ONE of the most talked about vehicles in 2015 was the Volvo XC90. Now the hype has died down slightly, let’s take a look at this SA Car of the Year contender in the cold light of day.
Firstly, what is it as I don’t see too many on the road yet? In official-speak, it’s an all-new seven-seat SUV that distances itself from previous Volvo iterations but I’d rather describe it as a large, luxurious and well-equipped AWD station wagon that happens to ride on big, shiny wheels. The occupants look down on nearly everything around them and mostly with good cause as this Swede is a technical tour de force.
It truly reflects Volvo’s independent thinking, an asset rapidly established since the Gothenburg manufacturer was freed from PAG shackles by the Chinese and Geely specifically.
The whole story mirrors the Jaguar situation, truth be known. That means foreign ownership, greater freedom in terms of design execution and lots of admiration in the market place but a distressing shortage of purchasing commitment from potential buyers who seem suspicious of poor resale values and a limited number of dealerships.
More’s the pity for those who find it hard to ditch entrenched perceptions as this Volvo really does have lots to recommend it, especially in terms of blending style and high tech with practicality.
Unusually for a vehicle of such stout dimensions, the engine is transversely located in a bay designed solely to accommodate four cylinder mills, be they petrol or diesel. This engineering feature liberates more cabin space and reflects Volvo’s commitment to engine down-sizing, but does it work?
This example featured a turbo and supercharged 2.0 motor offering a hugely competitive 235kW at 5 700 rpm and a torque peak of 400Nm spanning 2 200- 5 400 rpm. These are impressive figures but the fact remains that it’s impossible to hide the characteristic timbre of a four cylinder motor all the time.
So, on the cruise, the motor is absolutely fine, spinning smoothly and quietly and being endowed with enough grunt to make apparently more sporting steeds work very hard. The drawbacks arise though when you wring the engine’s neck. It can sound slightly strained and that sound doesn’t hold a candle to the melodies that emanate from bigger motors running six or more cylinders.
In such luxurious surroundings, there’s an understandable expectation of a creamy delivery at all times and that’s something this 2.0 high tech motor simply can’t deliver across the board, albeit that it never ever feels overwhelmed by the bulk it has to propel, thanks to that brawny delivery.
The other caveat comes at the fuel pumps. If the motor is pushed or subjected to a lot of stop/start short haul work, it can get quite thirsty by which I mean 14.0l/100km. In less pressing circumstances, you can expect around 9.0l/100km which is more parsimonious than any 6 or 8 cylinder motor will be.
Wind noise suppression is good and the same goes for road noise isolation, especially given the presence of huge (optional) 275/40R21 tyres mounted on delectable 8-spoke alloy wheels. Take your bank manager with you when you have to replace the rubber though.
Given that this is primarily a people carrier, ride is all-important. Your impressions would suggest that comfort would be to the fore but that ignores the adjustability at the driver’s command. In Dynamic setting, there’s a firmish undertone at play but in Comfort, which I preferred, the feel is more pliant, albeit that you never feel you’re riding on a marshmallow.
Let’s say the overall feel is relaxed which is how it should be but the same can’t be said of the steering which I found to be artificial, nay elastic in feel, and too eager to self-centre. That’s not to say the level of effort at parking speeds doesn’t make things easy. It’s nice and light and in combination with the outstanding visual and parking aids on board, precise positioning of the big machine is a cinch.
My notes refer to the 8-speed auto gearbox as being “superb.” Unobtrusive, smooth shifting and quick-acting are the primary responses I recall. The brakes too do their job with disdainful ease being powerful and reassuring but at low speeds, they can be a tadsnatchy as a consequenceof slightly fierce servo-assistance.
With the caveat about the natural drawbacks of four cylinder engines being the only significant blot on the horizon as far as the driving experience goes, the XC 90’s equipment levels and standard of finish are the true stand-out points.
Externally, the metallic pearl white T6 Inscription model certainly looks imposing, albeit that the slightly bluff, vertical nose looks a little clumsy. Paintwork is glossy, if endowed with some orange peel, and detailing in the form of chrome inlays – particularly those adorning the door handles – polished roof rails, huge folding body-colour wing mirrors and LED headlamps all add to the smart appearance. Panel gaps too are mostly tight but it did not escape my notice that the polished embellishers on the belt line failed to line-up accurately on three of the doors.
Inside, acres of leather adorn all three rows of seats, with the front examples being particularly comfortable on immediate acquaintance, partly because the upper padding is much softer than in most competitive cars. This inherent softness allows for greater squishiness of the leather facings and as a result, I fear for the durability of the outer bolsters which are always prone to wear and tear anyway.
As you might expect, the front pews are electrically adjustable and both offer three memory positions. A large central divider incorporates neatly-finished storage binnacles which are looked upon by a panoramic sunroof and by an auto-dipping rear view mirror.
Space is there in abundance with those in the middle enjoying fore and aft adjustment doubtless to help out any third row occupants. The rear doors are even equipped with ashtrays, as in the old days, and there’s a centrally-positioned cigarette lighter/power socket on hand too. All doors areprovided with soft arm rests for added comfort.
Certainly the interior ambience ranks with the best and despite the plethora of equipment, there’s a lovely simplicity to the execution which is notable too for the use of very high quality materials and nice detailing encapsulated by the unusually-shaped engine start switch and stubby shift lever.
This simplicity is achieved in part through the use of an industry-leading central touch screen which operates virtually every function on the car – including ride adjustability – but which can seem a little daunting on first acquaintance, albeit the process soon becomes intuitive.
Among the host of features is a camera system which also allows for an overhead or bird’s eye view of the car which is ever so useful to achieve perfect positioning in tight car parks. Given that rear three quarter visibility isn’t great, this large on-screen display is a boon.
As is becoming fairly common, the central screen controls the sound and effective climate systems too. The former is simply brilliant such that even FM radio offers true high definition sound.
Other points of note include the large and beautifully simple TFT instrument cluster with the speedo and rev counter flanking the satnav display. You won’t find clearer instruments but Volvo also adds a Head-Up display which includes a graphic and unobtrusive speed limit warning.
There’s also a Bluetooth phone system, cruise control, loads of air bags and all the usual Volvo safety systems plus niceties such as an auto-tailgate which provides access to a slightly shallow (the third row ofseats is the culprit here) but superbly-finished, carpeted luggage area.
Add in the aforementioned large sun roof, electric folding wing mirrors, cruise control and a self-dipping interior mirror and you’ll get the idea that this XC90 is wanting for nothing in the equipment stakes.
Overall, it’s hard to fault this new contender in the luxury SUV segment. Interior ambience is outstanding and refinement levels are excellent thanks to good suppression of wind and road noises. Mechanical thrash, other than when the smallish four cylinder engine is pushed hard, is almost non-existent. Thanks to wide-adjustability, the ride characteristics can be tailored to suit most tastes but the rather strong self-centering action of the power steering can be a tad disconcerting. And of course, having all-wheel-drive means this Volvo can be taken off the straight and narrow.
The fact that the XC90 has been the recipient of numerous international awards is no surprise and doubtless there’ll be many more to come.
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