For Volvo, the 2016 XC90 is not just a new model, but also the most important step in the relaunch of their brand and a luxury SUV that has to make it big in America in order for them to succeed. Clearly, they couldn't screw this up. They didn't.
(Full Disclosure: Volvo flew me to Barcelona, put me up in a very nice hotel and once again paid for all my gin and tonics.)
I've never known so much about any car I was about to drive. I read all the press releases about its technology, I was in Stockholm last year at the unveiling and I also went to Gothenburg to learn about the XC90's part in Vision 2020, Volvo's ambitious plan to eliminate all death in its new cars in less than five years. After digesting lots of numbers, theories and gin and tonics, it was time to get behind the wheel to see what's what. For you and me, it's just a car after all.
250,000 of the 636,000 first-generation XC90s produced were sold in the US, but Volvo wants both numbers to climb higher. It's no secret that the new car was primarily designed for Americans who sure love their SUVs, but the XC90 still had to be pretty special to have a chance of beating ze Germans while also fighting the Japanese and the British offerings in the premium segment.
Volvo had a fleet of T8s and T6s waiting for us in Barcelona, with the twist that the 400hp hybrids were not fully calibrated yet. They will finish that before the T8 goes on sale this fall, but we drove them anyway.
The XC90 T8 is the showcase of Volvo's brand new (and completely Ford-free) SPA platform and Drive-E powertrain that combines front- or all-wheel drive with four (or fewer) cylinder forced-induction engines and the option of having additional electric power.
Having pre-production cars lacking the finishing touches in the software department means that I won't be able to tell you exactly how good Volvo's "twin-engine" drivetrain is with the advertised combined output of 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. What's for sure is that it was quick enough but the transfer of power to the front wheels wasn't all that smooth, which didn't inspire a ton of confidence in the corners. So the transition of power between the 316 hp twin-charged engine and the 80 hp electric motor is where it definitely needs further refinement.
They know about it, it will get sorted.
An interesting detail is that the battery pack itself is a 9.2 kWh unit that only uses 6.5 kWh to insure it can perform sufficiently for at least the official lifecycle of the car. That's fifteen years as far as Volvo is concerned. But even if the batteries fail eventually, the T8 will retain its all-wheel drive capability thanks to its starter motor with an integrated generator and 35 kW/95 pound feet on tap that can power the rear axle if needed. It would also do miracles for my Autobianchi.
Since the T8 has six different driving modes from off-road to power and the Sensus Human Machine Interface is one of the most important innovations of the car, I started to figure it out roughly twenty seconds after jumping onboard.
The nine-inch screen is custom made by Alpine with hardware that's punchier than an iPad's. Like all new systems, this four-panel setup will also take a few days to get used to, but it's extremely fast, hooks up with phones in no time, provides wireless, will integrate Apple CarPlay and is super easy to use not only because it is turned towards the driver, but also because it uses infrared technology to track your movement, which means it knows what you want to press without physically touching the screen. It can also be operated by any object that you deem crystal-friendly. If you get lost, there's a home button just like on any tablet.
The 19-speaker Bowers and Wilkins audio system is also just as good as you would expect in a luxury car. Volvo will tell you that they used 800 measurement points from the Gothenburg Concert Hall to turn the cabin into your favorite venue, and it shows.
Inside, things only get better. Volvo wanted to make that "alone time" we spend in our cars a little more enjoyable. They intend to be the best on the market in comfort and user interaction, and as a result, everything you touch feels top quality. The design is very Scandinavian and while I didn't really care much for the crystal shifter they are so proud of, the diamond-cut dials did the trick, especially since you start the car by turning one in the central console, just like on a Saab.
Volvo seats have always been good, and these new ones took them seven years to make, so you can imagine how comfortable they are. The pair in the third row are the same seats as in the second while up front, all the leather you touch on the doors is extra padded to make you feel special. Once again, it works, and that alone might just sell the whole car.
The icing on the cake is the light provided by the panoramic roof. The XC90 is huge, but it manages to feel airy inside and with that much natural light, you don't feel like you're driving a tank. It can almost fool you into thinking that it's just a big station wagon. Audi tried that as well with the new Q7.
But what if you don't want a hybrid?
While some will buy the T8 for its 20+ miles of all electric range, extra power or simply because only the top of the range car will do in front of the neighbors, the T6 will be the volume seller in America and the car they'll base the XC90 Polestar on.
Starting at $48,900, the XC90 T6 gives you 316 horsepower from a turbo- and supercharged 2.0, mechanical all-wheel drive instead of the electric motor up front and pretty much all the things you want as standard.
Both the T8 and T6 test cars came with the air suspension, but probably due to being a finished product, having less weight to carry and the traditional all-wheel drive, the T6 felt way more eager to go fast. In fact, I've never seen a car change so much in character after switching between drive modes. Most "sport" buttons do nothing but make the steering artificially heavy and keep the revs unnecessarily high, but in the T6, you really can start chasing X5s if you switch to pursuit mode. For BMW drivers, seeing a Volvo in the mirror might come as a shock, but the XC90 can do that.
The steering is rather slow in the city but has nice feedback, and the T6 certainly corners better than I expected. The brakes are nothing to write home about, but they stop the car just fine, and the automatic gearbox is smooth enough by any standard. Basically, you barely realize the changes between gears, and that's exactly what luxury car buyers expect for their money. Job done.
You might find the ride surprisingly firm even with the air suspension, but conquering corners at rather high speeds despite being as wide as the lane comes at a price. I get it. The XC90 had to be everything and satisfy everybody.
It had to be the safest, it had to be fast enough to keep up with a Q7 and it had to remain a Volvo inside and avoid any sort of vulgarity on the outside as well. Fair enough. I like how that all came together in the end.
The good news is that despite not tolerating potholes as well as a Citroen DS, the XC90 is a great cruiser on the highway. It's quiet, it's stable at high speed and with all the comfort functions inside, there's no question that this would be an ideal choice for a trip of any length. For seven people.
Does it sound like a freakin' diesel? Yes. Apparently, that's the hallmark of direct injection. Do you realize that once sitting inside? No way. Nothing will disturb you in that cabin.
It's harvest time now in Gothenburg. Volvo will launch seven new models in the next four years, including a new large and mid-size car, a compact based on their CMA platform and a bunch of Polestars to make us blue ourselves.
If those will be at least as good as the XC90, Volvo is here to stay.