Volvo XC90: Swede dreams are still great
Volvo's superb XC90 is still at the top of the family SUV game, says William Scholes
YOU will sometimes hear people say that there is no longer any such thing as ‘a bad car’, writes William Scholes.
These sages usually look a little bit disappointed - wistful, even - as they cast their memories back to the ye olde days when a new car would routinely rust within weeks, fall apart or break down.
Cars are certainly better built than they were when British Leyland’s recalcitrant workforce was wrestling Austin Allegros and Morris Marinas down a production line in between strike action, or Fiat built its cars from steel less resilient to drizzle than a tiramisu.
In fact, given all the electronics on board and the complexity of the contemporary motor car, it is a minor miracle that cars so rarely give the sort of trouble that was almost to be expected of their predecessors in the 1970s.
Cars might no longer be ‘bad’ in the sense of leaving you stranded somewhere bleak and inhospitable like your mother in law’s or regularly dump oil on your driveway (or, worse, your mother in law’s driveway), but that isn’t to say the odd bad-in-the-sense-that-you’d-be-better-walking product doesn’t occasionally make it to market.
Yet even these are becoming fewer. There was once a time when if someone asked me what was the worst new car I had driven, they wouldn’t have had time to blink before I dredged up the Vauxhall Mokka or the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
But these carbuncles have been replaced by vehicles that, while they bear the same name, are at least OK.
We can approach the issue from a different angle, however. Sure, there might no longer be any such thing as a bad car… but there are definitely some cars that are demonstrably better than others.
The car on this page, Volvo’s superb XC90, is firmly in the better-than-the-rest category.
Landing at the end of 2014, it has been a favourite here at Drive ever since. We’ve spent time with several variants over the years, and never been less than impressed, whether trundling around the roads of Northern Ireland or off-roading further afield.
The XC90 was an important - indeed, a defining - car for Volvo, and not only because it replaced the original and long-lived XC90.
That model had established itself as a truly excellent family car - providing, that is, you had the sort of family commitments that justified a full-size seven-seater.
It was a no-brainer that the follow-up would build on that tradition with a spacious and practical interior. But it did so much more.
The styling, which established a new design language for Volvo, remains fresh and appealing. This is an undeniably large car, but a carefully proportioned one with restrained detailing and the sort of handsome elegance that tends to speak well of its owner.
The Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid is a magnificent thing; never less than imperious, locomotive-like on a cruise, endlessly confidence-inspiring, elegant and classy
The contrast with the baroque excesses of its German rivals from BMW, Audi and Mercedes is self-evident. Other contenders for XC90 money include Land Rover’s leviathan Discovery - no oil painting, to put it mildly - and the Bond villain company car of choice, the Defender 110. It’s fair to say that the XC90’s ambiance is more Range Rover than Land Rover in any case… (For a left-field - and cheaper - alternative, a fully-loaded Kia Sorento has a Volvo-esque vibe).
The same intelligence that elevates the design of the interior and exterior extends to the parts of the XC90 that you can’t see.
From the start, the big Volvo was offered only with 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines in diesel and petrol flavours with different power outputs achieved through varying levels of turbocharging, supercharging and, in the case of the hot hatch-troubling ‘Twin Engine’ version, a plug-in hybrid battery and electric motor set-up.
At the time, there was a bit of sniffiness that a six-cylinder engine wasn’t on the menu, conventional wisdom being that such a unit was de rigueur for a big, luxury SUV. Now you’ll find similar four-cylinder engines under the bonnets of other rivals - proving that Volvo was ahead of the curve.
Class-leading safety comes as standard, obviously - the XC90 is Volvo’s flagship, after all - and the car is conspicuously well constructed from quality materials.
As well as its objective excellence, the XC90 was also important for being the first all-new Volvo fully developed under ownership by Chinese company Geely, whose stewardship of the Swedish brand has proved to be highly successful.
The XC90 also provided the template for the excellent generation of Volvo models that followed, from the XC60 and XC40 SUVs to the S/V90 and S/V60 saloons and estates.
But now, seven years on from its launch, the XC90 is shifting into the twilight of its career. It is expected to be replaced by an all-electric model next year, marking the start of another new chapter for Volvo in much the way the current car did when it glided into handsome view.
Spending time with the big Volvo recently reminded me of the inherent rightness and desirability of the XC90, a car very much still at the top of its game.
My plug-in hybrid test car - full name, Volvo XC90 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid T8 AWD Inscription - was a magnificent thing; never less than imperious, locomotive-like on a motorway cruise, endlessly confidence-inspiring, elegant and classy.
The drivetrain is as syrupy smooth as you would hope, and this XL 2.3 tonne seven-seater is capable of attention-grabbing performance. Top speed is pegged at 112mph, as is the Volvo way, but of more relevance is the 0-60mph time of 5.5 seconds - a figure that hints at the effortless shove on tap, should one require it.
That performance is courtesy of a well implemented petrol engine and electric motor hybrid system, generating a total of 385bhp (the electric element contributes 86bhp).
As with all plug-ins, the official fuel consumption figures can feel more aspirational than realistic. The Volvo is said to be capable of 100mpg on the official industry standard WLTP combined cycle, but you will never see that unless you drive almost everywhere using electric power only.
That will only get you 20 miles or so, however, before the battery is out of charge and you need to plug in…
The XC90 is happiest on a light throttle with measured steering inputs. Driven thus, it is a wonderfully comfortable, easy going companion, illuminated by a sense of luxury courtesy of an airy cabin flooded with light by large windows and, on my test car, a large glass sunroof
While the XC90 can hustle along with unseeming haste for such a large vehicle, that’s not its natural demeanour. This vehicle is happiest on a light throttle with measured steering inputs.
Driven thus, it is a wonderfully comfortable, easy going companion, illuminated by a sense of luxury courtesy of an airy cabin flooded with light by large windows and, on my test car, a large glass sunroof.
This side of the Volvo’s character goes a long way to explaining its appeal as a family car. It’s not meant to be driven on its door handles, or with your foot to the floor everywhere. It’s sober and sensible, refined and soothing.
It imbues the driver - and passengers - with a sense of calm and safety. Few cars are as reassuring on the sort of cross country drive I had to make late one stormy night in the XC90; the big car impervious to the lashing rain and gales, its bright lights sweeping the road ahead like lighthouse beams.
While ‘bad’ cars may be few and far between these days, it is reassuring to know that there is also a select bunch of vehicles that are more than merely ‘good’.
They include the XC90, a car with that special blend of qualities necessary to elevate an already objectively excellent car towards greatness.
AT A GLANCE
Volvo XC90 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid T8 AWD Inscription
Price: £69,715. As tested £75,075, with driver assist £500, ‘lounge’ pack (including sunroof, 360-degree camera, automatic parking) £1,800, upgraded Harman Kardon audio system £850, climate pack (including heated windscreen, head-up display, heated rear seats and heated steering wheel) £675, metallic paint £715, laminated side windows £750, wireless phone charging £250, 7m charging cable £50
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged and supercharged petrol engine with 299bhp/295lb ft, and electric motor with 86bhp/177lb ft (drivetrain total of 385bhp/472lb ft); eight-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel-drive
Performance: Top speed 112mph, 0-60mph in 5.5 seconds, 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 83.1mpg to 100.9mpg (WLTP combined); real world 37mpg; 63g/km-67g/km
Benefit in kind: 15-18 per cent
Euro NCap rating: Five stars (2015)