I Love The New XC90 But I Wouldn't Buy One

For better or for worse, the original XC90 stayed on the market for twelve years. All the thought and effort Volvo put into making it world-beating in 2002 at least helped it stay (surprisingly) competitive in 2014.

The most...er...impacting example was how it aced the IIHS’ small overlap crash test – introduced in 2013 – which many supposedly more modern SUVs bombed.


But hey, the people want their power liftgates, big infotainment screens, panoramic sunroofs, and smart access systems – so a clean-sheet redesign had to come sooner or later. And here it is.

It has some big shoes to fill.

[Full disclosure: I own an XC90 which I bought new six years ago. After extensive research and digging through owner forums, I took a 2016 model on an extended test drive to see what’s what. This is what I found.]

Just Look At It

That’s one handsome face right there. Pretty much identical to Volvo’s concept cars of the last couple years, the full-LED headlights have that recounted DRL element they call “Thor’s Hammer.” The grille coyly reveals its more-than-rectangular shape only to those willing to give a closer look.


The fog lights hide in the lower bumper’s design, ceding center stage to the large, bisected air intakes just above. In between them, the lower air dam pushes up against the bumper, imprinting the (slightly stretched) shape of Volvo’s iconic headrests in it.

Can you tell I like the front?

The back is familiar to those used to the original. Tall, vertical taillights – as “Volvo” as Horbury shoulders – bracket the pleasingly retro logotype and raked rear window crowned by a hatch spoiler.


Granted, some of the more subtle trademark elements aren’t as ubiquitous as before, but you still know exactly what you’re looking at...unless you see it from the side. The more dull and slab-sided silhouette waters down those iconic shoulders, making it easy to confuse the new XC90 for a Touareg or X5.

Draw Me Like One Of Your French Cars

Ask a random person on the street to draw an SUV interior. They’ll either look at you funny and walk away, or they’ll sketch you the new XC90’s dashboard: lots of plain, upright, square-shaped surfaces. The cohesive distinctiveness is gone.


The Momentum I drove had decent soft-touch(ish) upper dash and door panels, but also cheap-feeling dark plastic wood trim out of a 2007 Chevy Impala...

Blame it on the “Momentum Plus” package it had – the Thor’s Hammer LEDs, some interior accent lighting, and that hateful plastic wood. Skipping that package and getting the LEDs as a standalone option gets you metal trim in place of that disgrace-to-trees-everywhere, and you save $800 in the process.


On the other hand, if you really need accent lighting and an interior nicer to the touch, you’ll appreciate the Inscription model’s open-pore wood trim and stitched leather dash and door panels.

More Knobs Here, Less Knobs There

A smart access system is standard across the board, but there is no start button. Instead, you get a diamond-cut knob perched behind the (analogue!) shift lever, starting or stopping the engine with, literally, a twist. It’s very cool and a welcome change to the plain buttons you see everywhere else.


For better or for worse, also standard are two giant screens – one in place of the instrument panel and another touch-capacitative one in the center stack.

The upside is that there are a billion settings to tailor to your liking. The downside is that, like your computer, the engine starts up much, much faster...


Seriously – it took the on-board electronics a good minute or so to boot, and the maps took more time to load on top of that! Wanna set a destination or turn down the loud music someone left behind, right away? Not happening.

No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Park

The electronics may be slow, but the Park Assist Pilot system...doesn’t work at all.


Yep, that’s Volvo’s new automatic parking system. On paper, it’ll find an empty parallel or perpendicular spot – but only on the right-hand side of the car, despite having enough sensors on the left – then steering itself right into it, leaving you to work the pedals and shifter when prompted.

In practice, it can’t find a spot in the first place.

It ignored tens of perfectly-large, perfectly-empty spots before trying to park itself on top of a grass divider with a tree on it. Another time, it chose to park itself into a stationary vehicle instead of into one of the five adjacent empty spots.


But wait, there’s more! It chooses to, ahem, ‘find’ a vacant space first and then ask you whether you’d like it to parallel or perpendicular park...because that’s totally how we squishy, inept humans do it.

Watch This Space

Room in the front is plentiful, you sit a bit lower than usual for an SUV, and the seats themselves are exactly what you already expect from Volvo.


In the back, however, my six-foot-one self brushed against the headliner. In the original XC90, I could wear a top hat back there if I wanted to (but I don’t want to).

Even further back, the split tailgate of the old car is gone. Unlike the Range Rover and BMW X5, the new XC90 has ditched it for the typical liftgate you’ll find on literally anything else.


Once you go split-tailgate, you’ll never go back.

Anyway, cargo room is still plentiful and the storage well behind the third row has spurted in growth. Third row space is about the same, which is another way of saying it’s not really for adults.


An Ambitious Heart Transplant

Yep, the only engine you get is a two-liter four-cylinder. So, to make sure a Golf’s engine can actually move something this large, they fit them with both a turbocharger and supercharger.


Power in Dynamic mode is...adequate. The new XC90 feels lighter on its feet and power delivery feels slightly more immediate than the 3.2 it replaces – but how the car responds to your right foot hasn’t fundamentally changed. And neither has real-world fuel consumption.

Your ears’ll be delighted by the awesome cacophony of the turbo and supercharger tandem. But once you get up to speed in your $70k large SUV, they’ll lobby to secede from your head, as all you’re left with then is the same buzzy four-banger drone your Impreza service loaner had.


Was shrinking the engine worth it? Nope.

The Sirens Of Finance

In Jalopland, there are two camps: the ones that configure expensive cars in the most pure, lean-optioned form, and the ones that add all the stuff they like. While I try to be in the former camp, I end up in the latter every time. As such, I’ve discovered that the XC90 is no longer the bargain it was, since it’s now priced to match its rivals.


The Merc ML (GLE) offers Inscription equipment for Momentum money, while the Inscription-priced BMW X5 has an options matrix that lets you get all the stuff you want and none that you don’t...

Here’s what I mean: if I want a new XC90 with a compass, a trunk power outlet, and grocery bag hooks – stuff that was standard on my car – I have to get the $2,200 Convenience Package, which bundles them with that useless Park Assist Pilot. Not very convenient, is it?


But Who Cares?

Certain little details make a car feel special, and the original XC90 was full of them: solid-closing doors; soft, high-quality materials; storage space eked out of every possible cavity; even a well-thought-out sunroof switch.


This is what grows on you, what makes you want to keep a car forever as opposed to itching to replace it in three years.

To not make any sacrifices in equipment, the new XC90 would cost me $12,000 more than I paid for mine, and yet it actually manages to feel cheaper. The details just aren’t there.


Don’t get me wrong – the new XC90 is competitive and has many things going for it, but I wouldn’t trade mine for one.

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