Brilliant XC90 a safe bet for Volvo

Volvo's brilliant new XC90 is one of the cars of 2016

VOLVO has a new XC90 in its showrooms, and it is that rarest of things: a car which is completely praiseworthy, writes William Scholes.

Just about the only thing I can criticise about it is the fact that the large touchscreen quickly gets covered in fingerprints - an impossibly trivial complaint in the scheme of things.

The price might also be a problem. A budget starting at around £50k is now needed to join the XC90 owners' club, representing a hike over the model it replaces.

This puts it in line with key rivals like the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Land Rover Discovery, though you'll need even deeper pockets to get behind the wheel of another competitor, the Range Rover Sport.

The test car was optioned to the hilt, melting the calculator at a trip to Ikea less than £70k, perhaps to underline the fact that this part of the car market is rather less sensitive to list price than other segments.

Even at that level, it isn't stretching a point to say that the big Volvo justifies its price where others struggle.

The feel-good factor and sense of wellbeing imbued by the XC90 is closer to the bona fide Range Rover, and you'll need at least £80,000 to bag a nice one of those.

You only get five seats in a Range Rover; in the Volvo, you can carry seven. Looked at like that, the XC90 could almost be called a bargain...

With its generous accommodation arranged over three rows of seats, the original XC90's blend of family-friendly practicality and safety won it legions of loyal fans.

It says much for how inherently good it was that it was only finally pensioned off after 12 years of solid, dependable service. Towards the end of its life, it was still breezing through crash tests that hadn't even been thought of when it was launched.

The new, second-generation XC90, which replaced it last year, follows the same template but is a dramatically superior vehicle.

All XC90s get four-wheel-drive and an eight-speed gearbox, and all also get a four-cylinder engine from Volvo's new Drive-E range of powerplants.

In a bold strategy, Volvo has pinned its hopes on a four-cylinder future for both diesel and petrol, using various software and hardware tweaks - a new turbocharger here, a hybrid battery pack there - to vary power outputs.

Four-cylinder engines are par for the course in smaller cars, but large SUVs have tended to be powered by six-cylinder units or, in the case of the old XC90, five-cylinders.

BMW has done some groundwork here - it already sells an X5 with a four-cylinder diesel - but Volvo is the first manufacturer to wholeheartedly adopt four-pot engines in a jumbo car.

It benefits economy, emissions and packaging - the engine looks tiny in the XC90's engine bay - and while not quite as characterful as a rorty six-cylinder BMW unit, the Volvo engine is completely at ease with its task.

It's a description that applies to the whole car.

Though it can be hustled along at a decent lick, the XC90 has no sports car aspirations - wisely, Volvo has concluded that the X5 and Range Rover Sport already fill that niche - but instead offers a proper luxury experience.

Volvo understands that true luxury, in a car at least, comes not merely from gadgets and posh materials; that's why the XC90 surrounds its occupants with space and bathes them in light. It's so comfortable and relaxing, it's like travelling in a spa on wheels.

Key to this is a sensational interior. As already mentioned, you need to step up the ladder of poshness to Range Rover or Bentley to find anything better.

None of the materials feel as if it they have been chosen with their cost in mind, from the buttery soft leather to the gorgeous fillets of metal trim.

The seats, which at first glance look they might be quite thin, are exceptionally comfortable and can be adjusted in every direction you can think of, as well as some you probably can't. They're also heated and ventilated.

It is often the case that the seats for second-row passengers feel like they are the poor relations of the front pews. Not so in the Volvo, where they have the same high levels of comfort and space.

The built-in child's booster in the central seat is a long-time Volvo feature, but no less commendable, allowing seven-year-olds like my son feel as if they are being transported around in their own throne.

The third row of seats in large SUVs almost always feel like an afterthought - narrow, cramped and uncomfortable - but the XC90 is distinguished by what may be the best back-bench yet.

Six-footers won't fit comfortably, but anyone up to 5ft 8ins ought to find them perfectly acceptable.

The middle row slides, reclines and tilts, while the third row springs up and down from the boot floor.

Another familiar seven-seater Achilles' heel fails to defeat the XC90: even with all three rows erected, there is still a decent boot for shopping and a pushchair.

An electrically powered tailgate is also provided - not as much a gimmick as you might think, not when the tailgate is so big and heavy and the car so tall.

The large touchscreen mentioned earlier dominates the dashboard and facilitates a design that is notably minimalist and bereft of switches and dials.

Centrally mounted and portrait orientated, and perhaps the most successful implementation of the in-car-display-as-Apple-iPad yet.

Part of me still prefers a decent rotary selector down by the gearlever, but there is no denying the effectiveness of the XC90's system.

I suspect that spending a bit of time organising radio stations, heater settings, satnav preferences and so on will make the Volvo even easier to operate.

As you might expect, the XC90 is loaded to the gills with safety kit and technology to make life a little easier.

A 360 degree surround view camera, viewable from the touchscreen, takes away the stress of parking such a large vehicle and a 'queue assist' function allows the car to follow the car in front in stop-start traffic with minimal input from the driver; it will steer, accelerate and brake for you at low speed.

It can also park itself and will brake automatically when another car, cyclist or pedestrian wanders in front of it and the adaptive cruise control, which can brake or accelerate the car, is one of the best I've tried.

Lane departure and blind spot warnings are present and correct, and there are more airbags than in a bouncy castle factory, including window airbags for all three rows of seats. A head-up display helps keep your eyes on the road.

It can also work out if you've crashed off the road, tightening not only your seatbelt but also the seat itself around you. It will also shift the brake pedal out of the way too, just in case your feet get trapped.

Put all that together, and when Volvo say it is their safest ever car, you know it is no idle boast; this, after all, is a company whose aim is that by 2020, no-one will be killed by one of its cars.

The XC90 also debuts Volvo's new design language, soon to be seen on the S90 and V90 saloon and estate, which I happen to think is very well-judged.

It might be square-rigged and lantern-jawed, just like Volvos of old, but there is also subtlety and even elegance to the XC90, in its flanks and the shape of its bonnet, for example.

As you will have gathered by now, I am well and truly smitten by the XC90.

The styling and refinement, the sense of space and luxury, the practicality and the emphasis on safety mark out the Volvo from its competitors; here is a car from a company confident enough to forge its own path, not attempt to mimic its German or British rivals.

That it is the best large family car on sale today is almost beyond doubt; that it is one of the best new cars of any sort that money can buy is to Volvo's immense credit.

:: At a glance

Volvo XC90 D5 Inscription

Price: £50,685. As tested £69,645. Options included: 'intellisafe pro' pack with adaptive cruise control and queue assist £1,500; winter pack with heated seats, steering wheel and windscreen washers, plus head-up display £1,175; family pack with integrated booster seat £275; seven seat comfort pack with four-zone air conditioning and electrically folding head rests £900; 'xenium' pack with panoramic sunroof and park assist £2,000; metallic paint £700; auxiliary fuel-fired heater £1,270; perforated and ventilated leather upholstery £700; laminated side windows £750; electronic air suspension £2,150; 21-inch alloy wheel upgrade £1,450; drive mode settings £395; power adjustable front seat side support £200; power front seat cushion extensions £120; spare wheel and jack £150; Apple CarPlay and three-pin 230v/150w socket £300; dark tinted windows £400; Sensus connect and Bower and Wilkins stereo upgrade £3,000; retractable towbar £995; illuminated tailgate scuff plate £415; rear bumper protection £115

Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre diesel turbo, eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive; 222bhp, 347lb/ft

Performance: Top speed 137mph, 0-62mph in 7.8 seconds

Fuel consumption: 48.7mpg (EU combined); 32.2mpg (real world)

CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 152g/km - £180 annually - 28 per cent

Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (97/87/72/100)

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