In the premium world, German marques—Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche—pretty much rule the roost. Volvo has always thought of itself as a natural rival to the Germans, but somehow the brand seems to have slipped off the radar of many a car-buyer's consciousness. Now it's time for Volvo to try and muscle back into the Teutonic party and steal some premium sales.
Cometh the hour, cometh the truck. This is the new XC90 SUV, Volvo's latest flagship and a signifier of what the marque is attempting in terms of ramping up the quality range-wide. By 2019, the XC90 will be the oldest car in Volvo dealers, as every other model from Gothenburg will follow its lead in terms of technology.
Which brings us to some of the XC90's tech tricks. It's the first Volvo to sit on the company's new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis system, a setup that allows enough flexibility in the modular platform to build anything from a compact car to a full-size SUV (like this) on the same underpinnings. Think of it as Volvo's answer to the Volkswagen Group's pervasive MQB.
Then there are the engines, all four-cylinder Drive-E units of 2.0L capacity, with differing power grades used for various models. It's a risky move on Volvo's part, given that, in spite of the current trend for eco-driven powerplant downsizing, some still consider four-piston engines as insufficiently premium. However, both SPA and Drive-E were developed with electrification in mind, meaning hybrid Volvos are possible without any compromise on interior space or practicality.
This new range-topping XC90 has the T8 Twin Engine. Its gasoline unit is punchy enough, thanks to the use of both a supercharger and a turbocharger—314 hp is not to be sniffed at, certainly not from 1,969 cc. But the T8's Twin Engine nomenclature is bestowed upon it because it has an 81hp electric motor mounted at the back, making this big SUV a plug-in hybrid. It has a 25-mile-plus fully electric range, the benefit of 177 lb-ft of torque available from zero revs, and a goliath combined figure of 472 lb-ft—all while returning low emissions figures and incredible economy of around 78 mpg (warning: even Volvo officials say this parsimonious figure will be hard to achieve unless you drive electric most of the time).
All quite noble, but does the XC90 convince as a credible rival to an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes? Can it even go toe-to-toe with the Porsche Cayenne or possibly (whisper this) a Range Rover?
The answer is a massive "yes." This is easily the best Volvo ever built, almost certainly the class leader, and also an early contender for the title of Finest Car Built in 2015. Beautifully made and superbly resolved in all areas. That it's likely to be around 66 percent of the cost of a Range Rover is phenomenal, because it is every bit as luxurious and cosseting as that Brit icon.
The exterior styling is exquisite, and no XC90 looks bad—whether on standard 19-inch alloys and in entry-level Momentum trim, or running on optional 21-inchers and packing R Design sports styling. The "Thor's hammer" LED daytime running lamps are just one glorious feature of a body that is the epitome of Swedish values: cool, sleek, and sharp.
Its party trick is that it is a physically big vehicle that doesn't look like one. The reason it's so large is because it houses seven seats in a huge, comfortable interior that's a quantum leap from the old car in terms of quality. The design is stunning everywhere, the materials are of the highest standard, and everything feels wonderful to the touch.
Volvo has also developed a new touchscreen interface similar to the huge tablet display in a Tesla Model S. It works brilliantly, with smartphone-like pinch-and-swipe controls. The XC90 is generally well specified, with satellite navigation as standard at all levels and conveniences like radar cruise control, heated/cooled seats, full TFT instrument cluster, and panoramic roof offered among a whole roster of toys.
But Volvo still has one more ace up its sleeve: the huge level of refinement it summons up on the move. Accepting that it can never replicate sports car-like handling due to its size (yet also throwing in the fact that it's actually surprisingly tidy through the corners), the ride is out-of-this-world good (even on 20-inch rims), while wind noise and tire roar are totally eliminated from the cabin. Never mind being as good as a Range Rover, traveling in the Volvo XC90 is like being in a Bentley. It's astonishing.
Nor does that shortage of cylinders matter, as the T8's hybrid drivetrain is completely slick and seamless in operation; 25 miles on electric power alone is a phenomenal stat for something of this heft. And performance is extremely strong. Serene manners mean keeping a close eye on the speedo, because it piles on mph with deceptive ease.
It would be unfair on the old XC90 to say this class-leading performance has come totally out of the blue, because the first generation was comfortable, practical, and popular. But after a long time on the shelf (13 years in total), the original had faded into the background of a scene dominated by German offerings. The new XC90 has burst onto center stage, though, because it is simply sensational in so many regards, at a price that seems like Volvo is doing itself out of money. This is how to execute the large SUV formula to near perfection. The Volvo XC90 is truly magnificent.