Discover What Model Reigns Over Our Brave New SUV World
The first thing many of us noticed about the new XC90 is how it reminds us of the Volvos of our collective 1970s and 1980s youths: a perfect box, far more concerned with utility than sexiness, yet so exquisitely crafted that it screams expensive.
We’re not talking about the XC90 itself. No, this is about its key fob. It would be a frontrunner for the 2016 Motor Trend Key of the Year award, were there such a thing. The device that grants access to this Volvo is roughly the same form as a matchbox, though a touch smaller, and lined with the same amber Nappa leather that’s stretched across the XC90’s three rows of seats. It slides perfectly into your pocket and is adorned only with a raised Volvo logo; its silver buttons are on the side so you don’t accidentally press one while walking.
Something so simple as a key shouldn’t even be worth mentioning, but the Volvo’s transponder makes a stunning first impression while also providing a perfect preview of the SUV itself. The Volvo XC90 is functional, elegant, and above all different. This is an entirely new vehicle from a car company that has taken a step back and reinvented both itself and the luxury three-row SUV.
The XC90 isn’t just our SUV of the Year – it’s also a captivating work of art, inside and out.
Volvo may be a household name, but it’s a tiny player in the automotive space. Toyota produced nearly three times as many Priuses last year as Volvo made cars. In the U.S., BMW hawks seven cars for every one Volvo sells.
We’re accustomed to hearing about the prohibitive expense of developing new platforms, even from the biggest and richest car companies. Indeed, the last platform that Volvo developed independently entered production almost 20 years ago. It’s still perfectly goodâit underpins a number of brand-new Ford models that we like just fineâso you’d think a small company like Volvo would just make small, incremental improvements to it.
You’d be wrong. The XC90 debuts Volvo’s brand-new “Scalable Product Architecture,” which, like its name suggests, will be used on vehicles of differing sizes. It features a no-baloney unequal-length control-arm front suspension and a multilink rear with an unusual transverse leaf spring made of composite plastic. (Our fully loaded Inscription model’s air springs replace the transverse leaf, however.) What’s under the hood also is entirely newâand the sole engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
A four-banger in a 4,720-pound truck? Not to worry; the thoroughly modern, direct-injected mill puts out a stout 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque thanks to forced induction. Squeezing 158 horsepower per liter requires a big ol’ turbo, which normally would mean big ol’ turbo lag. To solve that, Volvo installed a small supercharger to provide boost when the turbo can’t. It works great, with instantaneous squirt from all engine speeds and just the occasional, slight surging as the computer moves around the boost duties.
Flat-out, the XC90 raced through the quarter mile in a 15.1-second dead heat with our second-place finisher, the almost identically sized Honda Pilot. It also tied the Honda‘s 22-mpg EPA combined ratingâso to what end the complicated, expensive twin-charged engine? Refinement. The boosted four produces huge torque at low revs, so it provides mellow muscle when you’re not in a hustle. It’s also quiet and refined at the top of the tach scale, unlike the Pilot, whose big V-6 fills the cabin with enough NVH to scare the kids.
For now, all-wheel drive is standard equipment on the XC90, and the only powertrain option is an upgrade to the T8 model, which Volvo claims is the world’s first seven-seat plug-in hybrid. The T8 uses the same engine as our T6 (minus 3 hp), but power created from the exploding dinosaurs is transmitted only to the front wheels. The T8’s rear wheels are driven by an electric motor rated at 87 hp and 177 lb-ft, giving the hybrid a total of 400 system horsepower. A 9.2-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery mounted in the center of the vehicle provides up to 25 miles of range on electric power. We spent a few days with the T8, and its logbook was filled with nothing but praise for the powertrain. Unfortunately it wasn’t delivered in time for the SUV of the Year competition.
Back to our T6: A few judges commented on its firm ride, but most backed that up with the word “sporty.” With its suspension jacked up high for our abusive off-road course, the XC90 soaked up bumps with aplombâand plenty of clunks and thunks from battered bushings. On the road, where it’s far more likely to be seen, the XC90 fared much better, exhibiting excellent body control and a surprising amount of grip. On the skidpad, it bested every competitor except two with BMW badges, two with AMG badges, and one Ford with Sport in its name.
The Volvo’s electrically assisted power steering doesn’t provide much feedback, but judges gushed over the natural-feeling weighting. The Aisin-sourced eight-speed auto shifts quickly and smoothly, but long gearing (almost 80 mph in third gear) means it’s leaving speed on the table. Then again, this SUV is without shift paddlesâit prioritizes hauling families over hauling tail.
And the XC90 is exceptionally adept at hauling stuff. Its front seats are not only gorgeous to look at but also supremely comfortable. Ditto the second row, which has a booster seat cleverly built into the center position and offers controls for its own climate zone. The rearmost row isn’t quite as easy to get to as the Honda Pilot’s, but once you’re back there, the seats fit actual adults. All five rear seats fold forward to create a perfectly flat floor, and our XC90 came with a button by the tailgate that quickly drops the suspension to make loading easier.
Volvo’s new Sensus touchscreen infotainment system contains most of the car’s secondary controls, and we were impressed by its usability. Walton praised its “responsive screen, zero-latency processor, and sharp graphics,” but he did note that the screen is so large that a perch for your hand would be welcome. Many other judges had the same suggestion. We’d go as far as to call Volvo’s screen almost Tesla-like in its intuitiveness and operation, though it does have some logic misstepsâhaving two setup menus, for exampleâand it’s missing the physical buttons we prefer for HVAC and radio presets. Several judges complained about a lack of power outlets and USB ports scattered around the cabin. Kids these days.
The rest of the XC90’s cabin is packed full of thoughtful touches, such as power windows that start and stop slowly to eliminate any thuds. And it’s also full of beautiful featuresâthe shifter is made of Orrefors crystal on the T8, the symmetrical wood on the dashboard has a diagonal grain, and everything you touch feels as nice as it looks. The judges’ sheets were filled with words such as “gorgeous,” “beautiful,” “comfortable,” “fresh,” and “different without being polarizing.” Safe to say we loved it.
Where safety is concerned, well, this is Volvo, so all seven seats feature seatbelts with pyrotechnic pretensioners, and energy absorbers in the front-seat frames cushion vertical forces during accidents. In addition to the typical complement of driver aids, this truck automatically activates the brakes if its driver attempts to make a left turn into oncoming traffic. The XC90 earns an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award. That’s no surprise, as we’re getting close to 2020; Volvo has said no one would be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo passenger car after that year.
That safety mission is the source of our one and only real criticism of the XC90. Its autonomous safety functions are a bit too aggressive, the lane keep assistant interfering constantly and the automatic braking prone to hallucinations. It falsed several times, slamming the brakes for no reason with what Loh described as “coffee-spilling, baby-crying, nose-diving, embarrassing force.”
You could say “better safe than sorry,” but we’re not sure the cars behind us would agree. Until those software bugs are worked out, we’ll just switch the system off and enjoy the drive in what was almost unanimously our favorite SUV of the year. Kiino summed it up best. “More so than any other competitor,” he said, “the XC90 will alter the SUV landscape. It’s a real game-changer.”
|2016 Volvo XC90 T6 AWD Inscription|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Supercharged + turbocharged I-4, alum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||120.2 cu in/1,969 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||316 hp @ 5,700 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||295 lb-ft @ 2,200 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||14.9 lb/hp|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multi-link, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||13.6-in vented disc; 12.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||9.0 x 21-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||275/40R21 107V M+S Pirelli Scorpion Verde All Season|
|TRACK, F/R||65.9/66.0 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||194.8 x 75.7 x 69.9 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||7.3-10.9 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||21.8-25.0/22.1-23.4 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.7 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,720 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||52/48 %|
|TOWING CAPACITY||5,000 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.8/38.5/36.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||40.8/37.0/31.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.7/56.5/46.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/M/R||85.7/41.8/13.0 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.5|
|QUARTER MILE||15.1 sec @ 90.4 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||113 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.8 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,900 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$67,605|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||18.8 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||20/25/22 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||169/135 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.88 lb/mile|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||Not tested|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium|