Frozen Norse: when Volvo said we could drive its new XC90 across the Baltic Sea, Tony Meredith thought he was hearing things

Frozen Norse: when Volvo said we could drive its new XC90 across the Baltic Sea, Tony Meredith thought he was hearing things – ice driving in Sweden

Tony Meredith

Occasionally, I am asked to some very strange things as editor; such as abseiling from a church tower for charity. Even so, when Volvo asked me if I would like to drive across the Baltic Sea in an XC901 was a little more than surprised–although I resisted the temptation to ask if this new vehicle was the company’s latest amphibious model.

But, after nervously checking the weather for northern Sweden–and discovering temperatures as low as -30[degrees]C which made me decide to pack some extra thermals–I was on my way to possibly the furthest north I had ever travelled on the planet. An extremely sobering thought for me, but just another day at the office for the likes of Michael Palin or Ray Mears, I’m sure.

So one dreary Wednesday afternoon we left Stansted on a charter flight bound for Lulea–not a place I had ever heard of before, let alone knew how to pronounce. A few hours later I was descending the steps of the plane in Sweden as the cold hit. Although a temperature of–11[degrees]C was not as low as I was expecting–residents have seen temperatures as cold as -30[degrees]C–it was certainly harsh enough for me!

The first thing we had to do was climb into our winter suits–which looked a bit like padded overalls–and snow boots as the next leg of the journey was to take place aboard a dog sled.

A line of sleds duly pulled up with teams of huskies. I was a bit worried at first as some looked decidedly small and wimpish and almost incapable of pulling the skeletal transportation let alone the three or four of us that were about to climb aboard.

However, what the dogs seemed to lack in size, they made up for in over-enthusiastic noise. The moment they were brought to a standstill by their drivers, they began wailing and barking and straining at their harnesses. The only thing that seemed to shut them up was when they were being driven on again. It was almost as if standing around in the snow was not something they wanted to do for long–I could sympathise with that!

The short but picturesque journey lasted only 10 minutes or so but provided enough time to gain some idea of what it must be like to explore these white lands aboard this natural form of transportation. This silent world–silent, that is, apart from the swooshing sound of the sled as it cut through the snow–made a pleasant change from the droning aeroplane or the more usual rattling coach or taxi transfer from airport to hotel.

Next day saw us up early and preparing to make our assault on the ice-covered roads of Sweden aboard Volvo’s first-ever 4×4, the XC90. There was no escaping the cold now; the biting winds had brought a fresh layer of snow overnight and it took several minutes of hard work for Simon Harris–my co-pilot for the next two days–and I to clear the car before we could set off.

The first thing you notice about driving in a snow-swept environment is the lack of features by which to orientate yourself. Although most of the road signs are visible, finding a road junction can be a bit tricky as the roads are all completely white. This means it’s very easy to miss a turning.

But, despite these perils, we managed to safely navigate our way to the Baltic Sea where we pointed the car onto the ice and cast off … so to speak. It was a bit strange to see a line of XC90s filing across the flat white table-like surface of the ice.

The Baltic Sea around Lulea freezes every year between November and mid-April. Many people that travel to work each day by boat during the summer have to swop to using road transport after the salt water (which has a low concentration of salt, just 3%) freezes to a depth of 30cm. Over 30km of roads are ploughed by the Swedish Road Administration to allow vehicles to move freely across the sea.

There are some strict road conditions out on the Baltic Sea ice roads such as remaining 15 metres behind the car in front–for obvious reasons, as you don’t want to follow it in taking a plunge … should the unthinkable happen.

The XC90 offers an excellent driving position for this sort of journey, seated high up with a domineering view of the road. And as you survey the landscape you are aware that you are sitting in a very comfortable seat surrounded by a sophisticated array of equipment which has been ergonomically laid out. The Swedes are nothing if not thorough when it comes to elements of design.

The dash and centre console provide a plethora of controls all easily definable and simple to operate. Everything has a quality feel about it.

With electric adjustments for not only the seat but the steering column as well, finding the right driving position is a doddle. A pop-up monitor for the sat-nav, as seen in Volvo’s on-road cars, provides another touch of class.

After lunch we were let loose on an off-road course where we could really put the car through its paces. Although this was not too demanding as off-road courses go, it did show that the XC90 is able to cope with fairly demanding terrain, should you decide to take a dip in the off-road ocean. Unlike the Range Rover or BMW X5 there is no hill descent control but despite this there is still a feeling that you are in total control.

All this makes sense. After all, you only have to look at the driving conditions in Sweden to feel safe in the knowledge that a company like Volvo should be more than capable of producing a 4×4 that can handle adverse conditions.

After a day of intense driving we were greeted with a surprise from the Volvo team–a snow safari on skidoos. Having never ridden one of these beasts before I was eager to correct this oversight. Essentially a small scooter with skis at the front and a caterpillar-like track at the rear, these machines are steered with handlebars like a motorbike. To drive it forward you simply depress a lever with your right thumb; the further you push it, the faster you go. Stopping is simply a case of pulling a lever with your left hand. But this took some forward thinking because stopping on ice is never a straightforward affair.

An hour-long tide through some scenic snow-covered woodlands saw us at the coffee stop where the raucous rattle of the 30 or so Yamaha-engined skidoos filled the night air. As the two-stroke fumes were starting to make even the more robust feel queasy, we embarked upon the return leg of our journey.

All in all, it was a thrilling ride and something that I would be more than happy to try again.

Next day we got to really put the XC90 through its paces on a series of ice tracks specially cut for Volvo. The three circuits provided the opportunity to drive the car to its limits without the danger of causing any real harm, either to ourselves or the cars, as the protective banks were made of snow and ice, and absorbed the brunt of any impact.

With the traction control system off, handling the XC90 around the tight bends was like trying to drive on.. well, ice! I only had to put a fraction too much power on and the car hurtled towards a pile of snow, no matter how hard I tried to turn it away.

The car’s intelligent all-wheel drive (AWD) system drops the power immediately the wheel starts to slip which provides much better starting traction on difficult surfaces. Normally between 5% and 65% of the power is delivered to the rear wheels, depending on the conditions, and changes of power between front and rear happen smoothly and very quickly.

And managing the power distribution between right and left is handled by the traction control system (TRACS), which intervenes when necessary by braking one wheel to increase the relative power to the wheel with the best traction.

The result is that the AWD, working in conjunction with the TRACS, can distribute power to the wheels to provide the best traction at any given time.

All this means that the XC90 is particularly adept on the ice. It’s as if it were at home in these conditions, which, in away, I suppose it is.

This was the end of our test drive in the frozen Swedish countryside. And, even though we experienced some bitterly cold weather with the temperature dropping to a blood-chilling -15[degrees]C, I was a little bit sad to be leaving.

Although Lulea is a lovely place to visit, I am not sure that it would be everyone’s deal holiday spot. I can’t imagine that there is a lot of social activity after nightfall; and night falls very early here for most of the year.

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