There have been lots of new automotive technologies introduced over the years, such as anti-lock braking, blind-spot-detecting mirrors, electronic steering, and adaptive cruise control. For the most part, car companies add technologies iteratively, incorporating them into the next model year as efficiently as possible.
But would happen if an auto company couldn’t make a new model for five or 10 years while a bunch of new technologies evolved? And then it got the chance to integrate all this new stuff into a completely new design?
What would happen is the 2016 Volvo XC90: an exquisitely crafted piece of automotive technology wrapped in Swedish elegance and a big Band-Aid of safety. When China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought Volvo from Ford in 2010, the brand had suffered from underinvestment—Ford had to spend against Brand 1. The XC-90 hadn’t been touched in a decade. When Geely came up with development money, the Swedes (and their American counterparts) probably celebrated with an aquavit or two.
When they got down to work, Volvo’s engineers weren’t constricted by any incumbent design. Which means that there isn’t one detail that they haven’t thought through thoroughly in this luxe three-row SUV. In some ways, it looks like Volvo designed the XC90 from back to front. In a typical three-row rig, the front seat occupants have the life, the second row passengers have to adjust, and whoever gets stuck in the wayback has to suffer. Not here. The second row has adjustable seats, for instance, with the middle seat cleverly converting into a child’s booster seat. Access to the third row is mercifully easy.
While I’m happy for those in the back, I’m ecstatic about being the driver. Let’s talk about interior style: The blond leather seats and black leather dash combination in the Inscription version that Money tested (starting at $54,500), are set off by both wood paneling and touches of finished metal. It’s the complete Scandinavian package: purposefully designed and elegantly restrained without being severe. The driver’s chair is masterful and infinitely adjustable. Interestingly enough, Volvo picked the English company Bowers & Wilkins for the audio system over Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen. It’s a reasonable choice, as B&W’s dashboard tweeter is integral to the design. The sound system has multiple settings, including one that approximates the Göteborg Symphony Hall.
Although the audio impresses, it’s really the entire control center where the XC90 stands out. So many car companies get the combination center console and infotainment center wrong. On the XC90, everything can be operated from the Sensus touchscreen: music, phone, climate, chairs, nav system, roof, etc. And, the Swedes being the wintery sort, you can do it with gloves on. It’s the best system I’ve seen on new cars this year.
This being a Volvo, safety is a selling point, and on the XC90 you get it in multiple forms. There’s an automatic brake system that prevents you from turning into oncoming traffic (although I confess I wasn’t about to test it). There are front and rear collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control, assisted parking, and, at the extreme, a system that protects you if your car runs off the road. While you may think of that as a rare chance, those kinds of crashes are particularly lethal.
Fortunately, perhaps, you are not going to be too tempted the race the XC90. For a luxury SUV, it’s powered by a relatively small, inline 4-cylinder engine that puts out 316 horses. (There’s an impressive turbodiesel engine available in Europe, but VW has pretty much killed the diesel in the U.S.) The four-spot is surprisingly powerful though, since both a supercharger and a turbocharger boost the output. That’s more than enough to make it worthwhile to play with adjustable driving modes, including Dynamic, Off Road, or Individual.
More to the point, though, the XC90 is the complete package. From the moonroof to the headrests to the rear seats to the spectacular Scando design, somebody spent a lot of time trying to make a perfect luxury SUV. And got pretty damn close.
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