There are two reasons that Volvo has earned a reputation for making some of the world’s safest cars.
One, they’re available with so many electronic safety widgets that they feel more like piloting a space capsule than driving a car.
And two, they’re so heavy, solid and vault-like that you have to wonder whether they’re designed by master stonemasons.
That built-from-granite feeling has an obvious downside, though. Big Volvos have traditionally required huge, thirsty engines — often V8s — to pull all that weight around town.
Safe? Yes. Fuel efficient? Not in the past.
Fortunately that’s starting to change as evidenced by the 2015 Volvo XC60 family hauler I’ve been driving this week, which is fitted with a tiny but monstrously powerful four-cylinder engine.
With only 2.0-liters of displacement, it’s roughly the same size as the engine in my pint-sized Mazda Miata — not exactly what you would expect in a roomy, luxurious crossover vehicle.
What Volvo has done with this itty-bitty engine, though, is remarkable. It uses a turbocharger, supercharger and direct fuel injection to generate a mind-blowing 302 horsepower while still getting a 30-mpg highway rating.
The result is a crossover that feels as bulletproof as a tank but still drives with gusto thanks to that new engine and its equally impressive eight-speed automatic transmission. It makes this tall, spacious, SUV-like vehicle drive with a surprisingly zippy, nimble response, all while getting better gas mileage.
Other than the way-cool new engine, there are two things I like on the 2015 XC60: how comfortable it is and how advanced its electronics are.
Being wrapped in a safe cocoon of what feels like military-grade steel has the added benefit of keeping road and wind noise conspicuously silent at highway speeds. I think it’s even quieter than the Lexus RX 350 I drove a few weeks ago.
Roomy front and back seats, a gigantic cargo area in back and an overall sense of Scandinavian coolness all add to the luxury factor.
And, of course, no test drive in a new Volvo can be complete without that jaw-dropping moment when you realize exactly what the electronics in this car are capable of doing.
For me, that moment came when I saw that my XC60 test car was accurately reading the street signs in front of me and displaying their information on the digital screen behind the steering wheel. A video camera reads the signs as you drive by, then plugs that information into the digital gauges, complete with a mark on the speedometer showing you where the speed limit is at any given moment.
That brings us to the end of an automotive era. No longer can you say, “Sorry, officer, but I didn’t realize the speed limit dropped.”
Considering this car can also see pedestrians and cyclists, automatically brake before you get in an accident, sense oncoming cars when you’re backing up and help you safely merge into freeway traffic, it makes me wonder when the next automotive era will end.
Yes, these new Volvos make it clear that someday — perhaps someday very soon — cars won’t need us silly drivers at all.