Bold, high-tech 2016 Volvo XC90 is truly all new

The long-awaited redesign brings a few surprises

Last updated: August 03, 2015 11:30 AM

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Many car companies tend to abuse the term "all-new" by claiming a merely freshened model with an updated grille or reshaped taillight is worthy of attention. But in the case of the Volvo XC90, this SUV is as new from the ground-up as it gets. It has a new engine, new platform, new body—all entirely new.

Volvo had no choice: the outgoing XC90 dated back to 2003 and it showed. Since then Volvo was sold by Ford to a Chinese company, Geely. Through the ownership change, Volvo no longer had access to existing platforms or powertrains, thereby creating a timing wrinkle and numerous engineering challenges.

Fast-forward to summer 2015 and the new XC90 has just gone on sale, starting $48,900. Typically equipped, most versions will land around $56,000, placing the XC90 somewhere between an Acura MDX and a BMW X5 in the luxury three-row segment.

Volvo is betting big with the new XC90. It offers one four-cylinder engine—a 2.0-liter powerplant that's both supercharged and turbocharged. Peak output is 316 hp and a 295 lb.-ft. of torque. This forcefed Four is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. In another bold move, the XC also brings a new infotainment system that's interfaced through an iPad-sized touchscreen.

Four trimlines are available: Momentum, Inscription, R-Design, and the T8 plug-in hybrid. The latter, which arrives later on, is meant to be a socially responsible answer to competitors' V8 offerings with its 400-hp and with a claimed 25-mile all-electric range.

All versions get three rows of seats and a seven-passenger capacity. Folding the third row is now much easier than it was in the outgoing Volvo XC90. Our rented XC90 was the Inscription version—a sumptuous package with buttery soft leather and gorgeous wood. Mamma Mia!

Volvo takes its Swedishness very seriously and wants to make sure no one perceives the brand as anything else—a capital concern in the era of Chinese overlords. To that end, you get a tiny Swedish flag sewn into the passenger seat and a Thor's hammer light pattern in the headlights. No word as to whether or not actor Chris Hemsworth is buying one…

Of course, Volvo is long-known for safety and that reputation is built upon with a full available suite of safety systems. On the structural side, there is a lot of high-strength boron steel. Among other things, that material helps make for thin roof pillars that don't hinder visibility. The optional 360-degree surround view camera is terrific, taking the guesswork out of parking maneuvers. On the advanced active safety front, the Volvo XC90 comes with its forward-collision mitigation system (known as City Safety), driver alert (to watch for drowsy or distracted driving behavior), and lane-departure warning. Also available is a blind-spot monitor, rear-collision warning, cross-traffic alert, and lane-keep assist, which can literally steer the car in case your attention wanders while you're futzing with the screen.

Being so closely associated with safety, one might expect an easy non-distracting control interface. Oddly, that's not the case. And while the 12.3-inch touchscreen is very attractive, bright, fast acting, and pleasing to read, it's not the most intuitive. It takes frequent flipping among all of the functions and various pages, which means a lot of eye-off-the-road time and hand-off the wheel.

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will be incorporated into the screen down the road. 

Any doubts about the four-cylinder's ability to haul around this hefty SUV go away after a few miles. It turns out that mid-range oomph is just fine, but it certainly doesn't sound like a smooth, lush V6 with its underlying muted thrum. The automatic shifts very smoothly. It remains to be seen how fuel efficient the Volvo XC90 will be. The EPA rates it at 25 mpg highway. We saw around 22 mpg overall during the car's stay with us.

The ride is more comfortable than in any Volvo in recent memory, but with the air suspension and 21-inch tires, some bumps, seemingly out of nowhere, punched through rather harshly. The standard 18-inch tires ought to deliver a more absorbent ride. That said, the cabin stays noticeably quiet. 

Handling is responsive but this big Swede is not exactly a dancing queen; you're not getting the agility you're getting with the German competitors. When you crave more personality, the Dynamic mode stiffens the steering, holds gears longer, and creates a more interesting exhaust sound.

Being all new and full of novel features, this is a bold move—one with reliability risks. Volvo is almost saying "take a chance on me" as it aims to recast itself as a legitimate luxury player.

We'll buy our own XC90 very soon for testing.

Mike Quincy

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