Volvo XC90

Volvo XC90

The leaders in the premium sport-utility-vehicle field—Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Land Rover, and Mercedes-Benz—face fresh and striking competition in Volvo’s XC90. The first car to feature that company’s elegant new design language, it replaces a model that has been on sale since 2002 and is a break from the engineering approach the automaker shared with Ford, its former parent. Volvo’s current owner, China-based Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, has energized the brand through an investment of $11 billion.

You can buy the XC90 in a variety of trim levels, from the base T5 Momentum, which starts at $43,950, to the nearly $106,000 T8 Excellence. With the latter, Volvo pulls out all the stops with features such as reclining rear seats, and it sets its sights squarely on ultra-luxury competitors, such as long-wheelbase Range Rovers. Even without many options, however, the standard Momentum is well equipped. 

The all-wheel-drive XC90 T6 we tested has a sticker price of $67,155 and features R-Design trim, which adds a sporty touch to the styling. The package also upgrades the headlights to LED units that move with the steering wheel and offer distinctive “Thor’s Hammer” daytime-running-light graphics. Our test car’s 22-inch wheels are optional, as is the distinctive Bursting Blue Metallic paint.

The clean Scandinavian look extends to the interior, which incorporates first-rate materials and textures with superb fit and finish. The R-Design package includes a steering wheel with shift paddles, well-bolstered and contoured multi-way adjustable sport seats trimmed in perforated charcoal Napa and nubuck leather, and other touches like aluminum pedals. Optional carbon-fiber trim inlays take the theme even further. (Volvo also offers a package called Inscription, which has similar enhancements but shifts the ambience from sporty to more luxurious.) A large moonroof extends completely over the second-row seats and contributes to an airy feel in the interior. Our XC90 also came equipped with the optional 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system, which features handsome-looking aluminum speaker grilles and sounds great.

Set into the center of the dashboard, tilted towards the driver, you’ll find a nine-inch touchscreen for the Sensus infotainment system, which manages the car’s audio, navigation, and climate-control functions. That leaves the cabin without many buttons, though I wouldn’t have minded a few to more easily adjust the climate control. A 12.3-inch screen ahead of the steering wheel displays the main gauges and a secondary navigation layout. An optional head-up display projects the most important information on the windshield, so you can keep your eyes on the road.

The automaker plans to roll out Android Auto in a future software update, and Apple CarPlay is already an available option. The system also supports cloud-based apps such as Yelp and Spotify. The center-mounted screen can display images from the optional array of external cameras that stitch together a faux bird’s-eye view, which is helpful when parking. If you’d prefer, the XC90 can even parallel park itself; it can also self-park in perpendicular spots.

Volvo is known for its emphasis on safety—it originated the three-point seat belt in 1959—and the XC90 underscores that focus. In addition to using five times more high-strength boron steel than the previous-generation model, it features the company’s latest array of standard systems to protect occupants by avoiding or reducing harm in accidents. 

Among them are automatic braking and Run-off Road Protection. The former engages when it detects an impending collision with pedestrians, cyclists, or large animals; it can even work in an intersection where a car may be approaching from the side. The latter detects when the vehicle has left the road inadvertently and sets the seats to actively protect the spines of occupants from vertical g-forces encountered in a hard landing on rough terrain.

As a precursor to full autonomous driving technology, the XC90 offers a feature called Pilot Assist, which supplements the car’s adaptive cruise control and provides semi-autonomous driving at up to 30 mph. This technology requires a road with lane lines running on both sides of the vehicle and a car to follow. The system isn’t foolproof and can give up, so you need to remain attentive. I’d rather drive myself in most cases, but Pilot Assist was interesting to experience and could be useful in crawling traffic. A more practical part of this technology is the Lane Keeping Aid, which gently vibrates the steering wheel and nudges the car back into its lane if you drift over the line without signaling. You can easily override these systems if necessary. 

Volvo offers the XC90 with three powertrain alternatives: T5, T6, and T8 plug-in hybrid, with four-wheel drive as an option on the T5. Our car was fitted with the T6 engine, a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission. The relatively small engine generates 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, and works well in this SUV, which weighs over 4,600 pounds. 

The EPA rates fuel economy at 22 mpg in mixed city and highway driving with automatic engine stop/start. Power is more than adequate for most drivers, and accelerating to highway speeds is quick. Volvo estimates that a run from 0 to 60 takes 6.1 seconds, the sort of acceleration that was once limited to sports-car territory.

If the T6’s performance isn’t enough for you, or you want better fuel economy, you can opt for the T8 twin-engine plug-in hybrid model, which offers 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. The T8’s powertrain adds an electric motor to supply 54 mpg combined and about 14 miles of all-electric range. The base T5 engine foregoes the supercharger, reducing power to 250 horsepower, and results in 24 mpg combined in four-wheel-drive configuration.

For a large vehicle, the SUV handles twisty roads remarkably well, feeling smaller and lighter than it is, and staying flat in corners, no doubt helped by its optional adaptive air suspension and 22-inch wheels shod with high-performance Pirelli rubber. In general conditions, the air suspension delivers a well-controlled, supple ride, especially considering the car’s low-profile tires; the only time I was reminded of the sportier wheel-and-tire package was when I encountered large road imperfections. The smaller standard wheels with more rubber should offer an even smoother ride.

The Volvo XC90 is an excellent premium SUV that seems well suited to daily use. It has a quiet, spacious interior with room for seven passengers, plenty of technology, and the latest safety features in a user-friendly package that is a pleasure to drive. It has been a hit for Volvo, leading a revival for the brand, which aims to replace its entire lineup by 2019.

If you prefer a more traditional luxury sedan experience with a lower seating position, consider the new S90 sedan, which has the same platform and powertrain and similar design language. Another option is the forthcoming V90 station wagon, which looks like a sleeker, sportier XC90. I suspect I’d be happy with any of these variants—especially if it came with that Bursting Blue Metallic paint.    

Volvo XC90 T6

Base price: $49,800

Price as tested: $67,155

Engine: 2.0L four-cylinder gas (316 hp @ 5700 rpm, and 295 lb-ft torque @ 2200 rpm)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Weight: 4,627 lb

Cargo capacity: 85.7 cu ft

Fuel capacity: 18.8 U.S. gal

Fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, 22 mpg combined

Warranty: Four years/50,000 mi

Free maintenance: Three years/36,000 mi

Sources: EPA (fuel economy), Volvo