Tackling Colorado in a Volvo XC60 Recharge PHEV

Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
Photo credit: Mark Vaughn

I needed something to drive across the scenic and glorious state of Colorado to attend The Colorado Grand—the greatest 1000-mile road tour in the country—and the car had to perform in the following circumstances: very slight chance of snow, good chance of rain, and I might have to sleep in it. A little off-roading might be necessary to find the place to sleep without getting rousted by the local cops and/or ax murderers.

I was presented with a nice list of vehicular possibilities from the Denver press fleet, some of which were sporty, some practical, but most not good for camping out. Originally, I picked the Mazda3 hatchback. It gets good mileage and if necessary, I could live in the thing.

But the week before my arrival somebody dinged the Mazda3 hard enough that it suddenly became unavailable, so I was presented with the list once again. Hey, look, there’s a Volvo XC60 Recharge T8! That’s not only roomy enough inside (63.3 cu. ft. of cargo space with the back seats folded flat) but it could tackle rain, snow (which wasn’t supposed to be happening but you never know), and even a little dirt under its tires. Plus, it had satellite radio, a real plus when you’re driving 700 or 800 miles with no one but yourself to talk to.

Photo credit: Volvo
Photo credit: Volvo

The XC60 Recharge T8 plug-in hybrid had that really cool and possibly over-engineered drivetrain, too: a turbocharged direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 312 hp, combined with an electric motor making 143 hp and backed by an 18.8-kWh battery pack, all good for 455 hp and 523 lb-ft of torque sent to all four wheels via Volvo’s eAWD system.

With eAWD, the front wheels got the gas engine’s output almost all the time, and the rears got all-electric. The gas engine could also power the rear wheels if necessary. The weak link might have been the 8.2 inches of ground clearance and the M+S Continental Cross Contact LX Sports mounted on fancy 20-inch “Blue Diamond-Cut” alloys. But then, almost the whole trip would be on pavement, so maybe the quiet Conties would represent a good compromise.

Off I set, the first 366 miles coming on a mixture of smaller, two-lane country roads and a lot of Interstate 70. The XC60 was, indeed, a comfort on the long haul. My tester had the optional air suspension and electronically controlled shocks. At speeds over 75 mph, the air shocks lower the ride height by almost half an inch. At over 112 mph (to which I ain’t admitting, on advice of counsel) it’s lowered by almost an inch.

I probably used up the 35 miles of electric range right out of the parking lot, being as my drive mode was the default “Hybrid” setting, and I didn’t have to refuel until I got to Ridgeway, a distance of 323 miles (not driven conservatively). Your mileage will vary. The EPA gives it 63 MPGe. Remember, you can get back a lot of electrons via the regenerative braking and one-pedal driving that comes naturally to the XC60 Recharge. Coming down Red Mountain Pass, for instance, I got back eight miles of electric-only range.

Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
Photo credit: Mark Vaughn

I parked it in Telluride where the good people of The Colorado Grand told me someone had cancelled and so there was a room for me (no camping!) and set out in a 1958 Mercedes 300 SL Roadster (no, not the Gullwing). That’s another story, coming to this site ASAP, I swear.

Then, between the end of The Grand and the beginning of an embargoed story on more Mercedes cars, I did a little off-roading. Nothing serious, no rock-crawling, nothing that would even scrape the undercarriage of the XC60, but I went. Colorado is full of dirt roads skittering off in all directions. Some, like the famous Alpine Loop that circles the San Juan Mountains from Silverton to Lake City to Ouray, require 4WD Jeeps, high ground clearance, and meaty M/T tires. But many require only curiosity.

Thus I skedaddled up County Road 33 along the side of Kendall Mountain just east of Silverton. I went as far as I figured my luck would hold out with all the pointy rocks aiming their sharp fangs at the Conties’ tasty sidewalls. The tires withstood the abuse well, and the view of the town and surrounding mountains was worth the risk. I headed north on County Road 110, a very wide, very well-graded dirt road that is actually part of the Alpine Loop, past Porcupine Gulch and along Cement Creek as far as the double-black-diamond ski area.

Photo credit: Mark Vaughn
Photo credit: Mark Vaughn

I went up County Rd. 2 to see a couple historic mines. All I got was dirt on the tires (and undercarriage and everywhere else, sorry press fleet operators). I explored some dirt roads around Molas Lake, one of the most spectacular locations on the planet. It was all lovely.

What’s the point? Car-based crossover utility vehicles make up the vast majority of new-vehicle sales in the US and around the world. They almost all have some concession to ground clearance, approach and departure angles, and modern tires that might be able to handle a rock or two.

Almost anywhere you live in this great country there is a dirt road, without a gate on it, somewhere near you. It might be Forest Service land, BLM land, or some other access-allowed thoroughfare that is inviting you right now, before winter socks in and closes everything down. Or if you live in the western desert, there is no winter! So go out and explore it, before everything from sea to shining sea is given over to tract homes and strip malls. Go enjoy it! Now!

For my part, I crawled back onto pavement and drove off back to Denver, through Monarch, Salida, Buena Vista, and more spectacular mountain scenery than you could shake a pinewood branch at—the better for the experience, as you will be, too. God bless ground clearance and modern tires!