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It has big boots to fill and talented rivals to face. Is it up to the task?

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The new Volvo XC90 is the culmination of a remarkable period in Volvo’s history. Just six years ago – normally the period of time you’d want to develop such a car – Volvo was perched on the edge of uncertainty.

A nose-diving global economy, falling sales and the desperation of then-owner Ford to extricate itself from European concerns left Volvo adrift on much the same perilous waters that eventually pulled Saab under.

The original Volvo XC90 was a long-lived sales hit

Even the immediate solution to its woes – acquisition by Chinese company Geely – seemed precarious. What chance its recovery with a potentially fickle and impatient foreign investor at the head of the table?

But the clouds have parted spectacularly. Geely (from the outside, at least) has apparently been content to sit back and let the Swedes do what they do best: come up with neat, idiosyncratic solutions to the multitude of challenges that face a comparatively small European manufacturer.

Consequently, the XC90 is not merely a replacement for the firm’s flagship model. It’s also teeming with recently developed technology that will underpin a raft of new models in the next decade - as can be seen by the 2017 Volvo XC60 and Volvo XC40 models.

That’s for tomorrow. Today, the car must simply be very good. Which isn’t simple at all, of course, because Volvo’s new halo is a premium large SUV, and that segment is hardly stocked with underachievers.

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Among them is Land Rover, a company also divested by Ford and which has gone from strength to strength under foreign control. Volvo will have noted the company’s rise with interest and will hope to convince buyers that its take on seven-seat, all-wheel-drive luxury is at least as compelling as the one that has emerged from Gaydon in the past 18 months.

There are three trim levels to choose from: Momentum, R-Design and Inscription and only two four-cylinder engines, plus a plug-in hybrid version. The entry-level D5 model is likely to be the most popular, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.

Volvo XC90 engine line-up and trim levels

A total of three engines are available on the XC90 (and all of them are four cylinders), with the B5 nomenclature applying somewhat confusingly to both the base petrol and diesel ICE units. There's also the Recharge T8 AWD, which not only has super- and turbo-charged boost for the petrol lump, but is also a plug-in hybrid (the clue's in the name). This offers a claimed near 60-mile electric-only range. 

Unsurprisingly, manuals are absent, with every car getting an eight-speed Geartronic auto 'box with an all-wheel drive transmission. There are five trim levels available: the base Momentum (B5 petrol only); Inscription Expression (T8 only, and is effectively Momentum kit but with Inscription styling); R-Design (the most popular, and therefore available on all the engines); R-Design Pro (D5 petrol and T8 only); and lastly the all-singing-all-dancing Inscription Pro (T8 only). With diesel being offered on one trim level only, that alone tells you where the market is heading.

DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo XC90 rear
It wouldn't be a modern Volvo without tail-lights extending up towards the roofline

Although it is new in every conceivable way, the XC90 isn’t a dramatic visual departure from its predecessor.

It’s essentially a tweaked translation of the original brief: a big, squarish and high-shouldered seven-seater in the Volvo mould. That’s fine. A Range Rover Sport the XC90 isn’t, but utilitarian good looks and neat touches like the standard ‘Thor hammer’ LED headlights help it to stand out from the bland-athon that includes everything from the Audi Q7 to the Kia Sorento. Such is the impact it has been passed onto the V40 and will be seen on the next gen XC60 and the XC40.

The underpinnings are far more novel. The XC90 is the first car to sit on Volvo’s new modular platform, dubbed SPAR (Scaleable Product Architecture). This technology claims to use a higher percentage of hot-formed boron steel than any other manufacturer and allows the XC90 to be larger, lighter, safer and better balanced than previously.

The platform also enables shorter overhangs and a longer wheelbase, a layout helped by the engine bay’s need to be big enough for only four-cylinder engines.

Preservation of interior space and weight reduction are also the reasons given for the use of a transverse composite leaf spring in the rear axle. The manufacturer is adamant that its design, when incorporated into a new multi-link suspension, means it has less of an impact on third-row space.

Alternatively, you can opt for air suspension, which does away with the leaf spring and the coil springs in the front wishbones and offers a range of driver settings that include the ability to raise the body by 40mm in off-road mode.

Although it is not particularly intended for the muddy stuff, the XC90 will initially be four-wheel drive only. Its on-demand system is based around a fifth-generation Haldex coupling that’s capable of sending 100% of torque to the rear but generally taxes the front alone. The hybrid T8 differs in that its all-wheel ability is delivered by the 81bhp electric motor on the back axle.

Up front, the T8 uses the same 317bhp petrol engine found in the T6. Sharing an identical four-cylinder architecture with its diesel equivalent (along with an eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission), the unit employs turbocharging and supercharging to improve on the output of its predecessor’s V8 while emitting just 179g/km CO2.

The diesel D5 goes even further. Thanks to i-ART, which locates fuel pressure sensors in individual injectors rather than collectively controlling them via the common rail, the unit develops 222bhp and 347lb ft of torque for CO2 of 149g/km, putting the two-tonne XC90 on a par with a two-wheel-drive BMW X5.

There is rumours gathering that Volvo are planning to let their performance division Polestar loose on the XC90 and create a rival to the Audi SQ7.

INTERIOR

Volvo XC90 dashboard
The manually-adjustable steering column moves over a wide range to accommodate most people's needs

The challenge here is monumental. Among the XC90’s rivals are the cut-glass-cool new Audi Q7 and a growing range of Land Rover products that have an apparently firmer grip on modern British design than Sir Norman Foster. We have already pitched the big Volvo against the Range Rover, the BMW X5 and Land Rover Discovery, and even put the T8 hybrid up against the BMW X5 hybrid.

The XC90’s cabin has already earned serious praise but, aesthetically speaking, at the lower trim level, it doesn’t quite scale the imagination of either.

In bright sunlight, it doesn't take many finger marks to seriously affect readability of the central touchscreen

What it does instead, in that typically understated Swedish way, is make everything as pleasant to use and as thoughtfully positioned as it could possibly be – often with an idiosyncratic tweak that you won’t find anywhere else.

A large multimedia screen has allowed the Swedes to follow their inclination for tidying and clean surfaces, the switchgear having been reduced almost to the legal requirement while leaving the basic media controls we all endlessly push.

The effect is as uncluttered and pleasing as an electric sauna heater and almost as simple.

It can be a double-edged sword when a flagship model receives the latest generation of a maker’s infotainment system: new is good, but it tends to come with bugs. So it proves with the XC90’s, which is intuitive and slick but not faultless.

The decision to have the touchscreen in a portrait format rather than landscape is mostly fine and the functionality of a three-swipe menu system is appreciably simple. One physical shortcut button returns you to a home screen consisting of navigation, media phone and economy tabs (with heating, ventilation and air-con controls a permanent fixture at the bottom). The menus beyond are no more complicated and the screen, which you can use with gloves on, is very responsive.

However, the nav (a familiar Volvo weakness) is more of a mixed bag. Here, the portrait view is less helpful, but the broader problem is the manufacturer’s bizarre idea of what counts as pertinent information – an overhead two-mile scale map view showing rivers, for example – yet no B-roads. For a firm that prides itself on usability, such oversights are hard to forgive.

Some features – not least the gear selector and huge steering wheel controls – feel like the requirement for function has overawed eye-pleasing design, but equally there doesn’t seem to be much you’ll complain about a year down the line.

The rear of the cabin is a similarly strong statement in common sense and far more spacious than, say, a Land Rover Discovery Sport.

Volvo’s devotion to boxiness pays off, particularly in the third row of seat, where all 5ft 8in of our most modest-sized road tester was accommodated with room to spare (if impinging somewhat on the leg room of the passenger ahead) and in some comfort.

A thinned-down design means that the jump seats are the same as those in the second row, albeit without the adjustability.

The second row slides and tilts, and everything folds flat to leave a pleasingly level load space.

Currently, it requires a modicum of grunting and lever pulling to put everything back where it was (electrically operated back seats are an option for the future) and you’ll still have to climb in to remove the boot cover, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The tailgate, helpfully, is powered as standard and can be operated with a waggled foot beneath the bumper.

On the equipment front, there are three trims to choose from - Momentum, R-Design and Inscription. The entry-level trim comes with adaptive cruise control, keyless entry, LED headlights, powered tailgate, and automatic lights and wipers. Inside there is dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, plenty of Volvo safety systems, sat nav, DAB radio and Bluetooth.

Opt for the R-Design model and expect to find a sporty bodykit, interior details, bigger alloys, an electrically adjustable passenger's seat and 12.3in driver's display, while the range-topping Inscription models come with Nappa leather upholstery, thickpile floor mats and built-in sun blinds.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo XC90 cornering
Powered by the 222bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine, the Volvo XC90 accelerates from 0-60mph in 8.3sec

Volvo’s brave new world has given it, on the face of things, a far more competitive line-up than the old Volvo XC90 and its five-cylinder engines could ever offer.

Here, it’s down by a cylinder and almost half a litre of capacity, yet it still has the kind of power, performance, fuel economy and emissions claims to enable it to compete with the best in the field. The new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel’s 222bhp is above average for the sector, in which about 200bhp is the norm. And it’s enough to give the Volvo a 0-60mph time of 8.3sec in our hands.

The XC90's new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel’s 222bhp is above average for the sector, in which about 200bhp is the norm

It has been a while since we obtained a set of performance figures for a four-cylinder direct rival for the XC90, but in 2012 the Mercedes-Benz ML 250 Bluetec needed 8.8sec to cover the same benchmark, even though it made more torque than the Volvo’s 347lb ft.

You can probably assume that the work of Volvo’s body engineers is coming to the fore here. The XC90 tipped our scales at a respectable 2076kg – more than the 2009kg claim but well below the Mercedes’ 2350kg and half a tonne less than a full-fat Land Rover Discovery.

That relative leanness means the Volvo is one of the most alert cars in the class in response to the throttle. It will accelerate from 30-70mph through the gears in only 8.3sec. The ML takes more than a second longer.

That performance, though, is slightly at odds with the feel you get from the gearbox. Mostly, the XC90’s eight-speed automatic is an easy thing to get along with: you stick it in ‘D’ and leave it at that.

But when you ask for more than moderate performance, the gearbox can be a touch slow to respond unless you’re extremely firm with your demands. There’s no immediate ‘S’ alternative, so you have to head into the drive menus and ask for the car’s responses to be sharpened, by which time the opportunity to overtake or that short stretch of enjoyable road has probably passed.

This isn’t the quietest engine in the world, either. The numbers say an ML is no louder than the XC90 at idle and only marginally more so as speeds increase, but the Volvo’s note is more clattery than that of the BMW X5 and Discovery we tested it against, although it’s well within the bounds of acceptability.

We have no complaints about the brakes, though. The XC90 always stops strongly, straight and true.
 

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo XC90 side profile
On standard suspension, the ride is firmer and more intrusive than you'd expect

It’s a mixed bag here. At times we’ve been extremely impressed with the way the Volvo goes about things. At least, we were on the XC90’s launch, during which we only had access to cars with optional air springs.

So far, in the UK, we’ve had only a brief drive on air springs. For most of our work, including all of the road testing on the example you see here, we’ve been running with the steel/composite spring set-up.

The XC90 steers consistently and, at three turns lock to lock, has the kind of steering speed that those coming from an estate car will be entirely familiar with

Air offers an improved high-speed ride as well as a better secondary town ride over this version, which here involves more patter than we’d have expected on a car in this class.

It’s not uncomfortable – far from it – but it’s just that, when you think a BMW X5 is going to be the most dynamic and pseudo-sporting car in this class, it’s unusual to find that a Volvo is challenging it on a B-road for being the firmest and most intrusive car in the class across high-frequency inputs. There’s more body and ride isolation in a Land Rover Discovery, by far.

The Volvo is rather more competitive when it comes to body control. It feels like a large passenger car, rather than an out-and-out 4x4, absorbing bumps and crests without float or wallow.

It steers consistently and, at three turns lock to lock, has the kind of steering speed that those coming from an estate car – or an X5 – will be entirely familiar with. Its responses are consistent and linear as well.

Likewise, agility and handling will make those who arrive from a family car feel at home, and those who come from the old XC90 will think it’s a borderline revelation. The new XC90 grips well and changes direction without fuss – if also without any great feedback.

Nearer its limit, it’s safe and predictable, exactly as a Volvo should be. There’s no great enjoyment to be had here, but there is plenty of security and maturity. Just be sure you can live with the ride of the steel/composite-sprung car.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo XC90
The new Volvo XC90 costs from £45,750

Old-guard Volvo buyers used to seeing its bigger models penalised by the warbling old five-cylinder turbodiesel engine will be in for a pleasant surprise when they compare the new XC90’s costs of ownership.

Our entry-level diesel test car is beaten on CO2-derived company car tax liability only by BMW’s two-wheel-drive X5 sDrive25d. On that front, it’s considerably lighter on the pocket than most direct rivals.

Our True MPG fuel economy testers produced a real-world average of 36.5mpg, which is commendable for a two-tonne seven-seater

Our True MPG fuel economy testers produced a real-world average of 36.5mpg, which is commendable for a two-tonne seven-seater. An BMW X5 sDrive25d is narrowly more frugal, but it’s rare to see any full-size SUV return better than 35mpg. Over the past few months, the Kia Sorento and Porsche Cayenne Diesel have both fallen short of that particular mark.

The Volvo is not only well priced against its rivals but also well equipped, getting all seven seats, four-wheel drive, LED headlights and Volvo’s excellent 9.0in touchscreen multimedia system as standard.

Fleet drivers looking to keep their tax liability down should stick with Momentum trim, since the upper-level versions emit more CO2. Neither R-Design nor Inscription models get an air-suspended chassis as standard.

Speccing Volvo's Winter and Intellisafe Pro option packs should make your car easier to sell. We'd also add air suspension (£2150), Apple CarPlay for the media set-up (£300), surround-view cameras (£700) and a spacesaver spare wheel.

Residual values should be excellent, following the original XC90 in retaining its value very well indeed. If you want an SUV that holds its value better, you’ll need to buy a Porsche or a Land Rover. No version of the BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz M-Class is currently a better place to put your money.

 

VERDICT

4 star Volvo XC90
A very impressive all-rounder with its own distinctive appeal

The original Volvo XC90 catapulted Volvo’s brand values – safety, practicality, clear-headedness – into new territory.

It worked because it made eminent sense and buyers grasped it immediately. Its replacement, for all the investment and tech push, won’t have them straining their imaginations, either.

Tellingly, 3500 customers in the UK didn’t even need to see a new XC90 to buy one

One imagines Volvo’s modus operandi being roughly equivalent to Land Rover’s when it came to the new Range Rover: we don't want it to be the same, but better.

In that, Volvo has succeeded admirably. Sound judgement – in performance, spaciousness, efficiency, styling and cabin ambience – is as unmistakable as lacquer on pine. There are niggles, certainly, but no more than you’d expect from a car developed briskly, on a budget and bulging with new features.

Tellingly, 3500 customers in the UK didn’t even need to see a new XC90 to buy one. Volvo, with quiet rationality and no little ambition, has rewarded their blind devotion.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volvo XC90 First drives