Mamma Mia, here we go again

We Brits love an underdog – our history as a nation is one of a small island struggling against the odds and invaders, but which fought it’s way to become one of the most powerful country’s in the world. In all sorts of sporting and cultural events we are the ones waving the flags for the little guy, but when it comes to cars we are far and away backing the big guns. Whilst the mainstream brands have a little more room to fight their corner, in the premium sector the rule of thumb is that if you don’t buy one of the ‘Big Three’ Germans then you will probably end up in a product from the Jaguar Land Rover stable.

The Lexus GS is just one example of how ignoring everything else but German metal can make you miss some of the most exciting models on offer – this one looks like an extra in Batman!

However doing so can mean that you do yourself a great disservice and end up missing out on some of the most unique and talented vehicles in the market. Take a look at executive saloons; of course the ubiquitous BMW 5 Series does everything well, the Mercedes E Class is pretty bulletproof and the soulless Audi A6 looks quite cool, but what about a little Italian verve and looking at the Maserati Ghibli, the insanely reliable, fast and economical Lexus GS or brawny (and cheap) Chrysler 300C. Looking for something a little more rugged and spacious? Well the luxury SUV market has a dearth of options beyond ze Germans and various JLR products which litter the driveways of well heeled housing estates. One of the most talented and revered options has just a major refresh and even if you don’t like IKEA or meatballs you owe yourself to check out a certain Swedish option.

The XC90 is much classier than the average Billy Bookcase, but stereotypes are there for a reason evidently

Volvo’s XC90 was one of the first cars I reviewed in detail on this blog and at the time it had been on sale for well over 10 years – highly unusual for any vehicle nowadays (although not unheard of, remember that Land Rover’s Discovery is essentially the same model which launched way back in 2004!). By the time it ended European production just a few months ago the general consensus was that the XC90 had been outclassed in nearly all areas, especially infotainment and engine technologies, but it still managed to post very competitive sales figures here in the UK thanks to financial incentives and the fact it was a big posh 4×4 for a reasonable price. However it would be unfair to say that price was the only reason that the XC90 sold in it’s later years; a testament to Volvo’s forward thinking and an outstanding original design, there were minimal changes after it’s 2002 debut and retained a traditional no-nonsense yet classy image which many other modern Volvo’s have lost. I personally am still a big fan of the old XC90 and came reasonably close to buying one for myself, and although I am by no means the typical buyer I still see them parked on those aforementioned posh housing estates or outside the local private school.

The new XC90 looks good whether at the stables or double parked outside the nail salon…d’oh stereotyping again!

It’s this position as the flagship of the modern Volvo range and the fact that it is the first car based on Volvo’s new scaleable platform architecture (an adjustable platform which will be used on everything from their compact executive cars through to this) which means this is a crucial car for troubled Volvo. With a new Chinese owner and current models failing to make much of a splash against mainstream rivals, the tide has turned against poor Volvo and when I visited their Chigwell showroom earlier in the week they admitted that the new XC90 was the only model which was selling in substantial numbers. That’s a good sign then, and yes after reading for years about this car and watching a lot of YouTube reviews I finally got the opportunity to have a decent look at one in the metal, both inside and out!

Volvo Chigwell…nice guys but parking is ridiculous as it’s basically next to a tube station!

I had already seen a couple of new shape XC90’s on the road before I made the trip to TOWIE-town but my impressions were already quite positive; chunky lines and and blunt front end are fast becoming things of the past even in this segment of the market, but Volvo stuck to their guns and made a car whose silhouette remains relatively true to Volvo’s of the past and indeed the original XC90. Some critics have said that the loss of the more pronounced ‘shoulders’ which have been a characteristics of Volvos since Peter Horbury’s designs of the late 90’s make the new car look a bit generic – and whilst I can certainly see some shakings of the previous generation X5 in the mix I do think that overall the XC90 looks classy and restrained as a Volvo should be. That said the standard 20″ wheels of R-Design and Inscription models (optional upgrade from 19″‘s on base Momentum) fill out the wheelarches well and give the car a reasonably aggressive stance, and while the overall design is not as showy as the new Audi Q7 or Mercedes GLE, the rear taillights are very distinctive and very ‘Volvo’, as are the striking ‘Hammer of Thor’ T-shaped LED running lights – again standard on all models.

Believe it or not, the ‘Thor’ headlamps are named for his hammer and not parts of Chris Hemsworth

It’s not the exterior of the XC90 which is going to be pulling the punters in however, as the interior is one of the most distinctive on sale today – not just among luxury SUV’s but including cars which are double it’s price or more. The star of the show is the large 9″ touchscreen which dominates the centre of the dash; around the same size of an iPad and with a very similar user experience, it is one of the most easy to use systems in place in today’s market and is finally an infotainment system which Volvo can be proud of. Complete with it’s very own home button and swipe controls, this touchscreen is standard on all XC90’s and includes navigation too; great when you consider that Audi will still insist you fork out £5k for their full MMI experience. Admittedly the screen is a fingerprint magnet and will need a decent cloth kept nearby, but it means that buttons are reduced to a mere 9 – mostly to control the music system, eat that BMW! The screen can also be operated with gloves, and although I can envisage it being a little frustrating to operate for relatively simple functions like heated seats and climate control it just looks so good and will be constantly updated with over the air software boosts.

The XC90’s touchscreen is a massive leap forward in terms of technology and will see a jump in the shares of microfibre cloth firms

Elsewhere inside the XC90 continues to shine on the whole; the driver infomation screen (ie where the dials are) is all completely LCD and is configurable in a number of ways – it can match the larger touchscreen for certain applications  and is a notable step up from similar systems in rivals from Land Rover, although Audi’s Connected Drive in the new Q7 is likely to eclipse it for sheer wow factor. Another great thing about the XC90 is that most of these bits are standard in the top two trim levels and even the base Momentum is pretty well equipped; electric heated seats, dual zone climate, leather and of course lots of safety features (being a Volvo) are standard, with buyers only really having to fork out for a panoramic sunroof, head up display or upgraded sound system – there is also a cool keyless ignition system which involves twiddling the expensive-feeling metal dial in between the front seats, again standard.

The XC90’s seats are not only spacious in all 3 rows, but Volvo keep up their reputation for some of the most comfortable seats in the biz.

The previous XC90 also had an envious reputation for practicality, something which has definitely been carried over to the new model. 7 seats are standard, with the middle row sliding independantly seat-by-seat and offering an optional inegrated booster seat in the centre seat – a major boost for families with young kids. The rear most seats are easily accessible too and thanks to those sliding seats they can even accomodate those over 6ft if the middle row is in its furthest forward position. But even with them in a normal state somebody my size (5’11) can sit comfortably there for trips around an hour long with no problem – and with those 2 rear seats up there is still enough luggage space for a reasonable shopping trip, apparently more than a VW Golf! Negatives of the interior were few and far between, but I personally would have liked to see Volvo retain their split tailgate design which was so mentioned in press materials for the first generation car – apparently the mainly female focus groups found it valuable and while that may have changed more recently with the introduction of electric tailgates, I still think it made for a classier look and feel. Also I was a little surprised and disappointed in some of the interior plastics used lower down in the cabin, and was slightly horrified to see that the delivery mileage model I sat in had it’s rear door unlock button broken already – surely something which a child would do very easily!

There is a very decent amount of space behind those 2 rear seats, enough for a few suitcases, a double buggy or maybe even several hundred oranges.

Aside from it’s new platform, the XC90 ushers in a new age of Volvos which are powered purely by 4-cylinder engines and currently in the UK market there are 3 available; the mainstay of the range will be a 225bhp turbodiesel named the ‘D5’ a la previous diesel versions, then there is the turbo and super charged ‘T6’ petrol which gets 320bhp and then the top of the range ‘T8’, which has the same engine as the T6 but is boosted by a 81bhp electric motor to give a rough 400bhp total output. Later this year there will be a lower powered ‘D4’ diesel with around 200bhp too, but while this engine is likely to be a couple of grand cheaper than the D5 it’s lower power output will likely mean it sells in lower numbers than the D5. Previously the XC90 was powered by a 5-cylinder diesel, 6-cylinder petrol or V8 petrol and although the new cars only share their naming structure with these models, they better them in almost every way for responsiveness, emissions and importantly fuel economy. The D5’s 225bhp output is reasonably impressive for a 4-cylinder diesel but rivals from other manufacturers also offer 6 and 8 cylinder versions, with in excess of 375bhp in the case of the BMW X5 M50d! Still the 0-62 time of 7.8 seconds is very reasonable, and an official combined mpg figure of 49.6 is impressive considering the XC90 has not undergone any of the weight loss regime that rivals have. In global markets the T6 will be the volume engine and it’s twin-charged nature means that it is bloody quick when compared to the previous generation; 0-62 in 6.5 seconds is faster than the last V8 and it should still return over 35mpg in mixed driving…not with a heavy foot admittedly but I’d be optimistic and hope for circa 30 if you drive sensible. The T8 is probably the most interesting but as the most expensive it is very niche; it’s a fraction of a second faster than the T6 (because of it’s much heavier weight), but it’s plug in nature means that if you regularly drive under 15 miles per day and are prepared to plug it in of an evening, you will have to fill up very very rarely – plus at only 49g/km CO2 emissions it means that road tax is free and BIK tax rates are very very easy on the wallet for company car drivers.

This is the T8’s engine…well both of them

Regardless of powertrain, the XC90 is driven forward by an Aisin 8-speed automatic – nearly as good as the ubiquitous one from ZF but slightly more hesitant at lower speeds. The gear changer is a more traditional one when compared to rivals (and is crystal in the T8!), but shifting paddles are only found in the jazzy R-Design models. All UK-bound models are AWD too, enough for mud plugging but realistically that’s only going to happen rarely on those big wheels –  the D4 will probably have a base 2WD version though for those looking to cut costs even more. I didn’t get chance to take the XC90 out for a test drive but the reviews that I have read suggest that it improves substantially over the previous generation car in terms of handling, but doesn’t offer the reasonably thrilling steering found on the X5 and Cayenne – not that many XC90 owners will be looking to rag theirs across moorland on a clear morning. However without the optional air-suspension (£2500) the ride can be a little harsh apparently, especially with the larger wheels of the R-Design and Inspiration. Personally I doubt it will be any harsher than an X5 or Q7 as those cars traditionally ride on the sporty side, but buyers expecting the more cushy ride of it’s predecessor may come away a little bit rattled. On that note too, the refinement of the 4-cylinder engine has come in for some minor criticism as not being as muted or charismatic as the 6-cylinder units in rivals, but sitting in the car with the engine idling it didn’t sound any less smooth than any rivals and the sound deadening glass will probably keep occupants in relative silence at speed.

Optional 22″ wheels are available if you are married to a chiropractor, but standard 20’s on R-Design models look very sharp anyway

By now you may be realising that I really like the new XC90 and in many ways find it class leading or at least highly competitive, but would you expect the pricing to mirror this? Well yes and no; as already stated the Volvo badge doesn’t have the cache of Audi/BMW/Mercedes/Land Rover and as such many buyers will not pay as much, even though the XC90 itself ranks a decent chunk above the brand’s other offerings in terms of prestige. But the pricing strategy of the previous version in it’s latter years was to offer them at massive discounts and often with relatively basic spec, so buyers of that car may have been able to walk away with change from £30k (at least in terms of total payment price). For those people the new base price of £45k may seem relatively steep, but when you consider that the poorer equipped Q7 starts just north of £50k it starts to make sense – admittedly the Q7 has an extra 50bhp but the 1 second difference it makes to 0-60 times is not hugely important for most buyers, even if the badge on the bonnet is.

No DNA test needed Jeremy Kyle – the family resemblance is clear here

Unquestionably the XC90 is fit to carry on the mantle of being Volvo’s flagship vehicle; handsome looks, class leading tech, bags of space and high-tech/economical drive-trains mean that is a worthy choice for anyone in this segment of the market and likely many who were also looking at well equipped versions of smaller 4×4’s too. Evidence from my recent dealer visit suggests that it will sell pretty well and may well again become the brand’s best seller, but whether it succeeds in overhauling Volvo’s image and downward sales trend is something that remains to be seen. Like I said near the beginning of this post, in 5 years the XC90 will be the oldest vehicle in Volvo showrooms and nearly all of it’s offerings will share the same platform, engines and technology – clearly they aren’t aiming to be the next Audi (Mercedes have already managed that), but returning to some of these traditional Volvo strengths will hopefully mean a few customers are swayed toward less cookie cutter options.

One response to “Mamma Mia, here we go again

  1. Pingback: Crossover Class of 2015 | readingandwrighting·

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