IAIN ROBERTSON 

Not all estate car owners want an SUV in their driveways, states Iain Robertson, who understands the craze but much prefers the subtlety (by comparison) of an elegant 4WD station wagon that oozes class from every aperture.

What was it that John Steinbeck said about ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men’? For several years, Volvo enabled a number of UK motoring journalists to take one of its fleet of test cars to near-Europe for a pre-festive season shopping trip…okay, a ‘booze-cruise’. Even when the company ceased offering the opportunity, I endeavoured to replicate the exercise by making a late-year request for a Volvo model that might warrant my closer attention.

With car arranged for early-December, I also contacted DFDS Ferries, which has a preferential deal arranged for journalists (it only costs from £35 Dover-to-Calais normally, plus £12 for the use of the on-board Premium Lounge that also includes preferential boarding) and set-up a crossing date. Then I confirmed the arrangements with a photographer colleague and friend. We diarised the activities, established a plan and awaited the arrival of the car.

On the day prior to our intended departure, he telephoned and informed me that his location in the Welsh border country had been blighted by a massive snowfall that ground all driving intentions to a slippery halt. Cross-Channel weather conditions were also causing disruptions to crossings and several services were severely delayed. I was forced into making a cancellation, which was immensely disappointing, although I was able to resurrect the trip for the day after Boxing Day 2017, using a Suzuki Vitara 1.4S.

Although I had not made the trip to Europe, as intended, for a couple of years, my idea was to assess the 57.6mpg Official Combined fuel consumption claim made for the latest Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD CrossCountry Pro automatic. A trip from Lincoln, where I reside, via Dover-Calais to Bruges, Belgium, a total return distance of 610 miles, on a single tank of diesel, would be the test. To be fair, a 13.2g tank should give a potential range of 760 miles and the enormous load deck of the V90 would provide more than enough space for a mini ‘booze-cruise’. I almost forgot to mention, the task needed to be completed within 24 hours.

When those plans were thwarted, I elected to exercise the V90’s capabilities by traipsing around the east coast of England instead. As a result, I can confirm that the stated fuel economy figure is within reach, as my average return was a laudable 55.4mpg and there were occasions during my driving exercise, when I also stretched the car’s performance envelope and I can tell you that it is an impressive spread.

Volvo introduced PowerPulse technology to extend the potential of its 2.0-litre displacement twin-turbocharged diesel engine. It wanted to avoid the complexity of 48v electrics of extender batteries, a triple-turbo solution exercised by BMW and the electric booster developed by Audi. Instead, Volvo would use uniquely a shot of compressed air, produced by a small pump that would energise the smaller of its twin-turbo set-up, spooling it up from an idling 20,000rpm to 150,000rpm in a mere 0.3s, to feed the larger unit.

Clever and efficient, the engine develops a substantial amount of power relative to its displacement, with a maximum of 235bhp at 4,000rpm and an equally impressive 354lbs ft of torque between 1,750 to 2,250rpm. Its suitability for towing is abundantly clear (2.2-tonnes braked trailer maximum). However, despite punching numerically above its weight, indulging in full-throttle delights, even despatching the 0-60mph benchmark sprint in a cool 7.2s, before coursing on to a top speed of 140mph, are not exactly the best ways to maximise frugality.

Yet, driving the V90 on a light throttle and not incurring the Viking might of its true potential is not so tough, as leggy gearing in the 8-speed fully-automatic transmission (not normally the gearbox of choice for fuel-misers) means that 60mph demands less than 1,500rpm of the engine’s capabilities. This Aisin-Warner unit has been accepted by the broader motor industry as being one of the most efficient developed so far. Its gearchanges are imperceptible and progress is never less than relaxed and comfortable.

Volvo has been singularly determined to make an impression at the executive end of the new car scene and its cabins are beguilingly attractive, regardless of trim level. The test car’s first-class, stitched Nappa hide that covers every inch of its most comfortable seats ever (including: the dashboard, centre console and door cards) not only looks welcoming but provides supportive armchair comfort, up front and in the rear, and a range of electric adjustability (rake, reach, recline and extensible thigh bolsters of the front seats) that is no less than exemplary. The tilt and reach steering column also brings the primary steering control (clad in hide) into a commanding and comfortable position.

Although lighter finishes are available, the dark grey wood trim on dash and doors looks classy and contrasts with the grey leather. It might be quite funereal inside, were there no full-length glazed roof behind the electric sliding blind. The aluminium trim highlights picked out in the doors, encircling the dashboard and featuring in the gorgeous knurled ‘start:stop’ switch and adjustable chassis roller-switch, also alleviate the shades of grey and factor in more elegant touches. The overall appeal is uniquely Volvo and not remotely similar to models from manufacturers that might be classified as rivals.

Naturally, the appeal of an estate car rear deck is enhanced by a seats-up, to-the-roof load space of 723-litres. Fold forwards the rear seats and that carrying capacity more than doubles to 1,526-litres across a nearly unobstructed, fully carpeted width of 1.1m, between the inner wheelarches. There is bags of room within the rest of the cabin, with plenty of space for five six-footers, should football practice beckon, or you and four chums take to the golf course.

Volvo has earned its hard-fought reputation as a leader in road, occupant and pedestrian safety but not at any cost to its superior on-road dynamics and inherent balance. Although standing 70mm taller than its non-CrossCountry variant, thanks to its occasional off-road bias, no instability is introduced to the car’s primary handling characteristics. With deference to its load-lugging potential, the rear axle is self-levelling but air-assisted suspension controls the rest of the XC’s deportment, which can be adjusted using the knurled roller located behind the ‘stop:start’ switch in the centre console.

Body roll is minimal, even when testing the car’s handling to its limits, while pitch and float under braking and hard acceleration are totally absent. Aided by the four-wheel-drive system, grip levels are extraordinary and, while I expected the ride quality to suffer slightly on the 19-inch alloy wheels and 50-profile ‘compromise’ tyres, I experienced no such complaints. Instead, the ride proved to be ‘magic carpet’ in its default setting, although Dynamic and Off-Road did alter the characteristics accordingly and appropriately to meet driver demand.

Apart from the hugely desirable XC90 model, the test car is Volvo’s costliest in the range and, as is now typical in a sector, where personalisation predominates, in that its list price of £47,905 can be boosted readily to £61,380, with the fitting of a number of desirable extra-cost items. While I shall not go into the full detail, the Xenium Pack factors in Park Assist, 360-degree camera and a power roof for £2,000. Intellisafe Surround Pack costs £600 but introduces blind-spot recognition, cross-traffic alert, rear crash mitigation and auto-dimming exterior mirrors. Those lovely seats and the hide trim weighs in at £1,650, while the concert quality Bowers & Wilkins hi-fi commands a mere £3,000 of your hard-earneds. The aforementioned adaptive damping and self-levelling costs £1,500.

It is worth highlighting that, in the class, the V90 CrossCountry is highly competitively priced. Yet, it is the inherent safety aspects, in which Volvo invests substantially on-going, that enhance the car’s viability. No carmaker has ever funded more extensive safety development programmes than Volvo and, without resorting to morbidity, it is alone in boasting that no occupant will ever die in its cars by 2020, a target it has almost attained.

Conclusion:   Beyond the sheer superficiality of square-jawed good looks, offset by the signature ‘Thor’s Hammer’ LED headlamp array, the V90 CrossCountry is the epitome of classy elegance. It is comfortable, safe, yet engaging to drive. Its ingenious, air-boosted, bi-turbo-diesel engine enables fast but frugal progress. Above all else, it is a Volvo and that name possesses unique appeal that makes the marque stand-out in the executive class.