I met Volvo for the first time in the year 2000. My dad introduced us, both shy and unsure of our futures, on a balmy summer day not long after my 16th birthday. He’d already paid the $500 dowry, and I had little choice in the matter. That rusty 1985 Volvo 740 Turbo would be mine, ’til death do us part.
And then, the Volvo died. My fault. I spent 20 years feeling wistful about the Swedish automobile company.
On one hand, that first Volvo wasn’t my choice. It was an arranged marriage, one in which I had no input. “Drive the Volvo or drive nothing at all,” my dad had told me. The sedan was a real shitshow, too—torn up seats, virtually no paint remaining on the hood, an oil leak that wasn’t worth fixing. It was not a car I wanted to drive to prom. So by the time it died with a cloud of smoke and a rolling stop, I basically hated my Volvo.
Then, recently, I met the new XC90 and fell in love all over again.
(Full disclosure: Volvo loaned Adam Clark Estes of Gizmodo a 2017 XC90 for a week to review, and it came with a full tank of gas.)
My relationship with Volvo felt awkward at first. On top of all those other problems, the shit-green sedan already had over 200,000 miles on it and an offensive cup holder situation. Then again, it was a dependable mode of transportation. Eventually, the Volvo seemed acceptable enough that I put a little sticker in the window, probably a Grateful Dead bear because that’s what not-quite-cool teens did in my town.
Anticipating that the 740 wouldn’t run forever, I’d started saving up for my dream car: a mid-’80s Jaguar XJ6. After a year or so of washing dishes in the family restaurant, I actually found a Jaguar I could afford, and I bought it. “No more ugly Volvo! Maybe a girl would date me now!” I had big plans.
Little did I realize at the time, however, that the Volvo brand would necessarily become my teenage destiny. Days after spending my life savings on a walnut brown 1984 XJ6 Vanden Plas, my brother took it for a spin, slammed the gas pedal to the floor, and blew the fucking engine.
Guess what my dad bought me next: another shit-green Volvo 740.
My dad was a few years into his own love affair with Volvo, letting his unshakeable habit of trading in one decent older car for two slightly less decent, much older cars. A former tobacco salesman, he’d always been a dealmaker, but now he dealt only in Volvos. Incidentally, many of them were weary on the interior, resilient under the hood.
By the time I got to college, my dad had set me up with three different Volvos, all 740s. And despite my love of the dependable design, the relationship always felt a little forced. I was only attracted to the Volvos in the most practical ways. I was also a terrible partner, so terrible that I actually set my first 740 on fire. (This is surely what caused the car to die on the highway a few weeks later.)
All relationships have their ups and downs. My second Volvo died in a car crash. To replace it, my dad sold me—guess—another 740. This one was in better condition than the first two, but it was a station wagon, which felt needlessly nerdy at the time. When I went away to college in Boston, I left the wagon behind. It would get driven on a rare trip home to Tennessee, but Volvo and I were, for intents and purposes, divorced. I considered bringing the car up to school so that we could be together more often, but quite honestly, I was seeing other cars: friends’ cars, rental cars, Zipcars (we’ve all done it). Plus, parking sucks in Boston.
Parking sucks even worse in Brooklyn, where I’ve called home for the past eight years. Feeling weary of city living, I decided to buy a car a few years ago so that I could go on weekend hikes and visit IKEA from time-to-time without getting scammed by some car service. Naturally, I looked online for a new mate, and spent late night hours, gazing longingly at Volvo Cross Country wagons from the early Aughts. I’d always had a crush on these beefy, family-friendly cars, and the prices were somewhat reasonable. Plus, once Volvo decided to smooth out the lines of the body design and dress up the interior, they became beautiful cars. And dependable!
In the end, however, a recently divorced friend needed to sell her 2000 Volkswagen Jetta and gave me a great deal. I loved that Jetta for a year, laden with parking tickets and unexpected trips to the impound. But despite the joy of driving and the allure of German engineering, the Volkswagen felt like cheating. I sold the car to my dad last year, who turned around and sold it for a higher price so that he could afford to do some work on his latest Volvo.
Recently, I had the chance to rekindle my neglected love for Volvo. A coworker set me up with a 2016 XC90 T8, a stunner of an SUV with sexy features like adaptive cruise control, birchwood veneer, and a Bowers & Wilkins sound system.
It was love at first sight—well, love at first sight all over again, like meeting up with the one you’d lost touch with and never stopped thinking about.
Let me say, Volvo has only gotten hotter over the years, and when I put my butt on the supple tan leather of the XC90, it felt like losing my auto virginity again, except instead of being awkward and fraught, this experience felt good. The only thing that the brand new XC90 had in common with my old 740 was that familiar Volvo badge on the front grill. But I wondered if, when it was new, the 740 felt so luxurious to its first owner.
I also wondered if, after 200,000 miles, the XC90 would remain intact. When I drove both cars, though, I felt safe and vaguely proud to be behind the wheel of a European import. I even had some of the same “How do you like yours?” conversations with other Volvo-owners in parking lots. It made me feel wistful.
Let me be clear: the XC90 is not without its faults. With a sticker price of nearly $85,000, the particular car that Volvo let me drive for a week is not a car I would ever buy. Unlike the spartan used Volvos of my youth, this new one is a hulking SUV that seats seven people and seems full of stuff that will eventually stop working because everything does. The particular package that I got to drive costs roughly twice as much as the standard package. But the gorgeous matte, real walnut trim option ($700) feels like a little touch of Scandinavian design, while the Bowers & Wilkins sound system upgrade ($4,500) sounds like heaven. The IntelliSafe Pilot System ($2,600) helped me relax on highways, without encouraging me to take my hands off the wheel. It’s not like Tesla’s Autopilot, after all.
I’m not saying vain can’t be hot. The XC90 gave me a tingle when I sat in the driver’s seat for the first time. It performed flawlessly on a road trip across Pennsylvania. Then again, I couldn’t find anywhere to plug in the plug-in hybrid system and was running on gas the whole time. I didn’t like pushing a button to put the car in park. The voluptuous body and bubbly curves made me feel like I was driving a rhinestone-studded tank at times.
It did turn me on, though. It took me back to the things that have always made Volvos great cars to drive. I’ve never felt safer inside a vehicle than I did in the XC90. That European class that gave me a thrill as a teen is only classier in this newest generation of Volvo, especially when you’re behind the wheel. If I had the money and a dedicated parking spot, I would buy a brand new Volvo and never let it go.
While I’m not an SUV guy, I still lust after that classic Cross Country wagon, and the 2017 V90 is basically a slimmed down XC90. It’s even got that fine-grained Scandinavian wood trim and B&W sound system that I’m obviously obsessed with. Here’s the interior of the XC90, by the way:
Nice, right? The sunroof stretches for days, and that perforated leather feels as good as it looks. If you’re feeling rich and crazy, you can even spend over $100,000 on the Volvo XC90 Excellence edition and get little TVs on the back of those headrests and massaging bucket seats for your overprivileged friends in the back seat, where there’s also a beverage cooler.
There’s a saying that you love your first love like your last, but then you love your last love like your first. That’s how I feel about the new Volvos. I’ve never forgotten about that connection we had, so many years ago when we were both more naive. But suddenly, it’s all exciting again. I feel safe. I feel sexy. I feel like I can’t afford it, but I don’t exactly care. I’m sold. Let’s walk down the aisle.