“I can’t believe that's a Volvo!”
Like Fabio’s reaction to emulsified vegetable oil and triglyceride compounds, ‘Big Blue’ created plenty of surprised expressions around the school-time kiss-and-drop for breaking out of the bowls-hat box the brand spent has so much time in.
The 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 R-Design has emerged like a shining butterfly from a 240-Estate shaped chrysalis. A giant rolling Ikea design study that is a billboard for where the iconic Swedish brand is trying to be.
At school, the XC90 sits among a fleet of grey SUVs, its bright blue ‘look at me’ paint garnering attention from all camps.
There’s a saying in the automotive marketing world – cars sell cars. When we took delivery of our long-term XC90 in June, it was the only one on the block. There are now no fewer than 10, with at least five of the new owners poring over our big guy to help with their buying decision.
But for those of you who I haven’t bumped into during that 8:05 to 8:15 school run peak, let me share what the XC90 is really like to live with.
Let’s start on the interior.
We mainly ran our car in five-seat mode so as to use the full boot. Miss Seven (and occasionally Paul Maric) would regularly insist on sitting in the third row, which is easy enough to fold back out providing the parcel blind wasn’t in the way.
In fact, we used the dark tint privacy glass on the rear of the XC as a security measure and just removed the blind altogether – to save any on-the-fly storage issues. It will fit in the boot with all seven seats up, but it’s a bit of a pain to deal with.
Worth noting too, that the third row is much easier to fold from the front (when entering through the door) than from behind (through the boot). The longer boot floor makes it hard to lean forward to grab the seats.
Room is good and there were no complaints from either of the rear rows in terms of comfort. When riding in the back-back, having the centre middle seat folded for a bit of Swedish ottoman action was the preference.
While Miss Seven has grown out of the need for the centre booster seat, it worked well for a younger friend on a shuttle run between ballet and swimming on a Saturday morning. For passengers who aren’t used to it, the pop-up booster and subsequent higher vantage point can be a bit of a thrill.
Another tip though, the gap between the booster and the seat base is a magnet for crumbs, hair ties and pencils. Worth checking and cleaning there regularly!
Up front, the typically excellent Volvo seats provided great comfort and support on longer drives while the heaters created suitably toasty buns on chilly days.
The fit and finish of the materials on the centre console and dash riser maintained their up-market feel, but we feel that a stitched dashboard (certainly at this price point) would be a great inclusion. Everyone in the CarAdvice office remarked how impressive and luxurious the Volvo felt each and every time behind the wheel.
A favourite feature is the roll-up centre storage cubby with a ‘door’ made up of little carbon fibre panels. Just lovely. Plus we’re huge fans of the windscreen washer integrated into the wiper arms.
It’s a bit silly but the icon of the car in the central part of the instrument display shows little head and tail lights on at night. Not unique to Volvo I know, and not really that useful given the headlights are automatic, but there are so many little items that show a level of attention to detail that make you know that the people behind this car really cared about the final product.
Volvo’s iPad-like infotainment display is very intuitive to use, and worked really well for the majority of time. The whole ‘swipe to find any function’ is good when you remember where functions are, but where there are a lot of selection choices it can seem a little bit daunting. It is still a hugely impressive system though.
Navigation and telephony is simple enough, but remembering to swipe right, despite being the gesture of a generation, doesn’t come immediately to all. And given the spartan layout of the XC90’s console, things like surround cameras and driver assistance tech activation are all located here and can initially take longer to find.
We signed up for Volvo Connect services but found it mostly pointless as it did very little, except for a software update one morning. Pairing to the data connection on the phone was a bit hit-and-miss too, with the online component needing a manual re-connect almost every time.
The ability to show coffee shops near me that I might not have experienced before was promising, but the list was incomplete and the system slow to respond. The live weather is cool though – but it provides nothing that your phone doesn’t already give you.
Volvo is working on this part of the car and we hope to see a more robust ‘connected’ platform deployed over time.
Our car was fitted with the Apple CarPlay interface which was one of the best integrations we have seen. Rather than taking over the whole display as in most other cars, the CarPlay section lives in one of the ‘boxes’ on the main screen – allowing easy access to native functions.
It too had a few bugs, offering an empty display that needed the ol' turn it off, turn it on again trick to reset. Again, we hope that the software updates – even over the air ones – help iron out the kinks in the system here.
Perhaps I'm showing my age, but an area I’ve never really put much emphasis on is the upgrade stereo options of modern cars. The Volvo has a $4500 Bowers and Wilkins premium sound system, and it really is quite magical.
You can play around with a sound envelope designer to offer faux surround and concert hall acoustic experiences, and even when cranking some of the more classic hits of the '80s there was minimal distortion at the top end of the spectrum as well as very little rattling from the subwoofer. Bottom line – do it.
One of the more surprising things with the T6 is the output made by the 2.0-litre twin-charged engine. With 246kW, up 11kW thanks to the Polestar tune and 440Nm of torque available at 4500 rpm, the Volvo offers numbers that would normally come with six-cylinder power.
Polestar increase power and response throughout the rev range and the Volvo never feels short of hustle. There’s no monster shove of acceleration from a standstill though, more an exponential rush as revs increase.
The XC90 boogies pretty well, but gets a bit thirsty in the process. We found an average of around 12-13L/100km but that needed some sustained cruising to settle down. Wholly urban running pushed consumption into the high teens.
Outward vision is excellent but you do need the surround camera to adequately judge the car and its proximity to ‘edges’ when parking. No one wants to scratch those gigantic wheels.
The R-Design gives the XC90 a real presence on the road, but we would happily go without the 22-inch wheel option. The ride over cobbles was a bit too firm and even on longer touring drives a little bit more cushioning from the tyres wouldn’t go astray.
You would find the car would thump over sharper edged bumps and skip over imperfections and corrugations. Only comfort was compromised though, the car handled well and felt tight and sporty through windier sections.
Our rule of thumb that with a car like this that doesn’t have air suspension, 20-inch is as big as you should really go.
That air-suspension option was a point of contention around the CarAdvice office, with the general agreement being the car is much better with air, but it is an expensive $3760 and not particularly common option to fit. Our car didn’t have it, but the one in the recent premium SUV Mega-Test did, and the difference is highly noticeable.
We would recommend the inclusion if you can manage the built-to-order wait time. But smaller wheels on the standard suspension is a perfectly acceptable setup.
My neighbour has a first-generation XC90 in Passion Red, which looked very cool next to the Bursting Blue new one (he moved while I was getting the camera) and it shows that a risk to choose a more vibrant colour can pay off.
We didn’t go anywhere without people commenting on both the car and the colour. The clean Swedish design deserves more than a basic, safe metallic grey or silver.
The list of options fitted to our car was extensive and, to be honest, a bit cheeky. DAB radio should be standard, heated seats should be standard, keyless entry should be standard, and the tech in the $4000 driver support pack (lane departure assist, adaptive cruise, surround camera and head-up display) should be standard.
Changing the perception of buyers takes a bit of give and take, and while the car is holistically a premium product, Volvo needs to encourage some premium inclusions to help buyers make the jump.
Sadly though, despite the number of other XC90s now appearing on the school-run, ours has gone. Our three-month loan cut short, quite simply, because Volvo had sold the car and needed it back. We’ll let Tom and his splendid photos take the credit.
Every cloud has a silver lining though, and we’ll sign off our XC90 ‘ownership’ with the new hybrid T8 model.
While this now range-topping variant has a steep starting price of $122,910 (before options and on-road costs) – double what you would pay for a first-generation XC90 on runout, and about $4000 more than the hybrid BMW X5 40e – we’re hoping it addresses some of the running economy of the T6, while improving that off-the-line response.
And yes, the 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 R-Design is a much more expensive Volvo than we’ve ever experienced before, but it feels like a premium car in every way.
There are things we would improve and perhaps some specs we would change, but overall the ownership of the XC90 has been hugely positive. It really is a lovely family car and we can see why people are surprised when they see the badge. Goodbye Ikea, hello Bruno Mathsson – we still can’t believe it’s a Volvo either.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser. The bad ones were taken by James on his phone.