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2020 Volvo XC90 Test Drive Review
The XC90 has been one of our favorite family shuttles for 18 model years. This 3-row Volvo continues for 2020 as it was during its 2016 redesign, which brought dramatic new design language, chassis architecture, electrified powertrains, infotainment, and semi-automated driving capability. Among midsize SUVs, the XC90 is among the few I would recommend without any hesitation. Families who can afford to splurge will find a stylish and pampering truck that's built upon decades of safety research, which very few automakers can match.
Look and Feel
Volvo’s boxy sedans and wagons from the ‛80s and ‛90s will always look good. Ask anyone in New England or the Pacific Northwest, where the locals devote an unusual amount of their energy to maintaining old Swedish cars. I’m one of those people. But modern Volvos have never looked better. We are witnessing an apogee of Volvo design, with the XC90 as proof that a big and tall SUV can exude as much beauty as a low-slung sedan.
The classic silver vertical bars on the grille and the diagonal bar intersecting the Volvo logo get a blacked-out, honeycomb treatment on the R-Design trim I tested. Along with black window surrounds, mirrors, a more aggressive chin spoiler, and bright 22-inch rims, they're jewelry fixed to an already handsome figure. The "Thor's hammer" LED headlights are now standard instead of the lowly halogens. They cut a figure in the dark that instantly pins this SUV as a Volvo, just as the tall, thin, curving LED taillights do from behind. Volvo's subtlety, such as the arching shoulder crease that flows from the taillights and runs the entire length of the vehicle, emphasizes width and stability. It's a cue that started with the 1999 S80 sedan. Normally I think grey paint is boring, but my test car's Thunder Grey Metallic is flatter and has a blue hue in person (much like Porsche's stunning Graphite Blue). Contrast that shade with the beige-leather and aluminum interior. Wow.
You can go further with an XC90 if you shop used. The Excellence trim is no longer available for 2020. That XC90 featured but four separate seats and was a silly exercise by Volvo's parent company, Geely, whose home market adores chauffeur-driven cars. How silly? Try $100,000 for a Volvo.
Inscription models let you spec matte wood trim and wool fabric seats—seriously, you should look at how well Volvo does wool—while the R-Design offers leather with either aluminum or carbon-fiber trim. The seats are as heavenly and similarly sculpted as my 1998 S70's, right down to the headrest posts and the thickly padded cushions. These seats envelop your body and support your back over long distances. They offer power-adjustable thigh extensions and optional massage. The rear seats, either as a bench or separate captain's chairs, are almost as good as the front. There's rich leather on the dash and doors. Padded materials, for both quality and safety, are everywhere (including the door map pockets and the glove box). Finer details, like the Swedish flag tag on the front passenger seat or the twist-action ignition knob, show craftsmanship. See how the center console drapes its leather up and around the gear shifter (which can be ordered in glass), or how well the vertical touchscreen integrates into the dash. Simplicity and quality are a consistent theme with the XC90. I don't think Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, or Acura accomplish what Volvo has done here.
Three powertrains are available in five states of tune, all of which come with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 and an 8-speed automatic transmission. Considering Volvo used to equip the XC90 with 6- and 8-cylinder engines, this seems ripe for disappointment in such a heavy vehicle. On T5 models, the engine churns out 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. I don't think that's sufficient at all, so skip it for the T6, which comes standard with all-wheel drive and bolts on a supercharger (in addition to the turbocharger). It's good for 316 hp and 295 lb-ft, which is exactly what a vehicle this big requires to keep up with fast-flowing traffic. My T6 had the Polestar tune, a $1,295 software upgrade that boosts those numbers to 330 hp and 325 lb-ft (it's also available for the T5, at 258 hp and 295 lb-ft). Don't let the salesman fool you, the XC90 isn't a rocket ship. Mid-range acceleration is good, but considering the T6 has a supercharger that is supposed to help with immediate off-the-line thrust, this engine lags while in Comfort mode, and it revs too high in the Polestar Engineered model. It's never linear. The noise is also uncouth for a vehicle in this price range. Shift quality and response aren't up to the standards set by BMW.
There's no fuel-economy benefit, either. The XC90 in either T5 or T6 trim cannot outperform 6-cylinder competitors like the BMW X5 xDrive40i and the Mercedes-Benz GLE450, and often times, its mileage is worse. A small engine has to work much harder than a larger one, especially when loaded with six or seven people, so fuel consumption stays high. I averaged 20 mpg over some 800 miles in the XC90, primarily on the highway, which is unimpressive. The EPA rates the T6 AWD at 18 mpg city, 26 highway, and 21 combined and the T5 AWD at 20/27/23.
But there's a special version, the T8 plug-in hybrid, which uses an 11.6-kWh battery to propel the XC90 for up to 18 gas-free miles. It's also a shot in the arm with 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque, though the hybrid system's added weight negates the speed promised by these high numbers. I've driven an older XC90 T8 with a smaller battery and found it to be serene and seamless in operation. But the limited range and extra weight aren't worth the significant increase in cost. It doesn't feel much faster than the T6, nor is the fuel economy significantly better (27 mpg combined) once the battery depletes. Volvo used to offer a Polestar upgrade for the T8, but not for the latest model.
The Polestar upgrade also claims to upgrade the response of the transmission, throttle, and steering, as well as brake-pedal feel, but the XC90 is no ballerina. The wide tires provide lots of grip (summer-rated versions are available), yet that's the only dynamic feature. Even equipped with the Four-C adaptive air suspension that lowers the XC90 in sport mode, the steering is lifeless and difficult to point with any precision. It's out of touch with the body's roll and significant dive while braking. Drive the XC90 like a normal person and you'll revel in comfort and quiet. Despite how it appears, there's not a sporty bone in this Volvo—and most buyers will be okay with that.
Form and Function
Compared to earlier XC90 models of this generation, Volvo's Sensus infotainment system initializes much faster at vehicle startup, and it responds more quickly while switching to various menus. This is critical, since Volvo put all the climate controls, including those for the seats and steering wheel, within the touchscreen. Physical dash buttons below the screen don't offer much aside from defrosters, volume, and seek controls. A blank plate and an obscure button that opens the glovebox don't make any sense in this configuration.
Mostly, the Sensus system is well organized and makes it easy to find various physical functions, such as folding the second-row headrests, once you know where to look. But certain safety features are adjusted by swiping left from the main menu, such as the active cornering lights and forward collision alert, while others are embedded in the Intellisafe menu within a separate (and far more detailed) list of settings.
These are minor grievances to an otherwise stellar cabin layout. Seven seats are standard, and in my view, the preferred option for families. In this configuration, Volvo offers an integrated booster cushion ($300) for young children in the middle of the second-row bench. It clicks into place within seconds and is much easier than toting around those bulky plastic boosters and cinching them into the seat latches. No other automaker does this. Volvo has been offering such a child seat for decades.
On the base Momentum and loaded Inscription trims, 6 seats are an option for only the T6 and T8 powertrains. They are unavailable on the R-Design model I tested. In either configuration, you'll find generous legroom and all-day comfort and support in the first and second rows. The third row is for small children only. It's very tight and not as roomy as some 3-row midsize SUVs like the Cadillac XT6 and Kia Telluride. Cargo space is good, at up to 85.7 cubic feet with the last 2 rows folded. So are sightlines from the driver's seat.
Volvo Pilot Assist comes standard, which is a semi-automated driving system that combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist to expertly steer and control the XC90 on marked highways. Used in lower-speed traffic, it's an accurate and smart system—one of the best on sale, actually. Four-zone climate is also standard. My R-Design came equipped with a phenomenal Bowers & Wilkins stereo that is one of the absolute best stereos I've ever heard in a car. It has 19 speakers, a stupefying 1,400 watts of power, yellow speaker cones made from Kevlar, and a vented subwoofer. The surround-sound processing can be dialed in via two sliders, or you can make the whole car sound like the Gothenburg Concert Hall (where the local Swedish symphony orchestra plays just miles from Volvo headquarters). It's intense and even makes low-bitrate SiriusXM channels pop like they're in high-def.
The portrait-oriented touchscreen makes navigating easier since maps can show more of the road ahead. Everything is high res and clear, and it's easy to swipe, scroll, and tap with multiple fingers like you would on a tablet. Onboard apps are slow to load—like 15 seconds slow—but they do offer location sharing via Glympse, the ability to record and send voice memos, and offer Spotify and other media apps. The instrument panel can be reskinned and show the map between the two analog-style dials, but that's it. There's no major way to reconfigure the digital screen like you can on an Audi, Land Rover, Jaguar, or Mercedes. Volvo needs to do more here. And it needs to show the individual tire pressures in the TPMS sensors.
As expected, the XC90's safety ratings are impeccable, with top scores from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). However, the latter group's headlight test lowers the XC90's rating to a Top Safety Pick, instead of carrying the "+" designation. Forward emergency braking, pedestrian detection, a driver-attention monitor, blind-spot monitoring, and traffic-sign recognition also come standard. The first XC90 came with a boron steel roof that could withstand extreme rollovers at a time when few automakers bothered to use higher-strength steels in their SUVs. Volvo also was one of the first automakers to use curtain airbags, and in the XC90, keep them inflated during a rollover to better protect passengers. That was in 2003. Volvo also employs a unique whiplash protection system for the front seats, which it introduced in 1998. Lots of cars are now safe like the XC90. But Volvo is one of the few companies that actually cares, from an ethical instead of a legal perspective, to make its cars safer. Its history and present products speak for themselves.
The 2020 XC90 starts at $48,350, which you can promptly disregard due to the base model's front-wheel drive and smaller T5 engine. You'll need to spend $60,000 to get goodies like the better interior materials and tech, the more powerful engine, and all-wheel drive. You needn't go as far as my test car, which stickered for a borderline absurd $74,735 with destination. But compared to brand-new redesigns of the Mercedes-Benz GLE and BMW X5—and older models like the Audi Q7 or Lexus RX—the XC90 is a good value. It also comes with 3 years or 36,000 miles of scheduled maintenance plus 4 years of Volvo On Call telematics, which includes stolen-vehicle alerts. Its unique style, unparalleled safety, and immense comfort make the XC90 one of the best midsize SUVs you can buy.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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