When it comes to handling dynamics, large luxury SUVs are no longer quite so easy to pigeon-hole. There are still some cars in this class that are better on road (think BMW X5) and others that are better off it (think Land Rover Discovery) but the differences aren’t as sharp as they used to be. One thing hasn’t changed in this segment though, a Volvo XC90 still gives you the best compromise between these virtues and in second generation guise wraps it up in a far more rewarding overall package that these days is based solely around the use of 2. 0-litre four cylinder power. Volvo reckons this to be the optimum recipe for efficient performance and backs up its thinking by delivering three impressive engines using that configuration in this car, all of which are mated to on-demand 4WD and an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
There’s petrol power courtesy of an engine using both turbocharging and supercharging to develop 320bhp. That unit’s offered in standard form in the conventional petrol T6 model. Or you can get it mated to an 87bhp electric motor in the clever T8 Twin Engine petrol/electric Plug-in hybrid model, a car that mates 400bhp performance with supermini-style running costs. The two conventional variants will be more rewarding to use if you get a car with the ‘Drive Modes Settings’ system fitted, which alters throttle, steering and gearshift timings to suit the way you want to drive. The optional air suspension we’d also recommend functions through the same set-up and improves low-speed ride. Whatever spec you choose, there’s as much off-road prowess as most owners will want and tarmac handling is assured, crisp and responsive for this class of car.
The look of this second generation XC90, according to its exterior design manager Anders Gunnarson, needed to be ‘timeless’. If, like its predecessor, its model life must stretch across the decades, then you can certainly see why. Hence the considerable depth of thought that’s clearly gone into a sense of style reflective of brand values both old and new. The car’s a little longer than the previous version – and a little wider too – but that’s been carefully disguised as part of a design brief to make the shape look as compact as possible. So many large luxury SUVs appear bulky and intimidating, this isn’t one of them.
As for the boot space on offer, well that’s inevitably going to be a little restricted with all seven seats in place, you still get 397-litres of luggage space.
Most of the time though of course, you’ll probably be running the car with the third row chairs folded down, the retracting process much easier than the back-breakingly fumbly machinations you have to go through in a rival Land Rover Discovery to achieve the same end result. Once that’s completed, there’s a lot of room to play with, 775-litres if you load to the windowline and as much as 1,102-litres if you load to the roof.
Let’s take a seat up-front, where it really is very nice indeed, the work of Volvo’s British interior design director Robin Page. He’s created a cabin that’s simple, elegant – and very uncluttered, with only eight buttons on the fascia. The remaining functions you’d normally access through confusing rows of little switches on the dash have been relocated into menu options that lie behind the big, easy-to-use icons you’ll find on a smart infotainment colour touchscreen that’s presented portrait-style on the centre console, like the system you’ll find in a Tesla Model S.
We like the technical niceties too, the CleanZone interior air quality system for example. We’d also point potential drivers towards the optional 19-speaker 1,400-watt Bowers & Wilkins sound system that can play your music through three modes – ‘Studio’, ‘Individual Stage’ and ‘Concert hall’.
Your middle row passengers will enjoy this too of course and are well catered for in other ways, with individual seats that slide and recline for greater comfort on longer journeys. The optional ‘Family Pack’ includes window sunblinds, child locks and this integrated fold-out centre booster seat. Another option, the huge panoramic glass roof, gives this part of the cabin a light, airy feel – which is something we think you’d really want in a seven-seat car.
Third row seating in a car of this class tends to be designed only for children but, Volvo claims to have created rearmost pews suitable for anyone up to 5ft 7-inches in height. Getting to the back row takes a bit of muscular dexterity, but once you’re installed, it is, as promised, surprisingly comfortable in the back. The chairs themselves are exactly the same as those in the middle, so you’re not fobbed off with the kind of fold-out occasional seats you get in some rivals. And they’re positioned in so-called ‘theatre-style’, slightly raised and set inwards to offer a better view in your direction of travel.
The XC90’s four cylinder ‘Drive-E’ engines offer huge efficiency savings over the units used in the previous generation XC90 range – and embarrass many rivals too in this respect. The D5 diesel variant returns 49. 6mpg on the combined cycle and emits just 149g/km of CO2 – in other words, about the same running costs as you’d get from a little 1. 6-litre automatic petrol Ford Focus. Even the conventional T6 petrol version manages 36. 7mpg and puts out a very creditable 179g/km of CO2. Go for the T8 Twin Engine plug-in petrol/electric though, and the Volvo’s potential efficiency climbs to a new level, official figures suggesting 134. 5mpg on the combined cycle and 49g/km of CO2 to be somehow possible. Plus there’s up to 26 miles of pure electric driving range from a charge that could take as little as two and a half hours.
Volvo, like its rival Land Rover, seems to be flourishing under foreign ownership. You might have expected Chinese control to stifle the company’s Scandinavian character. Instead, what we’ve been given here is a return to Swedish charisma and an emphasis on all the things that the Gothenburg brand does best – cool restrained style, real-world practicality and class-leading safety.
Of course, the Volvo’s not perfect. There are still sharper-handling choices and more capable off roaders in this sector. In balancing these virtues though, the XC90 sets its own class standard and in doing so, establishes a family benchmark amongst luxury SUVs that rivals will struggle to match. Company founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson would have liked this car. More importantly though, if you’re shopping in this segment, we think you will too.