We head to Spain for the launch of a luxury SUV, 12 years in the making

How best to characterise the all-new Volvo XC90? You could argue it's a luxury sports utility vehicle (SUV) inspired by Apple.

Not literally; the computer company didn't have any direct involvement. But the big Volvo shares a similar design and engineering ethos. There's an incredible amount of high technology built into the thing, yet it's wrapped up in elegant - almost minimalist - styling and has ease-of-use as its highest priority.

Example: there are only eight buttons on the dashboard. Every other major cabin function, including navigation, audio and the Bluetooth mobile connection, are contained in an iPad-like touchscreen embedded in the centre console. Volvo calls it Sensus. No instruction is needed: it's perfectly intuitive.

Sensus is standard on all XC90 models. It's a 9.3-inch unit on entry versions, which is pretty close to iPad size. Higher-end XC90s have a 12.3in screen. The XC90 will be one of the first models on sale in New Zealand to feature both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, applications which can integrate your own smartphone or tablet into the Sensus screen.
The XC90 will arrive here in July, in D5 turbo-diesel and T6 turbo-petrol versions, with the T8 plug-in hybrid (also known as the Twin Engine) to follow in the third quarter. The entry D5 will be $97,900 in Momentum specification, or $104,900 in more upmarket Inscription trim. The T6 and flagship T8 are both Inscription only, at $110,900 and $134,900 respectively. The R-Design package sells at $2000 over the Inscription models.

Advertisement
The Volvo XC90 has clean lines, reduced buttons and a large tablet-style info screen.
The Volvo XC90 has clean lines, reduced buttons and a large tablet-style info screen.

This is truly next-generation stuff. The XC90 is based on a new scalable platform that will provide the base for a whole new range of Volvos over the next four years.

The D5 is expected to be the volume seller, while the T8 is clearly the even-higher-tech hero car. The T6 is an unknown quantity, as diesel dominates the segment. But Volvo NZ reckons there might be an appetite for a frugal four-cylinder petrol as a point of difference.

That's right, four pots. The XC90 might be a full-size seven-seater, but the entire range is powered by 2-litre four-cylinder engines from a family that Volvo calls Drive-E. Downsizing is the done thing these days, so it won't surprise you to learn that these powerplants have high outputs despite their modest capacity. The D5 makes 165kW/470Nm (0-100km/h 7.8 seconds, 5.8 litres per 100km), the T6 236kW/400Nm (6.9sec, 7.7 litres).

The The Volvo XC90 has one built-in booster seat, while the previous model had two.
The The Volvo XC90 has one built-in booster seat, while the previous model had two.

The T8 has the same petrol engine as the T6, but the additional electric motor brings total system output up to 296kW - despite carrying an extra 200kg due to the battery hardware, it's still the fastest XC90 you can buy, although Volvo is yet to confirm performance and economy figures. Rough estimates: 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds and 2.5 litres per 100km.
All models are four-wheel drive, although the T8 has the luxury of an engine at either end, so the petrol powerplant drives the front wheels, while the electric motor drives the rear.

We drove all XC90 versions in Barcelona. Naturally, all eyes went to the T8 first: the plug-in facility gives this seven-seater the ultimate in green credentials, with 40km of zero-emissions driving from a three-and-a-half-hour charge. It also makes the XC90 T8 a sensationally quiet city commuter. When the electric power is depleted, it runs as a more conventional petrol-electric hybrid.

Refinement is key to the XC90 range as a whole. You can't disguise the four-cylinder soundtrack under load, but all three models have impressively low levels of noise, vibration and harshness. In a segment obsessed with sportiness, Volvo has concentrated on comfort, with light steering and a cosseting ride. As if to emphasise that point, all cars on the launch programme were equipped with the optional air suspension, which changes calibration depending on which drive mode you've selected.

On the air system the car was remarkably comfortable - even on the most aggressive setting.

The T8 does betray its extra weight through the corners, though. It might be the quickest XC90, but driver-appeal honours go to the more conventional D5 or T6 models.

Advertisement

It wouldn't be a new Volvo without some cutting-edge safety technology. Volvo has offered autonomous braking for some time, but the XC90 can act to prevent a collision if you're turning at an intersection. Also new is a feature called Run-off Road, which recognises when you've lost control and left the tarmac: it tightens the seatbelts, adjusts the seat shape to protect your spine, deploys the airbags and can collapse the brake pedal if an impact occurs. All in less than one second.

The Volvo XC90 is a seven-seater luxury SUV and goes on sale in NZ in July.
The Volvo XC90 is a seven-seater luxury SUV and goes on sale in NZ in July.

The XC90 Inscription models also feature collision mitigation support at the rear. If another vehicle is closing too fast, the XC90 will flash its brake lights as a warning - but also prepare seatbelts and brakes to minimise the effect of any possible impact.

The interior architecture is certainly a cut above much of the competition; second only to Range Rover in terms of elegance and quality.

The rear-seat configuration is genius, as always. All five chairs can be folded individually, and those in the third row are identical to those in the second. Space is still limited back there - Volvo says you have to be less than 170cm tall to be properly comfortable, although rear occupants do get their own air-conditioning system.

Rivals for the XC90 in New Zealand include seven-seat SUVs such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Land Rover Discovery and Range Rover Sport. But the car also has its Thor's Hammer headlights (yes, that's what Volvo calls them) trained on luxury five-seaters such as the Mercedes-Benz ML, Porsche Cayenne and Volkswagen Touareg.
Volvo NZ has Lexus in its sights and the RX hybrid must surely also be a prime target for the XC90 T8.

How Volvo's first SUV was ahead of its time

The previous Volvo XC90 was 12 years old.
The previous Volvo XC90 was 12 years old.

The Volvo XC90 was innovative.

We can't let the first-generation Volvo XC90 disappear without a tribute. It was groundbreaking in 2002. It was the first-ever stand alone Volvo SUV, so not surprisingly it set out to redefine safety standards in the segment. It introduced side-curtain airbags across all three rows of seats and an integrated booster cushion for children in the second row.
The XC90 also introduced Roll Stability Control (RSC).

Other milestones? Surely the Yamaha-developed 4.4-litre V8 engine introduced in 2005, which endowed the car with a sensational soundtrack and a new level of driver appeal.

The XC90 received mild updates but sales had slowed to a trickle - just 58 cars last year. Sales projections for the new model are three times that, for an 8.5 per cent share of the segment.

• For more car news head to our new website Driven.co.nz