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Volvo XC90: a Thanksgiving road test for Sweden's hot new SUV

Does it live up to the early praise?

When you’re looking to make a lasting impression, it’s best to take the time to get it right. While the click-hungry musicians of the moment are constantly dropping new tracks and teasers, my favorite artist, the ethereal Erykah Badu, can up and drop a mixtape after a five-year hiatus and still shake things up. In an era of a cultural saturation, there’s something to be said for restraint.

This advice carries over to cars, too. Take Volvo, known as a master of restraint (hello, they literally invented the three-point restraint seat belt in the late ’50s). After an era of financial tumult brought about by its divorce from former corporate parent Ford and a lagging product line, Volvo has finally re-merged on the scene with the introduction of the XC90, an SUV that’s entirely new for the first time since the model’s introduction in 2002. And it’s good. Thanks to an $11 billion investment by its current owner — China’s Geely — the Swedish-born automaker is having a drop-the-mic moment brought about by, of all things, a big truck. Volvo has always projected itself as a luxury brand that mixes cool, quirky, and safe, but with the XC90, it’s doing so on a much grander scale. So far, the praise has been effusive: Motor Trend named it SUV of the Year, it’s Yahoo’s Ride of the Year, and Consumer Reports gave it considerable praise in its recent review.

The praise has been effusive

Last fall, I first spent an afternoon tooling around in the XC90 and realized it deserved a deeper look of my own. For Thanksgiving, I drove it from New York City to Washington, DC to see how it fared on a classic American holiday road trip.

While Volvo knows that Americans spend 26 minutes on their daily commute — research that is feeding into the company’s growing self-driving initiative — it also understands that Americans are open-road types, and as such, they like a smooth, powerful ride. We are a nation of crossovers and SUVs, after all.

I’m all-American in that regard, but when it comes to good design, my tastes lean European. From mile one, the XC90 was stopping traffic. I was still in Brooklyn when I got my first thumbs-up, windows-down inquiry about it. From the outside, it looks expensive — and it is. The MSRP is $48,900, but my test vehicle ballooned with high-dollar options to $66,705. And while the onyx black paint and graceful proportions were turning heads, the real design game is actually happening on the interior.

volvo xc90
(Volvo)

The inside of the XC90 looks like it belongs in an Ikea (in a good way). It has that fresh form language that we see in countless starter apartments — clean lines, balanced proportions. The sunlight pours in through the moonroof and the natural walnut trim is inviting without being high-gloss tacky. That’s where the Ikea comparisons end, though. While I’ve found that Ikea couches have short-lived ergonomic appeal, the same can’t be said for the XC90: three grueling hours into the drive on I-95 South, the leather seats were still comfortable and supportive. The backseat driver — a seven-year-old passenger — could change the rear climate independently to his liking. All three passengers had plenty of legroom (and the seven-year-old had the option of hopping into the built-in booster seat). Road noise was minimal, all the better to blare Lykke Li and Miike Snow on the Bowers & Wilkins sound system, which is excellent.

The inside of the XC90 looks like it belongs in an Ikea (in a good way)

At launch, the XC90 shipped with a single engine option — a 2.0-liter direct-injection mill that produces 316 horsepower and runs on a modest four cylinders. It’s equipped with an 8-speed transmission and has start-stop capabilities. For my purposes, the engine had plenty of power to make quick passes on the highway, and while it wasn’t Range Rover boss-like, it didn’t feel sluggish. It averaged about 22 miles per gallon — which is not great, considering the small displacement, transmission, and start-stop system, all of which are designed to improve economy. However, there’s a plug-in hybrid model due out soon in the US that’ll do better for a much steeper base price of $68,100, followed by the coupe, crossover, and station wagon concepts shown at recent auto shows based on the XC90’s form language.

On a longer excursion, the XC90 has features that make you want to fiddle with its new telematics system, which just debuted in this model and will filter into more models in the future. I entered in my destination — the Washington, DC suburb of Alexandria, Virginia — on the iPad-like center console with the same quick, painless satisfaction of signing my name on a Square tablet at a cafe. It’s one of the least frustrating in-car navigations systems I’ve used. The UI is large, readable, and more responsive than similar ones offered by other automakers, such as Cadillac’s CUE. It wasn’t cold enough to wear mittens this Thanksgiving, but I’ve read that I could still use gloved fingers to play with the touchpad — perhaps a testament to Volvo’s cold, Swedish roots. (I did have some electronic quibbles that could be attributed to my well-abused press car, like a USB port that failed to charge.)

volvo xc90
(Volvo)

Playing it safe is a longtime Volvo concept. The first Volvos were developed to withstand the harsh conditions of the Scandinavian winters that chewed up foreign vehicles in the late 1920s. It’s held on to that safety-first philosophy over the decades. Though it’s changed hands, Volvo still espouses safety in virtually every ad and piece of marketing material, things like adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection. Its backup and side view cameras have clear graphics that closely represent the actual proportions of the car to road (sometimes, you get a distracting fisheye effect, but not here). The XC90 also has a self-parking feature, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for my car to park itself; autonomous driving hasn’t yet caught up to the speed of me, it seems.

The real test for the Volvo XC90, as with any vehicle on a road trip, came when it was time to get out. The seven-year old in the back seat didn’t want to; I can’t say I did, either. This car makes you want to be on the inside, which is really where it counts.


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