Snow and ice form a natural habitat for Volvo cars, so the Swedish manufacturers take the question of winter driving very seriously indeed. To make the point to journalists Volvo organise annual Winter Tests, usually in frozen Lapland, this year in Serre Chevalier, the French Alpine ski resort near Briancon. As Volvo always encourage we scribes into uninhibited Inotoring in conditions which would paralyse with fear the average British motorist, the occasions are not to be missed.
More positive reasons for this year’s tests (as distinct from an excuse for journalists to let off steam!) were to sample different types of winter tyres and to introduce a revised Volvo 343, the compact 1,400 c.c. hatchback saloon which fits between the 66 (nee DAF) and the zoo series of big Volvos and has the former’s type of Continuously Variable Transmission.
Our adventure — and in the heaviest Alpine snowfalls since 1970 it was indeed an adventure — started with a 250 km. drive from Geneva to Serre Chevalier in a 343, with Volvo’s Chief Engineer Gerard Salinger adding ballast above the De Dion rear end. On the mainly autoroute run to Grenoble there was time to appreciate the comfort of the new, 200-type seats, and discover improvements such as new warm and cold air vents, revised switchgear, a neat rear parcel shelf and a more sensible gear selector lever. Once past Grenoble the roads changed from slushy grey to pure white and we bagan to appreciate the grip of the Firestone S1 Asymmetric non-studded winter tyres; after exhaustive tests, Volvo have found this friction tyre to be the best compromise for varying winter conditions. They can be studded if required. I do not like CVT automatic transmission, but had to acknowledge that it is much better in 1978 guise. The unit no longer changes down at low speeds when the throttle is released, but hard acceleration still produces a lot of buzz for little action as the “rubber bands” strive to catch up with the engine.
This little Volvo proved to have wonderful traction over the almost whited-out Col du Lautaret, which snowblowers were striving to keep open. A couple of hours later the pass was closed for several days.
Heavy snow had prevented the ice-racing circuit behind our hotel being used as a special stage on the previous week’s Monte Carlo Rally, but it was cleared in time for us to let our hair down. The 343 with its 50/50 weight distribution revelled in the conditions, especially a slightly modified version on fully-studded Kleber tyres which could be hurtled around with abandon at extraordinary angles. With springs and dampers uprated for 1978 the refined 343 is a fine handling car indeed; what a shame it has to suffer that transmission! Almost as remarkable was the performance of a 245 Estate on the ice track. Its appearance disguised well-balanced handling on ice. A similar car driven a 387 km. route back to Geneva Airport reminded me that the useful, comfortable, rugged and commodious 245 is heavy and sluggish, yet it climbed another snowy col with alacrity, dual reflections of its Swedish background. — C.R.