When the first XC90 broke cover at the 2002 North American International Auto Show, the world didn’t really know what to do with itself. Here stood Volvo’s first SUV, offering more practicality than one could ever imagine, better road manners than some SUV stalwarts, and embellished with the kind of features and safety statistics that have always made Volvo fans go all warm and gooey inside.
But after twelve years of unwavering service, the first-generation had to go. It had grown so long in the tooth, that it was sold in China as the XC Classic. But the new generation, which was revealed in 2014, has done again what the original XC90 did over a decade ago: It’s reinvented the brand, and it’s reinvented the very concept of an SUV. It premiered Volvo’s first series-production semi-autonomous driving technology, a new scalable product architecture, and is available exclusively with the brand’s new Drive-E drivetrains.
Since the introduction of the 2nd-generation, the XC90 has racked up awards around the world, with critics going as far as to call it Volvo’s second-coming. But is it any good?
“Volvo recently won the ‘Best of the Best’ design award for the new XC90 at the international ‘Red Dot’ design awards in Germany this year.” - CarAdvice
After Chinese conglomerate Geely bought out Volvo in 2010, it committed an astonishing US$11bil to the turnaround of the firm. The investment has paid off, and the exterior of the XC90 (which is set to be the mould for all new Volvos moving forward, as evident with the S90) certainly shows the kind of intent that Volvo has for itself. It now has a handsome, timeless design, incorporating modern elements (like full-LED headlights and T-shaped LED daytime running lights) with heritage ones (like the ‘Iron Mark’ across the upright grille, itself redesigned).
The 2nd-generation XC90 manages to meld elements that we recognise and adore with elements we’ve never seen before in a fashion that both soothes and excites. It’s not the most evocative big SUV out there, with competitors like the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne wearing slightly sharper suits. But the Volvo is incredibly elegant, and in doing so, it’s effortlessly cool.
Engine & Drivetrain
“The engines provide decent if not outrageous performance, but they’re all reasonable when it comes to CO2 and mpg, especially the T8.” - AutoExpress
The XC90 SUV is powered exclusively from Volvo’s Drive-E drivetrain family, with all combustion engines measuring just 2.0-litres in size. The D5 diesel doesn’t suffer too much, with plenty of poke (173kW and 480Nm, to be exact) and two turbochargers to ensure that an XC90 is never left for dead at a set of traffic lights.
The petrols are truly remarkable, though. There’s the T6, which turbocharges and supercharges a humble 2.0-litre petrol engine, and forces it to offer 236kW and 400Nm of torque, offered linearly through the rev range. The real game-changer here is the T8 TwinEngine plug-hybrid though, which takes that petrol engine and boosts it, offering a combined output of 298kW and 640Nm, while sipping just 2.1l/100km (or so the official figures say; a figure of sub-9.0l/100km is more likely in the real world).
All variants are fitted as standard with an eight-speed automatic gearbox, which works smoothly and deftly no matter what’s asked of it.
“Open the doors, however, and the widely-lauded interior design shows what distinguishes the XC90 from a host of German competitors.” - The Car Connection
If ever you wondered where Volvo came from, one look at the XC90’s interior would have you certain beyond all doubt that it’s Scandinavian. The design is minimalist and elegant, with only 8 physical buttons on the central stack. All the functions one would usually need a button for are lobbed onto a beautiful 9-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen Sensus system, which is regarded as the best touchscreen infotainment system of its kind. The quality of the materials employed don’t reduce in any way the further away you go from the dashboard either, with the leather, metals, and wood used throughout the cabin absolutely beyond reproach.
The seats, all seven of them, deserve special mention. Volvo has always been renowned for its excellent seat design, but the XC90 debuted a new seat architecture for the brand, retaining the same comfort but in an altogether more compact for. Because of the space saving in this regard, legroom is excellent for all passengers, and all six outer seats (we’re excluding the middle-seat in the second row) bear the same design, so even passengers right at the back will enjoy the same level of comfort.
Behind the Wheel
“For overall dynamic competence the XC90 scores with distinction. The electric steering might feel a bit light and vague but, for general driving, its weighting and its quick, sure response to the helm is gratifying, once again belying the XC90’s bulk. It never feels like a handful.” - Motoring
Volvos have been quite a mixed bag in recent years. Cars that shared underpinnings with Fords tended to handle remarkably well, while others have been unabashed about their emphasis on uncompromised comfort. The XC90 though, must never be assumed to be a sporty proposition, even in the adventurously-styled and named R-Design variants. This is a comfortable, luxury car. Treat it as such, and it’ll reward you.
Drive it in a calm, sedate manner (the way a Volvo driver would), and the XC90 will prove itself to be the best companion. It’s refined and composed over most surfaces (rough-stuff upsets cars with air suspension), with direct steering and quick responses that will always keep you in the straight and narrow. The calm driving experience is heightened further with the T8 TwinEngine, with the car gliding gracefully in whisper-quiet ‘Pure’ electric mode for up to 43-kilometres (claimed; 25km-35km can be expected in the real world, depending on driving style and so on).
“Some cars at this price level supply a further two side airbags, to protect the upper bodies of rear occupants from side impacts. However, Volvo says the XC90’s cabin is strong enough to make these unhelpful.” - WhichCar
All XC90’s fare excellently in terms of safety abilities. Standard fare are seven airbags (two ahead of the driver and passenger, side airbags for the front seats, driver’s knee airbag, head-protecting curtain airbags, stretching to the third row). Active aids that come as standard are things like autonomous emergency braking at city-speeds (which also works at intersections, to prevent XC90’s from driving into traffic), a driver drowsiness monitor, and lane keep assist.
The real tech are, unfortunately, optional extras on all cars. These options are things like the Intellisafe Surround, which tack on things like cross traffic alert (which warns drivers of crossing traffic when reversing), rear collision warning, blind spot monitoring, and active cruise control.
When the first XC90 came about, it was very much of its time. That then-current theme meant the car aged very quickly (especially on the inside), and most buyers were somewhat surprised to see XC90s in Volvo showrooms a decade later. All notions that Volvo is any way behind the times are dispelled now, and dispelled compellingly at that, with a package that puts it squarely in contention with mainstream rivals, if not ahead of them.
The Scandinavian design influence seen in and out, the immense amount of engineering know-how, and uncompromising safety features means that this can only be a Volvo. And to catapult the brand into the world of today, the XC90 couldn’t be a better flagship. Our recommendation is split, depending on how you would use your car. If you spend most of your time in town, and rarely travel further than 30km on a normal day, the $120,900 sticker price for the T8 Inscription plug-in hybrid will lower itself gradually every time you optimise the hybrid powertrain. But if you rack up motorway miles, the D5 Inscription is the one to go for, with an excellent drivetrain and enough design embellishments to make sure your neighbours know you’re doing well.
TopGear UK - 90/100 - “So well-targeted as a big family wagon. Lovely to sit in, safe, very versatile, and not too costly.”
CarAdvice - 90/100 - “It really is a very good car. For now though, as we bid farewell to the original shape XC90 and the thousands of family memories it shaped around the world, we look forward to another generation of Volvo families with the new XC90. The king is dead, long live the king.”
WhichCar - 90/100 - “The Volvo XC90 is an exceptionally comfortable, seven-seat, luxury SUV that pampers passengers in all three seat rows. It is a big car but goes and handles very well, and attends in thorough Volvo fashion to safety. All-wheel drive adds security on slippery surfaces.”
Practical Motoring US - 80/100 - “The new Volvo XC90 is a big step forward for the Swedish car maker. Now, instead of being an outsider on the consideration list when looking at the European three, the XC90 is now right in the mix, and its flexible interior might alone mark it out as a better buy for families. That it's good to drive is icing on the cake.”
Motoring - 75/100 - “So, yes, the new generation XC90 is a big leap forward for Volvo. And, yes, it’s a worthy competitor in the luxury SUV segment. As for whether it will be able to dislodge the likes of BMW’s class-ruling X5 (Volvo believes it has the potential), or Audi’s superlative Q7, that’s another thing altogether.”
The Car Connection - 88/100 - “The Volvo XC90 is a capable and comfortable luxury utility vehicle that whispers its virtues rather than shouting them—and reinvents Volvo as a purveyor of quietly sophisticated design, comfort, and efficiency.”
AutoExpress UK - 100/100 - “The Volvo XC90 blazes a trail with its technology, efficiency, style and safety. That’s why it was the 2015 Auto Express Car of the Year!”
AutoCar UK - 80/100 - “One imagines Volvo’s modus operandi being roughly equivalent to Land Rover’s when it came to the new Range Rover: we don't want it to be the same, but better. Tellingly, 3,500 customers in the UK didn’t even need to see a new XC90 to buy one. Volvo, with quiet rationality and no little ambition, has rewarded their blind devotion.”