Meeting Your Heroes, and Realizing you Have to Live With Them

Stephen Daubert 03/04/2015 Reviews

Author Joe G.

Everyone has poster material as a kid. Regardless of era, the story is the same. For some, it was a car like the Lamborghini Countach, for some it was a Stingray. We’ve all had that aspirational dream, a car that we boldly declare to our elementary school friends, “I’m gonna own that someday.”

I was no different… well, maybe a little. Instead of clearly lust-worthy cars that can stir anyone’s emotions, I was raised with a bit more utilitarian parents that looked at their vehicles in the same way that you or I look at a toaster. Not only that, but I lived my whole life with the car that would become my first.

It didn’t take me that long to realize that my first car, a 1985 Volvo 240DL, was far from exciting. Even still, I had been shaped by the experience of owning something with the kind of personality that the Swedes impart to their cars. Supercars became pedestrian in my eyes. The more commonly the car was recognized for its excellence, the less it interested me. I guess that makes me a car hipster, but my Miata doesn’t have a mustache… Shortly before that Volvo became mine, BMW released an incredibly innovative marketing campaign consisting of short films centered on their new models. I was hooked.

In 2004, Volvo debuted a game-changing car. The brand had always flirted with sporty vehicles, but had never committed to the idea like they did with the S60R and V70R. As soon as those came out, I knew I needed to have one… someday. One day, years later, I purchased a CPO 2006 Sonic Blue S60R with a manual transmission. I had my dream car, but now what? It was beautiful, had literally the most comfortable seats ever put into a car, and by far the fastest thing I had ever driven. Calling it the Swedish STi would not be a misnomer. I was in love. As with many torrid affairs, that feeling soon proved to be without merit.

The controls were light years ahead of previous models without losing the simplicity that made it attractive. In the year 2004, this was one of a handful of vehicles available in the US with electronically adjustable damping, and actually the least expensive. Comfort mode made it ride smoother on the highway than a Cadillac (incidentally one of the other vehicles with electronic damping control), while Advanced sharpened throttle and steering response and completely transformed the handling. The brakes are, to this day, the best I’ve ever experienced. As the months wore on, the luster began to wear off.

It turns out that that 300hp was achieved with a novel yet inefficient dual intercooler system. It worked fine in colder weather, but as temperatures climbed it struggled to keep up. Then there was the reality that 300 hp put through an AWD system doesn’t make a 3600lb car all that fast. That adjustable suspension was smooth in “Comfort” mode, but it was so underdamped that seemingly normal bumps could bottom out the shocks. Advanced mode essentially removed shock absorbers from the equation by increasing the bump damping so much that it rode like a go-kart.

The other lesson I learned in my time with this car was the relationship between complexity and reliability. It isn’t that more complex cars will always be unreliable, but rather the exponential increase in components required to achieve some of the more advanced things we have in cars these days. As the number of parts that can fail increases, the number of failures is bound to increase as well. With so many systems, it can make troubleshooting a nightmare, especially for a car hypochondriac like me.

I sold the car after a few years and about 20000 miles, with some of its warranty remaining. During the time I had it, it went from hero to faithful companion, to headache and finally to new owner, ready to continue its life as someone else’s dream. Though it may not have lived up to my lofty hopes, it taught me a valuable lesson: no car is perfect, and often times our vision of what a car represents can obscure those parts of it that might otherwise be red flags. Well, it tried; I seem to have a short memory, as I recently purchased one of the cars immortalized in those BMW films I referenced earlier. The story of my E39M5, though, will have to wait for another week.

 

Side note: There are few vehicles more capable in an overall sense than the V70R. It relies on some systems of questionable reliability, but I would not hesitate to purchase one if I were in the market for a family hauler. I would do so with the knowledge that I needed a not-insignificant repair and maintenance budget post-purchase.