Thor’s hammer nails it

It’s the first product of the “new Volvo” and the model that kicks off a company-wide rebirth – the weight of expectation associated with the XC90 amounts to serious tonnage. We try the entry D5 Momentum.


For: Sensational interior design and build quality; proper third row seating and space; improved turning circle and around town usability.

Against: Not the sportiest kind of SUV.

Score: 4.3/5

The XC90 is a car that takes Volvo into a new age, under new ownership: Based on a new scalable platform that will provide the base for a whole new range of Volvos over the next four years, it’s the Swedish brand’s first clean sheet offer in a decade and its first independently developed vehicle since being bought by China’s Geely.

This seven-seater represents in seven derivatives, three trim lines with three four-cylinder engines – a diesel on test here in the entry Momentum model, a petrol and a petrol-electric, all 2.0-litre.

What’s of interest? That it continues the excellent design fundamentals that kept the old model fresh for 12 years – a lifetime and more in car years –and shows off the Scalable Product Architecture is just one draw. It’s all about ingenuity: Engines use a common block, the rear suspension that steps back in time by using a transverse rear spring also launches into the ‘future now’ by having this made in composite materials and the car is loaded with tech, much of its dedicated to safety, course.

There’s more than enough to warrant elevation to full premium status, a leap that also shows in increased dollars; the $97,900 to $136,900 price span is well above the old car’s $70k ticket.

Even so, this is one of the most arresting new sports utilities in recent time. Does it stack up in a heavily-loaded category?

Styling, image:

VOLVO stopped making fridges years ago, and though inevitably big sports utility wagons do have tendency to look like wheeled whiteware, the body is more shapely than it might seem in stark silhouette.

The XC90 is first of all about facial recognition. The iconic arrow on the grille now aligns with the diagonal slash. Daylight running lamps present in a T-shape so are called ‘Thor’s Hammer’, a tie to Nordic mythology. This is the face of all future Volvos, but beyond this the body also evidences other clear cues from recent concepts that seem set to transfer to other future models; the shapely shoulder line being one, the neat rear tail light integration another.

If you are of a mind that some SUVs are getting too big now, then rejoice in the miracle work Volvo’s design team has done to make their genuine seven-seater seem relatively compact. It’s longer and taller than the current car, but you will be less aware of this than that it is lower to the ground, from Volvo having reduced in ground clearance.

The strength of the car very literally lies within. Previous XC90 held well-best status for seating a septet and that status remains comfortably secured; that the rearmost chairs are designed for long-term adult occupancy says so much in itself. But that’s merely the start; it’s beautifully built, of course, but the design and gorgeous quality of its interior is a real sell-point.

The quality and comfort, plus clever technology – much run from an impressive and easily-operated touch screen – and delightful simplicity of surrounding, mainly textured metal controls (with only eight buttons on the dash the cabin is free from clutter) synch neatly with the XC90’s ambition to major on ride comfort, refinement and safety.

In respect to cabin ambience, the Volvo is quite simply up there with the very best. Light beige leather and fabric aren’t exactly family friendly, but; the quality of the materials on every surface is beautifully judged and presented.

You spend a lot of time touching surfaces and contemplating the sheer quality of it all. And, most remarkably, you have to keep reminding yourself that this is in the BASE model.

How well-built it really is might be a moot point. Within weeks of release the car was subject to a global recall and delivery delay, to repair a faulty interior trim panel that could have interfered with the deployment of the side curtain airbag in the third seat row. No issues were reported so maybe that was Volvo being pedantic. Still, our test car, which arrived after that episode, was affected by an annoying and untraceable rattle in the back.

Powertrain, performance:

Downsizing is the done thing these days, but it’s still a brave step to put complete faith in a single engine size of modest capacity. When so many rivals still have sixes and even the occasional V8, in petrol and diesel, it’s going to hard for Volvo salespeople to argue that a 2.0-litre four is just as good, if not better.

The key point is efficiency and sheer urge. These powerplants have high outputs despite their modest capacity, not least in diesel form. The D5 generates 165kW at 4250rpm and 470Nm between 1750-2500rpm. For sure, it’s not a rapid departure device – zero to 100kmh comes up in a slightly relaxed 7.8 seconds – but it does unload decent torque and burns every drop of fuel effectively. Volvo’s claimed optimum of 6.2 litres per 100km wasn’t achieved on test, but I was pleased enough with the indicated 7.9 litres/100km average out of a week of mixed conditions driving. That’s pretty decent for a vehicle weighing in 30kg shy of two tonnes.

The eight-speed automatic transmission is obviously a key contributor to thrift; it seems programmed the whip up through the big cogs as quickly as possible. It usually does this with impeccable smoothness, but on occasion I did notice an occasional hesitation, as if it was vexed about staying it the gear it already had or bumping up a ratio. This always seemed to occur at slow urban speed. A colleague had mentioned the same, and on his advice I drove a couple of days with the stop/start system deactivated. Sure enough, this seemed to help.

Two other low speed traits is a degree of clatter - it’s not loud enough to be irritating but is audible – and a doughy feeling as you roll the accelerator on.

Both seem to disappear when up to pace; by 100kmh the mill’s demeanour is smooth and quiet and it’s more immediately reactive to throttle input.

I’m guessing this is because by then the turbo is also right at point of peak efficiency. We didn’t drive with an absolute full load, but with even four aboard it felt muscular enough that one passenger who wasn’t in the know about the actual cylinder count quite honestly thought, when asked to guess what size engine was in operation, it was a straight six working away. If you’re driving at even speed the cabin ambience is quiet enough to enable conversations at normal tone. Running on a road when constant throttle changes are required is a bit different, however.

Driving appeal:

IF you want a racy SUV in this size, take a look at a BMW X5 or Mercedes GLE. The XC90 is not one of those SUVs that focus on the ‘sport’ part of the title; Volvo is a Latin word meaning ‘I roll’ and in driving demeanour that’s this model. It’s not ponderous but it does have a relaxed, laidback feel. It’s solid and unhurried, majoring on comfort and refinement. Just like the old one, really.

While it may not be particularly playful, it is calm and composed on all but the very worst roads. And some bugbears of the previous model have been sorted; a biggie was a poor turning circle, something that didn’t endear it to urbanites. The new car is obviously still a physically imposing vehicle, so still requires a bit of space to manoeuvre, but it will at least u-turn in a city street in one go. The electrically assisted power steering also requires less heft than previously and also provides better feel, too. All of which lends impression that it doesn’t feel as large as it is from behind the wheel.

The big decision for XC90 drivers will be weather to order in a car on its standard steel spring suspension or spend up extra on the air suspension. On the launch drive I found the base recipe was pretty good and a week with that setup did nothing to change my mind. The air suspension does provide more suppleness, the base setup is good enough for ride quality. The cornering demeanour is potentially a touch stiffer in this format, too, though if you’re looking for a big rig in which to charge hard, then this isn’t it. Comfort is the key word here.

Volvo won’t mind it being called safe. That, after all, is a word that is held in highest regard by the Swedes; this, remember, is the brand aiming to eliminate accident deaths with its cars.

The ambition is exemplified by XC90: Volvo's biggest claim for is that this is one of the safest cars in the world and it forms the base of the Gothenburg-based concern's plan to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries from those driving its products in Sweden by 2020.

The Intellisafe suite of occupant protection technologies is a big step toward realising that ideal. When the vehicle detects it’s leaving the road, the seatbelts cinch and remain tight while the vehicle is in motion, keeping occupants securely in their seats. An optional rear-facing radar allows the car to anticipate an impending rear-end collision. Frontal impacts are also pre-warned thanks to City Safe; again the seatbelts cinch down and it self-locks the brakes. Volvo pioneered bonnets that lift up in event of a pedestrian impact, yet ditched this engineering for XC90 because those four-cylinder engines are mounted so low as to be of no impact risk.

More? It comes in the form of radar cruise, cameras that can literally pick out humans from cars in traffic, lane keep assist with active steering assistance and are able to read road signs.

While not a ‘driver’s car’ per se, the XC90 nonetheless treats the person in command really well; the driving position is excellent and there’s no disputing the comfort of these chairs. And, since all the seats are the same, there’ll be less argument about where you end up.

The beauty of the centre console is that it isn’t just beautiful to behold. The positioning of the major controls is brilliantly conceived; I’d nominated that iPad-like vertical centre screen, called Sensus, as the single best auto design feature of the year. It responds quickly to touch commands and is easy to understand. It also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, applications which can integrate your own smartphone or tablet into the Sensus screen.

In addition to the centre screen, there’s an attractive driver digital display that is also coherent and cleverly customisable.

Sitting back and enjoying the ambience is easy because the comfort on offer in the front pews translates through to the second row and – believe it or not – the third row, even for adults.

Volvo says you have to be less than 170cm tall to be properly comfortable, yet it’s not so bad: You even get your own air-conditioning system. There’s even some luggage space available when the third row is in play, though not a lot. If a big trip is planned, it’s better to fold down that last row. These chairs, and the centre row, fold flat to open up a whopping area but there is a negative in that there’s no easy way of folding the seats down remotely.

How it compares:

Rivals are easily found. They include seven-seat SUVs such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover Sport. The Mercedes-Benz GLE, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg are also cited, as must be the Lexus RX.

So there’s no shortage of choice. Yet the XC90 stands apart because of the singular drivetrain determination and the impressive focus of design finesse and safety.

My view? Don’t sweat the fact that it provides such a ‘small’ engine – honestly, it’s not lacking on performance for the duty it need to perform – and instead look to the excellence of its design.