The XC90 is to Volvo what the City is to Honda or the Innova is to Toyota. It’s the backbone of the Volvo range and the bread-and-butter model for the company. The XC90 has been on sale since 2002 and Volvo has sold more than 6,00,000 of them. Hence, the all-new XC90, which has now arrived 13 years after the original, is a very significant car for Volvo and the first of a generation under new owner Geely of China. In India, too, the XC90 aims to give the German SUVs (and Land Rover too) a serious challenge when it goes on sale later in the year. In fact, Volvo in India is banking on the XC90 to move the Swedish brand squarely into the crosshairs of luxury SUV buyers.
But to do that, Volvo, instead of taking the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes head on, is ironically carving a distinct furrow of its own with the XC90 that’s left, off-centre from the German troika. That means the XC90 doesn’t put form over function or a 0-100kph time over fuel efficiency. This car is all about roominess, comfort, safety and efficiency – the kind of stuff that may not be particularly exciting. But the sheer honesty with which Volvo goes about achieving its ideals has an appeal of its own. Then again, how many Indians care about the humane side of motoring? Not many SUV owners, for sure. Thankfully, the new XC90 has enough of the usual stuff too that would yank at the heartstrings of regular SUV buyers.
The new XC90 may not be sleek and svelte like other luxury SUVs, and no doubt, the quest for greater interior room has led to a fairly boxy shape. But the big Volvo has lots of road presence and interesting details that make it stand out from the crowd. The grille, with its vertical slats and a new Iron Mark badge, is quite prominent, but the stand-out feature is the ‘Thor Hammer’ LED daytime running lights that will be the signature for future Volvos as well. There’s the traditional vertically stacked tail-light cluster at the rear, but it’s now shapelier than before.
But it’s the interiors that have truly lifted the game. The cabin oozes Scandinavian chicness with the use of genuine wood, plush leather trim and exquisitely textured finishes. The insides are replete with clever design details and high-quality materials which, only if you examine closely, are a smidgen shy of the best German brands.
The gear lever’s made of Orrefors crystal glass while the start-stop button and rotary control for the suspension settings has an exquisite diamond-cut finish. The top-spec Inscription trim is fully loaded too and gets a 19-speaker Bowers and Wilkins set-up which (appropriately) was belting out Abba’s Mamma Mia with incredible clarity.
The all-new infotainment system takes a while to boot up, but once it’s up and running, the large, portrait-oriented nine-inch touchscreen with its rich graphics and sharp fonts is brilliant to use. You can swipe, pinch and enlarge the menus just like on a smartphone, and by packing in so many functions on the screen, the buttons on the dashboard have been reduced from 32 to just nine.
The seats are generously bolstered and provide great support in the right places. The middle-row seats, which split 40:20:40 and are also heavily sculpted, may feel a touch too snug for large passengers and the cushioning as well may be a bit too firm for Indian tastes. However, what chauffeur-driven XC90 owners (and there will be lots of them) will appreciate is the fantastic view out. The slim front seats don’t obstruct vision, while the large panoramic roof and windows, coupled with the light-coloured interior trim, make the cabin feel fabulously airy.
The third row is surprisingly useable too and you can see where the lofty roof line has paid off. Headroom is good even for adults, but the restricted legroom makes this a place best left for kids. Also impressive is the amount of luggage space that’s left over with all three rows of seats in place. While the flip-down mechanism for the last row was manual on cars at the international media drive, Volvo will introduce an electrically operated option when the car goes on sale. A concern is the absence of a spare tyre; instead, you get a puncture repair kit. In India, sparing the spare is never a good idea and we hope Volvo addresses this issue with some sort of space saver option for our market.
What will give you a sense of security though is the manic levels of safety the XC90 comes with. It gets all kinds of gizmos that can steer and stop the car to prevent you from having a crash. However, many of these active safety features run on radar frequencies that are banned in India, which could be a spoiler. But when it comes to passive safety, there’s no shortage of airbags, which includes side curtains even for the third row.
What’s the XC90 like to drive? In a word – relaxing. The engines on offer provide decent if not scintillating performance, and clearly, Volvo has traded sportiness for a more comfortable drive and better economy. With these priorities in mind, Volvo hopes to justify its brave decision to only offer four-cylinder engines in a segment where six pots (or even eight) is the norm.
Most relevant for India is the D5 diesel variant, which is powered by a 2.0-litre diesel that develops a modest 222bhp. It’s fairly refined at low revs and the diesel clatter is nicely muted inside the plush cabin. Wind and road noise are impressively low as well, which makes the XC90 an easy cruiser. There’s sufficient grunt too if you’re not in a tearing hurry, but when you start using the deeper end of the throttle pedal travel, you can feel the lack of outright punch. The diesel isn’t a very quick car and at high revs, the engine is a bit vocal and lacks the additional refinement a pair of extra cylinders could offer. The gearbox too, though smooth, feels unhurried and it’s best to leave it in ‘D’ and let it work at its own pace. The absence of paddle shifters doesn’t encourage you to take full control anyway.
The T8 Twin Engine is a clever plug-in hybrid that uses a 318bhp turbo petrol up front and a 80bhp electric motor to power the rear wheels. The propeller shaft has been replaced by a battery pack which gives you 40km of range in pure electric mode. However, the transition between the electric motor and turbo petrol engine is a touch jerky. The brakes too don’t function linearly, and pedal feel is odd when switching between conventional and regenerative braking.
Again, performance is strong and smooth, but it doesn’t feel like it’s got close to a (combined) 400bhp propelling it. Perhaps it’s the car’s not-so-light 2350kg kerb weight that blunts acceleration and the ordinary four-cylinder chatter at high revs doesn’t give much of a sporty feeling either.
But then, sporty is not what the XC90 is meant to be and that’s evident in the way it handles too. The steering is quite accurate and surprisingly quick even off centre, but feels a bit too light and detached to properly engage you. There’s enough grip though, and you’ll have to seriously tilt the car through corners to find out where the limit is.
The test cars we had only came with air suspension and the ride was pretty good except for a bit of shudder over sharp edges, which is more down to the low profile tyres. It’s best to avoid the 21-inch wheel option then, and go in for the 19-inchers which are standard on the base Momentum trim.
Volvo India will start taking orders for the new XC90 in late April or early May this year, and formally launch the car in September. Only the D5 diesel engine option will initially be available, but you’ll get a choice of both Inscription and Momentum trims. In early 2016, the T8 Hybrid will be here too, but only in the top-end Inscription trim. Prices aren’t announced yet, but the carmaker has indicated that it’s pegging the XC90 squarely against the Audi Q7. However, Volvo claims the XC90 will be better-equipped than its German rival and even the base Momentum variant will get high-end features like adaptive air suspension.
To get a foothold in the luxury SUV market, Volvo India’s strategy is to cram the XC90 with a lot of kit to make it outstanding value. If you’re looking for an SUV to keep you safe and calm, the XC90 is a wonderfully refreshing and soothing alternative to the mainstream German brands.