The New Volvo XC90 is the Most Important Volvo of the Last Decade

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Ten years is a long time. It’s enough time for a student to navigate through four years of high school, four years of college, then get a masters’ degree after. Time, though, is relative of course. In the grand scheme of the universe, a decade is nothing — an infinitesimal period that doesn’t even register as a rounding error. But when it comes to automotive design, ten years is an eternity.

That’s about how long it has been since Volvo’s (VOLVY.PK) ubiquitous XC90 SUV first hit the scene (technically, it’s been more like eleven years), and since its debut in 2003, the XC90 — which has decidedly aged exceptionally well – has remained largely the same. Outside of some light refresh work both inside and out, the car you buy today is largely the same as the one available in the early 2000s. Given its profound longevity, the new XC90 has now become one of the most anticipated car debuts this year, and it has just happened.

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Volvo didn’t hold back on making some pretty drastic changes either, as if it had been saving up over the past decade only to let it all out at once. There will be an available plug-in hybrid model, a first in its segment, to go alongside a slate of new engines. The outside — true to Volvo’s proud heritage of minimalist Scandinavian design — is clean and taught; there’s no detail out of place. In its simplicity, there is elegance — an ovular grille is book-ended by new LED headlights, which are perhaps the most defining part of the new SUV and affectionately named the “Thor’s Hammer” design by the company.

It’s the same story around the back. You’d be hard-pressed to find an angle where this car looks bad. The tail lights are easily reminiscent of the outgoing model, but more modern feeling. The rear glass looks wide and generous visibility-speaking, and the back end is as clean and refined as the front. Volvos have always looked pretty good, but the new design language is on another level. This is high-end, soft-spoken luxury that Volvo has strived for, but never quite nailed down.

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Arguably, the interior that’s the real star of the show. Like the outside, it’s soft-spoken, simple, but, in being so, is stunningly elegant. Autoblog perhaps said it best when it noted that “if the cabin feels as good as it looks, we think a lot of sales are going to be won inside.”

The infotainment screen is cleanly incorporated into the dashboard, and Volvo’s tasteful blend of real wood and Napa leather rivals the best interiors that the likes of BMW, Mercedes, and Audi have to offer. Its shifter is made of crystal, and the touch screen will be compatible with both Apple’s and Android’s automotive interface projects. All said and done, the XC90 will be going for a lofty $66,000 or so — on par with a comparably trimmed BMW X5.

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Under the hood, the XC90 will start with a 2.0 liter four cylinder that’s both supercharged and turbocharged, and produces a potent 316 horsepower. But the real party piece of the Volvo will be the plug-in hybrid powertrain, which makes use of an electr motor and puts out a combined horsepower rating of about 400. And despite Volvo’s Chinese ownership, the XC90 will continue to be produced in Sweden, despite the high wages that other European firms have gone abroad to avoid.

“If the engineers just sit in laboratories and lose connection to the daily use of the cars, the cars will not be good enough,” Volvo Cars Chief Executive Officer Hakan Samuelsson told Bloomberg in an interview earlier this month. “The engineers have to experience the car personally — scraping ice, seeing how the defrosters work, seeing how fast the seats heat up,” and that needs to be backed up by local production, the site said.

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The XC90 is an integral part of Volvo’s plan to double its sales to 800,000 by 2020. It’s also the first Volvo to use the company’s new Scalable Product Architecture modular platform. It’s largely based on one of the three models that Volvo revealed earlier this year as a roadmap for its future products; a sedan, as well as a wagon, may also be in tow.

“We are emphasizing our determination to build the future of our brand on our Swedish heritage,” Bloomberg quoted Samuelsson as saying. “This has been a very interesting and challenging phase for us all in the company but I’m quite convinced it has made the company stronger, transforming it from a division to a stand-alone car manufacturer with a stable owner.”

There’s a newly redesigned S60 sedan and V60 wagon on the market now, but the XC90 is the first foot forward on Volvo’s new path. The reception of the XC90 is what Volvo will be counting on to carry the brand forward, after spending years in the shadows of the luxury car industry as the Germans chased down every consumer they could sink their teeth into.

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