A while back I loudly and obnoxiously and boorishly pronounced, as I am wont to do, that all SUVs are stupid and you should never buy one. If you absolutely had to buy one, get a Range Rover, I said, but that was it. And then the 2016 Volvo XC90 came along, and my entire view changed.
(Full Disclosure: Volvo wanted me to drive the new XC90 so bad that I asked for one, and they said “okay” and dropped off a new T6 model with a full tank of gas. A few months later we asked for one again and Volvo dropped off a T8 plug-in hybrid model with a full tank as well.)
I hated SUVs. Unless you lived in a place where there were truly no roads, or you were some sort of gilded Kazakh energy baron, I couldn’t think of a single person who wouldn’t have benefited more from really any sort of car over a tall, heavy, slow, dumb truck.
Want a Mercedes GL? Too bad, you should have the amazingly wondrous S-Class instead, and you’re going to like it.
How about a BMW X5? The regular 5 Series should do much better, thank you, and if you must insist on all-wheel-drive, you could have it with that as well.
Need to transport seven people in style? Then no Chevy Suburban for you, as “in style” is the crux of the matter here. Get a limo if you really insist on transporting all of those people at once, or an Escalade. A limousine can be quite nice actually, if you imagine you’re Gordon Bombay.
But it’s not like there’s one thing screaming out to me about the Volvo that would convince you of its inherent greatness. It’s not faster than anything else, or more economical, or lighter or sharper or softer or smarter. It just seems to be really good at everything.
Well, almost everything.
I can count on less than one hand the number of cars I’ve driven from the past year that truly feel like they’re from, well, this year. The Tesla Model S, for one, and the aforementioned S-Class. But those are cars with prices that tend to climb into the complete stratosphere, and with features that tend to push them into the future as well.
But a vehicle from the true here-and-now? A vehicle that you don’t look at in any way and think, “Oh yeah, I remember seeing that feature being mentioned as coming out a few years ago,” or “My, that’s a tiny screen,” or, “Super-shiny plastic looking wood, how delightfully 1997!”
Vehicles like that are hard to find, which is what makes the Volvo feel like the lovely Scandinavian vacation you just took a few weeks ago, right down to the flags.
Part of the problem with SUVs is that they tend to look a bit ungainly at best. They’re either look like hatchbacks that have been lifted slightly too high, like the relatively little Mercedes-Benz GLA, or they look like a regular station wagon that’s been fed horse steroids against its will, like a Dodge Durango.
You get this sort of weird holdover from the 1990s, when the SUV was shiny and fresh and everyone had to go out and try to overcompensate for a lack of Cold War machismo.
There was a notion that an SUV’s purpose was to shout loudly to the world that it was here to proclaim that you were ready to go rock climbing or carry a house or hose down your trunk. It was absurd, and it left many SUVs, even good ones, looking cheap.
But the Volvo doesn’t look cheap. It doesn’t look like it’s been over-preparing for the next Olympics track and field competition. It looks classy, and it’s down to the little design elements, like Thor’s hammer sitting in the headlights.
It doesn’t feel like Volvo started out with a regular, genteel sedan, and then started yelling for more more. Everything’s well-proportioned, and because it is an SUV the sheetmetal does give a sense of muscularity under the sheetmetal.
But it’s all muscularity without vulgarity. It’s the best-looking SUV you can get, bar none.
Step inside the Volvo and you’re greeted with vast swaths of class. The leather is tanned a deep brown, but not the weird orangey-chestnut that was all the rage back in the days of the original Ford F-150 King Ranch.
Leather covers damn near everything, and when it doesn’t, it’s because something even nicer is there. A crystal gear selector here, matte-finished wood there. It’s not the sort of thing that screams ostentatious wealth, which many a $60,000+ vehicle can do, but it does scream, in a weirdly quiet way, that “Yeah, I’ve done alright for myself.”
But no way in hell is this the traditional “professor’s car” Volvo of old. Not many professors can afford something this nice.
Volvo says that they spent five years developing the XC90, and seven years on the seats, and I believe them. They seem to be adjustable in all sorts of ways, and they’re ridiculously comfortable.
If you can’t get comfortable in one of these seats, the fault lies with you and the poor choices you’ve made in your life that have all led up this point. Or you have a herniated disc or whatever, that’s between you and your doctor. Either one.
But even regular interior stuff, like “speakers” and “glass” seem to be features. Alright, so these speakers (the optional 19-speaker 1,400 watt, yes, one thousand, four hundred watt Bowers & Wilkins system) and this piece of glass (the roof) are indeed optional features. But not every option in every car feels special. These do.
And yeah, Volvo isn’t the first to have big glass and big speakers that look pretty. But it’s nice when cars do have those things.
Oh, and the neat little detail work doesn’t stop at the car door, it goes inside as well. Check out that neat little spider!
What a good spider.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that surely a three-row Volvo SUV, made out of nothing but the heaviest cast iron in Volvo tradition, would weigh somewhere around a million pounds. But it’s actually not that bad, at only 4,293 pounds, partially because it’s not actually made out of cast iron, but mostly a bunch of boron steel alloys.
And while that sounds like a bunch, in the SUV category it’s not terrible. The Land Rover LR4, for example, weighs more than 1,000 pounds more. The Tesla Model X weighs just about an entire Lotus Elise more.
So it’s not actually that heavy for what it is, in the grand scheme of things. There are different suspension settings too, for sportier driving, or less sportier driving, or moderately sporty driving, or off-road driving, which is sporty in a different way. Those are all fun and good.
“But oh ho ho,” you insist, because you’re strange and also a bit like Santa, “I am but a poor cylinder size queen, and I hear this has but a mere four cylinders!”
The engine in the T6, the first model we tested, was twincharged, like an old Lancia. But unlike an old Lancia, with both a supercharger and a little tiny turbo, this 316-horsepower motor is still smooth like butter when it comes to the sort of regular onramp, mashed-foot acceleration these things are likely to see.
The T8 on the other hand, with its plug-in hybrid system putting out 84 more horses, feels, well...
Okay, here’s where I fail you. We let our pals at Gizmodo test out the T8 for a few days before we got our hands on it, and by that time, the hybrid battery was dead.
Normally, if you own one of these things you’ll just plug it in at night. But we are naught but poor bloggers, who all live in apartments, and running an extension cord out my window in the hopes of finding convenient street parking was a bit ridiculous from the get-go. Also, the T8 weighs about 700 heavier than the regular version, so without those 84 extra horses, you feel it.
Volvo also sells a T5, with about 250 horsepower and no supercharger, but we didn’t test that. I’m sure it’s not slow enough to kill you in the left lane of the highway or anything.
Tech is where the Volvo really shines, and I promise you, I could be here all day babbling about the tech in the XC90 (like Apple CarPlay, which works better than any other phone-to-vehicle interface but still isn’t ideal). But there’s two parts that I just want to shine a light on, because they are both the car’s glorious strong suits, and its weakest vulnerabilities.
The best part of this thing, bar none, is that audio system. But it’s not just that it’s a 19-speaker, 1,400-watt wonder. No. It’s what they’ve done with the thing that’s so impressive.
What they did is, well, they re-created the Gothenburg Concert Hall. Seriously.
Volvo took 800 individual acoustic measurements of the home of the Swedish national symphony, and then used software re-processing to re-create that acoustical ambience in your Volvo.
It’s ridiculous, and if you’re just listening to talk radio or whatever it sounds like they just cranked up the reverb. But if you’re listening to Aerosmith’s Don’t Want To Miss A Thing like you do on repeat every single day of your life, it sounds incredible.
It also has “Individual Stage” mode, to, uh, recreate sitting in front of a small stage, and “Studio,” if you want to re-create whatever it is that the artist originally recorded.
Which is all great. But there’s a technical weak point as well, and that’s Volvo’s Pilot Assist.
Pilot Assist, much like Tesla’s autopilot, purports to be a semi-autonomous system. It’s the first generation of the system for Volvo, and there’s a newer and better one on the horizon coming up in the company’s S90 sedan. So they’re working on it.
But as-is, it’s pretty bad. It only works up to about 30 miles per hour, and it loses sight of lanes pretty easily. It alternately leaves big gaps with the car in front of you in stop-and-go traffic, yet stops short. It also constantly nags at you to keep your hands on the steering wheel, which is a bit silly. If I wanted to keep my hands on the steering wheel, I would just drive. The reason why anyone wants self-driving systems is so that they don’t have to.
In the end, it’s a self-defeating system. I do hope it gets better.
Annoying little niggles about the Pilot Assist system aside, which comes as part of a further technology package, the Volvo is great at being just a good car. The regular, every-day things it does, it tends to just do better than everything else. It swallows people and gear with more space and comfort without so much room on the outside.
It’s comfortable. It’s smooth. It even has a little button on the trunk if you want to close it, but also lock the car, which is a neat little feature designed by a human being who was tired of uselessly taking their keys out.
But more than that, it’s the first SUV I could ever see getting over an equivalent family car for around $65,000. And sure, that’s not a small amount, but it all just feels so right.