2016 Volvo XC90 review by Autoblog


When we arrived at the Mediterranean-facing hotel near Tarragona, Spain, that would serve as HQ for the launch of the 2016 Volvo XC90, a huge staff of company executives, experts and engineers was on hand to greet me. Lined up in front of the hotel lobby like the reception line at a Nordic wedding, the delegation from Gothenburg seemed tensed to pounce on me and the line of fellow journalists filtering in the doors.

Were it not for professionalism and the calm restraint that typifies the Swedish demeanor, we believe we would have been shown to a car and hurried out on a test drive before my carry-on bag could even cross the threshold.

Clearly, this is a vehicle that Volvo has been waiting to launch for a very long time.

It's no wonder that the minds behind the creation and launch of the SUV are pent up; the first generation of the XC90 was inaugurated in 2002 and carried on all the way through the 2014 model year. Thirteen years and 636,000 global units sold later, this 2016 model represents not only a long-overdue successor, but also the first in a line of ground-up-new vehicles that will see Volvo's showrooms completely refreshed in the coming half decade.

More importantly, after driving the thing over hundreds of kilometers of Spanish mountain roads and autov?as, we found that time taken to bring the XC90 to market was well spent. Not only does the SUV hew closely to the sensible values that have made the best Volvos of the past great vehicles, but it might just be the hottest thing going in the three-row luxury segment today.

Volvo's commitment to thoughtful design, both inside and outside of the XC90, is evident even at a casual glance. The exterior reads as solid and fairly simple relative to modern body panel surfacing, but still playfully evokes some of the wagon shapes that made the company famous. The upright stance and slightly squared front and rear may not quite be as bluff as a 240 wagon, but we still see evidence of that heritage alive in this design.

Of course, the very large wheels (21-inchers were optioned on my T6 Inscription model) and a long, wide stance do bring the design up to the minute, as does the weighty grille work and excellent lighting elements. Those tall and curving rear light clusters could have been culled directly from a concept car a few years ago, and the Thor's hammer-shaped front LEDs mix a modern graphic with a sense of play.

Similar elements of impishness can be seen by studying the XC90's well-crafted cabin (have a look at the video above to see me highlight a few in-car Easter eggs), though the company has mostly canned the quirkiness in favor of a true luxury effect. The stoic all-black cabin of my test car helps to play down lighthearted choices like the square center of the round steering wheel and the miniature Swedish flags on the seats, but that doesn't mean there aren't interesting things to look at.

The twist-knob starter switch is unlike any setup I've seen before - kind of splitting the difference between turning a key and pushing a button - and you'll be hard pressed to miss the wavy brightwork that clads the central volume control and drive mode selector. Volvo has also gotten the traditional things really right, with soft leather on touch points that aren't made from substantial feeling metal, and wood or metal accent pieces (depending on trim line) that work for the eyes as well as the fingertips.

But the unquestioned life of the interior party is Volvo's new Sensus infotainment screen, which dominates the center console in a way that makes any non-Model S screen look puny. The nine-inch display looks every bit the part of a top-end tablet, with it's glossy frame and physical "home" button, and is every bit as ready to collect smudges and fingerprints, too. (The fastidious driver should take heart, as we did, that Volvo includes a branded screen-cleaning cloth to keep smudges at bay.)

The big-daddy Sensus screen doesn't just look like a molded-in iPad Mini, either, it actually functions with the speed and responsiveness that we consumers have come to expect. Touchscreen idioms like swiping to change pages and pinching to zoom in are in effect here, and the Volvo tablet responds fluidly to them. There's deep information available as one drills down into the sub-menus, but top-level access to radio/media, navigation, climate control and the like are hardly frustrating. And, as we said, the home button at the bottom serves to quickly re-orient you if you do get in over your head.

Those that abhor the smartphone standard will still rankle at the lack of physical buttons here, but we think the system is marvelous, industry-leading, and the best such I've ever used.

The thoughtful, non-traditional aesthetic is mirrored in the driving experience as well, and in a way that stays true to the brand and the buyer of the brand. Said another way, I've always appreciated how Volvo cars blend good power with confident, but not knife-sharp handling, and really reasonable levels of noise, vibration and harshness in the cabin - not the most sporting members or respective classes, but not slouchy either. That's all true of this XC90.

We liked the effort put forth by the utility vehicle's 2.0-liter twin-charged four-cylinder, just as I've enjoyed it in the S60, even though the "T6" mill can't hustle a 4,600-pound three-row quite so well as a sedan. Still, with 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque available at the whim of my throttle foot, we had no trouble spinning the engine up and scooting around countless Spanish diesel hatchbacks. Peak horsepower doesn't come on until 5,600 rpm, but top torque starts at a more reasonable 2,200 revs, meaning it wasn't terribly hard to launch the tall wagon with some authority, despite it's paucity of cylinders. Who needs a six in these days of wizardly induction?

Before you ask - we did drive the XC90 in T8 "Twin-Engine" plug-in hybrid guise, too. That 400-hp combination of the T6 up front and an electric motor at the rear is impressive, so much so that I'll be bringing you a separate review piece on it, very soon.

Where the wide highways of my test drive tuned to mountain climbing roads, the XC90 acquitted itself decently, with quicker than average steering and reasonable roll control. Don't misunderstand me, there's not a lot of joy to be found by pushing hard on switchbacks, but my guess is that the crossover/SUV set will find the driving style "fun enough" by some margin.

It's fair to note that my car (and all the testers Volvo brought along) were equipped with the optional, $1,800 air suspension. The inflatable underpinnings no doubt accounted for at least a degree of the excellent ride quality, though without driving the standard-suspension car we can't really say by how much.

We wasn't completely happy with the experience of the electrically power assisted steering as we wound round the countryside, however. The variable rack felt heavy but artificial on motorways, with a rubberiness when moving on and off dead center. Luckily, the lower effort at slower speeds felt pretty good, and smoother and more linear when adding in lock. Great for a cruise, if not the obligatory canyon road.

We could've cruised all day thanks to the XC90 seats, too, which offer a great next chapter in the legend of Volvo seating. we were told that these chairs took some seven years to develop and perfect, which may seem excessive, but the result is a super adjustable, supportive and well-padded throne. To me, these are the best front seats in the segment, but we could be slightly biased by the room and adjustability they allow for tall guys like myself.

The second row of seats is really capacious too, by the way, and Volvo folks couldn't stop crowing about the roominess of the new XC's third row. we did see an adult man sit in the way back, so we can attest that they'd do for a grownup, at least in a pinch or over short distances.

And just as cozily as a grown man might slip into its captain's chair, Volvo has slipped the XC90 into the price-gap that exists between competitive, all-wheel-drive equipped vehicles from Japan and Germany. The starting MSRP of $48,900 puts the XC90 a few thousand dollars higher than those of the Infiniti QX60 and Acura MDX, and a few thousand lower (at least) than products like the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and very closely aligned with the Audi Q7.

The exercise of trying to compare relatively similar equipment levels and prices between the XC90 and its competitors is interesting, if imperfect, too. On the inexpensive end, a base Acura MDX SH-AWD is about $46k where the Volvo is about $49k, though the Swede has better base options like bigger wheels and the terrific Sensus system and screen. At the top levels though, the Acura sticks well under sixty grand with every option selected, where the Volvo asks nearly $67,000 (though with more total bells and/or whistles added on).

Conversely, while the Audi Q7 starts off a few hundred bucks below the base price of the XC90, a loaded example rises to over $75k. The similarly equipped, top-line XC90 T6 tops out at roughly $67k. The exact prices vary for the BMW and Mercedes examples, but the trend mostly holds true: Volvo offers a better value in the full-fat trims.

We include the "mostly" caveat there because there are still a few odd omissions from the Volvo options sheet. Not even the top trim offers a power-adjustable steering wheel, for instance, though we was told that the feature is on the roadmap for after the initial cars are sold. It also seems a little strange, in a vehicle pitched so hard at family use, that there's no rear-seat entertainment package offered.

Even still, my read is that the XC90 is more desirable on a total level than its competitors on both ends of the price spectrum. The combination of fun-but-laid-back driving style, impeccable interior decoration and quirky looks really set it apart from lux seven-seaters from all corners, and should suit a wide variety of in-segment shoppers.

We're not a Volvo geek (though we could probably be coaxed into being a 240 geek if the right opportunity came along), and my vehicular hot buttons tend more towards sports cars and convertibles than family-style luxury human-haulers. But we think we can recognize a really good, well-suited product when we drive one. This XC90 seems to be absolutely that, a just-right sized, spec'd and priced SUV from a company that has feverishly prepped it to be a breakout hit.

The Swedes in the lobby were right to be excited, this is one hell of a first step in the rebirth Volvo.

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