You’ve got a million Rand to spend on a vehicle, one for the family that will ferry them about in utmost class and comfort, with enough space for 7 if needed and the ability to go everywhere with roads and some places without. You might be tempted to go for the tried and trusted German brands, or perhaps a Land Rover Discovery… or, you could opt for something a little different, like the new Volvo XC90.
The XC90 is now in its second generation, and after selling phenomenally for 12 years in its original incarnation. But this second generation is by far the most important. It’s the sequel, the second coming, and for Volvo, it’s a sign of all things to come – previewing the new design language, modular SPA ‘Scalable Product Architecture’ platform, Drive-E technology, and of course all the safety equipment we expect from a manufacturer claiming no one will die in a Volvo by the year 2020. So this is a pretty important follow-up for the now-Chinese owned manufacturer; but does it deliver?
It’s a handsome chunk of Swedish metal, this new XC90. It’s massive, but the huge proportions lend themselves well to a design that can only be described as typically Volvo. It’s all about clean edges and smooth surfaces – the large SUV framed left and right by sleek, slabs of aluminium along the sides, and fore and aft by the latest in Swedish head- and taillight design. The rear units are reminiscent of the previous XC90, yet differ quite a bit – extending nearly the full height of the tailgate, and sculpting themselves to the contours of the XC90’s large hips. The fronts, well those are a masterpiece; full LED units with active high-beam technology like that of Audi’s Matrix headlamps; epitomised by the LED daytime running lights – horizontally running units that split the LED clusters in two designed to replicate Mjölnir, the Hammer of Thor. These frame a new, massive blacked out grill that completes an overall domineering façade that oozes sheer presence.
But there’s one unmissable attribute borne by the XC90 – it’s freaking huge!
Interior and Features:
It’s only fitting then that it’s a genuine 7-seater SUV – although space in the 3rd row is somewhat cramped for taller occupants. Volvo don’t beat about the bush in stating that if you’re taller than 1.7M, you will not fit – something I’ll positively affirm by virtue that the last time I had to contort my 1.82M frame so much to access a car seat, it was in ingress to a Lotus Elise.
It’s not all midget-sized accommodation though – the two rows forward of that are highly capacious and adjustable, and the boot, even with row 3 erect, is of a decent size. Drop the third row and there’s a boat load of space for groceries, dogs, kidnap victims, or whatever else you might need the space for. It’s a wide load-bay too – with notable absence of rear suspension turrets obscuring loading. That’s thanks to Volvo’s decision to revive some ancient technology in the guise of leaf-spring rear suspension; rather than a typical spring setup; although it’s given a modern touch by virtue that it’s made from a polyurethane composite that saves weight as much as it does space. More on the suspension later though, as the interior is a technological tour de force on all fronts that I must mention.
It’s packed with kit, ranging from electronically adjustable seats to four-zone climate control – yes, four. Technophiles are kept happy by the infotainment system that differs from the typical setup on offer across most manufacturers – a portrait iPad-like unit that responds to glove-clad fingers, as well as responding to inputs more like a modern Smartphone than an in-car control system. It’s awkward at first, but one quickly learns simple commands like swiping left and right, or controlling settings via prods left or right, top, middle, or bottom. You can just about use the system blind, which is just as well since it contains everything from vehicle safety settings to media, and even climate control – all four zones of it – which is usually a massive distraction from the road ahead.
Should your attention stray, the XC90 ensures it isn’t for long. Lane-departure warnings vibrate the steering wheel, and alarm bells shout to warn of an impeding collision; be it from the front, rear, or vehicles crossing as you reverse out of a particularly blind parking bay, and naturally there are the obligatory blind spot assist lights mounted in the side mirrors – both of which dim at night along with the main rearview mirror. The pre-emptive systems react promptly too, jamming on the brakes early and making sure the ABS kicks in long before your foot has reached the brake pedal – handy for when your attention strays whilst the Adaptive Cruise Control is nigh on autonomously piloting the large SUV. That ACC is pretty nifty too, equipped with a secondary function up to speeds of 50km/h that navigates traffic jams – so long as lanes are clearly visible. It’s not quite Mercedes’ Distronic+, but then again, few things are, and Volvo’s system is still nothing short of incredible.
A heads-up display is standard, as is Volvo’s road sign recognition feature, which records the last seen speed limit sign as well as lane information signs on highways. The system is impressive, flashing a speed limit sign when you exceed it, and marking the limit on the speedometer for easy visibility – but it has its flaws. On roads without speed limit signage, the XC90 frequently defaulted to displaying a limit of 100km/h, which could prove troublesome if you rely on it too much.
Of course, leather is standard for all 7 seats, and for most of the cladding around the cabin, although for a leather upper on the dash you’d need to fork out a bit extra – but for those more poverty stricken (as poverty stricken as one could be when buying a R900k+ SUV), the soft touch upper, divided from the lower section by brushed aluminium inserts, is more than classy enough. Speaking of class, the XC90’s interior is dripping with it. It’s the little things, like the lack of unsightly clasps/latches to open the glovebox, and the frameless rear-view mirror, but they just add to the feel of opulence in a way that shows the Swedes really wanted to make you feel good when driving this.
Ride and Comfort:
As mentioned before, Volvo has opted for a new take on old technology by using a polyurethane composite leaf-spring rear suspension setup to save weight and space. The claimed weight saving is 4.5Kg, and the space saving even more noticeable. It’s a clever take on the tech and massive amounts of research has been put into developing the suspension setup as a whole, but at low speeds (below 50km/h) the XC90 feels horribly under-damped, with shuddering vibrations rippling through the cabin unsettlingly.
As speeds climb, so does comfort, with the dampers operating better at higher speeds to maintain high levels of composure even on rough roads. It’s strange how much of a contrast there is between low and high speeds – almost bordering on a Jekyll and Hyde personality as far as ride comfort goes; which when you’re paying the thicker part of a million Rand for an SUV, you really don’t want that sort of variation. Consistency is key to comfort, after all.
Larger bumps, dips, and divots – regardless of speed – are handled in a much more refined manner. The softly sprung XC90’s hefty 2033Kg soaks up large deviations in the road surface comfortably, and with calm resolve – feeling lighter on its feet than the weight might suggest. The soft suspension, however, can’t hide that mass through corners where the XC90 tends to heave into body roll before settling into a gentle lean.
Air suspension and adjustable dampers are available as an option on the XC90, and these may well be the right boxes to tick as far as all-round comfort goes, as the standard setup is too inconsistent to match the air of class provided by the rest of the XC90’s package.
Engine and Gearbox:
You may have heard of Volvo’s new Drive-E technologies destined to filter into every coming and current model. It’s all about reducing emissions and improving efficiency, whilst also reducing costs. One facet of this system is the engine ‘range’ available in Volvo models – where other might spec everything from a 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo to a 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8 in an SUV of this size, Volvo has only one engine displacement available; either a 2.0-litre petrol or diesel mill.
They’re 4-cylinder in configuration, and comprise essentially the same basic architecture – but where an entry-spec T5 petrol model will only feature a turbocharger, the T6 on test is boosted by both a turbo- and a supercharger (a technique called twincharging) to boost engine outputs to a potent 235kW @ 5700rpm and 400Nm between 2200- and 5400rpm.
The obligatory 0-100km/h sprint is achieved in 6.5 seconds – not that it should matter in an SUV – and the top speed is 230km/h, but none of this matters when the measly little 4-pot delivers its power the way it does. It’s surprisingly punchy, even for those claimed figures, and despite a slight roughness – not as buttery smooth as a good inline-6 – it’s mighty refined with a good chunk of torque and some solid overtaking thrust. Despite this, the low displacement and Drive-E trickery at work keeps fuel consumption to a minimum, our test unit achieving a healthy 9.9l/100km over a solid week of testing.
In T6 guise, the XC90 is only available with AWD – which is more appropriately termed part time 4WD as it’s a Haldex-developed system based on FWD architecture. Drive goes to all 4 corners (when slippage is detected, otherwise it’s plain front-wheel drive only) via Volvo’s 8-speed Geartronic automatic transmission. While generally smooth and efficient, I frequently found the Geartronic system shifts to be jerky and indecisive, with knock-on effects of poor turbo-lag management and shifting at the point where the turbo began to boost, resulting in odd steps in the power as ratios are swapped. It’s an intermittent issue, but one that irritates when it does happen, and undoes a lot of the effort put in to make the XC90 such a premium vehicle.
The XC90 is a new breed of Volvo, and one that bodes well for the Swedish company’s future under Chinese curatorship. It’s a cut above anything that’s come before, and as far as technology goes it has Volvo poised for a bright future where it no longer lags behind the levels of tech on offer by its German rivals.
Despite its sheer size, the XC90 drives small – manageable and relatively car like with favourable road manners. In many a scenario, it has its rivals trumped – spaciousness, road manners, and attention to detail are all premier in this class – but in other aspects it feels a touch underwhelming. Poor ride quality at low speeds and a gearbox that could be a bit sharper are the stand-out faults, and the high price – R928 950 with a few options for nice alloys and perforated leather in our test unit – may be a bit of a deterrent.
However, this is now a genuinely premium product; versatile in its capabilities, and with a massive focus on comfort, efficiency, and attention to detail. It’s a viable alternative to the likes of the BMW X5, Mercedes GL and Range Rover, and bests them in many ways, but with the recent arrival of the new Audi Q7, it will be no small task for the Volvo to top the market segment.
Nevertheless, if the XC90 is this good, I can’t wait to see what Volvo come up with next!
235kW @ 5700RPM
400Nm @ 2200-5400RPM
|0-100 time (claimed):||
|Fuel Tank Capacity:||
|Fuel Consumption (Regular driving, combined cycle):||
|Price (as tested):||