Overland Expo is a tale of two worlds.
On the low end, adventure seekers outfit inexpensive motorcycles with rustic aluminum cases on either side to haul just enough gear to camp from one site to the next. On the other, the wealthiest 10% spends hundreds of thousands on extravagant, sometimes larger-than-life outfits that are more “movable condo” than “overland vehicle”.
Even though I grew up as a car guy, the world of over-landing was fairly new to me. So I decided to check out the frenzy at the largest gathering in Flagstaff, Arizona. I invited one of my best friends along (who is also a car guy) to revel in the ridiculousness.
Our carrier for the weekend was courtesy of the Swedes: a 2017 Volvo V90 Cross Country, registering 868 miles on the odometer. We set sail Friday midday for two-and-a-half hours north on I-17. Our tester was fully optioned with a price tag north of $60,ooo.
For a couple of young gun campers like us, the V90 checked all the essentials. A turbocharger and supercharger to rev us through quiet highways, upgraded sound system, and 50+ ft. of cargo space to haul our gear.
On the open road, the V90 drives like a boat. Its 115.8 inches from wheel-to-wheel of Scandinavian engineering, but has enough cameras to make the whole thing manageable. (The fact that it can turn on a dime also helps.) We tested all four driving modes ranging from “Eco” to “High Performance,” which sends more power to the wheels.
We pulled into the Expo late on day one, but managed to score a great camping spot right near the front of the site. It was almost immediately clear that this isn’t the place for shiny & new – mud, dirt, and grime act as battle scars – so it was little surprise that the V90 stood out. The sharp Swedish angles and pseudo-suburb vibes drew more than a few passersby while it was parked as the cornerstone of our campsite.
When it comes down to it, Overland Expo is a free-for-all. A loose check-in is the first point of contact for attendees, with many opting to camp at the adjacent campsite (as we did).
For Land Rover, Land Cruiser and Mercedes utility enthusiasts, the Expo is sensory overload. The Brits had a full driving course testing out the new 2018 Discovery that’s not even in dealers yet (a muted, yet intriguing SUV worth another drive under more demanding circumstances). Between Unimogs, Sprinter conversions and G-Wagens, the Germans were well represented.
Speaking of the Germans, our favorite truck of the weekend wasn’t even in the Expo officially. It was in the parking lot. One of the unsung highlights of Overland Expo is the vast asphalt where day pass holders leave their rigs. Everyone takes the opportunity to show off their latest mods or upgrades to the peanut gallery. Perched nicely in the west corner of the lot was a ridiculously awesome G-Wagen conversion fittingly named “Mastodon.” Perfectly crossing the line between practical and utilitarian, this Benz had two regular seats plus fold out benches in the back under an open canopy. Just like a muddy sundae, the bright red paint under the Arizona sun was the perfect cherry on top. We spent no less than 20 minutes fantasizing about taking the Mastodon on the open trail with reckless abandonment.
Beyond the wide array of motorized civilization, the Expo also offers a fairly packed class schedule on the finer points of overland survival. We had perused the lineup in advance, marking down a few courses on day two. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any of them. Even after chatting with staff, the locations were either too far away or unclear.
However, as one door closes, another opens as they say. We stumbled upon a class taught by Camel Trophy experts about winching yourself and your truck out of a ditch. The teachers, obvious tenured overland professors in their own right, dug into (yes, meant that pun) the finer points of how to set, pull, and run motions. It was an interesting look into how these guys operate in tough competitions around the world.
After a day-and-half of gawking at outrageous trucks, trailers and every accessory one could imagine, we decided to take off for the 90-minute drive to the Grand Canyon. No complaints from our V90 (although the nav system did have a couple issues, either not knowing where a restaurant was or taking us to a store that no longer existed).
Between our various adventures up and down I-17, the Volvo was generally a champ. As we returned to the airport parking lot, though, we couldn’t help thinking about this car’s general identity crisis. Its 8.4 inches of ground clearance lands it higher than my Subaru Impreza Sport, but not quite in SUV territory. It also feels a bit younger than most crossovers, but that pseudo-suburb vibe holds it back from true European sportiness.
As rough and tumble as the Expo and its trucks were, the V90 Cross Country remained smooth and casual throughout. It did everything we asked of it effortlessly. Is it a car we would buy as mid-20 somethings though? Probably not. Check back with us in a decade when we’re a bit wiser and older and perhaps you’ll see it in our driveways.
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