No amount of training or 24-hour news coverage-watching prepares you for the sight of your city, your home, suddenly transformed into a disaster area. Having recently moved back to Houston after a couple of years in Chicago, I made it just in time for Hurricane Ike to knock me around like a sack of potatoes. With power out, debris everywhere and traffic lights no longer functioning, it was by luck that the car I had scheduled to review was the 2009 Volvo XC70 T6, a vehicle safe enough for even the world's most paranoid soccer moms.
It's not that Houston was as bad as New Orleans after Katrina, or that city managers did a particularly bad job — it's just that when nearly two million businesses and households lose power, a city suddenly becomes devoid of supplies and the mayor of your town goes on the radio and says 'oh yeah, the water might not be safe to drink,' you don't feel so safe and secure anymore. It was a minor apocalypse. Safe is good. I'm young, but any feeling of invincibility I had quickly evaporated after the 13th time I was nearly t-boned at an intersection (90% of Houston's traffic lights were damaged or without power in the days after the storm). For some reason, a large percentage of Houstonians either never learned a broken stoplight becomes a regular four-way stop or (more likely) just didn't care. A scary prospect when the streets are full of utility trucks. Driving became a contact sport, and I was comforted with the thought that I'd be driving myself and my loved ones around in the safe confines of a Volvo. I thought, "what the hell?" The worst thing that could happen is one of the thousands of cherry-pickers in the area runs right into me and one of Volvo's many acronyms will help me out. Something like WHIPS or HSS or VIC or SIPS. I don't know what those are but they gotta help, right? In a serious disaster you're going to want a Unimog with a gun turret. But the XC70, which is essentially a lifted AWD V70 wagon with a more rugged body, actually turned out to be kind of the perfect car for this sort of mild-disaster. If you have to trot off the road to get around a downed power line, the Volvo handles itself well in the dirt, finding traction and redistributing power appropriately. I wouldn't try to invade a foreign country with it, but the extra ground clearance and AWD made jumping curbs easy — and trust me, you'll jump a lot of curbs in a disaster area. Stuck behind a 100-car-long gas line? Jump the curb. High water? Jump the curb. H-E-B Groceries has ice? Jump the curb. Compared to a truck, which is the typical go-to vehicle in these situations, the XC70 also performs well in more aggressive on-road driving. This came in handy while driving along a city street only to suddenly discover what looked like the remains of a small forest stacked not on the sidewalk but in the middle of the street. When there's a devastating emergency, like what took place further south in Galveston, the authorities are everywhere with yellow tape and barriers. All the debris and damage in Houston was marked with these little orange flags you wouldn't see until it was too late. This was the T6 version of the XC70, meaning it was equipped with the torquey turbocharged inline-6, which provides ample oomph for the heavy wagon. I wasn't running away from angry looters or anything dramatic like that, but a curfew was in place in Houston requiring everyone to get home by a certain hour. Also, the lack of anyone working in downtown Houston meant relatively empty roads for a while (might as well make the most of a tough situation, right?). You know what you need in a minor disaster? Bright-ass lights. There's either no power or, if there is power, the lights are broken anyway. After shitting in the dark for a few days I learned to love the light and not care that I was that asshole with the too-bright lights shining in everyone else's face and mirrors. The XC70 has dual xenon headlights with "active bending" that turn around the corner when you do, which came in handy when I turned the corner of my parking garage only to find a big ass hole in the freaking floor marked by a couple of small cones. The tough Volvo, offering more space than its V70 XC predecessor, is also a good place to store goods. This was a nice feature when I realized I had to throw out all of the rotting food in my refrigerator and all that was left was a can of tuna. After a few days without power or restaurants I may never be able to eat canned meats again. A trip to the now-open supermarket to fill up on fresh veggies, meats and replacements for discarded condiments barely dented the XC70's cargo space, which is even more impressive when the rear seats are folded flat. At the end of the day I made out a lot better than most people. I have all of my stuff. I was able to find the Internet and keep working. I got my power back. I also had a chance to put the Volvo's "Cross Country Club" reputation to the test. And like my fellow Southeast Texas residents, the Volvo stepped up when it counted. This all came together when I handed off the XC70's keys to the valet at a local pizzeria, one of the first places to get power. With the minor disaster fading, my yuppie ass was safe and, in true Houston fashion, my yuppie ass was about to get fed.