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First Drive: 2016 Volvo XC90

Volvo knew how to build a safe car. Now it knows how to build an incredible one

The 2016 Volvo XC90 isn’t just another luxury crossover; with Audi performance, Range Rover luxury, and an Acura price tag, it is putting the competition on notice.

Volvo has clearly stated that the new XC90 represents the future of the company. If that’s the case BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and even Land Rover should be worried, because the Swedes — in their own quiet way — have just put them on notice. It might be hard to believe that the source of this Teutonic terror could be a Swedish seven-seater, but the new XC90 is anything but typical.

We have been hearing for the past year how Volvo has poured its heart, soul — and an awful lot of Chinese dollars — into creating its truly revolutionary new SUV. Now, after long wait, we have finally driven the result, and we can say that it has paid off. The new XC90 isn’t just an exquisitely comfortable and unimaginably safe Scandinavian family hauler, it has an interior fit to make Audi blush, and performance that should have a few Bavarians sweating. And all this for a starting price of just $48,900.

Finally, ready for a drive

The 2016 XC90 marks the debut of Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), a new chassis that will underpin an entire generation of Volvo models. Fortunately for Volvo, the brand seems to have gotten it right.

The new XC90 might be a big, seven-seater, but it handles and rides like a much smaller vehicle. Driving on highways and mountain roads outside of Barcelona, Spain, I was shocked at how light and poised the big Swede felt. At least until faced with oncoming traffic that reminded me that the narrow Spanish roads are approximately 1.8 XC90s wide.

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Peter Braun/Digital Trends

Even with these occasional sphincter-puckering reminders, driving the XC90 was a truly pleasant experience. I loved the XC90’s tall commanding driving position, perfect for spotting suicidal SEAT hatchbacks or, in the American context, cyclists.

The high driving position is a reminder that the XC90 is not trying to be a tall sports sedan, like the Porsche Cayenne — and that’s a good thing. Instead, the driving experience is very, for lack of a better word, Scandinavian. The ride is firm, after all Odin didn’t raise any softies, but it is also exquisitely comfortable. Handling is taught and poised, with little body-roll, leaving the XC90 feeling even lighter than its already slim 4,394-pound curb weight.

The result is a study in how compromise can be a good thing. There is nothing dynamically that the XC90 doesn’t do well, and there is nothing that feels compromised.

In fact my only dynamic quibble — it’s my job to find at least one thing wrong — is the steering. For an electric system, it offers great feedback and connection to the wheels, but it is also too light for my taste and also too slow. On tight urban streets, I spent a lot of time sawing at the wheel to maneuver around corners. On broad American streets I suspect this won’t be as much of a problem, but it still less than ideal.

A surprisingly hot SPA

The 2016 XC90 comes packing heat. Just as the XC90 is built around the SPA platform, it is also built around Volvo’s new Drive-E engine family. All Volvos going forward will be powered by 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engines with a dazzling array of extras bolted to them.

American XC90 buyers will be able to choose between the 316-horsepower turbo and supercharged T6, and the 400-hp T8 plug-in hybrid. Both of these choices deliver a surprising amount of pop, with the T6 making the 0-to-60 sprint in 6.1 seconds and the T8 managing it in 5.8 — both numbers faster than a BMW X5 35i, I should mention.

Touching and feeling these pieces gives drivers a sense of calm, thoughtful luxury that is unique in the segment.

The T8 is an impressive technical achievement. The powertrain boasts a version of the T6 twin-charged engine driving the front wheels, with an electric motor mounted on the rear axle to create hybrid all-wheel drive. The batteries take the place of the mechanical AWD system, meaning there is no loss of interior or cargo space.

The results, at least on paper, are impressive, not just 400 horsepower but also 472 pound-feet of torque. Still, with muscle car power, the T8 seems like it should feel more impressive than it does. Drop the hammer and the engine and electric motor take a moment to gather themselves before delivering full power to the wheels.

The T8s we drove were preproduction models, so I am hopeful that the production vehicles will be a bit more refined and immediate. Still, even if the T8 remains less sprightly than I could hope, it is at least efficient, delivering 59 mpge and an electric-only rage of 25 miles.

The T6, on the other hand, is already a joy. It is smooth and nearly silent when cruising. But, in Sport mode, it can deliver lively acceleration at nearly any speed. And, if Volvo is to be believed, it will also offer best-in-class fuel economy.

Fortress of Solitude

As good as the XC90’s dynamics are, the experience of riding in one is even better. Frankly, that is what matters most. The XC90 may occasionally get to go out on country roads to play, but it is going to spend most of its time doing battle with the daily commute. To that end, Volvo has exquisitely prepared its biggest car to protect its occupants both physically and spiritually from the outside world.

When the original XC90 came out, it was quite possibly the world’s first safe SUV. That is no small act to follow, but Volvo hasn’t quailed. As we have already written, the new Volvo XC90 might well be the world’s safest vehicle, period.

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Volvo has announced the bold goal, that no person should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020. The XC90 is a major step in that direction, combining an incredibly strong body with numerous active and passive safety systems. There are even a few world firsts, like run-off-road protection. This system can not only detect when the vehicle is about to leave the roadway it can also cushion and protect occupants through the use of special seats and active seatbelts. This is a huge improvement, considering a startlingly high number of driving fatalities in the U.S. happen in run-off road accidents.

Yet, the XC90 isn’t just about physical safety it is also about protecting the comfort and happiness of the people inside. The result of this effort is almost certainly the nicest cabin in the luxury crossover segment, if not any segment under about $80,000.

The beauty of the interior is its simplicity. The interior is airy and bright with large windows, a panoramic sunroof, and thin seats that provide a sense of openness and space. The interior lines are clean, and Volvo has made a real effort to cut down on the clutter of buttons and controls.

The result is something that is hard to see in pictures. The interior design is actively attractive, but its real beauty is that it lets the materials and craftsmanship speak for themselves. Even the entry-level Momentum model gets luscious leather, gorgeous matte wood, a nine-inch touchscreen, and satin metal trim. Nothing is out of place, or taken from a cheaper car, and there are a few wonderful touches, like the real crystal gear lever, or the machined start- and drive-mode controls. Touching and feeling these pieces gives drivers a sense of calm, thoughtful luxury that is unique in the segment.

During my week in Spain, I was anxiously awaiting some important news. It kept me from sleeping and made it hard to enjoy the beautiful countryside. When I stepped into the XC90, I was able to relax a little in Volvo’s temple to Scandinavian elegance. Other companies can do luxury, but they can’t quite seem to manage that.

Riding into the sunset

I have written all this without even mentioning some of the car’s most important qualities, like a third-row of seats that can actually fit an average adult, or the stunning new Sensus Connect infotainment system. But before letting the XC90 ride off into the Spanish sunset, I want to talk about price.

On the surface, the XC90 is priced in the low-middle of the luxury crossover segment, with the entry-level Momentum trim starting at $48,900. On the face of it, this isn’t bad. However, the reality is even better. Not only does a XC90 Momentum cost less than entry-level AWD offerings from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, it is also far better equipped.

The new XC90 might be a big, seven-seater, but it handles and rides like a much smaller vehicle.

The difference only grows on more expensive models. A completely kitted-out XC90 Inscription should cost around $60,000. By contrast, a moderately well equipped — and slower — BMW X5 xDrive 35i will run a minimum of $75,000, with the completely-loaded model hovering around $86,900. For comparison, that price difference is more than the average annual cost of out-of-state college tuition.

Pricing for the Volvo XC90 T8 hasn’t been announced yet. When it goes on sale in October, though, I would imagine the prices will start no higher than $65,000 — still well below the V8 competition. The only word of caution is that dealers won’t be too eager to offer deals on the new car.

None of this is to say that the new 2016 XC90 will be cheap when customer cars arrive in June. But, when compared with other luxury seven-seaters, it is not only better in many measurable respects like safety, performance and efficiency, it offers a better experience for less money. If this is what the future of Volvo looks like, the competition should be very worried.

Highs

  • Beautiful and comfortable interior
  • Competitive pricing
  • Crisp and comfortable driving dynamics
  • Excellent safety
  • Segment leading efficiency

Lows

  • Slow, and light steering feel
  • Refinement on T8 powertrain