Once the icon of restrained luxury and bank-vault safety, the Swedish automaker Volvo turned a corner with the current XC90. It marks a new generation of modern design that can potentially win back those who walked away and attract those who never thought they would find a Volvo in their garage.
Volvo has bet the farm -- and all of the moose that graze on it -- on a three-row SUV that could find a place on many luxury shoppers' consideration list with attractive styling in and out and an array of new technology.
How did it stand up to our scrutiny? For all of its imposing heft, this Viking-shouldered SUV is powered by a mere four-cylinder engine. The 2 liters under the hood don't seem very muscular compared with the predominantly six-cylinder engines that populate this segment. But the XC90 T6 is equipped with a turbocharger and a supercharger that help generate an astonishing 316 hp. Despite its seemingly meager displacement, it certainly doesn't lack power; an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive system put it to pavement.
Still, even with this smallish engine, we measured only 20 mpg overall. And for a nearly $60,000 vehicle, the engine should sound and feel more polished. Instead, the XC90 feels and sounds gritty. The big Volvo's responsive, planted, and secure handling belies its size. But the stiff suspension is best suited to a perfectly smooth Swedish highway. On American roads, every bump and ripple is fed to the cabin.
What really wowed us was the quiet and impeccably finished interior. Take the easy step up into the cabin and you're welcomed with soft leather and beautifully finished wood panels, plus nice touches such as a knurled ignition-switch knob and a drive-mode selector. The front seats maintain Volvo's tradition of extremely comfortable chairs; the roomy second-row perch offers lots of leg room. And Volvo is among the only manufacturers to offer a built-in child booster seat.
The XC90 is spacious and airy with big windows and relatively thin roof pillars that make it among the best SUVs for driver visibility.
Our love of the interior cooled when we engaged the large touch-screen console, which looks dazzling until you have to operate it. Almost all audio, climate, navigation, phone, and vehicle settings are integrated via swipe-and-tap commands that are frustratingly unintuitive. If you buy an XC90, insist on a tutorial, provided the salesperson is savvy enough with the system, for which there's no guarantee.
On a bright note, the optional LED headlight high beams are the best we've ever tested. Volvo calls the daytime running lights "Thor's Hammer." You'll be able to spot the Norse gods picnicking in Asgard.
The XC90 comes standard with a safety suite of forward-collision mitigation, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear-collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-keeping assist systems.
Volvo's Pilot Assist combines steering assistance and adaptive cruise control. It has no proven safety benefit, but can make driving more convenient in stop-and-go traffic. Drivers still need to constantly pay attention and be ready to take over when needed.