“This isn’t just a new car, it’s a whole new image for the brand.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that old saw â€” and it always sends my trusty Bullshitometer [Check your local feed store for availability. â€“ Ed.] straight into the red zone. Of course, when I heard those exact words at the 2016 Volvo XC90 press junket, my jaded and cynical mind clicked into “ya, right” mode.
But â€” shocker â€” this time it’s actually true!
Five years ago, Volvo was bought by a Chinese concern called Geely, which since then has poured about $11 billion into the Swedish automaker. Aside from the nifty new Drive-E engines, which debuted last year â€” the new XC90 is the first tangible evidence of the â€śnewâ€ť Volvo, and I can tell you it clearly shows thereâ€™s a new day at Volvo â€” and other luxury brands might want to check their rear-view mirrors, because the Swedes are coming up fast.
Styling and Design
Volvo’s designs always have aged well. Look at the outgoing XC90: It was first introduced in 2002 (as a ’03 model), and despite few exterior changes it still looks fresh and modern. This same enduring appeal applies to all of Volvo’s current models.
The new XC90 is a bit of a departure: It’s boxier, and the angles are sharper than seen in recent Volvos, yet itâ€™s still handsome and well proportioned. I’m having a bit of trouble with the sideways “T” in the headlights; they remind me of goat’s eyes, which I have always found rather disturbing, but I like the new take on the full-height taillights. After a couple of days of studying the XC90 in the hotel parking lot, it began to look . . . well, right. Itâ€™s a new look but is still very much a Volvo, and in that respect the styling is a metaphor for the rest of the car.
Inside the Cabin
There is nothing more important in a luxury car than the interior, and I’m pleased to report that Volvo got it right. Its designers appear to have enjoyed a lavish budget, melding high-quality materials with a restrained, classy design. Every surface I touched felt as though designers and engineers had spent countless nights slaving over the fit and finish when they should have been home helping their kids with homework. (Sorry, kids, but your mommies and daddies are really good at their jobs!)
Taking center stage is Volvo’s new Sensus control system, which is so innovative that I’m going to leave it for the â€śTechnology and Innovationâ€ť section below. Suffice it to say that Volvo has replaced a plethora of buttons with what amounts to a tablet computer, and it’s a great idea; it’s easy to use and leaves an elegant, uncluttered dashboard.
The instrument panel is actually a video screen that displays an analog speedometer and tachometer. The space between the virtual gauges can be used for a full-color moving map, which is linked to the standard-fit navigation system, and there’s an optional ($900) full-color head-up display that projects speed, speed limits, and next-turn directions into the windshield. The whole system is designed to keep primary information as close to the driver’s line of sight as possible, and it works very well.
Volvo is famous for its comfy seats, and the XC90 is no exception. The front buckets are multi-adjustable and super-supportive, and with a tilt/telescope steering column and expansive outward sightlines, it’s easy to find the right driving position. And while other automakers offer synthetic leather in their low-end models, the XC90â€™s standard upholstery is genuine cowhide.
The second row is equally comfortable, though legroom is just average despite fore-and-aft adjustment. A handy built-in booster seat for toddlers is a $250 option. The XC90 has a two-place third row seat as standard, and while I’d stop short of calling it comfortable, it will accommodate adults in far more humane conditions than most third-row seats, and it even gets its own A/C vents and storage compartments.
Another surprise: Even with the third row in place, there’s a usable 15.8 cubic feet of cargo space, which is enough for groceries and small suitcases. The third row splits and folds to open up a healthy 41.8 cubic feet, and the second row splits in three sections to provide a maximum cargo capacity of 85.7 cubic feet and a flat load floor.
Technology and Innovation
There’s so much to talk about here â€” where to begin? Let’s start with the giant touch-screen, which Volvo calls Sensus, on the XC90’s center stack. I havenâ€™t been a fan of the move from buttons to computer interfaces, but I’ll be darned if Volvo hasn’t gotten it right, replacing traditional controls with what amounts to a tablet computer. The vertically-oriented screen is divided into four zones (navigation, stereo, climate, and a user-definable space), each can be expanded to take up about half the screen, and climate controls are always shown at the bottom. Use of the screen will be familiar to anyone who owns a smartphone; tap, swipe, pinch and stretch motions are all supported. Redundant physical buttons are limited to the essentials: Basic stereo controls, front and rear defroster, and hazard lights.
Adapting a tablet paradigm to the dashboard is a brilliant move. Not only is it a user interface already familiar to millions, it essentially has moved the learning curve out of the car and into our everyday lives. If you can use a smartphone, you can use Sensus. And because the control layout is now software-driven, Volvo can correct issues based on user feedback by simply updating the interface, which can be done remotely through the system’s built-in cloud connectivity. Well done, Volvo. Very, very well done.
Safety is a big deal to Volvo, which pledged that by the year 2020 no one will be killed or seriously injured in a brand-new Volvo, and the XC90 is a showcase of its latest and greatest safety gear. Along with a strengthened body shell and airbags everywhere, the XC90 features an improved version of Volvo’s City Safety system, which can automatically brake the car to reduce the severity of a collision (or, at low speeds, avoid them altogether). The system is now programmed to protect the car during a left turn by detecting cars approaching at high speed. We see these accidents all the time in my home city of Los Angeles: Some half-wit speeds up to blow through the light as it turns red and T-bones an oncoming car as it makes a (legal) left turn. City Safety detects these oncoming ignoramuses, and if the Volvo driver tries to make the turn, the system will apply the brakes.
City Safety can also detect an imminent collision from the rear. Naturally, the XC90 can’t apply the brakes on a car about to rear-end it, but it will flash the hazard lights to get the other driver’s attention. If a collision is about to happen, it will tighten the seat belts and charge the braking system to reduce the possibility of a second collision with any vehicle ahead.
Yet another new feature is Run-Off Road protection. When a car leaves the pavement and hits uneven terrain (or, worse yet, a ditch or a culvert), the vertical forces can cause serious spinal injuries. The XC90 detects such accidents and responds by tightening the seatbelts. Combined with seat frames that are designed to deform so as to cushion the impact, the XC90 can keep its occupants upright and reduce the severity of the impact.
As you’d expect from a vehicle in this class, the XC90 offers a blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic alert as well as lane-departure warning and correction; surprisingly, they are extra-cost options. Other options include a 360-degree “Surround View” camera to aid parking, and an auto-parking system that not only works for both parallel and perpendicular spots but can also help the driver pull out of them as well (the car does the steering; the driver works the shifter, gas and brake).
Under the Hood
Here’s the next big surprise: This 4,600-lb SUV is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The base powerplant is called the Drive-E T6, and it boosts power using an engine-driven supercharger at low engine speeds and an exhaust-driven turbocharger at high speeds. On paper, the results are an impressive 316 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. In the real world, the whole system is virtually transparent: Aside from a characteristic four-cylinder buzz, the XC90 moves as if it has a stout V6 under the hood, with effortless passing power (Volvo says it records a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds). An eight-speed automatic is standard, as is all-wheel drive. My only complaint about this engine is the noise at idle and at low speeds. And fuel economy is an unknown factor: EPA estimates hadn’t been finalized, and Volvo was keeping tight-lipped, promising only “best in class” fuel economy (which translates to low- to mid-20s in the EPA combined cycle.)
Better acceleration and fuel economy can be had with the T8 plug-in hybrid powertrain. Under the hood is the same 2.0-liter engine and eight-speed automatic, but they drive only the front axle; the rear wheels are driven by a 60 kW electric motor (that’s 82 hp and 177 lb.-ft. to us ‘Muricans). The 9.2 kW lithium-ion battery can be charged at home, and when fully juiced the XC90 T8 will run on battery power where possible, at speeds up to 70 mph. A smartly designed power meter, which can be called up to replace the tachometer on the video-screen dash, shows the driver the threshold between electric and gas power, essentially granting the ability to turn the gas engine on and off at will. When the battery runs low, the XC90 T8 operates like a regular hybrid: The gas engine does most of the heavy lifting and the electric motor boosts power as needed.
Volvo will offer the XC90 with either steel springs or an optional ($1,800) air suspension. All of the T6s and T8s I sampled had air springs, and, as air suspensions are inclined to do, provided a near-perfect balance between ride comfort and cornering prowess. I loved the combo, though I’d like to try the steel-sprung car before passing final judgment on the XC90’s on-road manners.
I’ve always found Volvos to be somewhat standoffish; the focus on safety and simplicity made them seem smart but a little aloof. Not so with this new XC90: Itâ€™s brimming with personality. I love the space, the luxury, and the way it embraces new technology throughout, from the innovative powertrain to the brilliant Sensus touch-screen system.
In the past, Volvo has stood apart from the crowd â€“ by choice â€“ but this new XC90 is ready to dive into fray with the likes of Audi, Mercedes, and Lexus with a new level of luxury without abandoning its core Swedish sensibility and smarts. The XC90 is comfortable, practical, and powerful, and when properly equipped it’s about as safe as you can get short of never leaving your house. Emotional appeal? I liked the car so much, I wanted to sneak off with it for a lark in the south of France.
The Final Verdict
My enthusiasm aside, it might be a bit early to cast a final verdict on the XC90. During my press drive I had access only to high-end Inscription models, which start at $55,495 and were optioned up to $63,950 for the T6 versions (T8 plug-in hybrid pricing had not been announced when this was written). Volvo says most buyers will go for the $49,895 steel-sprung Momentum model, and while itâ€™s technically the entry-level XC90, it comes with leather, navigation, and a host of luxury nice-to-haves. I’m eager, too, to try the $51,895 XC90 R-Design, which will bring a higher level of sportiness to an already capable roadrunner.
From my first look, I can’t help but think that Volvo is on a winning path. The XC90 builds on Volvo’s traditional strengths of safety and practicality, and it also makes a tremendous leap forward in the areas of luxury and technology that mean so much in todayâ€™s marketplace. If this is the future of the Volvo brand, then that future is looking pretty darn bright.
Opinions from the Rest of the AutoWeb Team
|Aaron Gold||Recommend.||Volvo is on a winning path.|
|Bob Gritzinger||Have not driven.||Delayed overhaul due to new Chinese ownership does the Swedish brand proud.|
|Christian Wardlaw||Have not driven.|
|Kirk Bell||Have not driven.|
|Michael Harley||Have not driven.||The Swedes are back in the game.|
|Ron Sessions||Recommend.||Thor’s mistress unbosomed. Easily the most seductive Volvo since the 1800 sports coupe.|
Photos: Â©2015 Volvo