At long last, Volvo has replaced its flagship model, which is gunning for the big boys in the premium SUV segment.
IF there is one car that helped popularise the term “soccer mom”, the original Volvo XC90 would be it. The pioneer seven-seater sports utility vehicle attracted families (who didn’t practise birth control) with its interior space, clever seating arrangements, comfort and proven safety. And the old model was popular – Volvo shifted over 636,000 units since 2003. As beloved as the car is, 12 years “on the road” is an eternity in the automotive business.
Other than a few facelifts, cabin upgrades and sportier-looking R-Design packages, the XC90 remained essentially the same SUV since day one. It may have aged well, but I can’t help feeling it’s like Elvis in his latter years: a little lardy and over the hill. Other than the name and those distinctive Volvo-esque tail-lights, the new model is almost unrecognisable from the old one. That’s because everything from chassis to cabin is totally new.
According to Volvo executives, their Chinese master, Geely, gave the Swedish firm free reign over the XC90’s design and development, which were done completely in-house. The car sits on Volvo’s newly introduced Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), a platform with modifiable dimensions that will underpin all future models. The bigger news is that the SPA platform will only accommodate one engine configuration: a 2-litre 4-cylinder powered by petrol, diesel or hybrid energy. The car’s design is typically Scandinavian: clean, simple, understated. Don’t mistake those qualities as boring, though.
The old version’s boxy lines and edges are gone, replaced by an elegant and sophisticated silhouette with “Thor’s Hammer” LED daytime running lights. Gimmicky moniker aside, that “Thor” face is indeed eye-catching, and breaks away from the conservative design mould that large Volvos have been associated with. have been associated with. Headlining the range is the XC90 T8, described as the world’s first plug-in hybrid SUV. Alongside are the petrolpowered T6 and diesel-powered D5. All three XC90s employ a 1969cc inline-4 Drive-E engine, which is supercharged and turbocharged in the petrol versions, and twin-turbocharged in the diesel model
For the T8, the 318bhp petrol engine is mated to an 82bhp electric motor in the rear to give 400bhp and a meaty 640Nm. Its sporty intents are clear, but the T8 doesn’t provide the whack in the head I’d expect upon hard acceleration. Instead, it whooshes along, picking up speed eff ortlessly, without fuss or drama. The car’s hefty 2343kg weight may have something to do with the lack of shove, I suspect. Still, Volvo claims a respectable 0-100km/h time of 5.9 seconds for the T8. All the test cars (and those bound for Singapore) have adaptive air suspension. While the car doesn’t ride as splendidly as, say, the Mercedes S-Class, it’s pretty darn close, even on 20-inch wheels. Body roll through corners, though evident, is well-controlled by Volvo’s automatic-levelling system.
That said, the XC90 is not a “sports” utility vehicle for chasing down Porsche Cayennes and BMW X5s. Push the Volvo hard enough and it feels heavy and unwieldy. I suggest sticking to its limits for a composed, resolved drive. But its steering is a standout – precise, beautifully weighted and surprisingly communicative by big-SUV standards. There are six driving modes to “adapt” the T8: Off Road, AWD, Save, Pure, Power and Hybrid. Save mode, well, saves the battery’s energy for later usage by employing only the petrol engine; Pure mode turns the XC90 into a gigantic electric vehicle with a claimed range of 40-plus kilometres on a full charge; Power mode activates “Twin Engine” to give the driver instant strong acceleration on demand; and Hybrid, which is the default driving mode, alternates between internal combustion and electricity to deliver the best fuel efficiency.
It takes a few hours (2½ to 6, depending on the power point/source) to fully charge the batteries. The T8 is equipped with regenerative braking to “rejuice” the battery, but the brake pedal is consequently less progressive than I’d like. However, the actual braking performance is okay. If the car’s dynamic ability doesn’t excite, its frugality and green credentials will. Volvo claims an astonishing economy figure of 40km per litre (combined cycle) in Hybrid mode, plus an iceberg-friendly CO2 figure of just 59g per km. Admittedly, these numbers should be taken with a pinch of Scandinavian salt, but they’d still be highly impressive if they were halved in practice. On the motorway, wind noise from the side mirrors starts to creep in at 140km/h, but below that pace, the vehicle is serene. Equally unruffled, at any pace or place, is the 8-speed automatic transmission.
An unavoidable 4-cylinder roar echoes through the cabin when I put my right foot down, taking some shine off the (pre-production) car’s premium status. Volvo engineers told me they’ll fine-tune the in-car sound-frequency-cancelling system to “improve” the noise. The T6 and D5 share many of the T8’s cosseting qualities, but with added agility in corners thanks to their lower weight. Although the 320bhp T6 is expected to be the best-seller in Singapore (until the entry-level 254bhp T5 arrives at the end of this year), my pick of the bunch is the diesel-burning D5 variant. Besides being more frugal than the T6 (17.2km/L to the T6’s 12.5km/L), the superior low-down torque of the D5 (470Nm at 1750-2500rpm compared to 400Nm at 2200- 5400rpm) means I get the same urgency in the D5 with minimal throttle input, sparing me the thrashy bellow of the T6 petrol engine at high revs.
The D5 engine is superbly refined, with only a slight diesel chatter at idle blemishing the otherwise near-silent operation. Inside the new XC90, all three variants share Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system. Its 9-inch touchscreen dominates the centre of the console, letting the driver tap and scroll through various menus to adjust just about everything – from climate and infotainment to telephone and navigation. Just like with a smartphone, you can pinch/pull to shrink/ enlarge the map view, or hold/ drag the apps you choose for the home page. There’s even a home button at the bottom in case you get lost in the seemingly countless array of menus and tabs. While this leaves the rest of the dashboard uncluttered (no untidy/unnecessary switches), the system in the pre-production XC90 I drove seems laggy, even failing to work at one point. It’s also overly complicated at times, requiring the user to delve into numerous menus and sub-menus to access certain basic functions. Volvo has acknowledged this issue and promised to sort it out.
The cabin cannot be faulted otherwise. It’s lovely and luxurious. The Gothenburg Swedes have managed to bring the “interior fight” to the Germans while maintaining their signature Nordic charm. The driving position is commanding, comfy and spoton. There are swanky leather and wood trim choices aplenty to keep even the most blueblooded aristocrat happy. The most special touches are a diamond-cut roller wheel on the centre console for the driver to scroll through the diff erent driving modes, and a gearshift lever (unique to the T8) made entirely from crystal. Yes, genuine crystal. It may not win any functionality contests, but now you have a legitimate reason to ask passengers if they’d like to “feel your knob”.
There are acres of space to keep your extended family happy. Volvo says that the third-row seats can comfortably accommodate adults up to 1.7m tall, so those seats aren’t limited to children and contortionists. The seats in question are the same as those in the plush second row, albeit raised slightly and set inwards for a better view forward. Overall, the XC90 is a wonderfully spacious and airy dwelling-on-wheels for up to seven contented occupants. Boot space, accessible via a powered tailgate, is a useful 451 litres with all the backseats up and a furnitureswallowing 1951 litres with all the backseats down. This vehicle is ready for Ikea.
In terms of gadgets, the new car really scores. Both the mid-tier (Momentum) and high-tier (Inscription) configurations come with an array of standard goodies that include LED “active bending” headlamps, four-zone climate control with air purification, adaptive cruise control with Pilot Assist (semi-autonomous accelerating/decelerating/ steering in stop-and-go traffi c at speeds of up to 50km/h), lanedeparture warning, automated parking, satellite navigation with road-sign information, and 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio entertainment.
The Inscription model adds 20-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof and Nappa leather upholstery. And what’s a Volvo without a truckload of safety features? Newly introduced this time round are rear-collision warning (the car applies the brakes and tightens the seatbelts when it senses an imminent rear collision), auto brake at intersections (the vehicle halts by itself if the driver turns into the path of an oncoming car) and run-off road protection (the automobile, after sensing you’ve strayed off the tarmac, tightens the seatbelts and adjusts the seats to minimise spinal injuries). Volvo aims to have zero deaths and injuries in its cars by 2020. It’s an ambitious goal, but the host of innovative, intelligent safety features in the XC90 indicates that the carmaker is on the right track.
Clearly, Volvo’s all-new flagship has the performance, opulence and fancy equipment to play in the big league of SUVs, against powerful rivals such as the Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport. Providing the icing on the XC90 cake are its forward-looking design, upmarket feel, Swede comfort on the move, and state-of-the-art safety gear. The new Volvo XC90 will make its Singapore debut in July.