In the not too distant past Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo were all part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group. Ford sold off each of those brands, while keeping Lincoln and killing Mercury. Interestingly, since then, one by one, those brands started turning themselves around. It took a little time but each brand introduced attractive new products. With fewer shared parts and increased quality, sales and profits went up. Except for the Lincoln brand which is still under Ford’s management, still confused, still struggling.
The new XC90 is the first all-new Ford-free Volvo. It is a vehicle that they had to get right. The premium three-row crossover SUV is probably the most competitive vehicle segment today. To stand out, the new XC90 had to attractive, safe, luxurious, and reasonably priced. Judging by its looks and the numerous accolades the XC90 has received, Volvo has a winner on their hands. But is there more to it than just looks? Does the new XC90 offer something that its direct competitors do not?
Making a three row CUV look good is a challenge. There are proportions that are not always even due the space required for the second and third row occupants. The design has to be a blend of bubbly aerodynamics, perceived ruggedness, and modern styling. It has to appeal emotionally to men and women alike, yet remain functional and comfortable. The XC90 Volvo hits the very middle of that Venn diagram.
Inside, Volvo employed the best Swedish designers they could afford. The interior is very modern and airy, with some visible Range Rover influence. Big windows yield great visibility and allow plenty of light, which seems poetic as it was designed in a country with incredibly short winter days. Most knobs and buttons have been integrated into a big vertical iPad-like screen, for better or worse. Volvos always had fantastic seats and this vehicle is no different for the five primary occupants. The leather is soft, padding is almost perfect, and it even smells nice. The exceptions are the front seat headrests which are not adjustable and annoyingly, but in the name of safety, always press against the occupants’ occiputs.
The second row seat is divided 40:20:40 and each part slides forwards and backwards to allow more legroom for third row passengers. Each backrest folds independently allowing various cargo configurations. The two outboard seats have tilt-and-slide feature for third row access and the middle seat cleverly converts into kid booster seat. The third row consists of two separate seats that are best reserved for kids. None of this sliding, folding, and tilting is really revolutionary and several other makers have better ways of achieving those actions. There is a cargo cover but it can only be used with the third row is folded, and it is rather flimsy. All second and third row headrests can be dropped forward by pressing a button on the screen to allow better rearward vision – a handy Volvo feature.
The clean dash design has some downsides, however. The sole knob turns the audio volume up and down. To adjust the climate system, heat the seats or the steering wheel, even adjust parts of the seats, and seemingly turn anything else on or off, one must resort to using the screen. The good news is that similar features are grouped and the whole thing is rather easy to use after a brief study. The bad news is that the screen is prone to finger prints and is difficult to see in direct sunlight from the big side windows and sunroof. The test vehicle, with 16,000 miles, had what looked to be permanent finger swipe marks on its screen that were visible under certain angles – perhaps a replaceable smartphone-like screen cover would be a good idea?
The screen interfaces with the typical audio sources and works as a navigation system, too, with a secondary map in the gauge cluster. The problem is that this big screen mostly displays only one thing at a time, for instance: when the map is displayed, phone or audio controls are accessible. The only true pop-up is the temperature adjustment and seat heating/ventilation. A swipe to the left or right shows setting menus or various on/off soft-buttons that are typically scattered through the dash. While those are mostly secondary level controls, it’s impossible to develop any muscle memory to, for instance, disable the engine auto start/stop. This requires a swiping left (or was it right?) and tapping a soft-key which is somewhere in the second quadrant of the screen, unless the screen is scrolled down, which moves the button to somewhere else. Point is, accessing some features requires the driver to take eyes off the road, and that is not good.
Part of the package is also Apple CarPlay, which at first glance seems very cool. First, you connect your iPhone to the Volvo via the USB port and answer some pop-up questions on the screen. At that time several of your apps become visible on the screen. Those are mostly audio apps, maps, and the typical call and text message buttons. Siri helps you make calls, reads your text messages, and helps you respond. Pandora works flawlessly, too. But not all apps are present, however. For instance the Sirius satellite radio app did not pop-up and neither did Waze, one of most driver-friendly apps ever created.
Furthermore, the CarPlay system is not fully integrated with the vehicle. For instance: you get a text message with an address, clicking it opens it in the map app. On the screen you can choose to set it as your destination but it does not default to the vehicle’s navigational system but rather stays on the Apple Maps app. If the car nav system is already running, the two systems will fight for your attention. Additionally, any audio from the non-supported apps will not be heard if an audio source other than the phone is selected. Finally, CarPlay won’t work wirelessly via Bluetooth; the phone has to be connected via USB.
No matter where your music comes from, the Bowers & Wilkins makes even crappy and low quality music sound great. While optional and rather pricey, it may be one of the best sounding audio systems on the market, at least to my ears. For the eyes there is a nifty head-up display but it is not visible through polarized sunglasses. Your sense of touch will be rewarded with really nice materials throughout the cabin but the overall sense experience is notch below BMW or Mercedes-Benz, and especially noticeable when closing the doors.
Just about all premium three-row SUVs like this one drive really nicely. Gone are the days of SUVs rolling over in corners because the driver was going more than 5mph faster than the advisory speed limit. All these cars are quiet, comfortable, with handling that may have been considered sedan-like not too long ago. The problem is when automakers try to make them even sportier. This XC90 had the optional air suspension and it did a phenomenal job on a cruise from Boston to New York City. But in Manhattan, the 21-inch wheels with low profile, wide 275/40-21, tires simply transferred too many imperfections to the air suspension which couldn’t manage them, infrequently sending jolts through the vehicle. I think that smaller wheels and narrower tires would make a big improvement to ride quality anywhere where perfect roads do not exist. Volvo offers wheels from 19 to 22 inches in diameter on the new XC90, so choose wisely.
Volvo unimaginatively calls their new series of four-cylinder engines Drive-E. But what they really are is unlike any other four-banger out there. The engine on XC90 T6 is both supercharged and turbocharged and it works exactly how one would expect it to – the supercharger gives it solid low-end grunt while the turbo takes over at the higher engine speeds. The best way to describe this engine is that it feels like a healthy naturally aspired V6. I reviewed an S60 with this engine some time ago and I loved it.
This two-liter T6 gem is rated at 316hp and 295 lb-ft at 2200rpm, a horsepower-per-liter ratio reserved for sports cars not long ago. It pulls the 4400-pound XC90 at any engine speed, without any issues. There are no delays, no lags, and really no weak spots along the powerband. The eight-speed automatic transmission compliments the engine superbly. The XC90 T6 is EPA rated at 20 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway, and that is pretty much what I got in real life. Tow rating is limited to 5000-pounds, which is about average for three-row CUV.
The 2016 Volvo XC90 starts at $43,950. The T6 AWD starts at $48,900. Check off boxes for the Inscription trim (LED headlights, interior mood lights, leather all over, ventilated seats with extra adjustments, sun shades) at $5600, Vision Package (blind spot, 360-degree cameras) at $1600, Climate pack with HUD (head-up display, heated seats, steering wheel, and washer nozzles) at $1950, Convenience Package (adaptive cruise control, park assist, lane keep, HomeLink) at $1800, Bowers & Wilkins audio at $2500, Metallic paint at $560, booster seat at $250, 21″ wheels at $750, air suspension at $1800, and a destination charge of $995, and it sums up to $66,705, as seen in these pictures. Compared to other premium three-row SUVs, that is a lot more than a loaded Acura MDX or Infiniti QX60, a little bit more than a similarly equipped Land Rover LR4, but less than the BMW X5, Audi Q7, or the bigger Mercedes GLS.
About a year after its introduction, the XC90 is a common sight in the affluent sections of Boston and its suburbs. In my untrained perception it ties in popularity with the Mercedes-Benz GL/GLS and the Land Rover LR4 near school athletic fields. Unlike its competitors, the XC90, and perhaps the Volvo brand overall, represents the new quiet luxury. While many European brands have much stigma associated with them, a Volvo is inoffensive. Perhaps this is why while it was in my possession, the XC90 drew a ton of interest and generated more questions than any other SUV I ever reviewed. Clearly, Volvo has hit the target market with the XC90. Most importantly, it is damn good at what it was intended to be and it previews the future of independently designed Volvos.
Disclaimer: Volvo provided the vehicle for this review. All images copyright Kamil Kaluski/Hooniverse 2016.