2016 Volvo XC90 First Drive
There was a movie a few years back called "Be Kind Rewind," a tale of two friends trying to save a relative's video rental store (remember those?) but who accidentally erase the tapes in the process. Their solution? To film themselves reenacting the various popular movies they erased. They referred to them as "Swedish" editions and even took requests to have movies "Sweded." The new movies were quirky and a bit different, no doubt, but honest. I hope you'll appreciate the metaphor.
Volvo has always been a bit quirky and different than the rest of the automotive industry, but the honesty in its purpose, its function, and its intent has always been obvious. That has often made new Volvos predictable, but the brand has retained its power to surprise, such as 13 years ago when its first-ever SUV took down a wide field of strong competitors to capture our SUV of the Year honor. The XC90 was the right vehicle at the right time for Volvo, quickly becoming a consumer hit. After an overly long lifespan punctuated by a few lip-service updates, the XC90 has finally been replaced, and by all accounts, Volvo has used the time to capture lightning in a bottle again.
That isn't to say the all-new 2016 Volvo XC90 is perfect, but it's quite close. It is altogether an excellent luxury SUV and exactly the product Volvo needs at this critical inflection point in the company's history. It lends proof to the wisdom of the company's all-new drivetrains and product architecture, which it has literally bet the future on.
Perhaps the best place to start is inside the 2016 XC90, where customers spend most of their time. Not to give short shrift to the exterior, which is less bulky in person, is very well-executed, and announces a promising direction for Volvo's future styling, but the interior is where the real action is.
As with the exterior, Volvo has taken another bold step away from conservative and toward understated. Whereas craftsmanship has always been a brand value, the company is now more interested in your seeing and feeling it. The leather is of a distinctly higher quality and stitched neatly to nearly every surface. What's not leather is interestingly textured metal trim or wood, with a spot of soft-touch plastic here and there. It's stylish, it's upscale, it's modern, it's functional, and it's spacious.
In the front row, the seats are quite comfortable and offer a surprising amount of lateral support for the class of vehicle if you inflate the side bolsters. Behind them, the second-row outboard seats are almost as good, sans bolsters, and they both slide and tilt. The middle seat offers a comfortable cushion, though the backrest is expectedly stiff due to the armrest/cupholder it hides. Even the third row is a pretty decent place to be if you're 5-foot-9 or shorter. Otherwise, your head's touching the ceiling. There's more shoulder- and hiproom back there than just about any other crossover on the market, and legroom is adequate if the second row scoots forward just a little. The view out is excellent from any row thanks to large windows, a low beltline, and a standard panoramic sunroof.
Back up front, one of the 2016 XC90's most prominent and important new features is on display. Rather, it is a display, a 9.0-inch touchscreen that is, for all intents and purposes, a tablet computer in the dash. Called SENSUS, it's the best touchscreen entertainment and information system on the market, if not the best of any, full stop. The interface is incredibly intuitive for anyone who's used a smartphone or tablet in the past five years. The functions are arranged logically based on how often they're likely to be used, and every touch and swipe reacts just as quickly as your phone or tablet. It's even got a convenient "home" button at the bottom to get you back to the homepage.
Interior trouble spots are minor. There's a bit of wind noise around the upper corners of the windshield, which faintly interrupts what is an otherwise very quiet interior. It's matched by an engine noise that is neither good nor bad and therefore could stand to be less noticeable. Also of minor annoyance is the electronic gear selector on the T8 plug-in hybrid model, whose logic is unfamiliar. Selecting Drive from Park requires pulling back on the lever with two distinct pulls, the opposite (pushes) for selecting Reverse from Drive. Getting to Brake mode from Drive, for additional regenerative braking, requires another pull, and another from there will get you manual shifting mode. Manual shifting can only be done with the lever, and it doesn't slot to the side like other cars. Rather, you push and pull it using the exact same motions that would otherwise put you in Reverse or Drive. As intuitive as SENSUS is, this isn't. Finally, more USB plugs for the well-off and likely well-connected modern family are strongly suggested. One in the armrest just doesn't cut it anymore.
Now would seem like a good time to talk about the powertrains, then. In another big shift, Volvo has fully committed to four-cylinder engines only. Each is both supercharged and turbocharged for consistent and linear power across the board. The standard T6 model employs a 316-horsepower version of this engine producing 295 lb-ft of torque. This all is fed to an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard Haldex all-wheel-drive system. In the default Comfort mode, the power feels just more than adequate for the size and bulk of the vehicle, but dial into Power mode, and it comes alive. The power curve builds steeply as revs increase, and the transmission smartly and smoothly swaps gears along the way.
The all-wheel-drive system, which can send up to 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels, is invisible to the driver as it routes power to the ground as conditions require. Official fuel economy numbers are yet to be announced, but Volvo is hoping to be best in class among three-row luxury crossovers.
The XC90 T8 plug-in hybrid model is even more impressive. A 318-horsepower version of the same engine is fitted with a starter motor-generator that generates electricity for the hybrid components, starts and restarts the engine as needed, and can even reduce the load on the engine by helping under certain conditions. Actual electric drive power happens at the rear axle, which is fitted with an 82-horsepower electric motor. Powering it is a 9.2-kilowatt-hour battery in the center tunnel. Only 6.5 kW-hrs are used at a time to protect its longevity. Volvo claims a total system rating of "about" 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque.
With no mechanical connection between the front and rear powertrains, it's up to the computer to blend power from the two, and it does so seamlessly. In the default Hybrid mode, it feels only marginally more powerful than the XC90 T6, but then there's that Power mode again, which makes it downright quick. Switch over to Pure mode, and you'll drive entirely on electric power unless you stand on the throttle, in which case it will revert back to Hybrid mode until you ease up. EV mode is less peppy than in Volvo's mechanically similar and downright punchy V60 PHEV, likely owing to the additional weight, but it's strong enough to get you around town if you're not an especially aggressive driver. Volvo is claiming up to 25 miles of EV driving range and 2.5 hours to charge fully on a 240-volt plug, or 5 hours on a regular 110-volt wall socket. When you’re cooking with gas, Volvo says to expect 59 MPGe, but official fuel economy numbers are yet to be released.
Speeding up inevitably requires slowing down, and it's a similar story. The T6 provides good stopping power and a nice response from the brake pedal. The T8 suffers from familiar hybrid brake issues, in that the pedal is abnormally firm and the feedback is vague. Braking power itself is fine, and Volvo says the issue will be addressed before it goes on sale. On the plus side, applying regenerative braking to the rear axle rather than the front alleviates the typical grabbiness and nosedive of many hybrids.
Also inconsistent between the two XC90 models is the steering. Both use electric power steering, and both suffer odd steering weighting, as if rubber bands are pulling the steering back to center every time you turn the wheel. In the T6, it's barely noticeable, so the average customer is unlikely to notice it. It's more pronounced in the T8, but Volvo says that's on the fix list, too. Unlikely to change is the slow ratio at low speeds. Although it quickens up nicely at higher speeds, making a tight turn into a narrow driveway requires a lot of turning the wheel.
What is consistent is the handling. Both handle the same despite the differences in drivetrains and curb weights (the hybrid equipment alone adds 550 pounds to the T8), and they handle quite well for their size and weight. Body control is impressive, with no unwanted movements. Both can feel a bit tippy if you corner hard, but that's to be expected from a big SUV. Otherwise, the XC90 leans smoothly and carefully on its outside tires and takes a set. The fat Pirelli tires grip well without sending much noise to the cabin. They're designed for the road, not the dirt, but the XC90 should prove capable off-road with standard all-wheel drive and 9.3 inches of ground clearance.
The other side of the coin is the ride, which is noticeably firm for a luxury SUV. Impacts and bad roads are handled well, but you'll feel a lot of the bumps, if only slightly. It should be noted both of the test vehicles available were fitted with the optional air suspension and adaptive dampers. Ride and handling will likely differ on base models.
Putting yourself in a position to test the 2016 XC90's handling limits would likely take some doing thanks to the massive suite of safety aids. Included standard are roll stability control, collision avoidance with automatic braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection and avoidance day or night, run-off road protection, land-departure warning, rear impact protection, the ability to stop you from turning in front of oncoming traffic, parking sensors, and a driver-alert feature when you're getting drowsy. Add the optional adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, cross-traffic alert, active lane keeping, stall and parallel parking assistance, a 360-degree camera system, a head-up display, and semi-autonomous driving capability, and you've got what’s likely to be the smartest, safest SUV on the road.
The final feather in the 2016 XC90's fine cap is its pricing. At $49,895 to start, it's not quite the cheapest luxury three-row SUV on the market, but with most of its equipment standard, it's the best value in the class. The top T6 model, with few available options, rings in at just $55,495. T8 pricing hasn't been announced, but expect it more in the $60,000 range. T6 sales begin in July, with T8 and the T6 R-Design trim package going on sale in October.
This new 2016 Volvo XC90 really is a worthy successor to the name. Like the original, it advances the brand's design markedly, it introduces all-new technology to the industry, it drives and performs well, and it comes at just the right time for the brand. It's not wildly charismatic like some sporty crossovers and SUVs but rather like an old friend that's always there for you, even before you know you need them. If it's not equally as popular as the original — or more so — it'll be a shame.