Volvo has been the invisible man of the U.S. car market since Chinese carmaker Zhejiang Geely Automobile Holdings bought it from Ford in 2010 at a fire-sale price. Volvo will become much more visible in the U.S. thanks to an impressive new luxury SUV arriving in the market now, the second-generation XC90.
XC90’s exterior design elaborates the one compelling legacy of Ford’s ownership, the handsome themes established by Ford-era chief designer, Peter Horbury. XC90 is a characterful evolution that should prove familiar to Volvo loyalists, incorporating the Volvo “iron” grille and Horbury’s tall taillights.
Robust roof pillars frame an airy greenhouse. Sunshade fully retracted, the double-pane moonroof fills the three-row interior with light. Sitting high in the front seats with so much glass around brings a sense of liberation, yet the sightlines and controls instill a strong driver-machine relationship. The driver’s seat is a good place to be.
With a wheelbase 5.5 inches longer than on the previous XC90, the second row holds appeal, too. Front seats positioned to suit my very tall attorney and me, I had ample room for my size 13 shoes in the second row. Better still, the second row is ideal for a pair of child safety seats, or a single child placed in the boosted center seating position.
The third row is for elementary school children and spry little fellows, offering limited legroom, but XC90 can tote a three-generation family to a restaurant, eliminating the complication of a two-car effort. Following the pattern established by the first XC90, the third row is contained well within the rear crash structure. Third row folded flat into the floor, cargo space is considerable, swallowing a stroller, luggage and requisite accoutrements for a family trip. As a family vehicle, XC90 performs.
Volvo poached Bentley’s head of interior design, Robin Page, who was responsible for the Continental and Mulsanne cabins. Purely Scando in its sensibilities, XC90’s interior is far removed from utilitarian Volvos of the past. Warm blonde woods have a muted finish and subtle hand set off by alloy grates covering the optional Bowers & Wilkins speakers. The dash is a simple, elegant and broad expanse. Operative words: cohesive and contemporary yet timeless.
Dead center in the dash is a tablet-sized touchpad. Instead of the Das Boot knurled rotary controller of a German car that works in combination with buttons and on-screen touchpoints to sift layers of menus, the Volvo system is a Scando interpretation of Silicon Valley intuitive interaction, and mostly successful. Simple icons can be activated and rearranged by fingertip. First-year owners will be mostly loyalists, who will serve as an excellent beta group, helping Volvo resolve any minor issues in logic. It’s one of two areas where Volvo must train salesmen to properly demonstrate for non-techie customers.
Directly ahead of the driver is a flat display panel that digitally renders speedometer and tach, and the space between the two primary “gauges” can provide turn-by-turn navigation and other useful information. Volvo has a fun catchphrase: Now and Whenever. Controls sited on the steering wheel and displays directly ahead of the driver are for “now,” and controls on the pad are for “whenever.” Volvo has not been left behind, wishing for a German-style “virtual cockpit.”
Our test car had optional air suspension. Set in Sport, the car’s ride trended busy over rough Los Angeles pavement, but worked well on smoother mountain roads. In Comfort, XC90 floated along smoothly without leaving the driver feeling isolated or detached. Smaller wheels and tires of lesser trim levels will no doubt help ride quality—they always do. Tall wheels are for show, and negatively impact ride quality.
Though Volvo is retaining the Ford-era emphasis on design, they are rebooting the firm’s historic message of safety, the bedrock of the brand that Ford deliberately ignored in favor bizarre hip-hop advertising that muddled the Volvo message, we hope not irreparably. XC90 introduces yet another Volvo safety advance. By studying every crash within 60 miles of the factory, Volvo discovered that when cars left the road and walloped down into a ditch, compressed spines resulted. Yes, people survived these crash, but were likely faced with a life of debilitating pain. The answer? A “crumple zone” built into the seat frame.
Volvo ranked among pioneers who linked braking intervention with radar scanning of the road. Extending that technology, Volvo has matched the Germans again, providing a form of “piloted” driving at low speeds, which proved itself one afternoon in heavy traffic on the 210 freeway through Pasadena, California. Piloted system engaged, my XC90 autonomously maintained set distances from other vehicles with throttle, brake and steering inputs. My attorney was most intrigued, seeing how the system could ease her commute to downtown Los Angeles. Here again, Volvo has proven capable of catching up in the market with quick, deliberate moves. This technology and all the other related autonomous driving elements like assisted parking are the other area where Volvo had better ably demonstrate use to potential buyers, or they will be flooded with angry calls. It works, it’s mostly intuitive, but non-techies will need a little mollycoddling to reach a happy outcome.
To meet the EPA’s onerous mileage regulations, instead of an efficient V6 or tidy V8, XC90 has a four-cylinder with not just a turbocharger, but also a supercharger that engages at low revs to provide instant boost and power. We already see complex high-pressure four-cylinder turbos in German cars, so there’s little surprise that Geely Sweden AB poached a German powertrain engineer, Michael Fleiss, to develop this state-of-the-art engine.
XC’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder produces 316 horsepower, 76 more horsepower than the 3.2-liter six of the outgoing XC90, and more than most V8s produced 15 years ago. In passing and lane changing, the little engine delivers, every time. The very well calibrated 8-speed transmission no doubt works the EPA test cycle to great effect, elevating fuel mileage—if you behave. But with my lead foot XC did not achieve the promised 20 mpg in town. It delivered 13 mpg most days, and when driven with joyous abandon, 11 mpg. In the end, there’s a lot of mass to move around. Blame the federal government for distorting engineering evolution and forcing all companies down this path.
One can wait for the plug-in hybrid XC90 T8 that arrives late in 2015 or early 2016. That vehicle should deliver considerably better mileage and stronger performance, with a combined gas/electric power output of 400 horsepower. Volvo states that the XC90 T8 will run on pure electric power at speeds up to 75 mph for brief periods of time, which should be quite an experience. Let’s hope the plug-in T8 has more sound deadening material so suspension noise does not intrude–in electrically driven cars, one notices suspension noise because there is no engine sound covering it.
Volvo adopted principles Lexus defined for the world a decade ago. The gas engine drives the front wheels, and the electric pumpkin sits between the rear wheels. For awhile, T8 will be the only 7-seat plug-in hybrid SUV available in the U.S. I confess I’m eager to drive one.
Here’s the rub. With both the T6 and plug-in T8, Volvo is pushing hard into German territory, with a well-optioned XC90 T8 costing as much as $85,000. That’s a long stretch from the sensible-shoe Volvo wagons of the 1980s and ‘90s, loved so much by academics and the “yuppies” of yore. Volvo loyalists will embrace the lesser trims levels that start at $50,000.
Under Ford, U.S. Volvo sales skyrocketed for a short while, hitting 139,384 in 2004, but that pulled sales forward, killing the U.S. market. By 2010 Volvo was shifting only 53,948 vehicles in the U.S. Sales for 2015 promise little improvement. Pretax losses at the time of the sale to Geely were measured in the hundreds of millions.
Worldwide Volvo is in reasonable shape. In 2014, Volvo sold 465,866 vehicles worldwide, with western Europe accounting for 39 percent of sales, China 17 percent, and Sweden alone for 13 percent. Volvo’s revival plan pegs U.S. sales at 100,000 vehicles, and an optimistic global sales volume of 800,000 by decade’s end. With a South Carolina assembly plant scheduled to open by 2017—coincidentally with a 100,000-vehicle capacity—Volvo must hit its U.S. sales target. With the new XC90 coming on-stream, Volvo hopes for 500,000 units worldwide within the year. Geely is pursuing plants in China as well.
Geely has written an $11 billion check to push Volvo up in the world. XC90 is the first of potentially nine vehicles to be created from Volvo’s “Scalable Product Architecture” (SPA), a set of engineering pieces that will allow Volvo to cost-effectively and quickly develop new products. They will need that stream of vehicles to build momentum.
For Americans, XC90 is a unique proposition in a crowded field, different from but in many ways equal to the Germans, and significantly different in character and design compared to products from Detroit or Japan. XC90 embraces Volvo’s historic message of safety while also forwarding the importance of design and smart application of technology. To use those words again, XC90 looks to be the most cohesive yet timeless Volvo, ever.
Thank you images and Information from forbes.com
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