“It’s too stiff. And stuffy. I don’t like it.”
True to her Maryland hill country roots, my wife was resisting the allure of the butterscotch nappa leather seats of the 2017 Volvo XC90 – a vehicle which, in her eyes, was a tribute to excess and bourgeois sophistication. On paper, there was nothing about the XC90 that would remotely appeal to her – especially the $72,000+ price tag for our fully-loaded T6 AWD Inscription model.
Disclosure: DriveShop USA loaned me a Volvo XC90 for review purposes. Opinions were not directed by DriveShop USA, and are, as always, my own.
Her first impression was spot on, of course. The seats were firm and forced you to straighten your posture and sit taller – the better to gaze upon the peasants toiling along the next lane over.
And it did seem a little pretentious. Something about the interior screamed for silence, lest you be scolded for ruining the ambiance. Hell, the stereo’s digital equalizer was preset to mimic a famous concert hall somewhere in Europe, which the large console screen proudly displayed to us.
But while my wife does fashion herself as salt-of-the-earth, she is also married to me. Which means, given enough time, her appreciation for the finer things in life tends to come through. And by the end of the week, she was damn near ready to leave me if it meant she could keep the XC90.
Wait, THIS is a Volvo?
There’s no way around it – the XC90 is an aspirational vehicle. It is large, eye-catching, and littered with detailed styling cues like “Thor’s Hammer” hidden in the headlight and lightning bolt-shaped tails. The pinched edges of Volvo’s traditional box design have been massaged and smoothed out. The motif is more reminiscent of a modern day toned athlete than a barrel-chested 19th-century strongman.
In addition to being upholstered in finer material than anything inside my home, the interior is laden with technology.
The aforementioned 9″ touchscreen is the centerpiece. This controls the 10-speaker sound system and that fancy concert hall setting – which turns Gangster’s Paradise into a sublime auditory experience.
The massive console screen also plays an integral role in arguably our favorite feature – reverse.
When backing-up, multiple cameras placed around the vehicle collude to display a live, overhead 360-degree view of your surroundings. The pothole behind my driveway never looked better. Experiencing it for the first time will blow your mind. You can quote me on that.
And all this technological cool doesn’t come at the expense of everyday practicality. For example, if the Volvo deems you of insufficient stature (I tried to induce it, but only my 5’’4′ wife was successful), it will automatically lower its rear end to make loading and unloading of cargo easier.
The enormous panoramic glass roof was a favorite of the kids, and the perforated material shade covering it does an admirable job of blocking out the heat.
Before long, the XC90 shed its stuffy label – rather, it was just stuffed as we made it our sole vehicle for seven days.
The XC90 – An Engineering Marvel
I could (and did) wax poetic about what a delightful surprise the twin-charged 2.0L 4-cylinder engine was, and how impressed I am with the engineers in Volvo’s powertrain department. But my wife didn’t care when I geeked out over the super and turbocharged power plant, or raved about its mid-range torque – and neither will yours. So, I went back and deleted all of it.
I will say is that considerable time must have been spent ensuring the XC90 would excel in its daily habitat.
The gas pedal is responsive and the power delivery makes pulling into traffic and merging onto the highway completely drama-free. This means that at anything less than wide-open throttle, the XC90 feels faster than it is – inspiring confidence in the driver, without getting them into trouble.
The 8-speed transmission is dynamic, yet buttery smooth. It’s never hunting for the right gear when passing or cruising. Coupled with the diminutive motor, the XC90 achieves surprising fuel economy.
Delivered to the McAskill Pompano Beach home with a full tank of gas, we proceeded to drive the XC90 back and forth between Ft Lauderdale, Hollywood, Miami; down to Islamorada, AND BACK to Miami before having to discover which side of the car the gas cap was on. We then filled it up again for around $50.00.
The XC90’s Achilles Ear
The XC90 wasn’t perfect, of course. The engine start-stop feature, while the best example I’ve encountered in its unobtrusiveness, still made pulling into traffic from a drive-thru or shopping center a little tough to time. And anyone accustomed to driving a manual transmission will encounter an unpleasant slipping clutch sensation when pulling away from a stoplight at ¼ throttle.
In a cruel twist of fate, it was engineering marvel under the hood that provided the largest drawback. Accelerate with authority, and you’re met with a sound akin to an electric vacuum sucking up a wheezing elderly woman. This racket was the one aspect my wife just couldn’t get over.
For a vehicle that insulates you from so much, I found the lackluster muffling of induction noise odd. So, all the Volvo engineers reading this – please take note.
Safe, and Not Sorry About It
Volvo has nearly always been synonymous with safety. There were airbags galore, including some the rep told me would inflate to protect me from glass shards in the event the side windows were shattered. Fortunately, we didn’t have the chance to test these.
On the other hand, every time I entered the car was an opportunity to experience the road sign recognition and lane departure systems.
Now, I understand that not everyone (including the fine safety-conscious designers in Sweden), have spent their lives navigating South Florida’s “unique” traffic patterns. So, it can be hard to understand how predictably unpredictable our drivers can be.
The flow of traffic is either achingly below the speed limit (gridlock), or flying 15-20 MPH above it (faster-moving gridlock). As a result, the polite “ping” notifying me that I was above the posted speed limit became as regular a part of the driving experience as my concert hall rap concerts.
The lane departure system was the cause of more consternation, however. During a routine dinner trip, another driver several hundred feet away abruptly decided to turn into a shopping center. I glanced in my side mirror at the empty lane next to me, and began to merge toward it.
It was at this moment the wheel performed its tell-tale shake – similar to an old arcade racing game – and subtly attempted to nudge the car back into my original lane.
This split-second hesitation through off my timing, forcing me to yank the wheel a bit more forcefully before correcting back, barely avoiding side-swiping the turning motorist.
This wouldn’t be the only time the lane departure system’s only unwanted intervention, either. We encountered a bit of highway construction that put a few kinks in an otherwise straight road. This again caused the system to kick-in, leading to a brief wrestling match to ensure that we – ironically – stayed in the proper lane.
Still, if you knew what to expect from the lane departure, engine stop-start, and other driver aides, you could mitigate their impact. And their intermittent intrusion was rather subdued. Unlike other new vehicles, the XC90 wasn’t terrified of its driver; it’s attitude was more “Hey man, here’s my suggestion…but whatever, it’s your life, do whatever you want.”
Besides, each of these features could be shut off. Were the XC90 actually ours, it wouldn’t take me long to have it dialed in to my personal driving preferences.
More Than A Feeling
At the end of the day, the true draw of the XC90 is how it seamlessly combines the cutting-edge technology and handsome styling with a dynamic driving experience.
It’s this mix that allowed the XC90 to do something for my wife that no other vehicle has ever done – give her a FEELING; an appreciation for it as more than just transportation.
She actually told me at one point she was maybe starting to “get” why I’m so excited by and infatuated with cars. For her, it looked, sounded (with exception of the engine), and felt like something out of a dream. Yet here it was, right in front of her.
It was real. Possible. Achievable.
It was similar to how I felt about my Z06 for the first time.
The fact that the XC90 was unbelievably practical was just icing on the cake. But we’d both still probably like it even without kids.
Or a lane departure system.