If we were to fall through the ice, the Swedish instructor said, we should flash our lights so that people on the shore would be able to see us.
It took everyone a moment to realize he was kidding.
If you’ve never driven on a frozen lake before, it’s a bizarre experience. The trees part before you and you edge your tires onto the ice like dipping your toes into the cold water before taking the plunge. You look up and realize that there is nothing at all to hit.
It’s an interesting experience, but frozen lakes aren’t really part of most people’s daily driving routines. Arguably, Volvo’s choice to show off how the 2017 V90 Cross Country wagons performed under near-zero traction conditions here, of all places, didn’t really make much sense. A frozen lake seemed more like an extreme case test to me, but I suppose if you’re going to see what a car is like at its limit, you might as well swing for the extreme.
Two ice-driving courses had been laid out on Sweden’s frozen Lake Andsjön for us as part of the V90 Cross Country first drive: a longer one built for more speed, and a tighter, shorter one with more vicious slaloms and curves.
(Full Disclosure: Volvo wanted me to drive the 2017 V90 Cross Country so badly that it put me on three flights to get to the beautiful ski town Åre, which is located in the Volvo Motherland, Sweden.)
The Cross Countries (is that how you pluralize them?) had been fitted with studded snow tires, which weren’t much help on the unfrozen Swedish roads, but here, on the ice, we hoped they would fare much better. The lake was glassy: smoothed out and showered with more water in order to make it even slicker.
That didn’t worry me, though. What did worry me was that the temperatures hadn’t dipped below freezing for the past couple of days, but the friendly Swedes who accompanied us on this trip assured us that the ice was still thick enough to drive a car over.
You learn very quickly that stomping on the gas or the brakes don’t really do much when you’re on the ice. This, I think, is one of the most important habits to break when the car starts to slide in any condition.
The first couple of laps were taken more slowly, with the traction control on. Volvo’s all-wheel drive system—driving mode firmly set in Off Road—dutifully sent the torque to the back wheels. Though switched on, the system never really felt like it was interfering with what I was doing—which was nice because I had never gone ice driving before.
Yet, I could tell that I wasn’t getting as sideways as I could have. It was difficult to say where I had messed up and where the system decided to step in, but I was certain I wasn’t being as conservative as it seemed to anyone watching on the shore. Know how I knew? I did not spin out.
Along the faster course, I turned the traction control off to see what it was like. Sideways! Way more sideways was the answer! Before, the car wouldn’t let its ass hang out for what felt like anything more than 45 degrees. Now, it was happy to fling its end out 90 degrees.
Emboldened by the angles, my foot suddenly became heavier and more leaden, pushing the throttle perhaps with more gusto than was recommended. The four-cylinder roared (as well as it could) and the tires spun, transforming me into a drifting goddess.
Except I wasn’t. Around the first sharp corner, I failed to catch the car and it spun around, shattering my daydream. Ah, well.
Sitting in the back seat, Volvo chassis and dynamics engineer Stefan Karlsson chatted amicably about the car while I gave it too much gas and pirouetted. He said that while older all-wheel drive systems were designed to purposefully understeer because oversteer was seen as a death sentence, the Cross Country’s chassis was designed to remain more neutral. It was safer that way, he explained, when it came down to evasive maneuvers.
To me, that meant more predictable. Flicking the wheel from side to side, I eyed the upcoming slaloms and planned my entry and exit. Cutting the wheel the opposite way as soon as I cleared the first cone yielded the best results for setting the car up to take the next cone, I found. Around the next corner, a sweeping left-hander, I worked hard to maintain an uninterrupted drift around it and finally pulled it off on my final run.
As delightful as ice driving was, I also knew that most owners wouldn’t be facing completely controlled conditions like these. According to Karlsson, the ice driving experience was meant to “magnify” what the car would be able to do in an emergency situation.
In that regard, then yes, I’d say the Cross Country feels extremely planted and calculable when it slides. When it’s in Off Road mode. When it has studded snow tires. When the “road” surface has been groomed to basically perfection. When I’m inducing the slide myself and there is nothing around me to hit.
Unfortunately, people who experience slip rarely do with all of these factors in play. Want to know how a V90 Cross Country actually slides in slippery conditions? Buy one and try it out in an empty and frozen parking lot. That’s way more realistic. But it should hold up just fine.