Gareth Butterfield wonders if Volvo has found the sweet spot with its new XC60
WHEN I first drove the Volvo XC90, the first car to herald an entirely new design ethos for the Swedish manufacturer, it instantly became one of my all-time favourites.
However, it was a little on the large side. The wife didn’t like it because it didn’t fit in the spaces at her office car park, while I thought it was a bit ostentatious.
Having said that, it was still one of the best cars I drove that year and, besides, criticising something for being too big is a bit like criticising a mattress for being too soft. Some people like it, some don’t.
Usefully though, this is all a trifle irrelevant because Volvo has launched a new version of XC90’s little brother, the XC60 – and the family resemblance is rather uncanny.
While it’s glaringly obvious the two cars share a generous dollop of DNA, the XC60 is a bit smaller, a bit curvier and actually, to my mind, a little bit prettier than the XC90.
It’s also, obviously cheaper and, I happen to know, it fits in my wife’s parking spaces.
You might think, then, that this is as good as it gets. The best SUV money can buy, with all the brilliance of the XC90 in a more manageable package. Well, almost, but it’s not that simple.
The thing is the XC90’s competition was pretty much isolated to the Range Rover. It came close to knocking the 4×4 king off its throne (and to my mind it actually did) but the XC60 has a bit more work to do.
At its entry price-point of around £35,000 Audi and Mercedes offer some very fierce opposition – and they’ve already got the brand image Volvo is so desperately trying to build up.
That said, the new XC60 gets off to a very good start. It’s extremely handsome and that classy exterior design is carried over into the exquisite interior. And I don’t care what you think of Audi and Mercedes interiors, the Volvo’s cabin is better. And that’s an end to it.
It’s also following on from a very successful predecessor that sold in huge numbers and did a lot to boost the Volvo brand. The old XC60 was the right car at the right time, despite it being a little cumbersome and feeling quite long-in-the-tooth by the end.
But this isn’t just a redesign, this is an entirely different proposition. It’s not as curvaceous as the outgoing XC60, but it’s a million times more elegant, more grown up and more stylish.
It also out-performs its predecessor in just about every regard. There’s more technology bundled in, including that huge cockpit-mounted infotainment screen; it’s even safer than the old one, more comfortable, more spacious, and the ride is better.
There’s a better range of engines, with a twin-engine hybrid for those sucked in by the current anti-diesel campaign.
It has an eight-speed gearbox, optional air suspension and Volvo’s superb Pilot Assist semi-autonomous technology.
Of course, all this comes at a price and herein lies its problem. It’s not overpriced, by any means, but the old XC60 was always a decent, cut-price alternative to its more obvious rivals.
Now that it’s all grown up, and with its posh new outfit borrowed from its big brother, it’s priced very closely to that stiff opposition we were just talking about.
But to overlook the XC60 and pick, say, an Audi, would be foolish. Granted, it doesn’t drive as well, the diesel engines are still a bit harsh and you might be surprised to learn the boot is a bit small for its class, but here’s a car which stands out from the crowd.
You won’t find a nicer interior in any of its competitors and, it might be pricier now, but even in base-model spec it comes laden with all sorts of standard kit. And that’s before we even touch on Volvo’s legendary safety reputation.
And, apart from anything else, it’s just a nice car to drive, to look at, to sit in and to soak up any long journey in.
It’s still the car I’d choose. It’s not lost any of the loveliness of the XC90, but it’s lost some of the bulk.
So does that make it one of my new favourite cars? I think it does.