Do you remember what you were doing in 2002? To many of us, Volvo included, 12 years ago seems like another lifetime. In 2002, Volvo was launching its XC90 flagship SUV at the Detroit auto show. The brand, under Ford ownership for the better part of three years, was eager to take a chunk out of the premium sport-utility market while bringing its unique blend of Swedish design and safety savvy to the segment. The three-row ‘ute did well enough to win Motor Trend’s 2003 Sport Utility of the Year award and quickly become the brand’s best-selling vehicle. Engines started with a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-five and a twin-turbo I-6, but expanded to include a V-8 for several years at the height of the XC90’s popularity.
Twelve years, a new owner (China-based Geely automotive), and just one major face-lift later, the Volvo XC90 is still here, having sold more than 550,000 units worldwide. There’s just one engine option now, a 3.2-liter I-6 that makes all of 240 hp and is mated to a six-speed automatic. The base price sits at a shade over $40,000 including destination. But all that’s about to change for the 2016 model year.
I was invited to Volvo’s top-secret winter testing facility in very northern Sweden (the appearance isn’t as exciting as it sounds -- this is no Bond villain hideaway) where temperatures don’t often swing out of negative digits in winter. The reason? To catch a sneak preview of Volvo’s second-generation XC90, due to be unveiled to the public later this year, ahead of a production launch in early 2015. While the photos shown here are of a heavily camouflaged (Mad Max-influenced?) prototype, I actually got ride in an undisguised mule to get an impression of what’s to come for Volvo’s top-flight vehicle.
Initial styling impressions are good. Take a look at Volvo’s recent Concept Estate shown in Geneva and you’ll get an idea of what the front end is all about. The nose is at once sleek and abrupt, with a very large, upright grille, short front overhang, and long hood. Moving rearwards, the waistline sits a little higher than the current Volvo XC90, meaning less window surface area, but an overall sleeker appearance to the current vehicle’s utilitarian look.
The interiors I was shown were not yet up to production spec and looked unfinished, but appeared vastly more contemporary than the current Volvo XC90. Various real metal and wood trim packages are available, including options for open-pore wood -- a natural finish currently popular with Audi and BMW, among others. The instrument display is fully digital on higher spec models (12.3-inches), similar to current Range Rover setups, and features a center information display between two projected analog-style gauges. Standard instrument panels include a small TFT information display between two actual analog gauges.
The display on the center stack is where things get really interesting, with a portrait-oriented, 9.3-inch touch screen with multi-gesture functionality, similar to tablets. A lone rotary dial sits at bottom center to adjust the radio volume and pause or play music, but all other controls are on the screen. The home screen is divided into five horizontal sections. The bottom section contains climate control functions, while the upper four sections are (from top to bottom) navigation, audio, phone, and a user-selectable function. To expand any to full screen, simply tap once. The screen can be swiped to either side for submenus or to change other basic vehicle controls, such as interior lighting preferences or audio tone. The demo system I played with was extremely intuitive and responsive and the vertical orientation seems to be the way forward, as Tesla has realized for some time now. Apple’s CarPlay application has been worked into the new unit to aid mobile device integration.
Interior room in the pre-production models felt spacious, with ample second-row leg- and headroom. The third row still seemed a bit of a squeeze, but the seatbacks do fold flat to greatly increase cargo space.
The chassis comes from Volvo’s new Scalable Product Architecture (otherwise known as SPA), which will debut on the XC90 before spreading to new generations of mid- and full-size Volvo vehicles. The same architecture underpins the Concept Estate and is designed to take advantage of a lineup that will rely solely on inline four-cylinder engines, as currently found in the S60 sedan. Combined with the increased use of high-strength steel and aluminum, the idea is that the new XC90 will be lighter than the current version, despite its roughly four-inch longer body and slightly increased width.
A big goal is also to make the Volvo XC90 drive smaller than it looks -- a sporty, nimble option in the three-row SUV space. The car uses an A-arm suspension up front and a multilink rear design. Standard cars receive steel coil springs, while air springs will be available. Steering is electronic, though a different system than the current S60 uses. It will, however, feature user-selectable weighting.
Volvo will launch the Volvo XC90 in the U.S. with both internal combustion and plug-in hybrid powertrain variants. Expect the new Drive-E T5 and T6 engines as found in the current S60 to be present here, mated to an evolution of the new eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission. That means either a 240-hp/258-lb-ft direct-injected, turbocharged 2.0-liter I4 or a 302-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter I4. Those concerned about the all-four-cylinder lineup power-wise needn’t worry: Even the T5 makes the same horsepower and more torque than the current 3.2-liter I-6. Details are currently slim on the new plug-in hybrid powertrain, but as the top-shelf model, expect the T6 engine to form the combustion component. Gasoline variants will be front- or all-wheel drive, while the hybrid will be all-wheel drive only, with its electric motor powering the rear wheels. This motor can be decoupled to save energy using a Haldex clutch. Electric-only range is expected to be in the 30 km range (about 18 miles) on a full charge.
I got a brief ride-along on a relatively smooth, but dotted with snow test track in both a 2.0-liter turbodiesel Volvo XC90 (diesel is not on the roster for U.S. launch, but could be considered in the future) and a T6 gasoline-powered version. Both felt adequately peppy (the T6 variant even more so), and, though it was difficult to say from the passenger seat, both felt on the sporty side of things, with little body roll and fairly agile reactions. As might be expected, the air-sprung Volvo XC90 seemed a little plusher than the steel-sprung version, but both seemed to have rides and driving manners that target the sportier vehicles in the segment, such as the Audi Q7. Visibility seemed strong, both front and rear, and both engines gave muted grumbles -- not particularly wonderful-sounding, but far from obnoxious.
When the 2016 Volvo XC90 hits showrooms early next year, it appears ready to take the fight to upscale German competitors. For that advantage, it will also likely cost a good chunk more than the $40,000 starting price of the outgoing model. With any luck, Volvo’s effort will be rewarded. We’ll know more when we get a chance to drive the all-new XC90 by the end of this year.