Driving the redesigned 2016 Volvo XC90 is a lot like going to your high school reunion and discovering that the quiet kid at the back of the room that no one really took the time to get to know is now a combination fashion model/billionaire industrialist whose helicopter is parked on the soccer field behind the auditorium. The XC90's transformation from SUV also-ran to jet-set accessory is that startling, as few outside of the company's brain trust could have been prepared for Volvo to make such a determined run at the established luxury order with this all-new full-size people mover.
As overwhelmingly posh as the Volvo XC90 happens to be, it's also an enormous gamble. The leather-lined behemoth is like nothing else in the Swedish automaker's line-up, and as such it demands that either a fresh clientele find their way to Volvo showrooms, or that existing customers suddenly discover their inner tycoon and embrace the pricing bump and tony postal code now occupied by the vehicle.
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Is this the most compelling XC90 to have made it across the Atlantic in the past decade? Undoubtedly. Is it enough to push Volvo into the same conversation as Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz? I'm not sure.
Beautiful Inside And Out
The 2016 Volvo XC90 takes an enormous visual step forward as compared to the model it replaces, especially considering how many years the previous generation SUV hung around on the market without a significant update. The broad, flat grille that defines the XC90's first impression (courtesy of European pedestrian safety regulations) is softened by the future-is-now LED headlights that bisect its front fenders, while at the rear of the vehicle angular LED taillights frame the back glass and gun-slit tailpipes peek out from under the bumper. In profile the XC90 is all-slab, broken up by a chrome ring around its greenhouse and a sliver of chrome across its beltline.
As stoically alluring as the SUV is from the outside, Volvo has saved the real styling tour-de-force for the XC90's interior. The model I drove was a top-tier 'Inscription' edition, which meant a full leather interior (complete with small Swedish flags attached like tags to the front seats), genuine wood trim on the dash, doors, and centre console, a full LCD gauge cluster, and an enormous nine-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Put the hauler's interior accoutrements alongside any other model in the Volvo family and it thoroughly shames them - there's an enormous quality chasm between the XC90 and, say, the XC60 or especially the S80, and even long-time Volvo adherents will be flummoxed by the step-up.
Bring A Magnifying Glass - And The Manual
I was impressed with SUV's new LCD instrument panel, which presented a clear upgrade over the decidedly vanilla gauges offered on other Volvo vehicles. The vertically-oriented, nine-inch touchscreen that served as the nerve centre for almost every aspect of the XC90's feature set was another story.
My usual litany of complaints applies: one should never have to rely on a touchscreen for climate controls, and Swedes should know better than anyone that you're usually wearing gloves when trying to find the button that boosts cabin temperature or activates the heated seats. More problematic was the decision by Volvo to cram as many pieces of information, menus, and widgets as possible into the panel using small, low-contrast fonts and colours. It's legitimately difficult to navigate through the system - seven days in I was still using the owner's manual to locate basic features - and there are no hard button short-cuts to take you to important features.
Instead, Volvo expects you to swipe the screen like a tablet to move from one display to the next, all while puzzling out the seemingly tangential links between the clusters of presented commands. Tablet-like swiping works great, say, when you have the device sitting in your lap, and you aren't ALSO DRIVING. There's a reason why excellent infotainment systems such as Chrysler's Uconnect embrace big icons, bright colours, and helpful hard buttons, and while the XC90's screen offers excellent wow-value, it's far less useful and much more dangerous to focus on than many other systems on the market.
Power Is 'Adequate' - But Not In The Rolls-Royce Sense Of The Term
The 2016 Volvo XC90 continues its risk-taking under the hood, where the T6 (currently the only version available in Canada) model presents a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that is both turbocharged and supercharged to produce 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. Twin-charging is still a novelty in production cars, and Volvo's goal is to return reasonable fuel efficiency without compromising too much on performance.
The end result is a mixed bag. The eight-speed automatic transmission that comes with the XC90 is smooth at all speeds, but combined consumption of 10.6 l/100 km reminds you that you're piloting a big SUV and not a smaller crossover. The relatively modest pace of the Volvo's acceleration also demonstrates that when 295 lb-ft of twist meets over 2,000 kilos of metal, stabbing the accelerator is more of a negotiation with the laws of physics than a command. All-wheel drive is standard with the vehicle, but I had no opportunity to test out its grip during the dry, sunny week I spent with the vehicle. I can report, however, that despite somewhat vague electric power steering (a bane of our modern times), the XC90's ride was calm, controlled, and well in keeping with its premium aspirations.
Is This The New Face Of Volvo?
To have a full-size SUV stand in as a luxury brand's halo model isn't a new concept - Cadillac did that for years with the Escalade - but the XC90 makes me wonder if the big Volvo shows us the future of the company's portfolio, or if it's destined to remain an outlier. If the automaker truly has the resources ready to invest the same level of refinement and forward-thinking design in the rest of its products, then I can see the XC90 breaking new ground and potentially leading Volvo into the European luxury market it has always hovered at the periphery of. If the XC90 is merely an exercise in shock and awe that will have little influence over the brand's overall strategy, well, I'm less optimistic about the future.
Either way, the 2016 Volvo XC90 is like nothing else to have left the factory in Gothenburg before. If you can stomach the $60k starting price, decode the SUV's at-times maddening touchscreen, and don't mind your neighbours looking down on you for going Swedish over German, then the XC90's comfortable ride and first-class cabin demand your attention.