Like spring rains that quench a parched Arizona desert, the Volvo V90 Cross Country brings new life to a small but reemerging segment of utility vehicles. Or as one Volvo executive puts it, ‘It’s the car for people who actually do stuff’

The all-wheel-drive V90 Cross Country (from £45,000) is a rugged version of the V90 wagon that debuted earlier this year. Both share the same platform – and sophisticated good looks – of Volvo’s flagship S90 sedan. The Cross Country sits 2.3 inches higher than the standard V90 wagon and is differentiated by a unique metal-studded treatment on the front grille, glossy black window trim, and wheel arch covers over bigger wheels and tyres.

volvart3

On an unusually cool morning in Arizona, we head northwest from Scottsdale toward Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Our Maple Brown V90 Cross Country wagon pulls away easily from commuter traffic thanks to its small but surprisingly potent T6 powertrain, a 2.0-litre in-line 4-cylinder engine that is both supercharged and turbocharged. Power delivery is smooth and seamless, with help from an 8-speed automatic transmission. The supercharger provides ample torque on the low end, while the turbo gives a boost at higher revs. The wagon is surprisingly quiet, with only slight wind noise coming from the A-pillars at higher speeds on this blustery day. In line with Volvo’s longstanding reputation for safety, the V90 Cross Country comes standard with semi-autonomous driving features including steering assist, adaptive cruise control, and lane departure warning.

volvart2

With a built-in tow hitch and a 3,500-pound towing capacity, the V90 Cross Country is ideal for hauling jet skis or a small boat. At Lake Pleasant, we pull a 20-foot Zodiac out of the water and drive it around a figure-8 in the parking lot, a testament to the car’s powerful low-end torque – and its admirable turning radius.

Unhitched and free of cargo, we pull off the main drag in search of more challenging roads. Usually desolate fields are blanketed with yellow wildflowers, thanks to a wetter-than-usual winter. Soon the pavement ends, and we clamber up a rugged hillside dotted with tall cacti straight out of a Western. The V90 Cross Country is equipped with different driving modes that change steering feel, suspension firmness, shift points, the AWD system, and even braking characteristics. We prefer to tackle this terrain in Dynamic mode, which holds the gears longer and makes the most of the T6 powertrain. Even in this sportier setting, the optional air suspension and active chassis system keep the car level and composed over a seemingly endless cavalcade of ruts and bumps. For low-speed crawling and climbing, there’s an off-road mode, which also activates hill descent control at speeds of up to 18 miles per hour.

volvart4

The normally arid landscape is swollen with puddles and small streams from recent rains, and we dash through these with aplomb. With the V90 Cross Country’s generous 8.3-inch ground clearance, we don’t worry about getting stuck or bottoming out. A light mist begins to fall, and brown dust turns to reddish mud. As part of the luxury package, our V90 Cross Country is fitted with 20-inch wheels and, like all V90 Cross Country wagons, Pirelli Scorpio tires made from a compound developed specifically for Volvo. After more than an hour on the trail, even the deepest treads become caked with wet clay, and we slip and slide down the mountainside, giddily goosing the throttle and drifting around corners. The V90 Cross Country takes it all in stride with agility and poise.

volvart

The interior of the V90 Cross Country exemplifies what Volvo designers call a ‘Scandinavian sanctuary,’ with stitched leather upholstery and black-tinted, open-pore wood trim. Rear seats are spacious enough even for tall Swedish types, and the rearmost area offers 53.9 cubic feet of cargo space. The V90 Cross Country wagon tops out at about £56,000 with every option selected, including massaging seats and an upgraded Bowers & Wilkins sound system that will satisfy discriminating audiophiles. As for the mud… you’ll have to find your own. volvocars.com

Laura Burstein