Every now and then, a new car is revealed on the international stage and I develop a mild obsession. The way it looks, the tech it brings to market and its potential to excite my excitable bits – I can become quickly besotted with a chunk of metal and four wheels. However, it’s not often, when said new vehicle eventually makes its way to local roads and I get to drive it, that my obsession is met by real-world amazement.
Last week, the all-new Volvo XC90 was launched in the Western Cape, and it brought me to tears – literally. While watching the presentation on an iPad with glorious Franschhoek in clear view, I was so overwhelmed by the fact that this achingly beautiful and technologically advanced new SUV was finally on South African soil – and this after I had already attended the reveal last year when the Volvo Ocean Race made its first stopover in Cape Town.
Now, it is real. And the best part is that, unlike the cliché of meeting your childhood hero who inevitably disappoints in the flesh, this new car is so much more than even my obsession had built it up to be in my mind. I’ve actually found it difficult to put into words, the way this car makes me feel.
I’ll start off with the way it looks. Firstly, it’s huge. At just under five metres in length, over two metres wide and built on Volvo’s new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis, this leviathan has real presence. The latest Volvo design language, which features the redesigned and superbly modern ironmark, harks back to classic Volvos like the P1800, while mixing ultra-modern cues which create a unique, unmistakable aura about the whole car. It turns heads aplenty – people know it’s a Volvo, and then seem to be amazed at just how imposing it really is.
Personally, the way this car looks inside, however, is what really plays with my heart strings. A new design motif, which is mirrored on the outside by elements like the door handles and tail gate, is repeated inside on the steering wheel and fascia, where Volvo’s new Sensus full-touch interface nestles above an exceptionally clean hang-down section – there are just eight buttons on the entire central dashboard. I love the light interior design scheme the most, where a black dashboard is off-set by beautiful matt-finish wood inserts, satin chrome accents and white leather for the inside of the steering wheel, lower dash and upholstery. I know it’s not the most practical colour scheme, but for its sheer Swedish beauty, it would be my choice.
The steering wheel itself is, to me, worthy of design awards (the XC90 has already racked up 18 international awards, one of which was specifically for the interior). It’s quite difficult to describe, with a retro look and feel balanced by the modern touches of the glossy black satellite controls – and it fronts the full-LCD instrument cluster. Then, there is the diamond finish applied to items like the engine starter – which is a toggle switch rather than a button – and the drive mode selector. It’s little details like these which make me such a fan of the new XC90. The designers could have used black plastics but didn’t, and I thank them for that.
Even the key is a work of art, finished in fine leather and designed to be something you could talk about at a dinner party, rather than just a tool for unlocking the car’s doors.
Then, Sensus. It’s incredible. About the size of an iPad and finished in piano black and glass, the central touch interface is possibly the finest in the entire industry. It’s been designed around a very similar style to the latest Apple products, and as much as I am not a fan of those, Sensus is fantastic. Anyone who has ever used a smartphone or tablet will find themselves instantly comfortable with the system, with swiping and scrolling gestures carried out just like you would on your smart device. Everything is controlled here – from temperature and climate settings, to navigation, entertainment and vehicle settings. Sure, it did take a few minutes to get used to, but something a colleague mentioned after our initial drive from Cape Town International Airport to The Conservatory just outside Franschhoek, really hit home – the Sensus system has been designed correctly, and we are just used to doing everything wrong in other vehicles. Truth.
The optional audio system is another biggie. It says Bowers & Wilkins all over the inside of this car, and with 19 speakers littered throughout the cabin, you know the audio experience is going to be a treat. However, it was far more amazing than I could have imagined – Volvo has integrated some highly advanced audio manipulation tools, so instead of fiddling with the bass, treble, fade and balance settings like you would in any other car, in the new XC90 you tailor your overall audio experience for your listening pleasure using the Sensus interface. There’s even a mode which mimics the acoustics in the world-famous Gothenburg Concert Hall in Sweden.
Initially, the new Volvo XC90 range comprises two engine derivatives – D5 and T6 – with the D4, T5 and T8 Twin Engine (plug-in hybrid) variants making their way here later this year and early in 2016. Subscribing to Volvo’s new Drive-E engine programme, all engines displace two litres and they are all turbocharged. Might sound a bit stupid, with competitors featuring large V6 or even V8 petrol and diesel engines, but in the real world you can just see how Volvo has this new engine line-up exactly on point.
Transmission in all derivatives is taken care of by Volvo’s 8-speed single-clutch Geartronic automatic, and all derivatives feature all-wheel drive except the forthcoming D4, which is front-wheel drive.
With the Franschhoek Pass – my favourite road in the country – at our beck and call, I decided to venture over the mountains in the new T6, first. Well, goodness me – this was like a two-ton hot hatch! The engine produces 235 kW and 400 Nm, and does the 0-100 km/h sprint in just 6.5 seconds. That’s the same as a Ford Focus ST – and this is an SUV! The performance claims stood the T6 in good stead for the Pass, and with the gearbox set to manual for my run from the Franschhoek side to Theewaterskloof, it was truly sublime. Save for the need to have shift paddles behind the steering wheel, it was a brisk, adrenaline-inducing run through the twisties with the car in Dynamic mode – and the engine doesn’t sound like a generic four-pot, to boot. It’s devoid of much turbo lag and responds very well indeed.
Later in the day, I jumped into a D5 – with that gorgeous light interior I mentioned above – for a more relaxed cruise through Franschhoek and half-way up the pass again. With 165 kW and 470 Nm on tap from the twin-turbo 2.0-litre engine, this car is still no slouch – and yet Volvo claims average combined fuel economy of just 5.8-litres per 100 km and carbon emissions of 152 g/km! Based on my experience with the Volvo V60 D4 Geartronic I drove not too long ago, this version should be an absolute gem on the economy front.
This time, the car was set to Comfort mode, with the gloriously-smooth auto box doing its own thing. I also used this drive to try out some of the new XC90’s more advanced ‘Intellisafe’ features (some optional), a few of which include lane keeping assistance with vibration, sound or steering feedback, road sign recognition, a full-colour head-up display, pedestrian, cyclist and cross-traffic detection, parallel and perpendicular parking assistance with a nifty drive-out feature, as well as fully-adaptive cruise control with full auto braking and a queueing mode for those lovely traffic jams us city dwellers are subjected to more often than not.
I set the cruise control and relaxed behind the wheel – quite impressed by how the car would automatically tap off the power when I tackled the bends on the pass especially. Then, pottering around the laid-back streets of Franschhoek, I used the system to follow other vehicles and enjoyed the steering being taken care of in short bursts by the car – you really get a good feeling for what this car would be like as a fully autonomous vehicle, which becomes a reality in 2017.
Parking this behemoth is something I need to mention in more detail as well. Whether using the park assist system or not, the XC90 is (optionally) littered with cameras which create a full 360-degree bird’s eye view of the vehicle. Sure, this is not new in the automotive world, but I found the Volvo’s system to be extremely intuitive and was able to rely on the cameras and all-round parking sensors with confidence, right from the off. That huge display screen may have had something to do with it being just so easy.
From a driving experience point-of-view, I could really carry on slobbering over this car for days. I took one for a drive in the dark as well, allowing the matrix LED headlights with full automatic control and ‘Thor’s hammer’ signature to do their thing as well. Then there’s the space – the new XC90 is of course massive inside thanks to that huge body, and seven adults could easily enjoy an extended trip in one of these – with decent boot space still on offer. The only limitation I found was that I’m just too tall for the rearmost seats – though Volvo does state that they can accommodate occupants up to 1.7 metres tall, and I come in at 1.76.
A car as luxurious, well-appointed and advanced as the new XC90 is of course not going to be cheap. And so, it isn’t. The range starts off at R804 000 for the D4 Momentum, and stretches all the way up to R1 066 400 for next year’s T8 Twin Engine R-Design. The D5 and T6 models you’ll be able to buy from August this year carry starting sticker prices of R853 200 and R867 000 respectively.
Is that too much? Well, I think it’s quite a bargain, actually. Considering that competitors like the BMW X5, Audi’s ancient and soon-to-be-replaced Q7, the Porsche Cayenne, Range Rover Sport and the new Merc GLE (M-Class) all start with higher sticker prices than the Volvo, and that in its class only the Q7 and (cheaper) Land Rover Discovery offer seven seats, the new XC90 is a bit of a no-brainer. Sure, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Infiniti QX70, Lexus RX, VW Touareg and aforementioned Landy start off lower down in the monetary food chain, but none of those offer the combination of space and pure luxury contained in this new Volvo.
Of course, there are a few available optional extras in the new XC90 – as there are in its competitors – and value for money isn’t exactly top-of-mind when people shop in this sort of segment. But, dare I say it – I think the new Volvo XC90 is the new premium SUV benchmark, and my fellow motoring scribes who enjoyed the car with me in the Cape uttered similar commentary.
Most importantly, the best of the features are available as standard across the range – including most of the fancy safety equipment. Noteworthy options include the adaptive cruise control, heated seats front and rear, the head-up display, keyless drive, the full camera system, blind spot warning and cross traffic detection, the Bowers & Wilkins audio system, massaging seats – and then various interior trim and exterior design combinations.
Even as standard, it’s such an all-encompassing package, wrapped in such an elegant and timeless new design – and as the Volvo people kept saying, it’s the “Volvo-est Volvo” we’ve seen in a very long time. No more meddling parent company (a.k.a. Ford) to fiddle where they shouldn’t be fiddling – this is a Volvo, and in four years’ time the new XC90 will be the oldest model in the automaker’s showrooms. That is quite a tone to set, and means that the future of cars which bare the infamous ironmark are sure to be superbly special machines.
In other news, I might be marrying a Swede.