- Exceptionally beautiful and practical interior
- Punchy, refined, and economical engines
- Handsome and rather unique design
- New model steps up several price points
- Key safety options are quite costly
- Somewhat harsh ride on regular springs
A good car is one that makes its purpose clear and then lives up to what it says it will do without disappointment. By this measure, the Volvo XC90 is a good car. More than any other seven-seater, the XC90 excels at being a comfortable, practical, desirable family wagon.
It needs to be. The new model replaces a much-loved first-generation car that sold for twelve years. Since its 2003 launch, the original XC90 found 15,000 Australian buyers, with Volvo selling more than two hundred a month at the 2007 peak.
Even for a European car, twelve years is an age between models. The new XC90 has been in development for half a decade. A major delay resulted from Ford's sale of Volvo to the Chinese conglomerate Geely, in 2010. A 2013 release ballooned to a September 2015 launch.
Concerns about quality under the Chinese haven't been realised. Instead, Geely have been overseen Volvo's resurgence, pouring funding into the brand's fledgling Scalable Product Architecture, the modular platform underpinning the next wave of Volvos, including the XC90.
The result is impressive. The XC90 is Volvo's first pitch out of the premium class into the luxury segment. Specification is up, but pricing shifts accordingly: the new base model, called Momentum, leaves little change from $100,000. That's more-or-less identical to a four-cylinder BMW X5 with seven seats, though it's the Volvo that is more comfortable and generously equipped. And once it arrives later in the year, Volvo will ask about $130,000 for a fast petrol-electric engine.
The XC90 is also Volvo's first modern car which uses engines designed entirely in-house. All three use four cylinders: the T6 turbo petrol, the D5 turbo diesel, and the forthcoming T8 hybrid. Despite the two tonne weight, they all feel rapid enough.
We started with the petrol. It's a potent four that produces 235kW, and when required it will sprint to 100 in 6.5 seconds. Thanks to a healthy serve of torque, the T6 is impressively tractable around town without lag. The eight-speed automatic is intelligent and smooth-shifting. Its tendency to upshift keeps engine noise at imperceptible levels. The whole experience is vibration-free, with refinement more typical of a six-cylinder.
The XC90 is able to meet its claimed fuel economy, which makes it a rare beast. Despite the tendency of turbo petrols to blow out from their claim in the real world, driven sensibly, it's entirely possible to realise the T6's miserly 8.5L/100km combined figure.
The diesel is even more efficient and most people will buy it. The D5 also switches to two-litre form, making a decent 165kW of power and plenty of torque, rated at 470Nm. Where the petrol is rapid when pushed, the diesel is more relaxed. Both are twin-turbocharged, so there is no lag to speak of and progress is effortless.
The diesel XC90 extends its reputation as a stellar highway cruiser. The diesel engine is inaudible at high speeds, and fuel consumption settles into the mid-sixes on the highway, affording a range of well over a thousand kilometres.
Soon, Volvo will sell a petrol-electric hybrid called the T8. If you've been thinking about diving into electric technology and you need the size of the XC90, it will be worth waiting for. The T8 will be rechargeable at home and will drive up to 40 kilometres on battery power alone. After that, the petrol engine kicks in—and, combined, the T8 will make about 300kW.
Two-tonne SUVs are rarely suited to corner carving, and the XC90 is no exception. It's a car that is built for sensible, comfortable family hauling. The petrol in particular can be hustled along quite quickly, but a lack of steering feel means it's not overly rewarding to drive hard. The chassis is up for the job, but progress is most seamless when the pace is more leisurely.
If you can, option up the special air suspension, which irons out potholes and bumps skilfully. The normal steel springs are hardly worthy of complaint, but everyday lumps and bumps are more jarring than they should be. The brakes on every model are good enough. Larger wheel options may look good, but they should be avoided. Our base XC90's 18-inch wheels afforded far better ride quality than the 21-inch options on our XC90 Inscription, which banged and jarred over all road imperfections and were downright uncomfortable on gravel roads.
The XC90 has the best interior in the large SUV class. Both the design and the quality are standouts, and plenty of families will buy the Volvo on the strength of its cabin alone.
Volvo seats are the most comfortable in any car, and they make their return with a few updates in the XC90. The Momentum base model gets ordinary, soft leather, while the Inscription steps up to Nappa. The seats are actually slightly wider in this XC90 over anything else in the Volvo range, but they remain supportive for smaller frames. When covering long highway miles, this is as good as it gets.
The dash and centre console takes some inspiration from Tesla's minimalism, although Volvo's implementation of a huge tablet-style screen is much more polished. As smooth as an iPad—and quite reminiscent of one—Volvo's ten-inch, vertical screen is tilted towards the driver and re-invents how we should be interacting with our cars.
The Volvo system makes it safer and easier to use the most important features, like the telephone, music streaming, and satellite navigation. The stereo, like in every Volvo, is much better than the competition. More expensive models can be equipped with an even-crisper Bowers and Wilkins system.
A common complaint in the press about past Volvos has been the vast collection of buttons that dominate the interior. The XC90 solves this with just a few nicely-designed buttons and switches, including an elegant rotary dial to switch the engine on and off.
Rear-seat passengers in both the second and third row are accommodated in comfort. We're particularly impressed by the full-size sixth and seventh seats in the back row: even taller teenagers will be fine. Meanwhile, in the second row, passengers make use of a standard touchscreen climate control system. Every XC90 has four climate zones standard.
Though the Volvo's interior is comfortable, the families that have owned one are likely to appreciate the fact that it is still durable. With small children, we would avoid the gorgeous lighter-coloured interiors and opt for black leather, which cleans up nicely and won't be easily stained.
Having a third row available is really practical. Even if you've only got two children, with a third row you've got room for a couple of friends and everybody's stuff. Even with the seven seats up, there's a surprising amount of room behind them—451 litres, which is more space than a Volkswagen Golf's boot.
The sixth and seventh seats themselves are large and comfortable. They completely fold away when they're not in use, and when they are packed up, the boot is massive with more than 1,100 litres of space. Because the Volvo is square with no swoopy lines to eat into boot space, this is a flexible and practical car which makes it easy to carry a family of five's luggage on a road trip. Van-like space is on offer if both back rows are folded away.
All cars have an electrically-adjustable tailgate and the rear doors open nice and wide. Actually getting into the third row seats could be more graceful, though; and without the ability to raise and lower the third row electronically, the process can be a bit awkward.
All around the cabin, there are pockets to store everyday clutter and the door bins are nice and wide. For a family car, it's unfortunate that there is only one USB charging point.
RELIABILITY & RUNNING COSTS
Because the engines live up to their fuel economy claims, the XC90's major running costs are quite reasonable. We recommend the frugal diesel, which claims 6.2L/100km. Allowing a 20% overrun to 7.5L/100km, if driven for the average 14,000 kilometres per year, the diesel should cost about $1,302 in fuel per year.
Volvo continues to avoid the benefits of a capped price servicing programme. A capped system gives buyers transparency about servicing costs up front—and some brands, like BMW, are now allowing prepayment of servicing for additional piece of mind. Volvo has retained their traditional system of quoting for services as they arise. At least the service intervals on the new model are annual, or every 15,000 kilometres.
Like other Volvo platforms developed with Ford, the previous XC90 did not enjoy a reputation for good reliability. It's too soon to predict how reliable the new XC90 will be, although we are hopeful that Volvo's new ownership and significantly boosted budgets will make it cheaper to own in the long term. The reliability of the old car certainly wasn't fatal—testament to this is the number of first-generation wagons you see running around.
The XC90 is equipped with Volvo's City Safety autonomous emergency braking as standard. More advanced safety technology is available—as a $4,000 option. Given the expense of the car itself, it's surprising to see adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, a 360º camera, and blind spot assist as such a costly option. To its credit, the XC90's active cruise control system works impeccably, particularly in 'Pilot Assist' mode, which effectively manages the car for you in traffic jams, accelerating, braking and steering autonomously up to 50 km/h.
VALUE FOR MONEY
The XC90 has gone upmarket and the price increases are a pretty bold statement about Volvo's confidence in the model.
The entry-level Volvo is $90,000, while it's possible to buy a BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz GLE for less money. Few people would have anticipated that five years ago.
The XC90 is the better car, though. To sell an X5 at the mid-eighties price point, BMW has stripped down their offering under the bonnet and in the cabin. Meanwhile, the Volvo is a complete package, with a base model that is both well-equipped and powered by a strong engine.
Volvo says most buyers will go for a mid-range Inscription diesel at $96,650. However, the XC90 makes the most sense in entry-level Momentum diesel form at $89,950. The base car has almost all of the features you would want: seven seats, leather trim, and satellite navigation. It is also the most comfortable, thanks to wheels that are not outrageously large—the larger the wheel, the cruder the ride.
It's a shame that desirable options are very expensive. Metallic paint, for example, is $1,750 and the only non-metallic colour is white. We like sunroofs, but not at the excessive $2,950 that Volvo charges. Also, $500 to enable the digital radio function seems ungenerous.
Fortunately, the value of the core package is good enough that these costs can be, mostly, overlooked.
BMW X5 xDrive25d ($89,200): The least-expensive all-wheel-drive X5 is stripped-down from the opulence you'd expect from a big BMW, though the X5 is the best-handling car in this class. To achieve that, you need to put up with a firmer ride. Undoubtedly, there's more cache behind the BMW badge, and many will choose it just for that, ignoring sparse equipment levels.
Mercedes-Benz GLE250 d ($86,900): The GLE, a refreshed version of the M-Class, has just launched and its 2.1-litre, rear-drive entry model carries across. The cabin of the Benz isn't bad, although the seats are harder than those in the Volvo. Like the BMW, the Mercedes benefits from a very aspirational badge. Cheaper GLEs will appear slightly irrelevant once the C-Class based GLC SUV arrives later this year.
Volkswagen Touraeg V6 TDI ($81,990): The largest Volkswagen has a replacement on the horizon, though it won't arrive in Australia for at least a year. It's less expensive and less modern than the Volvo, but there is a similar ambience and refinement. Many buyers overlook the Touraeg, which is a high-quality although slightly left-field choice. It does miss out on a seven-seat option. The V6 TDI makes use of a diesel that is unaffected by the brand's recent emissions issues.
|Power||165kW @ 4250rpm|
|Torque||470Nm @ 1750–2500rpm|
|Power to weight ratio||84kW / tonne|
|Fuel consumption (combined)||6.2L / 100km|
Transmission and Drivetrain
|Drivetrain||All wheel drive|
Dimensions and Weights
|Cargo space (seats up)||451L|
|Cargo space (seats down)||1100L|