IAIN ROBERTSON 

IMG

To be frank, Iain Robertson believes that ‘roller-coaster’ is inappropriate for Volvo Cars’ current and inexorable rise to the top, registrations of which are outstripping every luxury brand sold in the UK and, in percentage terms, the rest of the world too.

When I was at school, one of my dad’s cars was a Volvo 123GT; a two-door version of the model also known as Amazon. It was sporty, handled well, was quite quick and he adored it. During the late-1970s, I bought my first Volvo, a 245GL. It was a ‘tank’. Yet, it was also as safe as houses, unerringly comfortable, especially on longer drives, and its jump-seat in the rear was highly popular among my chums.

As a motoring scribe, I was fortunate during the latter half on the 1990s to have on long-term loan bases, first, a Volvo 740, followed by a year-long test of the S40 T4 model. The first was a hefty old thing powered by a lethargic and breathless 2.4-litre petrol engine. It was a solid old workhorse but utterly charmless. The S40 on the other hand was a zesty, nimble and sporty car, from the period prior to Ford insisting that its Focus hardware should be applied.

IMGDespite a mixed bag of reactions and emotions, I never perceived Volvo as anything other than truly individualistic. Its cars could become rattleboxes in due course but they were solid enough and unerringly safe in almost every single respect, which included handling and roadholding. I had respect for the brand, which was not upset, when Ford Motor Company owned the Swedish carmaker. In fact, that era was when the US giant applied the ‘premium’ tag to the brand, in typical, ill-educated North American form.

At no stage of my experience with Volvo would I ever state that its cars are ‘premium’. High-end, luxury, or executive are adjectives that are more applicable to a carmaker that leads with its own sense of style and purpose…it is not a copyist. Volvo is a brand for individuals and it is eminently individualistic. Those people buying into ‘premium’ are not really Volvo class…they need Vignale versions of the Mondeo, or GT-Line Peugeot 508s. Volvo defies any other definition.

IMGIn 2002, Volvo introduced us to its enticing XC90 model. It was definitely a Volvo, aided visually by the ‘Horbury’ shoulders and a taut but conservative overall body style. However, it was the firm’s first foray into the growing SUV scene. With a 7-seat option (the rear pair of chairs sliding cassette-like into the boot floor) and pleasingly familiar cabin architecture, it paved the way for Volvo’s volume development. I can still recall a couple of very wintry trips to the Arctic Circle, which more than proved the car’s off-road credentials.

Just four years ago, the XC90 was given its Mark Two status. Again, it was a landmark model that moved on the game considerably, not least with its applications of ‘natural’ materials, partial electrification and the unusual fitment of a portrait format touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard…only McLaren sportscars had featured this type before. It set a trend that would be carried into almost every new Volvo produced since that time.

IMGThe latest iteration, as tested, is re-designated as B5, with deference to its mild hybrid technology, hooked up to an otherwise conventional 2.0-litre turbodiesel engine that develops a strong 235bhp, a strident 354lbs ft of torque and convincing performance figures. In fact, the tall XC90 will crack the 0-60mph benchmark in just 7.1s, with a posted top speed of 137mph, emitting CO2 at a rate of 154g/km, while glugging its diet of diesel at a WLTP-rated 44.1mpg.

The mild hybrid aspect is more augmentative than providing a really green solution. The battery’s capacity to store braking energy that is used to re-boost its performance, while also reducing emissions and enhancing fuel economy by 15% over the previous D5 model, is a useful bonus. However, its pre-discount price tag of £62,235, which includes over £5,700’s worth of accessories, ensures that it still sits in the highest tax bracket, along with its rivals from Audi, BMW and Merc. You need to invest in the T8 model, or await the full-EV, to gain any headway with the taxman.

IMGHowever, with B5 being the first diesel-powered car that I have driven in several months, during this era of antipathy, I have to state that I was more than satisfied with its serene power delivery and, thanks to the smoothness of the eight-speed automatic transmission (with paddle-shifts), long-legged and imperious progress. I had almost forgotten how wondrously a good diesel engine, like Volvo’s, can motivate a 2.1-tonne motorcar and, if you just look back at its performance figures, it is no slouch into the deal. For what it’s worth, it is the only diesel engine in this range and is likely to be replaced by a petrol-electric unit in coming months, as Volvo moves towards removing diesel engine technology from all of its cars.

The latest XC90 handles tidily. It is possible to dial-in different chassis settings but the most compliant is Comfort and, even driven with gusto, it wafts along in a thoroughly laid-back manner, absorbing bumps and only occasionally informing the driver of their severity. Packed with the full raft of Volvo safety technology and semi-autonomous elements, its AWD R-Design cabin is a delightful place from which to survey the outside world. Of course, the trim has been upgraded and, if fiddling with the touchscreen becomes a chore, voice control can handle the task. On balance, the B5 takes my vote in this class and, at £10k less than a T8, it would take a long time to amortise the cost difference.

Conclusion:       Volvo makes a valid case for its B5 diesel version of the charming XC90. Comfortable, practical and impeccably detailed, it is truly the class of the field.

IMG