Volvo aligns its iconic badge and sets enticing new SUV standards
Aided by Sino-Swedish investments and its advanced driver care programmes, a brand new XC90 model has joined the Volvo fold and Iain Robertson is massively impressed by the car, its stance and its competence.
It is suggested that the ‘devil lies in the detail’. Despite the darkness of that suggestion, Volvo is already a proven past-master of incorporating pleasantness in exterior design and interior detailing of its various models. Eschewing the ‘premium’ label applied to high-end automotive products, its insistence of ‘doing things its own, unique, Scandinavian way’ is the highlight that garners both consumer and critical respect, all without balancing the brand on a knife-edge of purported classiness.
In Volvo’s case, it is the minute details that serve to satisfy so thoroughly. The signature diagonal strake that has graced Volvo radiator grilles throughout the brand’s history makes a more prominent statement on the all-new XC90’s front-end. While the Volvo circular logo is now slightly larger and in the centre of the grille, the arrow of upwards progression (the ancient symbol of Mars and of steel) is now realigned along the same diagonal plane, a simple element that illustrates the minutiae to perfection.
It is an alignment that also underscores a feeling of intense confidence, a confidence that is clearly gifted by Volvo’s Chinese parent company, Zhejiang Geely, which bought the brand from Ford Motor Company in 2010, at a time when Ford was divesting itself of its several disparate brands that it had owned during its most acquisitive period of the late-1990s. It has been a most apposite relationship, with China allowing Volvo to retain its Swedish base, with minimal interference from the other side of the world, other than to allow it to grow and flourish organically, in a way that western businesses find difficult to comprehend.
Getting Volvo is the important mindset. To do so demands immersion, however minor, in the Scandinavian ethos. Conservative, with a small ‘c’, not flashy, avoiding corruptive issues, relying on natural elements in style and form, to comprehend the Swedish way is the means to knowing Volvo. Yet, when you do, that former competitiveness with the equivalent products of the Teutonic Threesome simply washes away. Audi is just too clinical and overpriced…BMW offers up some lovely materials but also verges on cold and expensive science…Mercedes-Benz does get closest to Volvo, particularly since it started to concentrate on what its customers truly desire, but none of them can compete with Volvo and why should they?
Volvo is treading its own pathway. It warrants respect that for that characteristic alone.
This is a brand that commenced in the iron and engineering business, which also explains its hewn from the solid appearance. The new XC90 takes all of the best elements of the previous and immensely successful model line and melds in a fresh but no less stoical style. The new XC90 looks as solid as it ought to and that imparts a feeling of great strength and inherent safety, the factor that has been embodied by Volvo throughout its automotive history.
Yet, I mentioned the details earlier. It is the little refinements installed within the smallest components that provide Volvo and the XC90 with its most ambitious and delightful outcome. The previous model was a revelation. From the outset, in 2002, when it generated an unprecedented, year-long waiting list in the UK, to its final 12 months of sales, when it has exceeded all prior sales records, it is a zeitgeist model that remains ‘in demand’.
While many new cars boast of their ‘connectivity’, only Volvo provides a proper, practical USB into which I can plug-in my charging devices for the mobile phone and iPad, without requiring an extra connective device. Both the volume dial and the suspension adjuster (on models where the optional ‘air’ suspension is fitted) feature a beautiful wavy, watery flow-like finish, rather than the more customary, sharp-edge ‘machined’ detail. On future top-spec versions, a crystal gearlever top will feature. Rather than the usual 5“ to 7“ touch-screen controller (in landscape format) in the centre of the dashboard, a 12.3” portrait format screen greets the driver and front seat occupant and, unlike similar alternatives from rivals, there is no wasteful switch duplication. The screen also works in empathy with the driver, as a means to reduce distraction and only a brief glance will affirm the information required. It is the little, intuitive details that matter with Volvo.
The company has long been praised for its choice of interior materials and finishes and the new XC90 excels with a level of warmth and tactility that treats occupants in a cosseting and cosy manner. The orthopaedically designed seats are exceptionally supportive, comfortable over longer trips and readily accessible, even to the slightly smaller twin rear seats (suitable for occupants up to around 5’ 7” in size) that still slide cassette-like below the rear floor. The middle row of three can be folded flat in an instant, the in-built headrests flopping forwards helpfully, without having to fiddle with front seat settings. Again, the little elements, like the Swedish yellow-and-blue flag sewn into the driver’s seat, or the 1959 date of Volvo’s three-point safety-belt invention embossed into the ‘male’ end of the restraints, highlight the marvellous attention to detail.
The instrument panel is a paragon of clarity, which is also a vital safety feature, enhanced with Head-Up Display technology (optional) to further reduce driver distractions. With storage space in abundance, the interior of the new XC90 is a measure of automotive perfection that is welcoming and notably different to all of the firm’s perceived rivals. Yet, it is what lies beneath the skin that cements Volvo’s role. Featuring some of the most advanced electronic programmes, the new platform for the XC90 provides engineered safety, tremendous stability and scalable technology that exceeds the majority of perceived needs for at least the next few years. This platform will also be the base for all of Volvo’s future large cars.
Beneath the clean, uncluttered bodywork is a choice of 2.0-litre petrol or diesel engines. I drove two of them – the former in 320bhp T6 twin-charger (supercharger on the inlet and turbocharger on the exhaust sides of the engine), the latter in 225bhp turbo-D5 forms. The petrol was also in Inscription specification, while the diesel was in entry-point Momentum trim. Both featured the latest 8-speed automatic gearboxes.
Although specific options were fitted, which bumped up the prices accordingly, the T6 starts at £53,745, while the D5 is tagged at £45,750. The key chassis difference lay in the optional air spring/damping on the T6. While I am not a fan of such media, I can see the benefits to towing exponents and off-roaders, as the system can be adjusted from within the cabin for ground clearance, while the self-levelling aspect pays dividends. It is an option. The greater linearity of responses from steel springs make it my preferred choice and, following a very speedy drive across the North Yorkshire Moors, I can tell you that the XC90 rides better and is wondrously controlled over even the most pockmarked of road surfaces.
While the safety addenda are present, they were only felt when I approached a series of undulations and the self-retracting belt mechanism hauled me back into the seat (part of its lane-departure pre-emptive procedure). The XC90’s steering is informative and the tiller is a well-geared delight to twirl. In fact, the driving position, which places your arms below the level of your heart, is the best I have experienced on any car since the Merc A-Class of 1997.
The performance of the T6 is stunning, covering the 0-60mph dash in a mere 6.1 seconds, before topping out at 143mph. The diesel is not far behind at 7.4 seconds and 137mph. Riding on 19-inch alloys, the CO2 ratings are 179 and 149g/km respectively, which equate to £225 and £145 in annual VED terms. Inevitably, the T6 guzzles more fuel than the D5 (Official Combined figures of 36.7 vs. 49.6mpg) but they are not major sinners considering the size and class of the cars.
Lighter, stronger, safer and making clear advancements over the previous, eminently likable XC90, the latest Volvo is not just a good SUV but takes my honours as the best that money can buy. The predatory Land Rover (or Range Rover) in its various up-market guises does offer some rivalry but the Volvo eats it in virtually all respects and costs less to live with.
Conclusion: If you are one of those people to whom automotive life without an SUV is not worth living (and there are loads), then a Volvo XC90 must be placed on your shopping list. Yet, you need not be concerned about showy tech-displays of an avant-garde nature, nor purported extremes of luxury. The XC90 delivers in spades but not by way of current convention. If you wish to feel loved by your motor, then the XC90 is the unrivalled way to travel. It is the best of the best.