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First drive: Volvo hits reset button with XC90

Sexy XC: The XC90 is the first design from Volvo’s design chief Thomas Ingenlath and elements of the styling are likely to show up on other models in the near future.

Second-gen XC90 the first salvo in Volvo’s rebirth and new-model onslaught

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Volvo logo18 Feb 2015

By TIM NICHOLSON

VOLVO has kicked off a complete rejuvenation of its line-up with the global launch of the new XC90 SUV – a model the company describes as its most important since the debut of the original version 13 years ago.

The long-awaited second-generation XC90 marks an international relaunch of the entire Swedish brand – owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group since 2010 – as it repositions itself as a genuine competitor to the big three German marques: Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.

Hitting European showrooms in the coming weeks, the redesigned seven-seat wagon is a truly all-new model, standing as the first to use Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform, its Sensus advanced connectivity system, various new active safety features and additions to its Drive-E powertrain family including a new ‘twin engine’ plug-in hybrid.

Speaking with GoAuto at the first international drive of the XC90 near Barcelona this week, Volvo Car Group product manager Lars Lagstrom said the new model builds on the reputation of the well-received original with significant improvements to ride, handling and safety technology.

“The first XC90 was a revolution and we had a totally new approach to SUVs,” he said. “We have kept that heritage and gone one step further with a more ‘unicentric’ approach.

“We have all the safety features in, even more than we have ever had, and much more strength and refinement. We have done a completely new platform, and had the opportunity to have the most modern front and rear suspension to get the optimal ride and handling agility that everyone is looking for in this segment.” Mr Lagstrom said the XC90 is the first genuine seven-seat – as opposed to five-plus-two-seat – SUV in the world to offer a plug-in hybrid powertrain, and added that it was benchmarked against the big guns in the segment – the Mercedes ML-Class, BMW X5 and Audi Q7.

While adding that Volvo is expecting annual global sales of about 80,000 units for the XC90, Mr Lagstrom said it was likely that more buyers would come across from the German brands with its new-generation model.

“A lot of these customers (in the high-end SUV segment) do shop around. We foresee we will have a lot of customers from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz that haven’t looked at us before because we haven’t been in the competitive level towards them – and now we are.

“We are now competing price-wise with competitors. We are not expensive, so there is an alternative if you would like to drive something else. And the active safety is standard – it is all there – you don’t have to pay (extra) for it.”

Volvo Car Australia marketing communications director Oliver Peagam said the new XC90 was a critical model for Australia and represents the start of a new era for the brand in this market.

“In terms of volume it is significantly important,” he said. “We all know how long the previous model has been going on for, but even in 2012 we were still doing 1300 units a year and in its heyday in 2007 we were doing just under 2000 units a year so it’s a significant volume proposition for us.

“It’s also Thomas Ingenlath’s first offering as (chief) designer, he has a significant pedigree behind him so it gets the ball rolling for the new-product onslaught that’s coming over the next few years. So in that respect it is very important.”

As announced late last year, the Australian XC90 line-up will consist of seven variants made up of three new specification grades and three four-cylinder powertrain choices from Volvo’s Drive-E engine family.

From August, the range will kick off with the entry-level Momentum grade D5 diesel from $89,950 plus on-road costs, while the T6 petrol-powered Momentum is priced from $93,950.

Mid-range Inscription starts from $96,950 in D5 diesel guise and $100,950 for the T6 petrol.

The sportier R-Design grade tops the range, with three variants on offer starting with the D5 at $97,950, the T6 petrol at $101,950 and the flagship R-Design T8 plug-in hybrid, priced from $122,950 to become the most expensive Volvo on the Australian market.

The plug-in variant will arrive in Australian showrooms later in the year.

Mr Peagam said he expects the R-Design to follow the trend of the outgoing model in being the most popular grade among Australian buyers.

He added that while the D5 drivetrain has been the top seller with the old model, this could change with the new XC90 given the new engine technology onboard.

“With new technology comes improvements with fuel efficiency and driveability and performance, so there is no reason why T6 can’t be doing significant numbers as well. There is no reason why T8 can’t contribute five to 10 per cent, maybe more to the mix.”

While most car-makers in Australia place a premium on diesel variants over petrol-powered models, Volvo has gone against the grain by positioning the oil-burner as the cheaper option.

The Swedish car-maker has previously said it wants to compete directly with the Germans in the premium sector and the XC90’s pricing sits right among the big guns in the luxury SUV segment, with some even undercutting the Volvo.

It is positioned well above the outgoing 12-year-old original XC90 that ranges in price from $69,590 to $75,590.

Mercedes’ ML range starts at $83,900 for the ML250 BlueTec, BMW’s X5 range kicks off from $83,900 for the base front-wheel-drive sDrive25d, and Audi’s Q7 – due for replacement later this year – ranges in price from $91,500 to $130,300.

Buyers looking for a high-end high-riding wagon may also shop the XC90 against the Lexus RX ($68,575-$100,900), the Volkswagen Touareg ($67,990-$114,990) and sportier fare such as the Range Rover Sport ($90,600-$182,000) or Porsche Cayenne ($108,000-$230,800).

Mr Peagam said that globally there are 16,000 orders for the XC90 before it has even launched, while in Australia there is “strong initial interest”, with the company expecting a triple-digit order bank by the time it launches in August.

The all-new four-cylinder-only line-up starts with the 2.0-litre D5 twin-turbo-diesel, producing 165kW at 4250rpm and 470Nm between 1750-2500rpm, pushing the two-tonne-plus (2078-2343kg depending on the variant) SUV from 0-100km/h in 7.8 seconds.

The T6 petrol is also a 2.0-litre, but it is supercharged as well as turbocharged and pumps out 235kW at 5700rpm and 400Nm from 2200-5400rpm for a 0-100km/h-sprint time of 6.5 seconds.

Volvo’s T8 plug-in hybrid combines the T6 petrol engine with a 60kW/240Nm electric motor and a 9.2kWh lithium-ion battery for a combined output of 294kW and 640Nm.

This makes the T8 the quickest in a straight line, with 0-100km/h acceleration of 5.9 seconds, and it is naturally the most frugal of the three powertrains, with a combined fuel consumption figure of 2.5 litres per 100 kilometres.

This will make it the most fuel-efficient premium SUV on the Australian market, though it cannot match the 1.9L/100km result of Mitsubishi’s more mainstream Outlander PHEV.

Both of the regular internal combustion engines offer strong economy figures of 7.7L/100km for the T6 petrol and 5.7L/100km for the diesel.

Every variant offers an all-wheel drive layout and is matched with a new Aisin-Warner eight-speed automatic transmission.

The T8 features a number of selectable driving modes, such as Hybrid for everyday use, Pure electric that offers a range of 40km, and Power mode for a more spirited drive.

The electric motor is located over the rear axle while the battery is positioned in the central tunnel, which Volvo claims has not impacted cabin space.

The new SPA platform will underpin a large number of Volvo’s future models including the next XC60 SUV, S60/V60 mid-size twins and the forthcoming S90 flagship sedan.

The new XC90 also features a completely new chassis that the company’s senior vice-president of research and development Peter Mertens said has helped make it more capable than ever.

“My key input to the chassis team during the development work has been to deliver a feeling of ‘relaxed confidence’ in the chassis settings,” he said.

“The XC90 is designed for a solid, effortless drive that is strong and capable enough to handle anything, in any situation.”

A new double-wishbone set-up is used at the front, with two transverse links to attach the wheel to the car, which Volvo says helps improve cornering, as well as reducing bodyroll, understeer and torque steer.

At the rear end the XC90 uses an integral link axle with new lightweight transverse leaf springs replacing the outgoing model’s coil springs.

An air suspension system is optional on some variants, featuring five different modes – Comfort, Eco, Dynamic, Off-road and Individual, operated by a diamond-cut roller wheel in the centre console.

The ‘Four Corner Active Air Suspension’ also has automatic levelling and high-speed height adjustment that lowers the ride height by 10mm when driving above 100-120km/h. It also lowers by 40mm for ease of entry and egress when the ignition is turned off, and there is a button in the cargo area that lowers the tail-end by 50mm for easier loading.

T8 variants gain a few features unique to the hybrid, including a ‘pre-conditioning’ system that allows drivers to cool the drivetrain, battery or cabin from within the car or via a smartphone app.

Starting with the Momentum, standard equipment includes keyless start, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, daytime running lights, LED headlights with active high-beam and ‘active bending’, power tailgate, roof rails, cruise control, sat-nav and 19-inch alloy wheels.

In terms of safety, the XC90 gets a parking assist camera, front and rear parking sensors, lane-departure warning, collision mitigation system, hill-start assist and a road-sign recognition system.

Inside, the XC90 Momentum features four-zone climate-control air-conditioning, electric front seats with driver’s seat memory, a 9.3-inch instrument cluster, leather trim, high-end audio system with Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated child booster seat.

Mid-spec Inscription gains Nappa leather seats, keyless entry, hands-free tailgate, a 12.3-inch instrument cluster, more high-end touches throughout the cabin including different lighting, puddle lights, blind-spot monitoring and a cross-traffic alert, front and rear collision mitigation support and 20-inch alloys.

The range-topping R-Design features Nappa sports seats, gearshift paddles and unique 20-inch alloys, among many other standard goodies, while there are plenty of options and option packs on offer.

Full specification will be detailed at the Australian launch in a few months.

In the meantime, GoAuto got behind the wheel of the D5 diesel and T8 plug-in hybrid at this week’s global launch, and our initial impressions are that Volvo’s confidence about measuring up to its German competitors is justified.

While it is not without its flaws, it is a dramatically improved model offering the latest technology under the bonnet and in the cabin at a price that may seem high, but when you factor in the standard goodies, it stacks up well against the Germans.

The XC90 is longer, taller and lower than the model it replaces and in the flesh it certainly looks big, but the new design direction suits the proportions, and the short front overhangs give it a sportier look than some large SUVs.

The big family hauler offers cargo space of 368 litres with all three rows in place, 1019 litres with the third row stowed and 1900 litres with the second and third row folded flat.

It is a wide vehicle – as we discovered driving through some Spanish villages with extremely narrow streets – but this benefits interior space, with ample legroom and headroom in the first two rows.

The third row is accessible by pulling a lever on the top of the second row seat, allowing it to fold forward. Reaching the third row is relatively easy, even for a tall adult.

The rear pew offers air-conditioning vents and storage spaces and the seats offer more than adequate support. However, the third row does not quite live up to expectations as a bona fide adult position, and Australian buyers will find it is probably best suited for children.

Volvo said it wanted to emphasise a feeling of space – a key element of Scandinavian design – with the XC90’s interior, as well as using Swedish architecture, furniture, music and culture as inspirations for the cabin design.

The results are quite stunning, with Volvo designers creating a clean, well-planned and well-executed space that is a step ahead of its rivals in terms of design and overall quality.

Even in base Momentum grade, the XC90 interior is all about high-end luxury, with classy design elements including a dash that uses multiple materials and layers without looking fussy, and beautiful leather seats in a variety of colours – we particularly like the caramel contrasted with the black dash.

Even the carpet feels luxurious in the XC90, and while the metal panels splashed across the dash and console in the higher-grade Inscription were appealing, the exquisite woodgrain in the Momentum just feels a bit more Scandinavian.

From the highly supportive and well cushioned driver’s seat, you are faced with a chunky new three-spoke leather steering wheel that feels delightful under-hand, excellent front and rear visibility and the 12.3-inch screen that is directed towards the driver.

Under the screen are nine buttons for audio and front and rear windscreen demisting, but Volvo has removed a number of controls, instead housing virtually everything in the Sensus connectivity system.

It looks and acts like a tablet with swipe and pinch functions to move or zoom, and while navigating through the menu you never lose where you are because everything is shown on screen as collapsible tiles.

Becoming familiar with this new system was not overly difficult, and because it is quite intuitive, it was almost fun to use. The satellite navigation proved to be spot-on every time.

Our first drive was in a pre-production version of the T8 plug-in hybrid, which, according to Volvo, is about 80 per cent close to the production version due later this year.

We started off in Pure electric mode, which was completely silent, until the petrol engine kicked in somewhere above 100km/h. At this speed it was almost impossible to hear the engine start up and the only indication was a slight surge in torque. It was a much smoother transition from EV to hybrid that some of the mild hybrids on the market.

Even with both the petrol engine and the electric motor running, the plug-in XC90 is quiet at low and high speeds, except when pushed hard which causes the engine to roar.

The noise, vibration and harshness measures kept the cabin quiet, with most of the noise coming from the road.

Acceleration is brisk without being electrifying, and there was noticeable bodyroll on sharper bends, but that comes with the turf in such a high-riding wagon.

The steering feels light off-centre, but gets heavier upon sharper turn-in, and it did not feel as responsive as some of its competitors, notably the X5.

We found the ride a little firm at times in the T8, with the big wagon coping better with smaller imperfections on the road, but larger objects such as speed bumps could feel harsh.

All variants on the test drive were fitted with the optional air suspension, and following a brief spin in the D5 diesel, we thought the suspension set-up was slightly smoother than in the T8.

The 2.0-litre diesel is a terrific unit, with loads of low-down torque offering plenty of get-up-and-go, making light work of standing-start acceleration or high-speed overtaking manoeuvres.

It is not the quietest diesel going around, and there are other manufacturers building oil-burners that do not sound like oil-burners, but the perky performance more than made up for the noisier ride.

Volvo says it wants drivers to feel a sense of “relaxed confidence” when driving the new XC90, and we reckon that sums up our drive experience well.

It is not as dynamically capable as a BMW X5, but that is not what Volvo is aiming for and, realistically, it is not necessarily what most buyers in this segment are looking for.

Volvo is not trying to be German, either. Instead, the company is leveraging its unique Swedish flavour to offer a very solid alternative to the usual players.

It may not be perfect, but the XC90’s overall package, including the price, equipment levels, boat-loads of new technology throughout, and interior design and comfort make it a very real threat to the Germans.

Volvo XC90 pricing*
Momentum D5 diesel$89,950
Momentum T6 petrol$93,950
Inscription D5 diesel$96,950
Inscription T6 petrol$100,950
R-Design D5 diesel$97,950
R-Design T6 petrol$101,950
R-Design T8 hybrid$122,950
*Excludes on-road costs.

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