decided to do this since the for the V50’s younger demographic target market than that of the XC70, is more adept at embracing more challenging aspects of new technologies. That said though, I’d expect a similar system to show up on XC70 within the next couple years.
Carrying on with the center console, unfortunately this beauty I speak of ends just behind the shifter with a seemingly awkward array of buttons and a pair of cup-holders. It’s quite a shame really as I think a more substantial design between the seats really would have improved the overall look and feel of the interior.
Moving onto the seats, our V50 AWD’s interior was upholstered with a relatively new material Volvo calls T-Tec, which is quite a nice alternative to traditional fabrics such as cloth and leather. It feels much more substantial and durable that normal fabrics while being very comfortable at the same time.
Subtle differences in quality are evident throughout the V50, from a slightly thinner steering wheel, to more lightly weighted buttons, no leather wrapping the shifter’s base, etcetera. Again, these aren’t major issues, but notable really only when compared directly to the more comfortable XC70.
After getting acquainted with the V50 AWD, we took a number of test laps on the ice track. Immediately apparent was the DSTC (Dynamic Stability Traction Control). And by immediately apparent, I mean absolutely blown away!!! It cannot be understated how much I feel the DSTC adds to overall performance and safety on slippery surfaces. I’d estimate our track speed improved by 20-30% over our times in the XC70, and I think that improvement is almost entirely attributable to the DSTC.
I was a little concerned with all the scraping and jolting sounds coming from the front of the car while navigating the ice track, but was quickly reminded that this was the DSTC hard at work, rapidly braking and re-powering each wheel individually in an effort to keep us on track
So as you can see I have very high praises for DSTC. Problem is, you will likely have a very tough time finding a DSTC equipped Volvo at the dealer, and that’s a real tragedy. I talked to Jeff about this, and we derived that the primary reason for its unpopularity is that it’s an “invisible” feature. Though the system is comprised of some very real sensors, computers and mechanics, the sales issue is that buyer cannot see, hear or feel DSTC’s benefit without getting into a dangerous driving situation.
This will most certainly change as buyers become more educated as to the benefits and increased safety with DSTC equipped vehicles.
In doing some follow up research for this story, I recently spoke with Eric Duschene, Sales Manager at Volvo of North Vancouver. He agreed with the fact that DSTC sales can be a challenging sell at times, but also pointed out that for 2006 in Canada, it’s now available as part of the V50 AWD’s sport package. This, along with the fact that it's also available as part of the XC70's Adventure package, has helped increase exposure and overall sales of DSTC.
Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada
Once we were finished at the Lac Saint Joseph ice track, we stopped for lunch and a tour of the the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada.
Constructed entirely of ice and snow, this is the only Ice Hotel in North America and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. Definitely a must-see if you're ever in the area, and rooms start at $199CAD if you're planning on staying the night!
From the Ice Hotel, we took a nice backroad cruise over to Le Relais, a ski area just north of Quebec City. Upon arriving, organizers split the group into two camps (XC70 and V50’s) and held a slalom competition, in the ski area’s parking lot. Goal was to slalom through a set of cones, turn around and run them again as quickly as possible.
My strategy was to yank on the emergency brake handle at the end of the course in an effort to spin the car around. In theory this would have been a fine plan but I neglected to disengage the DSTC, which resulted in my risky maneuver being converted into a quick, controlled stop. I was a little disappointed with my performance, but hopes were high that everyone else would make the same mistake!
Once finished with the slalom competition, we were shuttled up to the ski area’s terrain park by snowmobile. Here, ski instructors from the CSIA (Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance) demonstrated their freeride vertical skills in the area’s halfpipe. Very cool!
Le Relais was our last stop of the day, so we hopped back onto the highway and headed back to Auberge Saint-Antoine.
Well, as an eventful a day as we managed to have, Volvo still had a few more tricks up their sleeves. Round about six o’clock we boarded a tour bus and were taken to the Musée de l'Amérique francaise. The building was originally constructed as part of the renown Séminaire de Québec site back in the 1600’s and was founded by Monseigneur de Laval. Today it stands as Canada’s oldest museum.
The scene inside was impressive to say the least... a cluster of tables with intricately carved ice sculptures in the center, holding a bottle of vodka, for each table. We were told the original plan was for the liqour to be the traditional Scandinavian akvavit, but labour problems in the Quebec’s liquor distribution sector forced them to make a late player substitution with the Swedish Vodka brand of Absolut... We weren’t ones to complain
With just that said, indeed it was a great night interspersed with live operatic performances throughout the night, an awards presentation for the slalom competition, and of course lots of socializing and good times. On that note, somehow I managed to win the slalom competition on the V50 side, and George Achorn from SwedeSpeed.com won amongst the XC70’s!
And with that we were done, just 36 hours after landing in Quebec City I was on my way back to the West Coast with newfound appreciations for Quebec, and Volvo's AWD wagons, the XC70 and V50 AWD!
But aside from such great experiences like Ile d’Orleans, the Ice Hotel, Le Relais and more, at the end of the day it was all about the cars… And as such these experiences really solidified my perspective on the XC70 and V50 AWD.
Without a doubt, the strongest point I brought home is the importance of DSTC (Dynamic Stability Traction Control). I can’t emphasize enough how much of an improvement this system makes to overall vehicle control on slippery surfaces. I will say it again, that if you are in the market for a new Volvo and live anywhere you encounter severe weather, be sure to take the time to either find a DSTC equipped model in stock or take the time to place a special order your new car with DSTC.
The second strongest is how impressed I was with the overall stability and quality of the V50. I certainly have to hand it to Volvo on this note, but to have to wonder about overall pricing. Seeing as the V50’s primary competition is not it’s XC70 stable-mate, I do have to wonder how well it stacks up to the competition.
Thank you kindly to everyone at Volvo involved with the organization and planning of this exceptional event. This sort of a press event was a first for me and I’d be putting it mildly in saying it was an amazing time… The people, the events, facilities, activities, everything was top notch!