Volvo has moved the XC90 upmarket with this new version – can it take on the Range Rover Sport? Tim Oldland tries the top of the range T8 hybrid to find out…
The original XC90 was a huge success for Volvo, with an unusually long life span of 12 years it sold in huge numbers worldwide over that time and cemented itself as the most classless SUV available. By ‘classless’ I don’t mean ‘void of any class’ by the way, I mean that it fitted in just as well outside a pub in Chigwell as outside a country estate in Surrey. They were bought by families thanks to the 7-seat layout and exceptional safety test results and by the landed gentry who don’t want to show off. And Jeremy Clarkson – he’s had three.
So it’s no surprise that it took Volvo so long to replace it, they had to get the replacement absolutely right, first time. But in those twelve years the world changed slightly, as did the car market and Volvo set their sights on slightly more rarefied stock than the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 – they wanted to take on the Range Rover Sport. They knew that they had the image already and the market placement, but they needed an edge and settled on technology. Engines were downsized, weight was reduced and the safety and tech count shot through the roof, while the XC90 itself became bigger and more luxurious. Brace yourself, Range Rover Sport – the Swedes have declared war.
I should point out that I am a huge fan of the Range Rover Sport. My thoughts have been conveyed on these pages in many road tests and it was pretty much the second best car in the world to me behind the full-fat Range Rover, so this Volvo has a big mountain to climb. As I sit looking out of the window waiting for it to arrive, I see the nose come into view though and well, I’m afraid that’s the first bloody nose to XC90 – what a stunning looking SUV. Admittedly it helps that this is the sporty R-Design trim level, with a deep front bumper, 20-inch alloy wheels and a vibrant blue paint job (Bursting Blue actually, yours for £1000), but the whole car looks utterly fantastic. So modern, it barely gives even a nod to the established thoughts of how you expect a Volvo to look.
The front end is a bluff thing, upright and really broad if you stand directly in front. There’s a big grille (black on this R-Design, chrome bars on the other models) with the familiar Volvo badge; now housing a forward facing camera, some faux intakes and a jutting chin spoiler that looks sporty but doesn’t affect the off-roading ability too much. But the most striking element of the front end has to be the headlights – all-LED units standard across the range with Volvo’s new signature ‘Thor’s Hammer’ DRLs that bisect the upper and lower lighting elements. They’re stunning to look at and provide a staggering amount of light when down a dark country lane at night. Down the sides there are some wheelarch extensions housing the aforementioned 20-inch alloys (22’s are optional, nice to see a press car not specced with the biggest wheels possible) and some contoured sills. The rear is where the new XC90 bears the biggest resemblance to the old model, with the rear light units that feature a main section, then a strip that runs up the side of the rear screen. It’s definitely recognisable as an XC90 from the back, just one with a little bit more edge and style, brought right up to date. The twin chromed tailpipes (well, the trims) are a nice addition too. There’s also the heavy shoulder to the body sides as before, but now it features a crisp crease line to define it more.
Where the new XC90 has moved on leaps and bounds over the old model and pretty much any rival is the interior – it is absolutely fantastic. As with any Volvo the ergonomics are spot on, with everything falling to hand with ease, but the design and layout deserve special mention. The first thing you notice when you climb aboard is the distinct lack of buttons – where you would normally have a huge number of buttons and wheels to control all the myriad systems in an SUV like this, the XC90 has a 9-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen in the centre of the dash that controls pretty much everything. There is a strip of buttons below for some of the most-used items, but that’s it on the centre console. On the transmission tunnel there’s the gorgeous crystal gearlever, the on/off toggle, a drive selector wheel and the e-brake. It’s so refreshing to see such a clean, uncluttered interior and it makes you realise how cluttered with buttons most cars are. That central ‘Sensus’ touchscreen is a wonderful thing too, with multi-touch and incredibly clear graphics and resolution making it feel just like you’re using an iPad. There’s a strip at the bottom of the screen that is always there for the climate controls, so they’re just as easy to use as a button or wheel on the dash. Ahead of the driver it another big screen instead of dials, which are once again clear and very easy to configure. Being the R-Design model, this XC90 had a black leather interior with white piping and some absolutely gorgeous matte carbon fibre trim. It’s the little details like the trim being matte rather than glossy which gives the Volvo that extra little something, like someone with a flair for interior house design has had a look over it.
The seats must take a special mention actually, as the driver and passenger perches had such an enormous range of adjustment that over 600 miles both myself at 6ft3 and my wife at 5ft1 were supremely comfortable – in fact I’d go as far as to say that these were the most comfortable seats I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in. Sticking with the seats, the centre row slide fore and aft and tip forward to create a flat floor and a simply huge load area – a single mattress that I was taking to the refuse centre slipped in with acres of room to spare – which goes to show where some of the extra length in the body has gone. It’s a cavernous rear, made more obvious when you pull out the third row of seats and find that there’s a boot behind them that’s not far off that in a Golf.
Okay so time to see if the XC90 can handle itself was well on the move as it does stationary. Foot on the brake, turn the very nice knurled knob to ‘Start’ and there’s a bit of electrical whirring, the dash comes alive and……. silence. Ahhhh yes, I forgot to mention – this is the plug-in hybrid model. Volvo has decided that all models in this and the new S90 & V90 range will use a modular design of 2.0 litre four cylinder engine, be they petrol or diesel, so you can have a 2.0 ‘D5’ turbodiesel with 235hp or a 2.0 ‘T6’ petrol with 320hp. If that sounds like a pretty high output for a 2.0 litre 4cyl it is, but this lump has a supercharger for low end grunt AND a turbocharger for higher end power. Very impressive stuff, but the XC90 I’m sitting in is the T8 Twin Engine which takes that powerplant and teams it up with an 87hp electric motor for a combined 407hp. The petrol engine drives the front wheels, while the electric motor drives the rears, meaning that the T8 is AWD, but there’s no need for a driveshaft running front to back. That space down the centre of the car is taken up by the battery pack. What the ‘hybrid’ bit means is that you can run in purely electric or you can have the motors work with the engine to give more performance, while the engine can be used to charge the batteries or you can plug in while at home or into a street charging post. What it all means as well is just 49g/km of CO2 emissions and in my real world test of over 600 miles, a staggering 87.4mpg.
So, back to the driving experience – pull the lever back a few notches into D, foot off the brake and you move silently away – now this was novel the first time but I thought it would fade. It didn’t. There’s something wonderful about driving around a city like London in a 2-tonne massive SUV with every luxury you could imagine, looking down on most cars, utterly silently knowing that you’re not polluting the air at all. I suppose you could say I felt a little smug, but hey why not? While driving out of town there were a few dual carriageway sections and I felt the engine kick in a couple of times but in relaxed driving you barely hear it. When I got to a motorway slip road though I put the Drive Selector into Power – Sporty Driving mode and floored it – well I can tell you that it really feels like it has every one of those 400+hp – it flies up to licence losing speeds with ease, but what is more important is that in Power mode it rockets away from junctions with startling speed, very handy for pulling out of difficult turnings etc. This is when you notice the T8’s real downside though – the sound. The 2.0 litre superturbocharged lump really doesn’t sound very nice when being revved out, in fact I’d go as far as to say it sounds downright unpleasant, but the situations where you would honestly experience that are so few and far between in normal driving that it almost becomes irrelevant. Of course you don’t hear it at all if you’re listening to some music from the exceptionally good stereo, which is highly recommended – it’s one of the best systems I’ve used and this wasn’t even the expensive optional item.
It almost seems churlish to talk about handling in a 2-tonne vehicle the size of an expensive London flat, but the XC90 equips itself well here too. The air suspension of this model raises and lowers the car depending on your driving mode and keeps body roll very much in check through the bends, while providing an incredibly comfortable and cossetting ride whatever the surface. I’d imagine the ride would be a bit firmer on the optional 22-inch wheels though, so I’d advise driving one with them before you ticked that box.
Now we come to the important decision – XC90 or RR Sport? As I mentioned, I love the RR Sport, but for me the technology, the interior, the looks and the zero emission city driving would make me take the XC90 every day of the week. Of course a refreshed RR Sport is coming soon with new interior and engine technology, so it’ll be very interesting to see how that stacks up against the new King of the 7-seater SUVs. I’ll let you know as soon as I get to drive it, but for now I’m off to experience some slightly quirky Swedish design…