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As I sit in the back of the 2017 Volvo XC90 Excellence, mid-massage, sipping a sparkling mineral water from my chilled Orrefors crystal champagne flute, I can’t help but think, you’ve come a long way, baby.
This may have been encouraged however, by the fact I had dusted off my Fat Boy Slim playlist to enjoy on the 19-speaker, 1400-watt Bowers and Wilkins stereo…
For a very long time, Volvo was known for its dedicated approach to road safety, almost ever-lasting build quality, and functional yet highly conservative design.
Even our number plates, V 1927, remind of the year Volvo first produced a car.
But the launch in 2015 of the second-generation XC90 SUV heralded a new era for Volvo, not just because of the backing of Chinese auto-giant Geely, but as a real player in the high-stakes premium automotive market, long the dominant domain of German and English brands.
The XC90 Excellence has been developed as somewhat of a halo for the ‘new’ Volvo. A showpiece of the best of Scandinavian design, style and technology, and a stake in the ground for what the future may hold for the Swedish brand.
Forget the seven-seat, family bus that is the regular XC90, the Excellence is a four-seat executive luxury limousine. A visualisation of what happens when you tick every conceivable option box, and then some.
From the outside, the changes from a standard, yet highly specified XC90 are subtle. There are new eight-spoke, diamond cut 21-inch wheels, chrome window surrounds and Excellence badging along the chrome side strips and at the back.
The huge panoramic sunroof is standard, as are the adaptive LED headlamps, which incorporate the Thor’s Hammer LED running lights.
Our test car is finished in Magic Blue metallic, one of 10 colour choices available. And honestly, it looks beautiful.
Based on the hybrid twin-engine T8 drivetrain, the Excellence features a 235kW 2.0-litre, four-cylinder twin-charged (both super and turbo) petrol engine, which is shared with T6 models, as well as a 65kW electric motor between the rear wheels.
The SPA platform (Scalable Product Architecture) which underpins the XC90 was developed from the outset to support a hybrid drivetrain, and the battery packs are situated along the length of the chassis, resulting in no change to the interior space.
But while that sounds good, and is technically correct, the T8 has a smaller petrol tank than the standard T6 XC90 (50-litres from 71-litres) and there is no spare tyre of any kind. You get some under floor storage in the boot for the home charge cable and its neat little carry bag, though.
While on the boot, the change from seven to four-seats has seen the cargo volume reduced from 704-litres (when running a standard car in five-seat form) to just 431-litres. Plus there is no option to expand the space, as a glass panel separates the boot from the passenger compartment to help reduce noise.
It works too, during the filming of the video, I couldn’t hear Tom or Frank grabbing camera gear out of the back, and when driving on a well paved section of highway at 100km/h, interior noise levels were just 64dB.
That’s only valid if you aren’t cranking the sensational Bowers and Wilkins stereo though. We had this system in our long-term XC90 R-Design and it continues to be one of my favourite parts of the car. You have a choice through the sound experience manager, to change the audio output for a more enveloping surround sound or a simulated acoustic signature of the Gothenburg Concert Hall in Sweden.
The latter really works with instrumental pieces (I’m partial to the odd film score) although hearing Steve Tyler hit that high falsetto G# at the end of the live rendition of Dream On makes you feel like waving a lighter in the air, such is the sense of feeling like you are in the crowd.
My pick though is the Individual Stage setting which allows you to define the sound intensity and surround ‘envelope’. Find some big-beat Euro-techno (it is a Volvo) and you’ve got yourself a rolling rave.
The B&W system is standard on the Excellence and a $4500 option on a regular XC90, and quite frankly, you need it. If music is even of remote importance to your life, find a way.
Your VIP passengers will no doubt agree, as they sup upon chilled Camitz from a custom Orrefors crystal flute, baseless so that the stem will slot into the crystal holder in the rear console.
The glasses can be chilled in the fridge that sits between the rear seats, which is big enough to hold two full-size bottles of Champagne, or Akvavit or whatever else takes your fancy. It’s one of those things you don’t realise until you have it, but a fridge in a car is very easy to get used to.
But even without the mobile party of drinks and music, the rear passengers are suitably pampered by their surroundings, with the seats themselves offering powered recline, bolster, lumbar and thigh support adjustment. The deletion of the third row allows 50mm of extra legroom, but it isn’t quite flat-bed business class.
Taller passengers wont be cramped, but if you have the carpeted foot rest in place, and the front seats are pushed back even a little bit, your legs don’t have a huge amount of spare room.
The seats are tremendously comfortable though, the soft Nappa leather giving a sumptuous base to the multi-mode massage function that can be called upon using the retractable touch-screen panel on the rear console.
This can also control the position of the front passenger seat, should your VIP demand more leg room, as well as cool or heat the central bottle holder, because you can. The rear climate control (for quad-zone), and its neat digital panel is carried over from the regular XC.
To help more business minded passengers, a pair of crafted aluminium and leather tables fold out of the centre arm rest, which it self contains a pair of USB points as well as a 240-volt outlet plus plenty of storage.
Plus there is an iPad on the back of each of the front seats, to ensure passengers in the Excellence stay in touch with what is going on in the world.
But while this all looks fantastic and generally feels fantastic, the level of implementation isn’t what we would expect from a car that costs nearly $200,000.
It’s what we call the Spiderman principle; with great power comes great responsibility. Which in this case suggests that a very premium price should come with an expectation of a wholly premium experience. And it doesn’t.
Take the iPad screens for the rear passengers for example. The brackets are quite large and fussy and the cable is very visible and rather messy. Plus, the screens are just stand alone iPad devices, and not at all integrated into the car’s infotainment system.
You can pair them via Bluetooth, as the USB cable connects them for charging only, but if you do that, the driver loses their phone connection. And then you have the issue of which one you connect…
The sealed rear panel has some gaps, the sun blinds are manual, there are no rear passenger controls for any of the A/V functions, independent of the iPad issue, plus if you consider the Excellence as only a VIP transport option, there isn’t much storage for personal bags and nor are there any added luxury appointments like soft-closing doors.
What’s more, as a VIP shuttle you expect a supple, luxurious ride, but even on its air suspension the XC90 can feel fussy at times.
For the most part the ride is solid, and you can adjust between a sport and regular driving mode, but sharper edges that you find on many man-made road obstacles can feel quite harsh and sometimes jittery in the XC90. Considering this is a car that will spend the majority of its time in urban areas, you’re going to find your fair share of sharp-edged bumps.
Another issue is that the T8 drivetrain, while allowing true hybrid operation, has only a 500km range, even when fully charged and fuelled.
A full battery charge will indicate a 35km electric driving range, but the real life range is somewhere around the mid 20km mark. That smaller 50-litre fuel tank too sees just a high-400km cruising range. Both these come down somewhat if you are driving with a bit more urgency.
The transmission can step into a ‘B’ mode for brake-regeneration, or you can force charge the battery from a setting in the Sensus system, but even then you’ll only see it regain about 30 per cent of its charge (to protect and extend the life of the cells) meaning that you’ll either need a lot of steep hills or increased petrol usage to get the continual benefit of the electric motor.
Remember too, this weighs 2332kg without a full complement of VIPs, so that little 2.0-litre needs to work hard when not supported by the battery back up.
The brakes too, don't feel particularly linear or smooth with the pedal seeming to offer two separate pressure points. This may be a result of the regenerative system, and they do work, but just not in the manner you expect.
The T8 XC90 can move though, with all 300kW and 640Nm working for you, the big XC90 can hustle from the lights, and while it cruises well, you don’t get the effortless surge in performance that some of the six- or even eight-cylinder competitors offer. The twin-charged four can sound a little raspy under load too.
Volvo claims a combined fuel consumption figure of just 2.1L/100km, but considering you can’t actually get anywhere near 100km from the battery power has us suggesting a 5-6L/100km cycle is a more achievable level, but even then you need to regularly re-charge the car to get the most out of it.
Even here, the XC90 isn’t up with the best in the business. Tesla and BMW both offer a smartphone application to check in on your car’s charging status, but there is nothing of the sort offered by Volvo. Even the graphic on the instrument cluster depicting a battery doesn’t change to show a full charge. You get a range readout and that is it.
Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system is very easy and intuitive to use, and we love the big panel in the dash, but it is very susceptible to glare, especially when the sun roof is open, and gets very messy and smudgy very quickly.
The adaptive LED headlights are good, but not in the same league as what Mercedes currently offers, in terms of active blocking and adaptive light patterns. The case is the same with the Drive Pilot adaptive cruise control and lane keeping; it works but isn’t the best in the segment.
For the most part though, the Excellence feels just like every other XC90, albeit a very nicely specified one. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a special nor unique thing either. It just means you have to look past the 'best' XC90 to find the best XC90.
The XC90 Excellence lists for $172,200, a staggering $50,000 more than the next-most expensive model in the lineup, the T8 R-Design.
Sure it has all the options ticked, but I can configure an identically coloured D5 Inscription , with the same wheels, same interior trim, same level of luxury options, except for the executive seating and VIP amenities, and save $60,000 in the process.
I can even buy some Orrefors crystal flutes for about $100 each, and still come up smiling.
No, it isn’t as ‘wow’ special in the back, and the diesel is nowhere near as powerful as the T8 drivetrain (300kW against 173kW), but it gives you the majority of the strong points of the XC90, with more usable range and a more flexible interior.
So with the Excellence ruled out as a sensible option, we can look at it for what it really is, a halo car for the ‘new’ Volvo.
Something that showcases what the Swedish brand can do, and how serious they are about moving Volvo from safe premi-ish to real premium.
The 2017 Volvo XC90 Excellence might not be all the way there, but it's on the way. Whether as classy carriage to transport Nordic royalty, or just something a little bit special on the school run, the Excellence is stylish and opulent, but just too expensive and not quite polished enough to really make its mark.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.