The first road tests are in for the long-anticipated Volvo XC90, and so far, they’re overwhelmingly positive. The all-new XC90 is the most important car Volvo has released in decades, and its success is crucial to the brand’s future. The seven-passenger SUV isn’t arriving in American showrooms until this spring, but Volvo has let British reviewers at Autocar, Top Gear, and Auto Express put the new SUV through its paces, and from here, it looks like the XC90 just might be the savior the brand was hoping for.
While 2014 was a record-setting sales year for Volvo thanks to a strong showing in Europe and Asia, sales continued to slide in the North American market as aging models and a fading brand identity failed to attract new buyers. For decades, Volvo had one of the most unique brand identities of any automaker with distinctive styling and an industry-leading focus on safety. But recent safety mandates and technological increases have leveled the playing field, and many of Volvo’s rivals can now boast comparable safety records. Following a recent corporate shakeup designed to stimulate growth in the U.S., and a marketplace crowded with the likes of the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, many analysts believe the new XC90 could be the brand’s last shot at success in the American market.
Stylistically, the XC90 can compete with the best in its segment. It’s the first full redesign for the XC90 since its debut model 12 years ago – an eternity for modern cars. And while the outgoing model had long been the undisputed bright spot in Volvo’s lineup with over 636,000 built, the new SUV is gorgeous compared to the conservatively-styled old model. The XC90 takes styling cues from Volvo’s wildly popular 2013 Concept Coupe, sharing the Coupe’s “Thor’s Hammer” headlight design and muscular lines. The rear features Volvo’s familiar pillar-long tail lamps, but here they are thinner and beautifully integrated into the rear fascia. Overall, Volvo has accomplished the near-impossible task of making a big seven-passenger SUV look leaner than it is. While its styling is shockingly contemporary for a Volvo, the biggest changes to the XC90 lie beneath the new sheet metal.
The XC90’s stylish, well-appointed interior comfortably seats seven adults, and showcases Volvos’s new minimalist, Scandinavian furniture-inspired design. The previously cluttered center console has been replaced by a sleek, organic looking unit with most controls taken care of by Volvo’s all-new Sensus interface system, which Volvo calls “the most modern control system on the market.” The system features a tablet-like touch screen (that Volvo is quick to point out can be operated with gloves on), with scrollable GPS and voice-activated controls. The system is both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible, but with the early reviews already calling Volvo’s system one of the best on the market, there shouldn’t be much need.
Volvo’s safety record is still second to none, but it’s hoping the XC90’s advanced features will set it apart from the competition, and help it reclaim the title of undisputed safety leader. The XC90 is the only SUV in the segment that lacks rear side airbags (its new frame is so strong that engineers felt they weren’t necessary). The SUV’s strength is bolstered by energy-absorbing seats, and industry firsts in the Safe Positioning system and auto-braking function. The Safe Positioning system detects possible crash scenarios, and safely locks passengers into their seats by tightening the seat belts milliseconds before impact. The auto-breaking system uses a state-of-the-art radar system that allows the XC90 to automatically react to anything from pedestrians to oncoming rear-end collision threats. With new features like these, Volvo is on target to make their Vision 2020 goal of zero fatalities in Volvo cars by the year 2020 a reality.
Even with the new sheet metal and safety features, the new XC90 is 275 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. Unlike the optional V8 and V6 offered previously, the new SUV is powered by a choice of five different fuel-sipping inline-fours, with each engine mated to Volvo’s new eight-speed transmission. On top of the two diesel and two gasoline engines offered, the real news is the Twin-Engine option for the top-of-the-line T8 hybrid model. The plug-in hybrid gets a claimed 59 miles per gallon on the European cycle, and has an all-electric range of around 25 miles. This makes the T8 the greenest XC90, and also the most powerful. The gas engine combined with the electric motor puts out an impressive 400 horsepower and takes the big SUV from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds.
The T8 hasn’t been released to journalists yet, but reviews for the diesel and gasoline-powered versions show that the XC90 may be Volvo’s much-needed hit. Its contemporary styling, industry-leading safety, and a sub-$50k starting price mean that the XC90 should be a real contender in the luxury mid-size SUV segment. Taking a page out of Volkswagen’s playbook, Volvo has invested heavily in modular platforms, and the XC90 is the first model built on their all-new SPA architecture. Untethered from parent company Ford since 2010, Volvo is a much smaller company than its competitors, and has taken a serious risk investing the company’s future in a single platform. The XC90’s performance should quickly prove whether or not Volvo’s gamble will pay off, as all upcoming Volvos share engines and a basic architecture with the new SUV.
This makes XC90 one of the most high-stakes model releases in years, and it seems like no one knows this better than Volvo. So far, the company has reason to be cautiously optimistic. They’ve already taken 16,000 reservations for the new XC90 globally, and sold out all 1,927 of the First Edition models in just 47 hours. They’ve committed to making the new XC90 one of the best luxury SUVs on the road, and the early reviews show that they’ve done a fine job at it. Simply put, a sales success for Volvo means a future with Scandinavian cars on American roads for years to come. With Volvo as the last surviving Swedish automaker, there’s a lot riding on the XC90. Let’s hope it succeeds.
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