BSCB is off to Sweden!
At BSCB we love linking extremes. After going from New York to Los Angeles via the legendary Route 66 in a Ram 1500 in 2014 and linking Northern Alaska to the Mexican border in a Ram 2500 in 2015 (helped by a boat and a few planes), we now move over to Europe.
This year we will be linking North Cape, the northernmost point in continental Europe, to Gibraltar, its southernmost point. Our itinerary won’t be conventional as we will start from Stockholm and head north to North Cape before tracing back south all the way to Gibraltar with the help of one flight. To help us with this task we’ll have two cars relay each other: first a Volvo XC90, then a Mercedes C-Class Coupe. The start of this trip is in Stockholm where we take delivery of our XC90…
After four days spent in out-of-control rip-off kingdom Malta, the sudden surge of surrounding honesty and fairness is heart-warming. Yes, things are working the way they are supposed to in Sweden, and most of the time that means fast and efficiently. There is a Volvo V70 taxi exhibited inside the arrival hall at Arlanda Airport with the city centre fare displayed in large figures on the windscreen. Why isn’t every airport like this? The Arlanda Express train swallows the 45km separating the airport to the town centre in a mere 15 mins and I manage to fit a couple of hours walking on the cobblestone streets of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town. I’m now in Swedish mode: relaxed, quiet and smiling. I’m ready to drive.
The Swedish new car market is currently undergoing a once-in-two-decades transformation. After 19 consecutive years of Volvo V70 domination, the Swedish manufacturer has decided to discontinue the nameplate and replace it with a more sophisticated – and expensive – V90. Will the Swedish consumer follow and upgrade their V70 to a V90, or will they switch to Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes or BMW? The first signs are the latter is happening, with Volvo combining V70, S90 and V90 sales in a attempt to hold onto the models pole position. Instead, the VW Golf has now been the best-selling nameplate in Sweden for four consecutive months at end-October. Not to worry though, Volvo remains by far the most popular brand at home, helped by renewed interest towards the smaller V60 – the best-selling model in Stockholm based on my observations – and record sales by the XC60 despite a renewal scheduled for 2017.
To try and gage interest in the new model across the country, I had planned to drive the V90. However at the time (third week of September), all V90 pressers were monopolised by the Swedish media. Instead, we will attempt to reach Nordkapp (Norwegian for Cape North) in a XC90 SUV, the brand’s flagship. Not that I’m complaining! We have a XC90 D4 Inscription priced at 600.000 skr (US$65.000 or 61.400€), loaned by the Sollentuna Uppland Motor dealership. To my surprise, this Volvo dealership is shared with Renault (and Dacia), in a setup that I will see replicated across the entire country, sometimes with Ford added into the mix. Jonas hands the key to the XC90, explains a few things like the almost-hidden button to open the glovebox and I give full thumbs up to the centre console pinch to zoom touch-screen working exactly like an iPad. I’m already impressed.
After Esmeralda the Sardinian Fiat Panda, we now need to baptise our Volvo XC90. With a male name as this is an SUV, therefore a truck which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. I never can’t quite get myself to call trucks with female names… Looking up typical Swedish male names serves me with rather uninspiring fares such as Fyr (most sincere apologies to all the Fyrs in the BSCB readership). I know what you’re all thinking, we all want to call this Volvo Björn, don’t we? Ok. Just this time I will make an exception: Fyr can have a middle name also. Please give a warm welcome to Fyr – Björn, we’re about to see a lot of your country together, and beyond…
We get out of the Volvo dealership with 6.035 km on Björn’s odometer – a figure that’s about to surge over the next week. Our first destination is the idyllic Siljan Lake, the picture-perfect region of everything quintessentially Swedish. Stepping out of Stockholm, I instantly realise this trip won’t be a fast one. Speed limits even in rural areas are almost uniformly 80km/h, 60 or 50km/h when traversing towns, and speed radars every km or so are here to ensure you stick to the rules. That’s the other side of the Swedish medal: for everything to work efficiently, everyone has to abide by the rules.
These first few km are also the opportunity to test Volvo’s line-assist system, and the very first time the car corrects your direction feels like driving in a slight rut: you can sense the car redressing gently towards the centre of the road. A slightly creepy feeling at first, that promptly transforms into a smart aid. More on this in the next iterations of this Series. A mere 140km into our day, we enter the Dalarna region for a mandatory selfie stop of Björn in front of the world’s largest Dala Horse (aka Dalahäst) in Avesta. Absolutely stunning and iconic to Sweden, these carved wooden horses painted in bright colours and decorated with folk-art flowers go back centuries ago, and (normally) range from 3 to 50cm high.
Lake Siljan was formed 360 million years ago by Europe’s largest meteor impact, whose force was equivalent to 500 million atomic bombs. How times have changed: today, the lake is impossibly quiet, with small, quaint and picturesque villages spreading along its shores. Tällberg in particular, population 200, got my vote with its sprinkle gingerbread-like houses over green pastures, most of them painted with the traditional Falu Red colour typical of the region.
This is Sweden’s heartland, and the place most Swedes want to come to on holiday for Summer. Lucky us! Rättvik boasts Scandinavia’s longest wooden pier: the 628m Långbryggan stretching into a mirror-like Lake Siljan, however, memories from my previous (and only) trip to Sweden as a teenager conjure images of tiny, sleepy harbours along the Baltic Sea. One of the aims of this trip is to recapture that pure, serene feeling. Time to drive to the sea…
Hudiksvall’s MöljenBjörn admiring the sunset in quiet Hudiksvall.
For this we must first cross east through endless forests on a two-lane road filled with slow trucks and cross a multitude of small villages that force our speed down. Never mind, the scenery is so calming and inspiring that it’s all forgiven, Sweden. Although way too big for my liking (pop. 15.015), Hudiksvall has a harbour that ticks more than a few boxes: its red wooden fishermen’s storehouses (Möljen) date back to the early 19th century and ignite in a burst of flaming red at sunset. We set camp further north in Gnarp after a 653 km journey, enough to get a very good first impression of the Swedish countryside car landscape. Hudiksvall is where I saw the very first V90 “in its element” (meaning outside of a Volvo dealership) of this trip – there was none in Stockholm surprisingly. A few more observations follow below.
It’s a kombi’s world!
First things first and it’s impossible to step away from this observation: the roads of Sweden are saturated with station wagons – Kombis in Swedish. This shouldn’t really be a surprise when the Volvo V70 – itself only available as a wagon – has been the best-seller here for 19 consecutive years while the V60 – also a wagon only – has ranked inside the Top five best-sellers ever since its launch in 2010. Yet local association Bil Sweden doesn’t provide any kombi sales splits for nameplates that are available in both sedan and kombi variants (we are currently in touch with them to try and extract this detail for you). And this trend isn’t recent: a quick survey of 300 passenger cars on the highway today gave a smashing 52% station wagon ratio.
Driving through Sweden confirms that most best-selling nameplates here are high in the sales charts mainly thanks to strong kombi sales. One kombi in particular stands out from the crowd head and shoulders: the VW Passat Alltrack 4WD variant. It’s a constant flow of the new generation of the model crisscrossing the country, by far the most frequent nameplate I’ve encountered on this part of the trip. Numerous VW Golf Variant are also to be spotted, including the all-new Alltrack model, already well spread despite being on sale for just a few months when I visited. This variant is the key to the Golf’s overall domination of the Swedish charts for the past four months. Let’s also single out the Toyota Auris (#7 so far in 2016), Kia Cee’d (#8), Skoda Octavia (#10), Audi A4 (#11), A6 (#12), BMW 5 Series (#14), 3 Series (#17), Mercedes E-Class (#22), Opel Astra (#24) and Peugeot 308 (#28), all almost exclusively sold as kombis.
The Swedish countryside also reserves a few surprises: in the same way they were also popular in another nordic country – Iceland – full-size American pickup trucks aren’t rare here, led by the Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra and Ford F-Series. Sold as Light Commercial Vehicles, they had escaped the scrutiny of BSCB’s sales charts so far.
Finally, if you were hoping the Swedish countryside would be a goldmine of vintage Volvos and Saabs in pristine condition in the same vein as what we just saw in Malta, prepare to be bitterly disappointed. Old vehicles are very rare even in remote countryside and rural areas, although I did manage to snap the above Volvo 144, still valiant at almost 45 years of age…
Next we drive further north on the stunning Kustvägen Bothnian Coast road to reach Finland. Stay tuned!