When Alan Mulally took the reins as CEO of Ford Motor Company in 2006, a key element of his strategy to revive the struggling century-old automaker was to dispense with any brands under the corporate umbrella that didn’t carry the founder’s name. During his tenure he found buyers for all of the European luxury brands that his predecessors had acquired including Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. Volvo was the last to go, with China’s Geely Group finally closing the deal in August 2010. While production was never interrupted, the brand’s rebirth really only began this year with the launch of its first all-new product, the second-generation XC90.
Over the past couple of years, Volvo has revealed a series of concept vehicles which are now coming to life starting with the company’s big crossover. Back in my formative years the running joke about Volvo design was that the cars looked like the box they were shipped in. That’s certainly not the case for the XC90. The new design language is handsome and contemporary without being radical. It’s the sort of classic well-tailored suit I expect to see Volvo design chief Peter Horbury wearing whenever I see him.
The basic shape is a slightly rounded big wagon. Unlike some newer premium crossovers, Volvo hasn’t resorted to a forward sloping tailgate that cuts into interior volume in the hope of creating a more sporting appearance. Instead, they’ve stuck to a full box so that passengers in the third row still get some reasonable headroom. There are however some nice details to be found. In keeping with Sweden’s viking heritage, the headlamps feature LED running lamps that evoke “Thor’s Hammer,” an element that will appear on other new Volvos as they are redesigned in the next few years. At the back, the LED taillamps are shaped to emphasize the XC90’s broad shoulders.
The second-generation XC90 is available in North America with two powertrains, both of which include a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with both a turbocharger and a mechanically driven supercharger. The base powertrain generates 316-horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque that spans from 2,200 to 4,500 rpm. Despite having a mass of more than 4,600-pounds, this engine has more than enough beef to move the Volvo around without struggling. The engine is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission sending drive torque to all four wheels.
The optional setup adds an 87-horsepower electric motor and a lithium ion battery that can provide upwards of 20 miles of electric driving capability when charged from a plug. The combined output of the four-cylinder and the motor is 400-hp and 472 lb.-ft. of torque. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to try out the T8 plug-in hybrid yet.
Inside the top-of-the-line T6 Inscription model I drove had the optional Bowers & Wilkins audio system with 1,400 watts and 19 speakers spread throughout the cabin. Among the features of this system was a digital sound processor that could replicate the acoustics of a recording studio or the Gothenburg concert hall. I have no idea if the hall actually sounds like the XC90, but I can say the system sounded fabulous in all modes.
The cabin was finished in Nappa leather with some selected walnut veneer accents with a matte finish which I personally prefer to high-gloss coatings. In typical Volvo fashion the seats were very comfortable and I have no doubt that this would be a great place to sit for a long road trip. The driver’s perch has plenty of available adjustments including the lumbar support, side bolsters and particularly pleasing for me, thigh support.
For those with youngsters that are too old for a separate child seat but still a bit short to properly position the seatbelt over the shoulder, Volvo offers an integrated booster seat in the second row. The cushion of the middle position in the second row is split so that it can be moved into the booster position. The XC90 also offers extra flexibility for mixing and matching people and cargo. The third-row seat splits in the middle to fold while the middle row splits into three sections so you can carry long objects on both sides while keeping the booster available in the middle if needed.
The XC90 I tested also had the four-corner air suspension package that also includes electronic variable damping. When equipped with air suspension a switch in the cargo area lets you lower the rear end about six inches for easier loading of heavy cargo. This came in handy when I went to pick up a used treadmill I had acquired off Craigslist.
There are two high-resolution LCDs for the driver, a 12.4-inch unit for the instrument cluster plus a nine-inch portrait touch screen for the standard Sensus connect infotainment system. The Sensus system was attractive and the touch response was excellent. However, as I’ve noted with other touch dependent systems a lot of functionality is buried more than one swipe or tap away and nothing can be executed without looking at the screen, taking eyes away from the road.
Given Volvo’s long standing emphasis on safety, I’m frankly surprised that they didn’t develop a better solution with some sort of physical control. As touch systems go, Sensus is better than most, but touchscreens just don’t belong in cars, at least not while humans have to drive them.
You still need to be active in the driving process
Speaking of which, Volvo has long been at the forefront of developing active safety systems, debuting features like blindspot monitoring, cross traffic alert and pedestrian/cyclist detection all of which are standard in the XC90. I didn’t get an opportunity to evaluate the pedestrian/cyclist detection, but the active park assist worked really well for both parallel and perpendicular parking. The interface for the parking system is a bit non-intuitive, being embedded in one of the Sensus screens, but once you figure it out, parking is a breeze.
The adaptive cruise control was also smooth and worked reliably with radar sensors to bring the vehicle to a complete stop when following a car in traffic. A new addition to the feature set for the XC90 is the Pilot Assist, which was really cool as a semi-autonomous system when it worked, but couldn’t be relied upon. Pilot assist uses the radar and the front camera that powers the lane keeping system to provide almost automatic driving in stop and go traffic below 30 mph. It will automatically steer the vehicle within the lane, accelerate and brake, maintaining a safe following distance.
Unfortunately since it relies on lane markings to steer, if it didn’t detect them which happened all too often, it would not engage. Even on a road that was paved and painted just a few months ago, the high contrast lane markers were frequently not detected. In the rain, they could not be seen at all. The system also disengages when crossing an intersection where the lane markers go away.
This is by no means a problem unique to Volvo, but if automakers are going to let people rely on the electronics to do the driving, it needs to work all the time. This is especially true if we are going to rely on self-driving capability to enable mobility for seniors, the young and the physically challenged, all of whom might not have the ability to take control in the event of a sudden downpour.
Fortunately, actively the driving the XC90 is a pretty pleasurable experience and while the electronic assists are nice, they aren’t essential. The combination of that powerful twin-charged engine and a well sorted suspension make the XC90 a far more dynamic machine than should be possible with two-and-a-half tons to haul around. A switch behind the starter knob in the center console lets you select between normal, sport, eco or off-road driving modes that makes changes to the steering effort, suspension, throttle response and transmission shift points.
Granted, this is no Porsche Cayenne or BMW X6M, but drivers that need to haul up to six extra passengers around or lots of cargo won’t feel like they’ve sacrificed all of the joy of driving. According to Volvo, the XC90 will sprint to 60 mph in just 6.1 seconds and while I didn’t clock, that number seems about right. If your off-road needs extend beyond a gravel road, you might want to stick with the base Momentum trim level and its 19-inch wheel and tire combination. The optional 21-inch alloys wrapped in 275/40R-21 Pirelli Scorpions likely won’t be very happy chasing your Wrangler driving friends over boulders.
Given its size and mass, the big Volvo is also reasonably efficient returning just shy of 23 mpg over a week of mixed driving. The EPA rates the 2016 XC90 at 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined. The PHEV version isn’t available yet here in the US while Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will be added in the coming months. As equipped, the XC90 T6 Inscription I drove stickered out at $66,855 with delivery, not inexpensive, but still quite reasonable compared to its chief competitors from southern Germany. The XC90 isn’t quite ready to take the reins but it will probably get you where you want to be in comfort and safety. It’s good to see that the first fully new vehicle effort from another member of the Ford diaspora under new ownership has turned out so well for Volvo and this bodes well for the rest of the lineup as it gets renewed in the next few years.