Gareth Butterfield spends five days getting to know the magnificent new XC90 SUV that he thinks is good enough to transform Volvo’s reputation
THE XC90 has arrived. Cards on the table, I’ve been extremely excited about borrowing this car. I’ve got a bit of a soft-spot for Volvos but the XC90 is a real turning point for the Swedish brand. It’s going to pave the way for a new, safer, cleverer and more impressive generation of new models.
This is a sort of showroom on wheels then. It’s Volvo showing off how good their designers are and how cutting-edge their new gadgets can be.
And I’ve been pestering Volvo for months to have a go in this thing. Normally a test car will be loaned out for a week but, such is the demand among journalists, I’ve only been allowed five days in this machine. I guess I’d better make the most of it.
As I stroll up to the XC90 for the first time I’m struck by its sheer presence. Let’s make no bones about it, this is a huge car. My test model is in a dark blue, which does it no favours, but it’s still one of those cars that makes you want to pause for a moment and drink it all in.
Over the years Volvo has done the boxy-styling thing. It’s what they’ve become known for. They also do swoopy design pretty well, too though. The old P1800 is a thing of beauty and the current V60 is still one of the prettiest estate cars on the market.
With the new design direction, which we’re now getting our first look at, they’ve sort of gone for middle ground. The XC90 is curvy, yet muscular and chiselled. It’s boxy, but very elegant. It’s masculine, but by no means ostentatious or offensive. It’s a fine-looking thing.
Inside the design is better still. Predictably, the cabin is gigantic and there’s loads of light but what strikes you first is the huge screen in the centre of the dashboard. It looks like there’s a full-sized iPad mounted above a token smattering of buttons and, in a sense, that’s exactly what it is.
True to form with modern cars, almost everything in the interior is controlled through this screen. I’m still not sure that’s a good idea, but it’s the way of the world nowadays. And I think this one’s going to take some getting used to.
I also have time today for a bit of a poke round the rest of the interior. Apart from being absolutely vast, it’s also exceptionally comfortable. Even in the rear pair of seats, which fold away flat to make for a cavernous luggage space, there’s plenty of room, even for adults. So far so good, then.
THE wife and I are taking the XC90 to Norfolk for the weekend, to soak up some sunshine before the winter sets in. It’s a slow and lengthy journey of around 150 miles but this is exactly what a Volvo is good at.
The drive down gives us chance to get accustomed to all the gadgets my reasonably high-spec Momentum version has to offer. Even the base models come loaded to the gunnels with technology, but I’ve got some really clever things to play with.
Aside from the huge capacitive touch screen, there’s some impressive driving aids which are chiefly about safety, but they do also make a long journey pass by with ease.
Volvo’s adaptive cruise control is fitted, of course, and this ensures my car always stays a set distance from the vehicle in front, by accelerating and braking for me.
I’ve also got a gadget that monitors the position I keep on the road and nudges me back to the centre if I drift over the white lines. It will brake automatically if I forget, it parks itself, it has cameras just about everywhere and it’ll even take over the laborious task of crawling through stop-start traffic if I ask it to.
I’ve driven to Norfolk on many occasions, but I’ve genuinely never found myself with so little to do. The car is constantly keeping watch. It’s frightening, in a sense, but immensely satisfying in another.
I should make it clear, none of this technology is new to me. I’ve seen and used it all before, often in Volvos, but this is the latest version of everything. Volvo has ploughed a huge amount of time and money into updating and refining all its legendary safety kit and driver aids for the XC90 and made it all that little bit better. As a result, some of, if not most of, this trickery works better than in any other car.
I eventually arrive in sunny Hunstanton feeling like I’ve just popped out to the shops. What a phenomenal car.
ON the subject of popping out to the shops, that’s not very easy in a Volvo XC90. I’ve got used to its physical size to some extent, but weaving it through a crowded seafront full of carelessly parked cars and nonchalant tourists is no mean feat.
It has self-park, but it’s honestly easier to do it yourself, especially with all the clever cameras fitted to my test model. There’s even one that amalgamates all the images to create a virtual top-down view of the car. This is brilliant. I’ve seen it before on a Range Rover and it makes parking a big vehicle so easy my grandmother could do it. The XC90’s light controls, comfortable driving position and good visibility also help, but the camera gadget is brilliant.
When it’s finally time to tear the wife away from shoe shops we head out for a spot of lunch. Not that there is much in the way of open road in North Norfolk, but this is as good a chance as any to stretch the Volvo’s legs. And here comes my first disappointment.
As Volvo’s cars are growing – the new XC90 is noticeably larger than its predecessor – the engines are shrinking. The outgoing model could be had with Volvo’s wonderful, characterful five-cylinder diesel D5 engine. The new one comes with a D5, but it’s the new one. A four-cylinder oil-burner with 225bhp might sound meaty enough but it just isn’t. Four cylinders makes for harsh power delivery and the whole thing feels out of its depth in a car this big.
There is a four-cylinder T6 petrol engine available with 320bhp available but that would just be silly. I think this car will be at its best with the T8, a petrol-electric hybrid unit that effectively serves up over 400bhp but can still manage stratospheric fuel economy and emissions below 50g/km. But that’s a £65,000 car. My D5 can be had for around £20,000 less than that and, while it’s no bargain, it’s clear to see that the diesel will be the most popular choice in this country.
In fairness, what the new D5 does do very well is return good fuel economy. I’m hitting low 40s, high 30s on my rural tour of Norfolk and that’s seriously impressive for a car of this size.
PACKING bags in the XC90 is a doddle. All the stuff my wife’s bought in Norfolk can be tossed in without any regard for how much space is left. I’ve folded the rear seats away, which is a doddle, and there is so much space I could ride a bike in the boot.
Her ladyship, incidentally, is unsure about the XC90. She’s spent a lot of time fiddling with the on-screen controls and getting to know its nooks and crannies, but it’s not her cup of tea. It’s too high tech, too big, too “diesel”.
She doesn’t want or like gadgets such as adaptive cruise control, auto-braking, a head-up display and an internet browser. She’s not keen on big cars either.
Later that evening, she pops out to see some friends and I suggest she takes the XC90. Surely, a 30-mile round-trip with all the gadgets turned on will convince her the Volvo is brilliant.
When she gets back, she heaps a bit of praise on one or two of the things I thought she would like. The comfy memory seats, the instrument binnacle, which is all one giant LCD screen and the automatic wipers and lights.
But there’s a lot she doesn’t like. Mainly the gadgets that make her feel like the car is driving itself. She didn’t touch the adaptive cruise control and that’s fine, I didn’t think she would, but I neglected to switch off the lane-keep assist system so every now and again the steering wheel would nudge her back in line if she dared to cross it. That, apparently, freaked her out and couldn’t always tell the difference between avoiding an overhanging branch and nodding off.
Her overall impression? Too big, too clever and although she found plenty to like, she wouldn’t want to own one.
VOLVO takes the XC90 back today. And I feel as if they’re going to have to take my arm with it. As a gadget-lover and a Volvo fan I’ve fallen for it hook, line and sinker. However, as a motoring journalist I’ve spent the last few days trying desperately to pick fault with it. Trying to find a reason why I’d recommend something like a Range Rover or a BMW X5 over one.
But I genuinely can’t find any real reason to overlook it. Yes, the D5 is a bit harsh and underpowered but that won’t bother everyone. It’s also a bit expensive, but that won’t stop someone trading in a Range Rover or a Porsche Cayenne. It even drives fairly well which might tempt the BMW and Audi fans.
The only other reason I can think of why someone might discount the XC90 from a hunt for a do-anything, go anywhere SUV is image. For some people, the Volvo brand still has a slight whiff of tweed-clad antique dealer about it. But, take it from me, these people are stupid and should not be allowed to reproduce.
The XC90 is so advanced, so handsome, so versatile, so practical and so magnificent that it should be enough to banish that ridiculous illusion forever.
That said, it hasn’t worked on my wife. Maybe one day I’ll convince her that the XC90 is all the car we’ll ever need in life – because I genuinely believe that to be the case. But, for now, I’ll just have to confine it to a dusty corner of my imaginary dream garage where she won’t notice it.
In the mean time I hope Volvo can give us more of the same. If this is the shape of things to come and the next generation builds on the technology, design and innovations I’ve just been enjoying in the XC90 then Volvo could have buyers queuing out of the door for their cars.
And, one day, I might just be one of them.
“I’m coming in a monster truck”, she tells her pal over the phone, just before she sets off.