Lately I’ve been shifting much of my rental-car use to a different company because they have locations nearer me, which is a lot more convenient for getting myself on and off the road. The variety of cars usually isn’t as nice or as interesting, and they don’t have a full aisle from which to take my pick (three Impalas in a row…wake me up when it’s over!), so this plus being crazy-busy on the job has made for fewer opportunities for Rental Car Reviews. But this week I got a little bit lucky. It’s a short week due to a holiday on Monday, and in the remaining four days I’ve got one of those trips where I fly out and drive back, seeing customers along the way. The far point was Columbus Ohio, an airport where I’m usually disappointed by what they’ll let one-way customers take from them, but this time was an exception- especially nice since my flight had been delayed.

The rental car agent asked me if a Volvo XC60 would be OK, and having almost nothing to inform the choice but knowing it was a rare opportunity, I said yes without hesitation. I knew that the XC designation made it one of the chunkier models, but I couldn’t picture exactly which one. I knew that there were XC models and Cross Country models, but XC seems like an abbreviation for Cross Country so that muddies things a bit. Just to clarify the models up-front, I’ll mention that the next day I checked Volvo’s website and the Cross Country models are wagons and the XC models are SUVs. The XC60 is the middle of three models in the XC range. The XC60 has a starting MSRP of $38900 and can go up above an eye-watering $75000 if you tick enough boxes on the trim levels and packages and options. Staggering on one hand, but on the other, it’s kind of cool to have such huge flexibility in one model. I had the low-end Momentum trim and the T5 Engine, a 250 hp 5-cylinder. That’s right, FIVE. Not completely unheard of, but rare for sure and at least in the US market, only something you see from a few European brands.

The XC60 doesn’t look that distinctive on first impression. Cover the front and rear faces -which are somewhat understated themselves- and at a quick glance you could easily mistake it for a similarly-sized Jeep Cherokee. But the Swedes have always been known for an aesthetic that is simple and clean while still being stylish and even beautiful when they really get it right. In my opinion they did get it right with the XC60. They styling is clean and balanced without being boring, has just enough accents, and looks like it belongs in Volvo’s current lineup.

The XC60 resembles a Cherokee, but it’s Swedish.

Inside, there’s more understated Swedish goodness, with simple styling that’s pleasant to the eye. The downside of this is that so many features and functions -too many in my opinion- are completely dependent on touchscreen control, and some of them aren’t very intuitive, and by the end of the second day I still hadn’t figured out how to manipulate some of them. To Volvo’s credit, if all else fails the owner’s manual is viewable on the touchscreen when the vehicle is not in motion. The Swedes are also known for a little bit of quirkiness, and one quirk became apparent as soon as I tried to start the engine. Like most modern cars, the XC60 uses a proximity-type key, which usually means pressing a button located either on the dashboard and almost always to the right side of the steering column, or in a few cases on the center console near the dashboard. No button in these locations. I soon found an oddly-shaped and interestingly-textured knob that was labeled as START located a bit farther back on the console, reminiscent of where Saab usually located their ignition locks. Instinct made me push down on it, which did nothing. Then I gave it a twist, and the engine started. The knob is spring-loaded and only turns a few degrees. Another quirk of this knob is that you turn it the same direction to shut off the engine.

Quirky controls.

Another quirky control is the drive-mode selector, a cylindrical roller in the center console. It has its own interesting texture and you press down on it to bring up the mode menu, then roll it to scroll through the choices, then press down on it again to select the mode…then wait…an interminably long time…for the screen to revert back to whatever was on it before. The drive-modes are Eco, Comfort, Dynamic (high performance), and Off Road. Comfort is the default mode and sadly, it reverts back to Comfort when the car is shut off. I say sadly because I found that Dynamic mode had two advantages over Comfort: quicker passing on the highway, and much less lateral wiggle when going over less-than-smooth defects in the pavement such as patches and shallow potholes. In fact the amount of lateral wiggle caused by such defects was a bit shocking. Not dangerous, but quite noticeable, much more than should be expected from any modern vehicle. Other than that, the two modes felt the same going down the road. The handling is easy and responsive, and I had no problem carving some tight and twisty roads in the hills of West Virginia, although a more progressive steering rate would have been welcome in some sections.

While we’re on the driving experience, I’ll say that overall it’s pleasant. The ride is smooth, maneuvering is easy, the controls give acceptable feedback, the turn-radius is good, and the brakes are quite competent. The various safety-systems all do their thing, and one in particular impressed me. There was a moment when everybody in front of me on the highway went into a panic-stop for reasons that were never apparent. As you may know from experience, due to accumulating human reaction times, the farther back you are in the line of vehicles, the more quickly you must react and brake to prevent hitting the car in front of you, sometimes faster that what a two-second-plus following distance will allow (read Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt for some insights into this and other human factors in driving). I was on the brakes, smoothly but very firmly, and the XC60 responded in kind with all the stopping I needed, and no collision occurred- but the front collision warning sensors weren’t happy and I got audible warnings, and the really impressive part was that the seat belt began to tighten and hold me firmly into the seat. This was no mere inertia-reel action; this was a motor retracting the belt gradually as dictated by the increasing forces of deceleration, and then gradually releasing it once I was off the brakes. I like that feature, and I hope to see it in more vehicles.

Another thing that worked really well was the air conditioning. It did a great job of cooling the car quickly on hot days, but I wish the fan was quieter. Being the warm part of the year, I didn’t test the heated seats or steering wheel, but I did note that all four seats have heat, and the rear seat heat is controlled by buttons where the rear passengers can reach them. The front seats are really comfortable, enough to earn a spot on my comfiest car seat list, and are electrically adjustable in multiple directions. In addition to the usual fore-aft and seatback angle, the height and tilt of the base is adjustable, the lumbar is adjustable for both the amount of support and the height of the support, and the thigh-rest at the front edge of the seat is adjustable fore-aft. The lumbar and thigh support adjustments are a bit clever, using a circular button that can be pressed in any of four directions, surrounded by a ring with a tab on it. Push the tab down to select thigh support; pull it up to select lumber support. Luckily the screen goes to a pictorial guide on how to make these adjustments work whenever the tab is moved.

Tabbed ring selects the function of the multi-button in the center. Elegant prevention of button-clutter.

I have to give some credit for the design of the key. Its shape is kind of big and square, but it’s thinner than just about every modern electronic key I’ve seen, which means that it’s not a chunky bulky thing when it’s in your pocket. The buttons are along the edges, and up next to the hole on top where a key-ring can be attached is a small slide-button that allows the release of the plastic cover on the side with the Volvo logo. Once this cover is removed, the physical backup-key is revealed, as are tiny words next to each button that explain what they do when given short or long pushes. Unfortunately, those words are not only tiny but also are merely molded into the plastic with no contrasting colour added, so you’ll need both good eyesight and plenty of light to read them. There is also another slide that is revealed when the cover is removed, and this one releases the cover for the other side, allowing access to the battery, the size of which is indicated on the plastic so you don’t have to look it up in the manual when it comes time to change the battery.

Better key than most: it’s not chunky.

Cargo space is ample in back, and for this trip I had TWO Pelican 1610 cases to carry, plus my tool-backpack and personal bag. I managed to fit everything in back without going vertical into the cargo-cover’s plane of existence. This cover is the retractable type, and a nice touch is the raised position you can click it into for easier access without having to fully retract the cover. The hatch is electrically operated, no surprise in this class of vehicle.

Enough space for lots of your stuff.

Volvo has been owned for the last few years by the Chinese automotive conglomerate Geely, whose holdings include Lotus and… Thankfully, Geely has taken a very hands-off approach with its holdings and allowed them to make cars their own way, building success the way they know how to do so. Like Volvos of the past, this one can be summed up as quirky comfort and after four days in the XC60 I almost didn’t want to give it up. It was comfortable it and did everything well and with mostly minimal fuss. If I had to drive it long-term I would go through the manual and learn more about how to work some of those cryptic controls, so as a rental car that’s a weakness- and possibly as a bought car too, since so much modern tech is so easy to use that some potential owners may find this discouraging. But if those few quirks don’t bother you, give the Volvo a try. I enjoyed it and would not hesitate drive an XC60 again.

A comfortable place to while away the miles.

Even the column-stalks have quirky designs, but they work really well once you figure out how some of the functions work.

Have you ever wandered around a car show, looking at all the cool cars, wishing that you could be one of the judges? That you could help determine who gets to take home those shiny trophies? I recently had that honour, and I’m here to tell you- it’s not as easy as it looks.

Recently, The Thing About Cars was contacted by the organisers of the Mountain City Mayhem Festival, who invited us to provide a judge for the festival’s car show. After some discussion among the TTAC team, it became apparent that I was the only one who was available that day. So I volunteered, eager to add show-judging to my growing list of automotive experiences. Look at a bunch of cars and evaluate them in a competition? This should be fun!

The day finally arrived. I had recently done a bunch of electrical work to my trusty BMW mo’orsickle and was eager to road-test that stuff, so I threw a leg over the saddle and told the GPS to take me to the small-town airport where the show was to be. I mention this because I arrived at a car show, noted that some cool cars were present, and found a text message from fellow TTACer Mickey, who said he was by the stage. What stage? There was an EZ-up with a band set-up under it, but Mickey wasn’t near it. After some asking, I learned that I was at the wrong show! A kind person informed me that the show I wanted was on the other side of the airport. Back into my gear, back on the bike, and around the airport. Too bad all those cars weren’t at the same show! Finding the Mountain City Mayhem Festival on the other side of the airport was no problem, although everybody there was so nice that I’m left wondering where the mayhem was. Maybe I should come back after midnight to see it? That will remain a mystery for now.

I found the guy in charge, got the basic rundown, and we had to find the other two judges. Once everybody was there, we got the judging forms and clipboards and were turned loose. There were thirty-five cars to judge, and each needed a form filled out. The form had basic information at the top: the car number, which was found on a slip on the dashboard (or tucked under the seat of the two motorcycles in the show), and fields for make/model and class. The classes were things like Domestic, Import, Truck, Classic, Motorcycle. Then we had to give 1-10 points on body, paint, interiour, engine compartment, and tires/wheels, and then there was one more field for extra points for dual class (e.g. Classic and Domestic) or whatever bonus-points we wanted to assign. I had some fun with that last field.

The first thing I did was to walk up and down the line and just give everything an initial glance so I’d have an idea of the overall field of entries. They ran the gamut from a first-generation Mazda 3 with tired paint and no discernible custom-touches beyond a sticker, to a fully show-worthy 1963 Impala with tons of chrome under the bonnet and custom leather inside. There was an early ’50s GMC truck that was immaculately restored without being over-restored, four or five old Toyota pickups converted into lowriders in desperate need of paint, a Suzuki GSXR 600 that bore some battle-scrapes, an old Dodge truck with faded, patina-ridden paint carefully protected under matte clearcoat, an immaculate ’57 Chevy, and so on- you get the idea.

After my once-over, it was time to get down to business and start filling out 35 forms. Time to start giving one to ten points in six categories, thirty-five times. Anywhere from 210 to 2100 possible points to allocate. How do I do it? The first one seemed easy, then it felt trickier, then as I became aware that I needed to finish them in time for the tallying, it felt like pressure. On top of that, it’s really subjective. REALLY. Subjective enough that I started to envy the concours judges at the prestigious events, because they have solid criteria for originality and authenticity to guide them. On top of that, I needed to try to make it somewhat objective too, so that I could judge fairly. A certain car might not be my personal taste, but it deserved a fair shake. Regardless of style, the owners put a lot of effort into their vehicles. Then there’s the fact that I’ve been a car-nut all my life, which means a certain amount of my own jadedness that I had to be careful with. And how do you fairly judge both a dead-stock car and one that has been highly modified, in the same contest? How do you give everybody a fair chance, especially when some show up with working-class daily drivers and some show up with cars worth more than the guys with the daily drivers make in three or four years? And on top of that, I’m inherently enough of a nice guy that I want to be generous with the points for every car. I know what you’re saying, it’s just a small-town car show that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Why get so deep into it? Why? Because I’m a car-nut, and I want to make my fellow car-people happy. In the aforementioned grand scheme of things, this is a hobby for most of the people involved. Hobbies are supposed to be fun. I want everybody to have fun. Therefore, I wish I could make everybody a winner. But it’s a judged show, and I was there to judge. There weren’t enough trophies for everyone. So I had to make choices. It was difficult, but I managed. And on top of that, it was HOT out there, and I had to juggle my clipboard and pen and a big cup of lemonade. The ice melted quickly.

But I got through it, and I’m glad to say that I only overheard one person trying to make me overhear them about bribes. They mentioned dropping some twenties on the ground around their car. I pretended not to hear them and went about my business. There were a few buckets of candy by some of the cars, but I’m trying to watch my sugar-intake so it was lost on me. Nice try, although I wonder if it got more votes from the kids for the Kids Choice Trophy. The few owners with whom I came into contact were very nice, and that’s one of the things I love about being into cars: the people. I can say the same thing about the motorcycling world, but we’re talking about cars here. I’ve had great conversations with people of all socio-economic levels who just plain love their cars. From the guy with whom I worked years ago who felt a close kinship and devotion to his somewhat beat Geo Prizm that had seen him through thick in thin to the guy who brought a truly gorgeous 1963 Ferrari to a recent show, they’re all great people who love to commune with other car-lovers. But back to business.

The people in charge were already tallying when I turned in my forms, and I made a lot more work for them. As it turns out, the other two judges skipped a bunch of cars. I don’t know how, but they did. So I guess that means that my judging was even more influential on who got the trophies. If I had a bigger ego, I’d be proud of that. The tallying got done and the winners were announced. Several people won two trophies, and I’m happy to say that two trophies were decided by children. One was the Kids Choice Award, and the other was the Queen’s Choice Award, given by the Marble Queen and Princess, a high school kid and elementary school kid, respectively. I assume the marble in question was the rock rather than the game, since the local business association had something to do with the festival. The winners were happy with their trophies, everybody had a good time, and the lemonade sure was good. Not a bad day.

So the next time you find yourself at a judged car show, have some sympathy for the judges. It’s hard work.

Decisions, decisions.

In another one of those cases in which, due to scheduling, I had to make a last-minute change to my reservation and pick up a car at my local airport instead of a small suburban location, I was presented with a difficult choice: Chrysler 300, Chevy Impala, or Nissan Maxima. Three of my favourite rental cars for eating up miles of the stupid-slab, which I would be doing this week with a trip to central North Carolina, back to Atlanta, then over to near Tupelo and back to Atlanta, which would add up to somewhere north of twenty hours in the car before I turned it in. All three of these cars have earned my respect and admiration for not only being pleasurable to drive, but also for being really comfortable and ergonomically compatible with my obnoxiously big-and-tall physique. I was really in a dither about it and almost went with the 300, knowing that its days in production were numbered, but the little voice in my head said get the Maxima. Maybe that voice knew that I’ve been meaning to write one of these reviews on it, or maybe it knew that the current generation of Maxima is surprisingly quick and fun for what externally appears to be an average Asian sedan. In any case, I knew that I’d enjoy the ride.

The Maxima has a long history of being a satisfying car, often with a sporty edge. It traces its lineage all the way back to the Nissan Bluebird, known on US shores as the Datsun 510, which closely copied a lot of the chassis and powertrain details of the BMW 1600/2000 models. The 510 earned a reputation for excellent handling and better overall performance than would be expected from a low-priced Japanese sedan. I can personally attest to this as I had a 510 when I was in the 12th grade and it was fun enough that I still miss it. In the ’70s the focus got diluted with the successor 710, but then the 810 upped the game with a 6-cylinder engine, was renamed Maxima a year later, and has moved in more of a performance direction ever since. This latest Maxima is no exception, and it continues in the sport-sedan tradition established by Maximae of the past. It offers enjoyable road-handling and plenty of power in a refined package. The one in which I spent the week was the SV trim level, with a starting MSRP of $35,960.

I’m always struck in the Maxima at how the driver seat area feels long, narrow, and low, and I don’t mean any of that in a bad way. The seat can be adjusted farther back than I need, low enough for me to wear a hat, and the center console is rather high and close, although for me it was a bit too close- but more regular-sized people won’t have an issue with it, although those who do may find the console in the 2018 model a bit less intrusive. It’s a good fit, and I rarely need to shift my position in the seat to stay comfortable for the long haul. I can stretch out my legs past the pedals and there’s plenty of room before my left foots hits the wheel well. The seat itself is supportive, bolstered just right for my build, and has all-electric adjustments for fore/aft, seatback angle, and lumbar support. The seats are heated too, controlled by chunky rocker-switches in the center console. There are only two settings, and I found that the heat left a little to be desired. Even in the high setting, the heat was not as quick or as thorough as what I’ve come to expect from the seat heat in my five-year-old Mazda 3, and it seemed to be stronger in the backrest than in the bottom cushion.

The steering wheel is adjustable in tilt and telescope, and is quite comfortable to my hands. I’m not generally a fan of flat-bottomed steering wheels, as I think that they are one of the ultimate elements of boy-racer poseurism in road cars, and the one in the Maxima doesn’t remove much clearance from the bottom of the wheel to make legroom- and it doesn’t need to. But what it does do is make gripping the lower quadrants comfy, as it makes a little more room for your hands.

The rear seat is tight for a large person such as myself, and just plain lacks the headroom for the unusually tall. As in many cars, if the driver seat is far enough back to accommodate someone my size, legroom behind it isn’t great. The cargo space is roomy and the opening is large enough to allow bulky items in and out with ease, and there is a cargo-net that can be secured across the lower part of the opening.

The engine is a 3.5-litre, 24-valve V6 with continuously variable valve timing, and Nissan claim 300 horsepower and 261 lb-ft of torque. It’s a peppy engine, lots of fun, and the continuously variable transmission does a good job of delivering power when you want it. Punch it and it goes- highway passes are easy and quick, although if you punch it hard enough you will get some initial torque-steer that will need minding, though not as bad as what you get with the Chevy Impala. Let me be clear here, this car is fun to put your right foot into and it goes with enough enthusiasm to make you want to put your foot into it. Be careful with it if you want to keep points off your license. The acoustic engineers did a good job too, giving the engine a nice growl under high power but quiet the rest of the time. Combine the eagerness of the acceleration with that growl, and you’ll enjoy every torque-steering moment of zipping down those on-ramps.

The transmission is a continuously-variable type that is a definite step forward over CVTs of the past. No high-rpm buzziness, and most of the time it acts like a conventional automatic, with discernible shift-points that are especially apparent during hard acceleration, and the aforementioned toque-steer can appear during the first two or three shifts during a good highway pass. There is also a sport-mode, selectable by a button in the center console. As with the sport-modes found in many other cars, this one raises the RPM points at which the transmissions shifts ratios, which makes acceleration more exciting. The downside of all the fun from the engine and transmission is low MPG. Nissan claims 20 city/30 highway, and of course it will be less if you enjoy the power too much. Another downside of this transmission is that in reverse the throttle becomes much less sensitive, which sounds like a good thing in theory but in practise it isn’t. Tickle the pedal a little to make a nice smooth backing maneuver and the car hesitates enough to make you wonder if it’s asking you, “you’re not serious about that, are you?” And backing uphill requires a large amount of right foot and enough revs to make you reconsider about backing uphill, despite how little work actually gets done.

The brakes are excellent- vented discs all around with electronic brakeforce distribution, and they do a great and unobtrusive job of eliminating speed. The 245/45-18 Continental tires are good and grippy, up to the task of keeping the Maxima’s 3565-lb curb weight planted. The car doesn’t feel that heavy in the twisties and is delightfully easy to put through the handing test.

The controls give you some options. As in pretty much every car these days, there is a touchscreen that controls audio, climate, vehicle settings and other things, and there is also a knob in the center console that can be used to control many of these functions as well. There is also the usual assortment of buttons on the steering wheel, controlling everything from radio volume to cruise control, and buttons for scrolling through the various screens that can be displayed between the speedometer and tachometer. This too seems to have become a standard arrangement for cars of our present era. The screen also of course displays what the rearview camera sees when the transmission is in reverse, but the camera lens is not well shielded from rain and the rearview image can be almost useless on rainy nights.

The cruise control is what Nissan calls Intelligent Cruise Control, which is of the type that adjusts for following distances. There are three levels of sensitivity, however the system defaults to the most sensitive level -which results in the greatest following distance- every time the car is switched on. If you prefer a different level, you must select this every time you get behind the wheel, and there is a button on the steering wheel just for this function. The cruise control also must be turned on for each drive in which you wish to use it, but that’s typical for most cars today. By comparison, the Chevy Impala’s cruise control remembers if you left it on- really convenient if you’re not fond of button-pushing. So how well does it work? Like all distance-sensing cruise controls I’ve used, it does the job of maintaining the distance quite well, but it lacks smoothness when the set distance is reached. The engine’s RPM can drop away rather suddenly, and if need be, the brakes engage to keep the following distance from going below the set amount. This can make for some abrupt surprise-decelerations, and the system is capable of bringing the car to a complete stop if the car in front of you stops, as I nervously learned while covering the pedal but resisting the urge to step on it. Please note, this automatic braking does NOT work when the cruise control is not engaged. Also, the cruise control will not engage if the radar antenna that senses following distance is obscured, the warning light and message for which came up several times while driving the Interstate in heavy rain. It will also dis-engage if the drive wheels lose traction, also learned in the deluge I experienced crossing Alabama.

So how did my Maxima do during the week’s travels? It did an impressive job of getting my butt down the road. Due to a mix-up with one customer’s information, I wound up making the trip to Mississippi unnecessarily, then going back to North Carolina the following day- so I ended up putting almost 2000 miles on the car in four days. The Maxima kept on trucking, eating up the miles and keeping me comfortable. The heavy rain mentioned above was rarely ever a problem and the car remained as well-mannered in the wet as in the dry. With excellent ergonomics, I did not find long hours behind the wheel to be noticeably fatiguing. The climate control kept me as comfortable as the seat did, and the performance-flavour of the car didn’t become obnoxious during long highway hours. The Maxima is easy to drive, easy to park, swallows a lot of luggage, and provides lots of grins in the curves as well as the straights, and it’ll keep you in comfort while it does. If you think the Maxima sounds like your kind of fun, go ahead and give it a look.

Good comfy cockpit with ergonomics that will accommodate almost anybody.
I’m not crazy about the diamond-patterned silver plastic trim. Almost anything would look better.