IAIN ROBERTSON

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Earlier this year, Iain Robertson was able to participate in the launch exercise of the latest Volvo model, which was described variously as ‘long overdue’, ‘a redefinition of SUV terminology’ and a ‘landmark’ product, yet he was keen to determine precisely what the XC90 stands for.

 

To be quite frank, I do not wish to labour our apparent fascination for either this latest Volvo model, or the entire Sport Utility Vehicle market sector, as there is a combination of style aspects, wrongful perceptions and astronomical price tags in evidence that flippant observations often smear over, with grandiose regularity. Let’s face it, most city driving 4×4 owners can look like real ‘tits’, when it comes to finding a parking slot, scraping past ‘Low Height’ warnings in multi-storeys, or just manoeuvring in urban back doubles and one-way-streets.

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The typical SUV, epitomised by the ’Brand Beckham’ Range Rover of choice, is a gargantuan step in the wrong direction, as far as eco-watching and waste management (tyres, lubricants, fuels and maintenance) are concerned. Yet, big Landies, monster Toyotas and nervously huge Nissans are a motive force, as well as being (to some people) an emotive one. The original £2,000, 1970 Range Rover can only be described as a seminal motor vehicle. Its devising engineer, Spen King, could never have known the massive bandwagon that he was creating, as he lay down the plans for a non-militarily based go-anywhere truck.

 

Yet, for all of the sometimes embarrassing British governmental investment in Land Rover, none of it would have existed without the inception of Jeep, the US developed corruption of G and P, which stood in gloriously marshal terms for General Purpose, for that was its aim, to transport personnel and equipment over broken terrain, usually on warring foreign turf. It is a similar premise to that assumed by General Motors and its Hummer, the omnipresent mode of desert travel during the original Iraqi situation, when, somewhat unsuccessfully, the manufacturing giant believed that it had some brand purchase in civvy street…whereas the only real uptake came from black rappers possessing rather small appendages and the former governor of California, a certain Mr Schwarzenegger, you can establish your own views of their personalities.

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Yet, the SUV scene has transmogrified itself from practical military, or agricultural machinery, into a street scene must-have. The far from stealthy expansion into boardroom acceptability, sports club essentiality and high street nightmare continues. There is nothing eminently practical about the ubiquitous Range Rover Evoque, with its scary lack of rearward visibility but bleached-blonde desirability (they never look rearwards anyway), because form has overtaken function in the most ludicrous manner, soon to be topped by a convertible (yes, it’s true) variant that will proliferate on La Croisette, Muscle Beach and Rodeo Drive in a guaranteed all-white and chrome specification.

 

While the sector has now expanded into small, medium, large and extra-large versions of pretty much the same premise as most family cars, the consumer is confronted by a bamboozling array of largely unnecessary 4x4s (and the lesser-known but equally irrelevant 4×2 alternatives). At a time when almost every penny spent is being watched fairly judiciously, the snob appeal of the typical SUV of any size is starting to be overcome by monetary concerns. Face it, regardless of how compelling the laboratory test figures might be, these high-riding fraudsters (most will NEVER tackle anything more rugged than the flowerbeds at the local hypermarket) do cost a heck of a lot more to live with, than the formerly typical family car.

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Therefore, why did eminently conservative, ecologically responsible and stoically sensible Volvo lurch into developing the latest XC90? Well, the answer is actually there, under your nose. It was able, firstly, to do so but it also wanted to provide the consummate answer to all of the negative issues attached to SUV ownership. While we no longer have to tolerate the Suzuki rollover problems of a few years ago, chassis dynamics on vehicles that actually do not possess a separate chassis any more, can now be administered to within a nanosecond of their capabilities in the Planck table of micro-management.

 

Try as I might, the XC90 proved to be unrollable! Even when travelling at breakneck speed, taking off over a severe hump on the road, followed by an immediate left, or right, change of direction, results in little more than an automatic tightening of the seatbelts (after all, you do not want to be lolling about in the armchair during such manoeuvres), while the advanced stability control grapples with available grip at each corner, removing any bravado throttle displays by the driver. Although this blend of electronic muscle flexing might be termed as little more than nannydom gone mad, short of driving directly at a brick wall, the car assumes a lot of the responsibility and keeps its occupants as ‘safe’ as they can be, thereby committing to a stated remit of not ‘losing’ a Volvo occupant by 2020…unless natural causes intervene, although nobody highlighted mentality.

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Mention of brick walls also hoves another aspect of the XC90’s automatic life preservation into view. Accompanied by a growing row of red LEDs, if the radar detector built into the radiator shell determines that the car is too close to a vehicle ahead, or about to clash with the aforementioned edifice, apart from the inevitable seatbelt tightening, the brakes are slammed on and as much speed as possible is shaved off progress to lessen any ensuing impact and its most damaging effects.

 

Trust me, when I tell you that Volvo, probably as a result of its intense crash test research and subsequent mitigation strategy, is leading the entire field with its technology. Of course, this is ‘Strike One’ for the Sino-Swedish firm.

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Having mentioned earlier the lack of rearward visibility of the Evoque, a practice shared by the Nissan Puke, sorry, Juke, and a growing number of Evoque-chasers from other carmakers, it is worth pointing out that the XC90 is graced with deep glazing and almost zero blindspots for its driver. Again, this is practical technology being displayed, as a result of its total road safety programme, which takes pedestrian, cyclist and animal welfare into account. For Volvo, ‘Strike Two’ is another ‘win:win’ situation.

 

Despite a proud and prominent prow, the design of the XC90 is more svelte executive estate car, rather than lipped, ledged and bespoilered off-roader. As in days past, Volvo has centred on ease of accessibility, yes, even for the rearmost pair of ‘jump-seats’ that make its total accommodation suitable for up to seven people. In many respects, Volvo is showing respect for its customers and not leading them up some misguided garden path, fronted by a sneering design manipulator and corporate accountants reaping in the ‘ackers’. The opportunity for some overly-embellished starlet to be snapped by an over-anxious ‘pap’, with her lack of underwear awaiting public shock and horror is gone, as alighting from an XC90 is an altogether more elegant affair and there exists bags of space within that ever-so-cosseting cabin, so that the car serves VIP service significantly better than any of its potential rivals.

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The car photographed is in T6 Inscription guise. Pretty much top-of-the-shop, it features Nappa hide, electric everything, an amazing 360-degree camera view, automatic parking (for the complete idiot), head-up windscreen display and a Bowers & Wilkins hi-fi system. Price-tagged at a smidgen below £66,000, it makes the Range Rover Autobiography look sorely over-priced. Mind you, the inelegant Audi Q7, the bulbous Merc M-Class and even the BMW X5 cannot compete with it, unless the allowed budget is severely snipped. You can include ‘Strikes Three, Four and Five’ in that mix.

 

While I cannot, there are plenty of others, who can afford a Volvo XC90 and they are voting with their feet, by snaffling up examples at a faster rate than the original ‘shock’ model did in 2002 at its introduction. Fortunately, the company is somewhat better prepared for sales swamping than it was then, partly due to market forces but mostly to a greater investment in its plants, to make them more capable of satisfying demand. Yet, have I answered the original question?

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I guess that I have. The XC90 is not just an SUV for the sake of it. Both passive and active safety are at its core. Yet, it is not a scary monster and will look just as happy on a leafy suburban driveway, in a corporate car park, or when travelling the highways and byways of the world. Its systems are largely unobtrusive, unless assertion is required. Its ease of operation, from button-pushing to screen-swiping, is intuitive, uncomplicated and driver-friendly. Is an XC90 an SUV? Nope. It is a big, cuddly, Swedish soft toy that can take you everywhere but happens to be built to withstand a nuclear holocaust.

 

Conclusion:   Stop following the mountain goats. Invest in a Volvo XC90 and become the SUV owner that isn’t. Capable of satisfying all needs from big business to large family, even the most costly T6 variant (320bhp, 8-speed auto, bi-turbo 2.0-litre petrol engine, 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds, 143mph top speed, 179g/km CO2 and around 34mpg) will prove its worth no matter what the demands.

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About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).