Sweden’s lone mainstream car builder has cause for optimism
This XC90 is new from bumper to bumper, yet in just four years it will be the oldest car in Volvo’s portfolio. Hopefully that gives you some idea of the tornado-force winds of change that have blasted though Sweden’s sole remaining volume car manufacturer since leaving the ownership of Ford and entering that of the Chinese Geely organisation.
It sits on one of two all-new platforms that have been developed for Volvo and is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. Just to be clear, this engine will be in every XC90 whether it is fed by petrol or diesel. It develops just 225bhp in this D5 model that will underpin the bulk of European sales, rising to 400bhp in the range-topping plug-in hybrid version. Except Volvo doesn’t call it that, preferring the ‘Twin Engine’ in the hope this will encourage those, particularly in the crucial North American market, who might otherwise not be inclined to trade their 4.4-litre V8 XC90 for one with half the cylinders and less than half the capacity. Unquestionably this is a significant gamble, especially since gas prices have plummeted in the US and it remains to be seen whether four cylinders can ever be regarded as sufficient in a land addicted to the bent eight.
What can be said in the meantime is that this XC90 is both likeable and thoroughly competitive, some achievement in a market peopled by the likes of the BMW X5 and, most dauntingly, the Range Rover Sport.
Its interior is as beautiful as the Land Rover’s, its driving position similarly imperious and its third row seats genuinely usable for small children on long trips rather than last-ditch school-run emergencies.
The new engine in unassisted 2-litre diesel form offers performance best described as adequate; but it’s quiet and works well with the standard eight-speed automatic gearbox. The car rides conspicuously well too, far more nuanced than you’ll find in the generally meat-and-two-veg approach prevalent among its German rivals.
Does it handle as well? Hardly – it’s hundreds of kilos lighter than the car it replaces but it’s still a two-tonne SUV, a fact Volvo’s chassis engineers were unlikely ever to mask entirely. It steers accurately enough, controls its body roll well and is stable in quite stiff cross winds, but if you actually want to enjoy driving a seven-seat off-roader, a BMW X5 remains a far better option.
I’d hoped the XC90 would come storming in at the top of the class, because that’s what the last one did in 2003, and it’s nice when the established order gets shaken up a bit. In fact it’s merely very close. I think it’s far better- looking than an X5 and has a more premium feel inside, but its powertrain offers a smaller envelope of performance and economy and its chassis is less capable. So let’s call that a draw.
As for the Range Rover Sport, in diesel form it will not be a direct competitor in either power or price until fitted with the new 2-litre Ingenium engine later this year, but it’s hard to see how it could be so diminished as to bring it within the clutches of the Volvo. Even so, Volvo is to be commended for bringing a fresh, brave, attractive and interesting contender to the class. If this standard is indicative of those we will see as the rest of the new range is rolled out in the years to come, the future looks promising indeed.
Engine: 2.0 litres, 4 cylinders
Torque: 346lb ft@1750rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Power to Weight: 110bhp per tonne
Top speed: 137mph