This isn’t just any old family tank, this is the new Volvo XC90, and it’s a very exciting car for a number of reasons.
First of all, it’s the first vehicle released on Volvo’s new Scalable Product Architecture, which makes it very important for the Swedes’ future. The other intriguing thing about this car is its incredible packaging and mind-blowing safety technology - only Volvo can make us interested in all that stuff.
With all that in mind, we decided to spend the day cruising the country in an XC90 to see what the future holds for this new-look Volvo, and have outlined the things that have us excited.
When Volvo released that trio of gorgeous concept cars last year, we collectively swooned before writing them off as never making production looking anywhere near that sexy. Well, we’ve been left pleasantly surprised that the design language has transferred nicely to the car you can buy today.
The XC90 definitely looks its best from the front, which hides the fact that this thing is humungous and shows off the already-iconic ‘Thor’s hammer’ daytime running lights, newly redesigned grille and muscular haunches. Sure, it looks a bit bland in profile, and the wheels can look a little lost in the bulk, but overall it’s a handsome car.
I’ve got to make an admission: I was expecting this land yacht to handle like exactly that, rolling about like it’s lost at sea in a storm when you’re pressing on. After all, it’s bigger than the old one and it’s about six feet tall. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s largely due to the suspension. The standard setup has double wishbones at the front, while the rear gets multi-link with a lightweight transverse composite leaf spring. It’s good enough for normal use, but the dream setup comes in the form of the optional air suspension. It’s remarkable.
With this box ticked, you can select from various setups: Eco, Comfort, Off-Road and Dynamic. Each of these makes a discernible difference to performance, and in Dynamic mode the steering and throttle response is noticeably more immediate. It’s no rocket ship, but there’s acceptable pickup.
The vast majority of XC90 owners will have no intention of throwing the car about in the ways I did, but it’s highly promising that they can. The grip from the front end is so good that it takes a while to attune your senses, but once you realise that the front tyres really will gather up all this bulk and drag you through the corner, you can start taking hilarious liberties.
It’s not the sort of car you can really lean into; despite all the weight saving, this is a tall car, and the centre of gravity is quite high so even though it doesn’t pitch and roll like you’d expect, you do get thrown around a bit. Our route featured miles of off camber corners, humps and yumps and torrential downpours; you can feel the XC90 move about but it wriggles with you. It’s genuinely good fun.
Volvo’s commitment to creating flexible, shareable parts for its range is also evident in the engines. Both the diesel and petrol units are built off the same base, and no engines will be bigger than 2.0-litres or four cylinders. The differences in performance and economy will come from variations in forced induction and hybrid ‘twin-engine’ drivetrains.
In the UK we get two engine choices at launch, the D5 diesel and T6 petrol. In normal driving there’s surprisingly little difference between the two, so you won’t suffer for chasing economy. The petrol’s naturally more responsive, making 315bhp and providing a decent kick with maximum torque of 295lb ft coming in at just 2200rpm. The petrol does have one quirk, in the form of a greedy gearbox, which was constantly searching for the appropriate gear; even in Dynamic mode it would try to get up through the gears ASAP, leaving a pause when you replanted your foot as it dropped back down to provide punch.
Later this year the T8 ‘twin-engine’ model will go on sale, which gets the same petrol engine as the T6 with the added bonus of 86bhp from an electric motor, which should make it pretty bonkers. Naturally, we’ll be driving that as soon as it’s available…
Volvo is targeting a higher class of buyer with the XC90, and that shows inside. The leathers are all soft to the touch, and everything just oozes quality. The optional Bowers and Wilkins sound system is by far the greatest speaker set in any car, with 19 speakers and a 12 channel 1400w amp that has been integrated into the chassis to improve sound quality.
Taking in the bigger picture, though, the fact that Volvo has nailed minimalist design without going too far is encouraging. Many manufacturers use touchscreens to remove all the buttons, and it just becomes a pain flicking through menus and taking your eyes off the road. Here, important dials and switches remain in a single bar on the centre console, with everything else intuitively incorporated into the central screen. Which brings me on to…
The 9-inch screen in the centre console, dubbed Sensus, is easily the best system of any car. It’s exactly like using a phone or tablet, with pinch to zoom, swiping between menus, and intuitive menu navigation.
There are tiles for the most popular apps such as navigation and music, and when you select one, the others get minimised to the bottom of the screen. This means they’re always within easy reach, and you’re not left rooting around in menus when you should be watching the road. It also has instantaneous response; by comparison the Tesla unit looks fantastic, but it’s painfully slow to respond to your inputs.
My favourite aspect, though, is the fact that touches are registered by intersecting rays of light, rather than by heat detection as is traditionally the case. The advantage? When you climb inside from a cold Swedish winter, you can work the sat nav without taking off your gloves!
Don’t worry, we’re not going to go too sensible on you here, but the packaging solutions are genuinely fascinating. Thanks to the smaller engines and long wheelbase, the cabin can be bigger, giving occupants more space.
Furthermore, the rear leaf spring setup was chosen as it helped give extra boot space, and the fuel tank was incorporated into the gap between the wheels to ensure there was no intrusion into the boot. The rear seats fold perfectly flat because the side bolsters have been designed to slot into the cushion bolsters. I could go on about this stuff all day.
Speaking of attention to detail in packaging, there are also a lot of interior touches that are hugely useful that you might not see elsewhere. The biggest news for families is that each row of seats is marginally higher than the one in front, allowing greater visibility and reducing travel sickness. The second row has three individual seats that move forward, backwards and recline on their own.
Scandinavian culture inspires pretty much every aspect of the XC90’s design. From the minimalist dashboard to the choices of materials, Swedishness is all over the place. Volvo is proud of its nationality, and has stitched a small Swedish flag into the side of the driver’s seat, as well as engraving ‘Since 1959’ into the seat belts; Volvo invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959.
Volvo knows where it’s from, knows where it’s been, and that gives it direction, identity, and most importantly, character.
Volvo is all about safety, and that’s why it has dedicated itself to seeing nobody killed or injured in, or by, one of its cars by 2020. That’s a bold vision, and requires a lot of dedication to safety. The XC90 packs a couple of new technologies: run off road protection realises when you’ve gone off road and tightens your belt, retracts the brake pedal, and compresses the seat to minimise spinal injuries, and auto brake at junctions stops the car if someone pulls in front of you.
The XC90 can also anticipate when someone is about to rear-end you, and will brace you for impact, as well as automatically braking if you’re about to hit someone or something. That’ll make a huge difference to the inattentive idiots we all see gormlessly cruising the streets today.
The XC90 is one of the next generation of intelligent cars. Everything’s connected nowadays, and that extends to your vehicle. Your car can connect to your home WiFi while it sits in your driveway, and download software updates. You can also book a service or checkup with your local dealer through the Sensus system. When you arrive it’ll connect to the dealer, and inform the receptionist you’re there so they can prepare the workshop before you’ve even walked through the door.
Volvo took a bit of a gamble when it invested $11billion into its product transformation plan. The target was a highly flexible platform that focuses on strength, lightness, and space efficiency. The result is SPA, and it looks like Volvo’s faith in ditching collaborations in favour of its own people’s knowledge has paid off.
The XC90 is a fantastically capable car, and it’s easy to see how the packaging and chassis lessons Volvo has learned from building this car will trickle down to the V and S models in the form of saloons and estates every petrolhead can enjoy.