Car reviews - Volvo - XC90 - T6 Inscription
Benchmark interior design and technology, future-proof four-cylinder engine, excellent headlights
Room for improvement
Too many quirks and foibles make it feel like an unfinished project, ride and dynamics not in league with rivals
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12 Jan 2016
Price and equipment
For an idea of how far upmarket Volvo has pitched the new XC90, entry to the range is now almost $30,000 higher than it was for the original, which underwent more facelifts than Dolly Parton during its 13-year tenure.
Tested here is the upper-mid spec T6 Inscription variant priced from $100,950 plus on-road costs. That’s right, 100 large for a Volvo, and the range tops out north of $130K fully optioned – but it didn’t put off the 140 deep-pocketed Aussies who pre-ordered one.
Being a Volvo, there is plenty of driver assistance technology as standard including vehicle, pedestrian and cyclist detection with semi-autonomous braking, cruise control, blind-spot montioring with rear cross-traffic alert and rear collision warning, driver alertness monitor, lane-departure warning, road-sign recognition, run-off road protection (claimed to reduce impacts on occupants if the XC90 veers off the highway), hill descent control, hill-start assist autonomous parking for carpark and parallel spaces, front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, automatic windscreen wipers and adaptive LED headlights with active high beam.
Onboard technology includes a 9.0-inch tablet touchscreen with satellite navigation, internet connectivity with in-car web apps, AM/FM radio, MP3 compatibility, Bluetooth with audio streaming, USB, auxilliary jack and full iPod connectivity playing through a 330-Watt, 10-speaker audio system. In addition to the pinch/swipe function of the screen, features can be controlled via the multi-function steering wheel or voice activation.
The instrument pack is a 12.3-inch digital display, interior and exterior mirrors are self-dimming (and the latter electric folding), both front seats have six-way electric memory adjustment including lumbar and thigh support, the leather upholstery is premium Nappa and the air-conditioning is four-zone climate control with vents for all three rows and Volvo’s CleanZone air filtration system.
A power-operated tailgate hides a soft load net and semi-automatic load cover while the second-row seating has an integrated child booster cushion and Isofix child seat mountings.
Inscription-specific interior trims include metal mesh decor inlays, mood lighting, illuminated metal tread plates and a branded carpet set. The exterior also gets 20-inch alloy wheels, an Inscription radiator grille in matte silver and Inscription-branded flank badges.
Among the options are a $4000 driver support package with adaptive cruise with in-traffic pilot assist (autonomous traffic driving), lane keeping, queue assist, distance alert and a speed limiter, along with a 360-degree camera array and head-up display.
A Bowers & Wilkins premium hi-fi is $4500 and birch dash inlays cost $700.
Our car was optioned up with metallic paint ($1750), heated front seats ($375), a panoramic sunroof ($2950) and rear privacy glass ($850).
Considering our test vehicle was fitted with some of the best driver assistance tech on the market, the lack of adaptive cruise control felt like a tight-fisted omission on this $100,000 tech-fest of a car.
Does the XC90 feel like a $100,000 car? Absolutely. The interior is beautifully designed and thought out, making it a genuinely special place to spend time.
We delighted in the high material and build quality, plenty of attention to detail like the Swedish flag pips on the seats, frameless interior mirror, the perfect position, style and light temperature of all the interior illumination and the unique, sculpted indicator and wiper stalks shaped to make it easier to see the logos demarcating various functions.
Luxury touches include the soft, supple, smooth leather upholstery and the talking-point metal trim across the dash and door trims, which we likened to an old-style radio speaker grille.
Nice as the upholstery is, for us the seats didn’t quite live up to Volvo’s comfort reputation. If anything they have too many adjustments – including the driver being able to remotely control the passenger seat – making it easy to get the position wrong. We never felt as though we’d achieved seat comfort nirvana in the XC90 and got a numb bum on our first long journey.
We also found our knee would painfully clash with a protrusion on the edge of the central stack while driving. Many cars suffer this problem, but we were surprised and disappointed to find it in a car from a land known for its tall natives.
Better news comes from the crisp, clear digital instruments that provide plenty of information at-a-glance, including excellent satellite navigation graphics that help the driver keep their eyes on the road and enable the large portrait-oriented central touchscreen to be used for other purposes.
The instrument panel is home to just some of the XC90’s many intelligent and pleasing touches such as the speed limit sign recognition, which displays the current limit and flashes if it is exceeded, while the fixed speed camera location warning pops up with plenty of notice and accuracy.
Once or twice the road sign recognition got it wrong, indicating 50 on one 60km/h stretch and turning off a 70km/h arterial into unsigned 50km/h side streets made no difference to the 70 sign on the dash. It’s just Volvo’s way of keeping you on your toes.
Meanwhile, the XC90’s 9.0-inch central touchscreen is one of the best on the market, with crisp hi-res graphics of classy and attractive design, quick responses and the whole thing really works just like a tablet, including swipe and pinch gesture recognition. With most functions accessed through the touchscreen, just eight buttons reside on the centre console.
Adding to the feeling of bang-up-to-date electronics enjoyed by the XC90 driver, even the voice control system is excellent, a triumph considering how many cars get this so wrong as to be an embarrassing and infuriating waste of time.
Volvos have long been known for the quality of their audio systems and the XC90 is no exception, with crisp, detailed sound output and a perfectly judged amount of bass.
We are not usually fans of touchscreen climate control adjustment but the quad-zone Volvo system is better than most, although it was all to easy to accidentally activate the heated seats due to an icon that would be better located away from the edge of the screen.
On the subject of climate, all rows are well ventilated and central passengers have their own dual-zone climate control settings panel.
Practicality wise, the XC90 was always going to be a winner. All occupants enjoy plenty of drinks and oddment storage including map pockets, big door bins and hollow armrests.The glovebox is big, as are the bottle-holding door bins, there’s another big space beneath the central armrest plus an ashtray style recess in front of the central stack and large cupholders in the centre console behind a thoughtfully angled smartphone tray.
Central-row seats slide and recline independently to provide a balance of legroom, boot space and comfort between their occupants and those behind, while the central position converts into a child booster seat in typical Volvo fashion. Volvo has designed these to tilt and slide for easy step-through entry and exit to the third row, which is not quite up to accommodating tall adults for legroom but still impressively roomy and comfortable.
Like its predecessor, the XC90 provides more boot capacity than a Volkswagen Golf even with the third row of seats in place. This extends to a huge 1019L with them folded and cavernous, flat-floored 1900L with both rows down.
Volvo has included a cargo net, cargo divider with elastic securing strap, a 12V outlet, a number of tie-down points and plenty of shopping bag hooks in the boot, while beneath the boot floor is an additional storage compartment. And a space-saver spare tyre, indicating that Volvo does not expect this SUV to be used much off-road.
Topping off an impressive show, XC90’s adaptive LED headlights are some of the best darkness destroyers we have experienced. It’s possible to watch the beams moving about to prevent oncoming traffic being dazzled while providing the broadest possible illumination coverage for the driver.
Engine and transmission
Volvo has developed a wonderful, almost miraculous twin-charged 2.0-litre petrol engine. It may be low on capacity but hats off to Volvo for proving that modern technology has all but rendered more than four cylinders unnecessary.
It never feels strained and is at least as muscular as many six-cylinders.
Combining belt-driven supercharging and exhaust-driven turbocharging, it delivers 235kW, impressive throttle response and a seamless surge of urge. This is a sweet-spinning unit too, revving cleanly right through to its 5700rpm power peak and beyond, while the full 400Nm of torque is available between 2200 and 5400rpm, providing a linear delivery.
With more than two tonnes to haul about once people and possessions are onboard, it never feels slow. Put it this way, it hauls the two-tonne wagon from 0-100km/g in just 6.5 seconds and feels genuinely rapid in the mid-range when overtaking or merging onto motorways.
Our on-test average fuel consumption was a reasonable 9.9 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed driving, but not so hot compared against an official 8.5L/100km on the combined cycle. Still, for a big petrol SUV driven by a lead-footed bloke, coming in under 10L/100km is a win.
Sounds from this box of tricks under the bonnet are muted, limited to a faint high-pitched supercharger whine and a distant but purposeful four-cylinder throb.
The eight-speed Aisin transmission is slick and subtle in operation with changes that are almost imperceptibly smooth, but on the odd occasion it would drop a clanger like a butler having a bad day and the manual mode was not as snap-quick as ZF units used by rivals such as BMW.
Quirks of the XC90 drivetrain include an over-zealous parking brake auto-hold system, which we soon disabled because it grabs the brakes too often and too soon for smooth driving. Starting the car was sometimes onerous as it would refuse to acknowledge we were pressing the brake pedal and denied us from selecting Drive.
Also harming smoothness and potentially dangerous was the idle-stop system’s propensity to kill the engine before the vehicle comes to a halt, which was problematic when driving in congestion as low-speed crawling was punctuated by engine cut-out, then a surge of acceleration as the starter kicked in when braking pressure was gently reduced to maintain momentum as traffic edged forward.
This problem was compounded by the inability of the XC90’s brakes, which suddenly grab and cause it to lurch to a stop, from any speed, which was especially uncomfortable for passengers. As you can imagine, trying to drive around this problem by easing off the brake pedal just before halting had no effect other than to worsen the idle-stop problem.
Ride and handling
With the exception of travel on a particularly bad section of coarse-chip bitumen, we enjoyed the quietness of progress in the XC90. Even at motorway speeds the XC90 is peaceful inside, with a little rustle around the mirrors detectable when driving into a headwind.
On first impressions we thought Volvo’s comfort-oriented design brief has been largely nailed but during our week with the XC90, Australia’s poorly maintained roads uncovered some shortcomings such as thumpy responses to sharp-edged road imperfections, a disconcerting shimmying over high-frequency bumps and an occasional inability to recover composure between closely spaced undulations.
Few cars are upset by a strange lump in the bitumen just after the crest of a hill on our road test circuit, but it caused our XC90’s composite leaf-spring rear suspension to bounce three times, indicating that the damping is not quite up to scratch.
At this end of the market, Volvo’s well-regarded air suspension option is not a huge financial leap at $3750, probably helps with resale and is therefore recommended. It’s a shame they didn’t get the standard set-up quite right though.
In the city, we were fully aware of the XC90’s size and weight. It never truly shrinks around the driver like a BMW X5, it is impossible to see the end of its bluff bonnet and can feel rather unwieldy in cramped urban streets and shopping centre carparks.
So it’s a good thing it comes equipped with cameras and parking sensors all round, including where the sides of the car are in relation to things like multi-storey carpark pillars.
On the other hand the XC90 has a pretty good-for-its-size turning circle of 11.8 metres, proving Volvo has listened to criticism that its cars can be a bit barge-like in tight spaces.
It is clear Volvo never intended the XC90 to rival an X5 for car-like dynamics, but it can still be hustled along a country lane deceptively quickly. We never felt entirely involved in the process but the excellent view of the road ahead and accurate steering really helped place it precisely through corners, and overall responses are pretty obedient.
There is also plenty of traction for the engine’s ample power to drag this behemoth out of bends and there was an underlying playfulness about our conventionally sprung test vehicle.
As with the urban experience, out here we were constantly reminded of the XC90’s heft and height. On challenging roads it can get quite floaty and bouncy, leans nauseatingly through fast corners and can squirm under heavy braking.
The feedback-free steering also loads up in quite an artificial-feeling way, although it livens up a bit when the limits are approaching and the stability control tends to watch from a safe distance before stepping in quite assertively to quash any understeer-baiting over-exuberance.
But feeding the steering in and setting up for corners with plenty of notice enables the big Volvo to just settle into bends and the 275/45/R20 tyres provide plenty of grip. Considering the aforementioned suspension foibles, it’s also impressively unperturbed by mid-corner bumps and ripples, and felt well tied-down on gravel roads.
We wouldn’t describe it as fun, but the overall feeling is right on-brand for Volvo: Safety, security and more capability than most people will need.
Safety and servicing
Volvo offers private buyers pre-paid service and combined service/maintenance packages of up to five years or 75,000 kilometres, with petrol XC90s costing from $1925 for a three-year service deal to $7175 for a five-year service and maintenance contract. Intervals are 15,000km or 12 months and the warranty lasts three years with unlimited kilometres.
ANCAP gave the XC90 a full five-star crash safety rating based on Euro NCAP data for diesel variants. Adult occupant protection was rated at 97 per cent and child occupant protection 87 per cent. Safety assistance technology picked up 73 per cent and pedestrian protection was a healthy 72 per cent.
Occupants are protected in a crash by dual frontal and side airbags a driver’s knee bag, second- and third-row curtain airbags and a whiplash protection system.
Helping prevent a crash in the first place are anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, emergency brake assist, autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning plus advanced electronic stability control, roll stability control, understeer control, engine drag control, corner traction control and trailer stability assist.
After years of Ford-derived products, this is Volvo’s first car developed from the ground up in a very long time. It was all done on an accelerated schedule and is bursting at the gunwales with cutting-edge technology, so the Volvo XC90 is an achievement as towering as the vehicle itself.
Comfortable, spacious, intoxicatingly luxurious, brilliantly thought-out, designed to within an inch of its life and packing a masterpiece of an engine, few cars at any price have given us the feeling of driving a cutting-edge piece of technology like the XC90.
It’s a great alternative to the X5, GLE, Q7 and Range Rover Sport and lacks some of the nouveau-riche brashness associated with those cars.
But – and it’s a big but – the 90 is hampered by a list of quirks and a not-quite-resolved suspension tune that make us look forward to the first facelift or major running change in the hope that Volvo gets it right the second time around.
It’s a great car overall and hopefully many of the foibles and teething problems can be eventually solved by software or small hardware updates applied during servicing.
Early adopters buy with caution.
Mercedes-Benz GLE400 4Matic from $109,900 plus on-road costs
Refreshed and renamed ML gets two more cylinders and one more gear ratio than the XC90 in its least-expensive petrol variant, which despite its higher price, justifies it with some standard equipment the Swedish car consigns to the options list. Has the Scandinavian beat for ride and dynamics but not interior.
BMW X5 xDrive35i from $109,900plus on-road costs
Like the Benz, this is BMW’s most affordable petrol contender in this segment.
Identically priced too, and it’s a six-cylinder that matches the Volvo’s combined consumption figure and torque output but is 10kW down on power. Kicks Swedish butt on a mountain road but its cabin feels dull in comparison.
Audi Q7 3.0 TDi Quattro from $103,900 plus on-road costs
Diesel-only and provides heaps of effortless performance for modest amounts of fuel as a result. Has much in common with the Volvo when it comes to sensory appeal, the design-led cabin and high technology – as well as the fact it replaces an ancient predecessor – but beats it for ride quality.
Range Rover Sport TDV6 SE from $102,300 plus on-road costs
We’re forced into diesel again here, because the cheapest petrol Rangie Sport is $130,100. Apart from the disappointing touchscreen this Brit’s interior feels special like the Volvo. It’s also the only one here that offers both sparkling road manners and genuine off-road talent.
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