It wasn’t long ago that Volvo came across as a slightly apprehensive premium player, with styling, performance, and equipment levels that seemed to drive down the centre line of life, as if one pair of tires were in the fast lane of high-performance luxury and the other dawdling along in the slower lane of reliability, safety, and fuel efficiency.
Since then two things have happened. First, the company has clearly lost any shyness about showing its all. The brand new 2016 Volvo XC90 is a class leader in design and execution from the most basic $61,300 T6 AWD model to the new $118,900 Excellence model, the latter vying for Bentley and Maybach levels of over-the-top opulence. Second, a major shift in premium brand core values has occurred, which now sees active safety technologies working towards fully autonomous driving.
And yet high-tech safety has been upstaged by environmental stewardship. The new XC90 T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid is a good example of clean tech done right. The Volvo brand and its new XC90 not only fit ideally within today’s concept of luxury, it’s also leading the charge.
Big power from a tiny engine
That electrified power unit isn’t the only advanced engine-tech behind the 2016 Volvo XC90’s broad new grille. To be clear, the 2.0L 4-cylinder internal combustion engine is the same, but combines direct injection with both turbocharging and supercharging for V6-like output that totals 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. That’s more than ample for launching this 1,993kg (4,385lb) 7-passenger SUV off the line and up to highway speeds with smile-inducing zeal.
Incidentally, electrifying this engine ups output to 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque, juxtaposed by an EV range of 40 kilometres.
The XC90 grows up
This is from a midsize utility vehicle that’s closer to full-size for 2016. The new Volvo XC90 is a significant 143mm longer overall (4,950 mm) with a 127mm longer wheelbase (2,984 mm), a sizable 112mm wider (2,140 mm), and 9mm lower overall (1,775 mm).
That last number is especially notable considering the redesigned XC90 provides an additional 19 mm of ground clearance (total of 237 mm) for greater ability in deep snow as well as more capability on light- to medium-duty off-road excursions.
All of this growth makes it a much more useful SUV, with each of its three rows roomier, especially the rearmost one that not only seems more spacious thanks to a panoramic glass roof shedding natural light overhead, but also fits medium-sized adults in reasonable comfort.
Cargo capacity has also grown to 447 litres behind the third-row seats, 1,183 litres behind the second-row seats, and 2,427 litres when both rear rows are folded down. Functionality remains class-leading with Volvo’s unique second row continuing to be split up into thirds to provide greater space between the outboard seats for loading long items such as skis. The seatbacks fit solidly into place, as well, letting you know Volvo’s legendary sturdiness is still built into each detail, although the second row did take a fair bit of effort to push back into place, especially the stubborn centre seat.
Bigger, yet lighter
While solidly built and certainly larger, the new 2016 Volvo XC90 isn’t any heavier. In fact, that curb weight mentioned earlier is the result of 125 kilograms (275 lbs) of reduction, and even better the new XC90 is more than 200kg (440lbs) lighter than key competitors.
This is due to the first application of Volvo’s new in-house developed Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) that incorporates 40% ultra-high-strength and high-strength steel, plus extensive use of aluminum and lightweight composites in strategic areas. Fuel efficiency is a key benefactor with 5-cycle tests confirming ratings of 11.5L/100km city and 9.5L/100km highway, helped along by standard AWD that mostly apportions torque to the front wheels before sending up to 60% rearward when needed.
Taking it to the streets
The Volvo XC90 now feels especially light and maneuverable with the drive mode selector set to Dynamic (Comfort, Eco, Off-Road, and Individual modes are also available), which heightens all of the vehicle’s senses to make the most of a well-sorted, albeit unorthodox, double-wishbone front and transverse composite leaf independent rear suspension (yes, similar to the Corvette in back) or the optional air suspension, not to mention the potent powertrain noted before.
This is in contrast with some of the German SUVs that can feel a bit ponderous at slow speeds. The Swedish rig is easier to manage, yet still substantive with a planted stance when it matters most, while ride quality is excellent.
The little engine provides gobs of rich power all through its rev range, while the 8-speed automatic transmission responds with smooth and positive shift points whether left on its own or coaxed manually via the console-mounted lever. Oddly, paddle shifters aren’t even included in this sportiest of trims, which just seems wrong with a transmission this impressive fitted to a vehicle this dynamic, not to mention so attractive.
Style and class in spades
From nose to tail, the as-tested 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 AWD R-Design ($65,850) is one sharply dressed contender, its front grille large and bold without being garish, LED headlight clusters with integrated “Thor's Hammer” DRL/turn signal combo lamps amongst the more distinctive on offer, overall profile tall and SUV-like without appearing boxy, and Volvo’s signature vertical LED taillights tastefully modernized. The R-Design package enhances the look with sharp aero detailing around the bottom, plus gorgeous brushed stainless steel accents all around. The new XC90 definitely stands as one of the classiest acts in the segment.
Likewise, the cabin is typical Volvo minimalism taken to new heights of grandeur, with superb fit, finish, and material quality. Just try to find any hard plastic, while etched metal surfaces and piano black-lacquered detailing are only upstaged by four of the most sensually shaped and immensely comfortable black leather and suede first- and second-row sport seats I’ve ever seen in an SUV. Having said that, it’s the all-digital 12” primary gauge cluster and nearly absent switchgear on the centre stack that confirm it’s not business as usual in Gothenburg.
Most everything about the new XC90 appears to have originated in purpose and then developed for form, except the strange rotating ignition switch. A twist to the right starts the engine and a turn in the opposite direction shuts it off, which makes me question whether this complication was added simply for the sake of being different. At least it’s beautifully detailed with an inky black cap and diamond-cut metal sides, the latter mirroring a unique scrolling drive mode selector.
If you’ve ever used a smartphone or tablet you should find Volvo’s Sensus display easy to operate. Just press one of its digital buttons or use swipe, pinch, and stretch gestures to perform a myriad of functions even while wearing winter gloves. Volvo makes good use of all the space, incorporating sizable graphics for most functions and even a cool vertical temperature controller that takes up the entire height of the tri-zone automatic climate control interface. Separate touch controls on the backside of the centre console benefit rear passengers.
The colourful TFT gauge cluster includes driver-configurable instruments with a tachometer to the left and a speedometer to the right, plus at centre one of the largest and most useful multi-information displays I’ve ever experienced, particularly when set to navigation mode that adds a massive map.
I don’t have enough space to go into every feature, nor all of my tester’s other extras, but I must stress that $3,250 for the 19-speaker, 1,400W Bowers & Wilkins audio system is cheap for such astonishingly good sound, plus its dash top-mounted centre speaker and additional door-mounted aluminum speaker grilles are eye candy for the audiophile. Likewise the $2,300 Climate Package with graphical head-up display is similarly stimulating and ultra-useful. It also adds a heated steering wheel, heated second-row outboard seats, and more.
Furthermore, the 2016 Volvo XC90 I tested came with the $2,200 Convenience Package that included adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, self-parking, and more, but I’m guessing the $1,800 Vision Package will be even more popular thanks to a 360-degree camera system, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and auto-dimming side-view mirrors.
Another unique element not yet mentioned is the perforated leather key fob that’s colour-matched to your XC90’s interior. It’s a substantive yet nicely sized rectangular design with beautifully crafted metal sides that incorporate all controls. It’s worthy enough of mention in a review, which is saying a lot.
Still safe and reliable
Volvo’s fifth place out of 11 premium brands in Consumer Reports’ latest Report Card on Reliability should inspire confidence, as does its above-average score in J.D. Power’s most recent Vehicle Dependability Study. Additionally, all XC90 models are 5-star rated by the NHTSA (for frontal and side crashes; rollover tests have yet to be conducted) and Top Safety Pick+ earners from the IIHS, which can’t be said of most key competitors.
We should expect as much of Volvo, but the new XC90’s overall excellence was a welcome surprise. From its juxtaposed performance and efficiency to its new level of understated yet resplendent luxury, no one should question why it’s already snapping up most luxury SUV awards. Volvo is back in a big way.