Following up on last year’s test drive of a Volvo XC90 to North Cape, Volvo Sweden was so kind as to loan me a second car this year to explore the south-western coast of Norway and all its spectacular fjords. At the same time last year, the entire Volvo V90 fleet was monopolised by the Swedish press but this time Volvo has voluntarily made available one of the highest-spec V90 there is: a crystal white V90 Cross Country D5 AWD with a Polestar performance optimisation pack (available since last December) and the incredible audio system Volvo Premium Sound by Bowers & Wilkins that I already enjoyed on the XC90 last year. All-in-all, this generously equipped V90 will set you back the equivalent of 69.900€ in Sweden (US$81.400), a fair bit more than the XC90 D4 Inscription we drove last year (61.400€ or US$65.000).
One year ago the transition from the decades-long leadership of the now-discontinued Volvo V70 in the Swedish car sales to the unknown (Volvo V90? V60? XC60? VW Golf? Passat?) had just started. 2016 saw a Volkswagen top the annual Swedish sales charts (the Golf) for the first time in 54 years – since 1962, the last year of reign of the VW Beetle. 2017 is a different story altogether with Volvo reclaiming the top spot: up until June the Volvo S/V90 was in pole position and looked like it would be the natural heir of the V70 atop Swedish charts. But July and August saw the Volvo XC60 shoot up to the top and snap the YTD lead.
Both the bus ride from the airport to the city centre of Stockholm and the Uber ride to the Sollentuna Uppland Motor Volvo dealership however gave me a glimpse of a rather disconcerting car landscape: absolutely no new generation XC60 in sight, which didn’t make sense after two consecutive months of sales domination (I started driving the V90 on September 11). The explanation was given to me by Nils from local publication ViBilagare who shared exclusive data by version that showed the XC60’s first place was due to the previous generation – still produced in Sweden – having its higher spec variants sold at discounted prices. By the time I was back in Stockholm ten days later the situation had not changed but Nils let me know that by early October the new gen XC60 had started to make itself noticed in the capital.
By now, the XC60 nameplate, combining both new and previous generations, seems to have accumulated enough sales to remain in the lead all the way to the end of the year for its first annual win, but the S/V90 could pull a last minute surprise, and should reclaim the lead in 2018 once the stock of previous gen XC60 has been fully sold. In any case, in the V90 we are looking at an extremely successful nameplate at home despite its discouragingly high price tag. It is now time to baptise our car. After Ivanhoe the Haval H9, Joey the Toyota Hilux and Kaitlin the Peugeot 208, we need a Swedish name starting in L, a male name as this is a station wagon, therefore a truck which has a masculine gender in my native tongue, French. The choice was easy: Lars.
We’ll be taking Lars on an adventure through to southwestern Norway and its spectacular fjords. But first we need to head west and leave Sweden for Norway, bound for its capital Oslo. As it has been the case during most of my last test-drives (see USA Coast to Coast 2014, USA North to South 2015, Europe North Cape to Tarifa 2016 and both Australian Outback Haval H8 and Australian Outback Haval H9), I find myself most comfortable in nature, far from the craziness of big cities. We therefore won’t spend much time in Stockholm nor Oslo, just enough to grab some topline elements about their respective car landscapes.
First we hit Sandaholm, near a tranquil lake and close to the Norwegian border. Here I get a first taste of Norway in the shape of two electric car charging stations, a striking novelty compared to everything I have seen before in other parts of Europe. One is for Tesla vehicles and the other one for “other electric vehicles”, but both are provided for by Tesla. Navigating the network of charging stations, at its most developed in southern Norway, is a habit many car drivers aren’t accustomed to, including myself. Shortly I will have the opportunity to test drive a Tesla Model X over the course of two days and will be able to test the Australian charging network myself.
Lars in Oslo
The Swedish part of this trip was the opportunity to review the local car landscape. The V90 has already established itself, with no less than three spotted in the first 5 minutes of travel. The Audi A6 station wagon and Skoda Superb station wagon are also frequent, but none as much as the VW Passat station wagon. Similarly, both the Kia Cee’d and Toyota Avensis seem to only be successful in its station wagon variant. As such, a survey of 267 cars passed by on the highway showed that 109 or a whopping 40.8% were station wagon, making Sweden the world’s station wagon paradise. Two additional successful nameplates are the Kia Niro and Ford Edge.
Cross the border into Norway, and the car landscape changes drastically. The flow of V90 abruptly drops, and different successful models appear such as the Mazda CX-5, Suzuki S-Cross and Skoda Octavia station wagon. The VW Golf is most successful here as a hatchback, and not the Alltrack station wagon popular in Sweden. And of course a flow of green cars invades the streets: the Kia Soul EV, Toyota Prius, BMW i3, Renault Zoe and Norway’s most striking point of difference: a constant flow of Tesla Model S and X everywhere you go. Green cars can drive on bus lanes in Oslo, conveniently avoiding the traffic jams. A final note for this first day of driving: the frequency of new generation Toyota Hilux, whose sales have leaped up drastically this year as we’ll see in a further update.
I have visited Oslo before (in 1993 and 2000) and drive around for half an hour before a quick stroll on the harbour, enough to verify the ubiquitousness of electric charging stations. I’m headed to the General Hotel, a previous military camp refurbished as a hotel situated in Hønefoss, 60km north-east of Oslo. The breakfast buffet includes smoked pepper mackerel and chicken live pate. Now it’s official: I’m in Scandinavia! The first stop of the day is to the Heddal Stave Church (as featured in the leading photo of this article), Norway’s largest and most beautiful church of this kind, originally built in 1242. A stave church is a medieval wooden Christian church building once common in north-western Europe. The name derives from the buildings’ structure of post and lintel construction, a type of timber framing where the load-bearing ore-pine posts are called stafr in Old Norse (stav in modern Norwegian). Originally much more widespread, most of the surviving stave churches are in Norway, this according to Wikipedia.
After Heddal we reach the Norwegian Riviera, a “string of pristine coastal villages of whitewashed timber”, according to the Lonely Planet. Now that summer holidays are over, these quaint little villages are very quiet indeed, and although I was very much looking forward to visiting them, Risør, Grimstad and Lillesand all did appear very uptight to me, exclusive havens of sophisticated houses with little warmth and sense of welcoming.
After a night near Kristiansand we are headed towards the Flekkerfield to Ergensund coastal road Rv44. It’s a very scenic succession of barren boulders and lakes, peppered with tiny villages of white or red timber houses, rendered even more dramatic by the menacing weather that day. It’s now that my real adventure in Norway starts, with this mysterious drive into a land that seems cut-off from time and space.
Then it’s onto the first ferry ride of this trip in Sandness, to reach the parking lot for Preikestolen, in English the Pulpit Rock. 90 minutes of a pretty strenuous walk under the rain and I reach the incredible 604m-tall cliff, pictured further up in this article and below. This is an experience I will never forget. The gloomy weather – but dry at the summit – gives an ominous feel to every move you make, and walking all the way up to the edge with no fences of any kind is making my heart uncontrollably race. Some people were happily sitting on the edge with their legs balancing above the void, but that’s not for me and just watching them gave me stomach cramps. If you ever got the chance to visit the top of the defunct World Trade Centre in New York City, imagine a similarly steep cliff 1.5 times higher and being able to walk as close to the edge as you wish. The stuff of nightmares as far as I am concerned, but also strangely and strongly attractive. The view from the top onto Lysefjord is simply unforgettable. I highly recommend Preikestolen, a place like no other in the world.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Norwegian series hitting Stavanger…