Having received widespread acclaim in Europe, local expectations of the new Volvo XC90 D5 Geartronic SUV have certainly been high. One senses that it will form the cornerstone of not only Volvo’s “rebirth”, but also its profits for a good few years to come.
In South Africa, the challenge to successfully counter the German SUVs will be significantly stiffer – badge appeal counts for a lot over here, and Volvo will also have to convince a sceptical public that spending near half a million Rand on a Volvo can be a wise investment, when the brand’s resale woes are very well known. So, can the XC90 overcome these challenges to become a new premium SUV champion, as it has done elsewhere?
Handsome designVolvo’s current design theme is well-defined and very neat. It also fits a big vehicle such as this very well, endowing the XC90 with both the manliness and sophistication required from a premium full-size SUV. The shoulder lines are strong, the bonnet bulges with the promise of power and the black plastic cladding around the lower parts of the body speak of a readiness for off-road adventure. Riding on 17-inch alloy wheels and sporting a ground clearance of well over 200 mm, the XC90 has presence in spades.
Arguably the best aspect of this car is its interior. Volvo has come up with a cabin that reeks of quality, offers stretch-out space and bristles with luxury and safety features. Let’s start at the rear. A direct benefit of the long wheelbase (2 857 mm) and large body is the third-row seating. While the two rearmost seats are certainly not where you’d like to spend much time if you’re larger than average-sized adult, it nevertheless is a nice-to-have feature that neither of its two main rivals can offer. Also, when they’re folded down, the boot’s floor is not only completely flat, but the spaciousness is class leading.
The middle row offers exceptionally comfortable accommodation, with seats that can slide fore and aft over a significant distance, either increasing legroom for its occupants, or improving luggage space (or rearmost legroom) when moved to the front. A typically Volvo touch is a centre seat that features an incorporated booster cushion. Middle-row passengers also have their own ventilation outlets – always a nice feature, especially in such a large vehicle.
The best seat in the house, however, remains behind the steering wheel. Fronted by an expensive-looking facia and with a nice thick-rimmed steering wheel in the hands, the XC90 does a lot to stroke the driver’s ego. In contrast to the very minimalistic instrumentation, the centre section of the facia features a large number of buttons and switches, but it’s not a complicated layout – the buttons are clearly marked and logically placed. It also helps to keep in mind that there are so many buttons because there are so many features. With the XC90 D5 Volvo is offering essentially a full-house vehicle, with such niceties as leather upholstery, electrically adjustable driver’s seat, multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, a top-end audio system and climate control, among others.
Focus on safetyThis is a Volvo, and as such it boasts a very comprehensive safety specification. In fact, the XC90 was the first SUV to achieve a five-star EuroNCAP crash rating. It has no fewer than six airbags, and the curtain protection stretches all the way back to the rearmost passengers. ABS with EBD is fitted, of course, and there’s also a dynamic stability and traction control system, as well as RSC (roll stability control), which limits the chances of a roll-over accident happening. From behind the wheel the XC90’s feeling of stability and solidity does a lot to reinforce the perception of driving something very safe.
Speaking of being behind the wheel… The XC90 is a superb long-distance family car. The ride quality is extremely good, probably the best in this segment, and yet it doesn’t come across as too top-heavy in the corners – just a pity the seats lack side bolstering. It manages to cope admirably with poor surfaces, too, and even gravel roads do little to upset its composure. With a permanent Haldex all-wheel drive system sending 95% of power to the front wheels under most circumstances, and a lack of any serious off-road hardware, the XC90 is very obviously aimed at those who will only very rarely tread off the beaten track, and even then only slightly so. That said, the ground clearance is good, and the all-wheel drive system can send up to 65% of power to the rear when needed.
Unfortunately the engine lets down the impressive package somewhat. The 2.4-litre, five-cylinder turbodiesel engine is not new, and its outputs of 120 kW and 340 Nm are acceptable, though some way off class-leading. The problem is a lack of torque low-down, and significant turbo-lag, both problems amplified by significant weight (over two tonnes) and a rather witless five-speed automatic Geartronic transmission. Yes, there is a manual shift function, but even that is painfully slow. The drivetrain combination is more than acceptable out on the open road, where it is quiet and relatively economical, but around town the lethargy can be frustrating.
VerdictVolvo’s XC90 is certainly a strong offering in this segment. The X5 may offer more status and a more dynamic driving experience, but the Volvo has it licked for comfort and versatility. Similarly, it is vastly superior to the Mercedes ML in nearly every aspect. The only real let-down is the drivetrain, which is unfortunately a rather big disappointment. Such a heavy vehicle needs more grunt, and seeing as the general usage pattern of this type of vehicle suggests a lot of town use, it can also do with a quicker transmission. All things considered, however, the XC90 deserves serious consideration… especially as a used buy.
Versatile, spacious interior
We don’t like:
Engine: 2.4-litre, five-cylinder, petrol
Power: 120 kW @ 4 000 rpm
Torque: 340 Nm @ 1 750 rpm
Transmission: five-speed automatic
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 185 km/h
0-100 km/h: 12.3 seconds
Fuel economy: 10.5 litres/100 km
If macho SUV looks are of more value to you than actual off-road ability, then BMW’s X5 remains a segment leader. But its appeal is more than skin deep. The X5 is very good on the road, has a great cabin, and a frugal and powerful engine.
The same price as the Volvo, and does boast the Mercedes badge, so should offer the better trade-in value a few years down the line. That said, the ageing Mercedes is outclassed by the XC90.
If you do need to travel into the rough, then neither the Volvo nor the Germans will suffice. This Jeep is a seriously capable off-roader, and also offers a measure of premium appeal and luxurious trimmings. The compromise? Poorer on-road dynamics and refinement.