Volvo's newest car is also the first vehicle built under the company's new Chinese ownership. The reinvented XC90 may cost a cool $90,000 — that's a full $20,000 more than the model it replaces — but it packs in some of the most advanced in-car technology in its class. As a big, seven-seater SUV it's built for families, and it keeps that reassurance of Volvo's impeccable track record with some smart autonomous braking features and excellent overall safety. Inside, you're ringed by LCD panels and touchscreens — it's more like a rolling command center than it is a regular four-wheel drive.
What Is It?
I spent a week in the entry-level Volvo XC90 D5 Momentum, a $98,860 model that departs only slightly from the base model's $89,950 starting price — adding on metallic paint, nicer 5-double-spoke 20-inch wheels, a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, the beautiful walnut interior trimming and high-level in-cabin illumination. The D5 is the entry level engine spec with a 2.0-litre twin-turbocharged four-cylinder diesel and all-wheel drive (165kW/470Nm), although there's also a twin-charged four-cylinder 2.0-litre T6 petrol (235kW/400Nm) starting at $93,950. There's also a T8 petrol-electric hybrid on the way with a combined 298kW/640Nm.
In the basic Momentum, you're still flush with technology — the dashboard is a 8-inch digital display, although my test spec had the Inscription's higher-grade 12.3-inch full graphical cluster, as well as a central 9.3-inch portrait touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard. This is where you or your passenger will spend the majority of your time, changing radio settings and adjusting air conditioning — almost everything is handled through the touchscreen. Adaptive throttle response, gearbox and engine mapping also comes courtesy of a multi-mode jog dial that lets you switch between eco, comfort, sports and snow modes.
The higher-grade Inscription and R-Design specs justify their extra price by adding a nicer interior and exterior treatment with Nappa leather, larger 20-inch wheels, and that 12.3-inch dashboard cluster as default. Crucially, the R-Design adds a blind spot information system and crossing traffic alert, as well as some R-Design specific styling tweaks. Since the XC90 is a seven-seat SUV, there's individual climate control and air conditioning vents for all three rows across all model ranges. You can also option in a $4000 Driver Support Pack, which includes 360-degree parking cameras (front, back and sides) as well as adaptive cruise control and a heads-up display for speed and other vital stats.
When you're in the car, it's a comfortable place to be — plenty of room across all seven seats, although there's not a great deal of legroom for the back row making it best for kids or for short trips. It's a beautiful interior, much more lushly appointed and with higher grades of material than I expected to find. The light beige leather seats and walnut interior splashes suit each other perfectly; with the big dark-edged touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard taking pride of place you're naturally drawn to the centre of the car as a passenger. The XC90's steering wheel, too, is thankfully light on clunky and unnecessary switchgear.
What's It Good At?
The Volvo XC90 may seems like a big car — it is, at 1970kg — but it's seriously fuel efficient. Volvo rates the XC90 at 6.2 litres per 100km of combined travel for the D5 diesel, and in my mostly-city driving I'd say that's right on the money. I averaged a hair over 7.0 litres per 100km with only a small excursion onto the highway and mostly bumper-to-bumper city commuting traffic. Eco mode smooths out throttle response and stops you wasting dinosaur juice if you're only going to break again soon, and there's stop-start for both the diesel and petrol motors that contributes massively to fuel saving in traffic.
And, it's a Volvo. That means you can expect excellent safety features — dual front airbags, front side and full-length curtain airbags, anti-whiplash headrests, active lane departure warning which will buzz the steering wheel or sound an audible chime, collision detection and mitigation and autonomous emergency braking. You can, thankfully, adjust the severity of the XC90's autonomous emergency braking to suit your driving style — if you choose to have it activate later, it'll be more ferocious in wiping off some of the speed you're carrying if it detects an obstacle.
But it's the big, beautiful, 9.3-inch touchscreen in the dashboard that is by far the best thing about sitting in the Volvo XC90. It may not have the same size or presence as the Tesla Model S's 17-inch monster, and it's not quite as visually slick, but it's faster to operate and it's easier to actually use. Like the notification cards on an Android smartphone, you tap into specific options from the main screen like navigation, media or phone; there's a pull-down settings section where you can adjust less frequent tweaks like the brightness of the interior lighting or the delay for the XC90's headlights to turn off once you've exited and locked the car.
And it all works so well. It's the strongest case I've found thus far for car manufacturers moving away from proper ol'-fashioned buttons and dials and embracing touchscreens as the future of in-car controls. If you need to change the air conditiong power and temperature, tap the fan, swipe left across the power setting and up or down along the temperature axis — it takes a little bit of getting used to, but once you have it's every bit as quick for actually changing settings and getting them to what you want. Changing radio stations is nearly instant. This is exactly how in-car entertainment systems should work — Volvo's XC90 is the new gold standard.
What's It Not Good At?
The XC90's eight-speed automatic gearbox — fitted to all models from the D5 upwards, including the imminent T8 hybrid petrol-electric V8 — is smooth for city driving, shifting very smoothly and slickly when you're moving through traffic and taking off slowly from the lights, but it's markedly less smooth if you're trying to drive the XC90 with a bit of speed or vigour. I had much the same complaint with the Lexus RC 350 F Sport — it's not the speed of shifts, but the box's reluctance to downshift and accelerate when you need it to.
Despite being mostly refined — especially when you're driving at city speeds — the D5 diesel can be a little bit loud; both at idle when stop-start is disabled (if you want to keep the icy air con blasting, for example) and at highway speeds when it's being pushed a little harder than tick-over even in eighth gear. It's something you really only notice when you're outside of the car and it's running, though — excellent interior noise deadening is to thank for that particular distinction. The petrol is smoother and quieter, and the petrol-electric should be quieter again, unless you're really stepping on it.
While I love the big, beautiful touchscreen and the way that it works, it has a bit of a learning curve. Once you're used to it, you can understand where everything is and how it works easily enough, but put an unfamiliar user inside — especially someone who's not already broadly familiar with modern technology and the swiping and pinching of tablets and smartphones — and they'll struggle initially. This is why other brands love buttons — they just work, boring as they are. It's excellent once you're up to speed, but it's a bit of a process to get there in the first place. Significantly lessened if you're part of the iPad generation.
And, of course, there's the fact that the XC90 is quite an expensive proposition. It's not Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce money, or even Tesla Model S money, but it's easily a $100,000 car after options and that puts it in the realm of the BMW X5, Audi's more powerful Q7 and Mercedes' faster-moving GLE 400. While it competes with the German marques on interior fit and finish, its competitors have features like 360-degree cameras, electric folding seats and DAB+ digital radio as standard.
Should You Buy It?
The $89,950-plus Volvo XC90 is a big, good-looking vehicle. It holds the road well and it gets along quickly and easily for a car of its size, and it doesn't cost you the earth in fuel to get there — although you're paying an overall premium for it in the first place. It's more inspiring on the inside than the outside, and that's a good thing for the passengers you're going to be hauling around with it.
The XC90 is defined by its big, excellent, responsive touchscreen in the centre of that beautiful soft-touch dashboard, and the simplicity and power of the interface that runs on it. If you don't like seeing a lot of superfluous buttons and switches on your dashboard — like the centre console of the new Ford Mustang — then the XC90 is the best of a new breed of high-tech cars on Australian roads.