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Let’s face it: unless you're from Longreach or Laverton, chances are you and I spend more time in crappy urban traffic than we should, and care to, admit. While the idea of having a sporty driver for spirited weekend twisties is where your mind wanders, said sporty car will likely rub you (and the family) the wrong way when you’re on the weekly grind.
If you’re spending decent coin on a luxury large SUV, then you're going to want it to be a nice place to be when punting around town. Our long-termer Volvo XC90 R-Design D5 blends sporty design elements with a frugal diesel powerplant, in a seven-seater, ice-white Swedish package. Is that a combination that makes sense? In a quest to find out, we’ve banked long hours punting around town and stuck in traffic.
Our XC90 has a list price of $101,900, plus options. Compared to the range, the entry-level XC90 Momentum D5 goes for $93,900, while the T8 petrol/hybrid Excellence will cost you $174,200.
When your third row is folded down, the XC90 has 1102L of space in a nice, square format. What's perhaps more impressive is the 451L available when all three rows are deployed – enough for a couple of big suitcases or a big load of groceries. Fold down for maximum space and you've got 1951L to play with. Insert generic comment about a trip to IKEA here.
Let's get driving. Stop-start technology is available on the XC90, which should help fuel economy in the most dastardly of traffic. It’s a keen system, cutting off the engine just before you pull up. Sometimes it gets caught out in slow-moving traffic, flicking off and on, and then off again when you finally stop. Maybe that’s just my driving style? It’s a reasonably refined set-up, but is a noticeable blip in the otherwise cosseting experience. And if you’re not a fan, or want to save your starter motor from constant cycling, you can turn it off.
Engine performance is surprisingly smooth and responsive for this D5 unit. I say 'surprisingly' because I initially winced when thinking about a 2.0-litre diesel dragging two tonnes of tare mass plus souls aboard, but I have to say it does a pretty good job. There’s 177kW at 4000rpm and 500Nm at 1500–2500rpm. That thousand-rev sweet spot is handy, and gives the Volvo a pretty zippy feel for urban driving.
The Aisin-sourced gearbox is a smooth operator. At its worst it can feel a little jumpy as it shifts amongst the eight available ratios searching for that sweet spot, when you’re hard on and off the throttle in traffic. It’s silky on takeoff and running through the gears normally. Only when you’re rolling along, and you’re looking to pull into traffic, you might feel like the gearbox is working a little too hard to cover the small-capacity motor. It’s a small foible, and only noticeable once in a while.
The electric power-steering system isn’t fast and busy (three turns lock-to-lock), but is direct with a nice balance of weight and feeling. It suits the MO of the XC90 well, with an 11.8m turning circle and soft resistance at low speeds. Cornering feels pleasantly correct, helped no doubt by great control of body roll and planted ride.
Where the Volvo really scores points is in the overall refinement and quiet, relaxing interior feel. You feel ensconced from the outside hubbub: not many noises make their way into the cabin with any real volume, driveline included.
The minimalist design of the high-quality interior is kind of relaxing, as well. All of your important features are only a couple of thumb jabs away. And once you get your bearings on the infotainment, it’s hard to level any real criticism at the operating system. What I like most is not having lots of buttons, dials and gauges vying for your attention. Read more about the XC90’s infotainment here.
I should note the upgraded speaker system in the XC90, which comes as part of a $6500 premium pack (which also includes air suspension and heated second row), is magnificent. I'm no audiophile or technical expert of soundwaves, but the system's great clarity with the volume dial egregiously twisted clockwise, to my layman's ears, was an awesome escape from long commutes and bad traffic.
Considering we’ve got the no-cost option of 22-inch wheels and 275/35 Pirelli Scorpion Verde rubber, the ride on the XC90 is good. Keep in mind the option for air suspension and adaptive dampers is ticked, which no doubt helps the cause. All but the worst bumps are smoothed out nicely without any real crashing, and the car bounces back into composure with little effort. Only on the really rough roads and bigger hits does the XC90 start to get a touch flustered.
Fuel consumption, for a vehicle of this size, is pretty good. While longer, less halted traffic saw numbers in the low sevens, the average for us has been 8.9 litres per hundred kilometres, which I think is impressive, although a bit higher than the quoted figures.
Along with a good adaptive cruise-control system, you can up the ante to ‘Pilot Assist’. This is Volvo’s own semi-autonomous mode. It’s a nice system that operates smoothly and quite seamlessly. You can adjust your position in the lane, and let it do a lot of the lane and distance keeping for you. You could argue that it’s conducive to lazy and unsafe driving, but I have to say it was a nice feature on the long and boring traffic-laden commute home. It’ll handle the stop-start crawl, which is a nice feature.
The XC90 has a few safety features that I thankfully didn’t get to try out. If you run off the road, the Volvo will actively tighten the seatbelt tension. This is done to protect occupants from spinal injury. There’s also autonomous braking for cars (including oncoming traffic at intersections), bikes and pedestrians, day and night. I didn’t get to experience this either, and the fact that I didn’t get any false positives suggests the system is well tuned.