JOHANNESBURG - I hadn't attempted the 2150 metres above sea level (at its highest point) Long Tom Pass in Mpumalanga in several months and thought that the cold and wet weather that presented itself last weekend would make for an ideal grand touring test of the Volvo XC60 D4 AWD R-Design.
We packed the smart-looking mid-size premium SUV to the brim, using more than the 505 litres the boot offered by stuffing some of the kids' luggage into the rear footwells under their baby seats that were mounted next to each other.
It was a long road ahead to our destination, the Kruger National Park, which we wanted to visit due to it being SA National Parks Week. The annual event that is traditionally held in September, was moved to November this year due to the Covid-19 Alert Level 2 regulations.
We ensured the necessary water and snacks were available, particularly for the toddlers, although we would be making several stops along the way to break up the journey and to stay refreshed behind the wheel before hitting the road.
Why take an SUV to one of the best mountain roads in SA?
My relationship with Long Tom Pass is a special one and it began more than a decade ago when I was fortunate enough to take a Honda S2000 (AP1) on a weekend sojourn to Hazyview. That car to this day remains, arguably, one of the greatest cars ever made and on that piece of road, I knew it was one of the greatest motoring experiences I'd ever have.
I took a friend's Porsche 996 911 Turbo up and down that mountain and came away mildly impressed (it was the Tiptronic). After that, I'd gone again, and again, taking everything from BMW's manic E92 M3 Frozen Black Edition to my old lethargic Maserati Quattroporte up and down the "cannon" road. My point is, I'd done the sports car thing on Long Tom and now that we seem to be buying more SUVs than anything else, I wanted to see what a city-slicking Volvo would feel like on that road; a road that has provided so many memorable experiences.
On paper, the Volvo XC60 D4 AWD R-Design won't set your heart or pants on fire if you're into performance figures, but you'd be surprised to know that it makes the same power and torque that an Audi Q5 40 TDI Sport makes. At 140kW and 400Nm, it's nothing to scoff at, and while it won't light up all-four wheels from a standstill it's built solidly with the power and torque coming on progressively.
I prefer driving it in Dynamic Mode, to ensure the throttle is ultra-responsive, while the ride is in its firmest setting. On this trip, I kept it in Dynamic mode for most of the way out of Johannesburg along the N1 North and then the N4 before heading off the highway towards our usual routes through Dullstroom and Lydenburg and the rest.
Tackling the Pass on the way to the KNP was my main goal, however, with the canon that sits on the right as a potential stopping point on the journey for a photo opportunity.
Now, I wouldn't be attacking the mountain as usual when travelling with motoring buddies because this was a family trip, but I tried to maintain a steady pace up and as smooth as possible without upsetting the car or the wife.
In some of the corners, the vehicle was working hard to maintain composure, never breaking a sweat as I felt it shuffle the power and torque to the wheels that needed it when cornering. Body control was sublime, offering just enough lean to let you know where the vehicle's limits were and where the occupants felt comfortable in terms of enjoying a sporty drive that isn't overwhelming to the senses.
Even the kids loved the drive the whole way, particularly when the mountain ascent and descent took place with cheers or "Go faster, dad" from my son.
Built to be a grand tourer more than a city vehicle
So the XC60 D4 R-Design is fitted with a host of comfort, safety and luxury features to ensure that even the most tech-savvy city dweller won't feel left without when spending around R900 000 on a premium vehicle. Our car, as standard, is kitted out fairly nicely but it's the optional air suspension that really proved its worth on the long road this time.
Don't get me wrong, it's still a fantastic vehicle if you're looking for something that will spend 90 percent of its life in the city or suburbs, but if you take it on the highway for a long drive; well that's when you'll start to truly appreciate the qualities of the vehicle.
For example, I didn't make much use of the ECO driving programme in the city while running the vehicle in. I kept it in Comfort, the everyday setting they call it. I used ECO throughout our touring in Mpumalanga and throughout the Kruger National Park, using the Stop/Start system too. On the highway back, the ECO mode proved extremely relaxing to use, giving you a very lazy accelerator pedal and lightweight steering. And, because this car is fitted with the air suspension package, it lowers itself closer to the tarmac to reduce aerodynamic drag too.
In ECO mode, the vehicle also tries to hang onto 8th gear for as long as possible to ensure you are sipping as little fuel as possible and will even disengage and "coast" in many off-throttle circumstances. With the ECO mode engaged on the return journey from Mpumalanga for most of the way, the car's range shot up to nearly 1500km after a top-up of 50ppm in Hazyview. I had just achieved 900km on the previous tank full of diesel and that was while still enjoying the sportier driving dynamics it has to offer. We arrived back in Johannesburg with the range sitting around 550km to empty. Amazing, considering we encountered lots of traffic on the way back, as well as stop/go roadworks.
I enjoyed the blind spot assist too, as well as some of the camera systems and the safety systems that made it so confidence-inspiring to drive. In fact, the blind spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert system not only came in handy when on the road but also inside the Kruger Park when people were scampering about to catch glimpses of a leopard, wildebeest or cheetah.
The onboard camera systems and the OFFROAD driving programme also helped in many instances where the rain had cut deep ridges and trenches into the dirt roads around the park. The XC60 simply sailed through loose sand and mud with ease. I wasn't too sure that the sporty 21-inch Pirellis we had fitted to the car were up to the challenge of the dirt roads but I came away quite surprised that the big wheels and tyres package worked well despite their sporty characteristics.
Worthy vehicle if you plan on going out and exploring SA
Look, if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we cannot take our country for granted and that while it might be nice to travel to far off exotic places overseas on holiday, Mzansi offers true hidden gems like the hideouts we found in the Kruger National Park to discover.
The Volvo XC60 D4 AWD R-Design proved to be the ultimate companion for this inland trip and it's making it clearer and clearer to me every day why people are buying vehicles in this premium segment.
The enhanced seating position that an SUV like the XC60 gives you as a driver makes these sorts of long-distance drives so much more relaxing.
I made use of the voice control through Android Auto to control most of our navigation and audio needs and we even streamed some Google Podcasts in the car while driving to take a small break from the deep bass notes generated by the optional Bowers & Wilkins audio system.
While we were on the way back, my wife and I were talking about the comfort of the car and its ability to make the journey feel so effortless. In fact, she commented that next to the Volkswagen Touareg, perhaps one of our favourite SUVs of all time, this Volvo XC60 really hit the sweet spot as a family getaway vehicle. I tend to agree; it certainly didn't disappoint and it didn't skip a beat, and I'm really looking forward to taking it on another cross-country journey in the coming weeks to rack on another 1000km.
Over the past 2000km, the vehicle is sipping an average of 9.5l/100km and I expect to drop well into the 8l/100km mark as the vehicle is run-in further.
The only niggle? A wayward stone that hit us squarely on the windscreen while following a truck on a very potholed section of the R536 road. I'll be popping into my local Volvo dealer this week for an assessment of the windscreen damage and to see if we have to replace it.
Stay tuned for more updates as I report back on more of the technical nature of the vehicle; its engine and drivetrain tech and its safety credentials.