Thursday, 11 July 2013

11/07/13 - Volvos, etc

On the bus the other day I overheard two schoolkids discussing their parents’ cars. One was giving the other a severe mocking for having to be driven around in a Volvo by his mum. ‘You look like a prick in that,’ he said, in an Inbetweeners-esque slamdunk of matter-of-factness. The poor kid had no response.

It’s easy to deride Volvos for being square. Well, in some cases they actually are square. But they’re a lot more interesting than you think. Allow me to explain…

First off, they have a reputation for being sensible, dependable and beige. But what’s wrong with that? This rep comes from being a safe pair of hands – here are some some of the pioneering safety features that Volvo have introduced (either developing these things themselves, or being early-adopters of other people’s tech) on their mainstream models over the years:

1944 – laminated windscreens
Glass that holds together when it shatters rather than firing jagged shards of glass into your face? That’s a good idea, isn’t it? Thanks, polyvinyl butyral. You’re a helpful little resin.

1957/8/9 – seatbelts
They’re second-nature now, of course – as they should be – but before seatbelts were mandatory and mainstream, people were suspicious of them. ‘Why would I want to be strapped into the wreckage of the car rather than safely thrown clear?’ folk would ask. But they’re good, aren’t they? We see that now.
Volvo introduced two-point front belts as long ago as 1957, with two-point rears coming in the following year, and 1959 seeing full three-point belts. Countless lives saved there. Can’t argue with that.

1966 – crumple zones
It took manufacturers a while to cotton on to the notion of designing either end of a car specifically to absorb energy during an impact. Mercedes-Benz began toying with the idea in the fifties, but it was Volvo that truly challenged the ingrained perception that a safe car was a rigid car in ’66, at which point all of their cars were based around a solid passenger cell in the middle with deformable, energy-absorbing bits fore and aft. So that way, if you get rear-ended, you’re not getting the full force of the ramming up your spine. Oo-er, etc.

1982 – anti-submarining seats
This is the kind of development that you could only come up with by crashing loads and loads of dummy-occupied cars to see what happens. Anti-submarining seats have specially designed panels in the leading edge of the base that stop you sliding under the seatbelt in a frontal collision and going knees-first into the dash. It’s not the sort of idea you’d really stumble upon without testing, is it? It could well be the case that Volvo just like smashing up cars, but at least they’re analysing the data afterwards.

Various acronyms
SIPS - ‘Side Impact Protection System’ - works by bolting the seats to transverse rails rather than straight to the floor, so side impact energy is absorbed throughout the structure rather than just by the bit by your face (which would inevitably otherwise become part of your face). WHIPS is a whiplash protection system – the seatback apparently ‘moves in a way similar to catching a ball gently’ while the headrest stays put. CWAB – ‘Collison Warning with Auto Brake’ keeps an eye out for situations in which you might crash, and brakes for you if peril seems imminent. LKA – ‘Lane Keeping Aid’ – detects when you might be wandering out of your lane due to having nodded off, and pesters you to wake up.
Volvo bloody love acronyms. And while some of these systems may seem spurious, they just can’t help themselves from developing weird safety ideas.

Oh, there are loads of others, look here:

…but safety doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with boringness. Indeed, the enthusiastic following of turbo-bricks reinforces the fact that these sturdy Swedish boxes are fun as well as rock-solid. I used to have an 850 T-5, it was brilliant; sure, it was as big as my kitchen, but its turbo was as big as my face and it pounced for the horizon like its arse was on fire.

If the bigger Volvos still don’t do it for you, consider this: the 300-series is dirt cheap right now – it’s a smallish hatchback (or saloon), it’s rear-wheel drive, it has great weight distribution thanks to the gearbox sitting over the rear axle, and it’s got all kinds of potential: spicy Renault engines – the 16-valver from the Clio/19, for example – pretty much bolt straight in, or you could just wang in something Japanese (an SR20DET or whatever) and go skidding. Fun. Cheap fun. And it probably won’t blow up.

Of course, you may have no interest in cars whatsoever, in which case well done for getting to the end of this. The key take-home point is ‘Volvos aren’t as dull as you think they are’. Well, I mean, some are. But not all of them. Some of them are bags of fun.

That said, those two kids got on the bus at Wandsworth Bridge. And if they live anywhere near there, the poor lambasted wretch’s mum almost certainly drives an XC90 (as 99% of Wandsworth mums do), in which case his mate was right to take the mickey. XC90s are shit.

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