In the post-pandemic period of safety consciousness, it may be the most sought-after, too
By HANNAH ELLIOTT
THE most stylish SUV you can buy today is, yes, a Volvo.
Others may be more exciting (Lamborghini Urus), more athletic (Porsche Cayenne), more luxurious (Mercedes-Benz GLE), or more conscientious (Tesla Model X). But only the 2020 Volvo XC90 possesses that rare combination of restraint, comfort, attention to detail and heritage that translates into true style. Yes, even in a large premium SUV.
All those qualities can be distilled into one symbolic attribute: Wool
“People perceive leather as the ultimate premium good, especially in the US,” says Robin Page, Volvo Cars’ senior VP of design. “Historically, though, wool is the ultimate premium statement.”
He should know. When Page worked at Bentley Motors Ltd, he created the interiors of the stately sedans destined to carry the Queen of England. Elizabeth II, he says, always chose woollen textiles to cover the seats of her personal automobiles.
Page called from his home in Sweden just after I’ve spent a week driving the 2020 Volvo XC90 SUV, which boasts seats covered from top to bottom in a chic, grey, wool textile reminiscent of the famous rounded Oculus chair created by Danish furniture designer Hans Wegner.
The XC90 is the first, though not the last, vehicle from Volvo to carry this particular upholstery, which is sourced from Swedish sheep and blended “to reflect the Scandinavian light”, according to Claudia Braun, Volvo’s VP for colour and material design. It is also calibrated to be durable enough to weather pets, children, sporting gear and luggage that tend to abuse SUVs, especially family-friendly Volvos. It’s no easy feat to balance the two; Braun says it took years to perfect.
The effect makes it worth it (a no-cost option on the “Inscription” trim level). When I first stepped inside the US$48,350 (RM206,685) XC90, its cabin was startlingly beautiful, drenched in sunlight. I felt as if I were sliding behind the steering wheel and into a batch of dry ice — with no burn.
Updates and Upgrades Worth the Wait
Wool is only the latest reason to consider the XC90 for your next family vehicle purchase. It’s no accident that the XC90 alone accounted for nearly half of all Volvo sales in the US last year. It represents the pinnacle of Volvo engineering, with a chic (as much as an SUV can be chic) Scandinavian design, seating for up to seven and a thoughtful, vertically oriented central command system that is a delight to use.
The design here is not particularly minimal — at least, no more minimal than what you’ll find in an Audi or BMW these days — but it is thoughtfully placed and luxuriously appointed. Every space that is touchable and tactile, from the walnut wood inlays to the nine-inch touchscreen, feels well-made.
The current iteration of the XC90 debuted in 2014. This year’s refresh gives us a new grille and front bumper; restyled 21-inch, eight-spoke wheels; new exterior colour options; and improved rear cross-traffic and active-steering features.
You probably will be able to distinguish it from last year’s model—a nice way to telegraph to your neighbours that you have a new car. But purists will be happy that the traditional “Thor’s hammer” headlight design remains, as do the distinctive red tail lights, standing tall like rods of tourmaline to frame the rear sides of the car.
“We are really focused on a strong light identity,” Page says.
Also new is a six-seat configuration, which prospective buyers would do well to consider as a happy medium between the previous four-seat, ultra-luxurious “Excellence” variant of the XC90 and the seven-seater that I drove. (The latter includes a third row of seats that no adult on Earth will be happy to occupy.)
Solid Standbys with an Electric Twist
The XC90 won’t break any speed records. Nor will it make your heart race as you accelerate into that freeway on-ramp. It might even annoy you with its new shifter, a small, crystal-cut knob the size of a Palm Pilot that can sometimes leave you wondering whether you’re in neutral or reverse.
To its credit, as I tooled around Los Ange- les, the XC90 felt lighter and firmer than its 4,400lb hulk and 80-plus-cu-ft interior storage space would indicate. And the zero- to-60mph sprint time is still five seconds, which remains faster than that of a BMW X3 and equal to that of a BMW X5 SUV. That’s more than decent for an SUV of this size.
As with previous years, the 2020 XC90 comes with multiple powertrain options, including super- and turbocharged engines and a T8 plug-in hybrid version such as the one I had. I prefer that option, which adequately addresses one of the primary criticisms the XC90 drew in previous years: It wasn’t a particularly fuel-efficient SUV.
The T8 variant uses an electric motor paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission to achieve 18 miles (29km) of pure electric driving range (imperceptible from regular driving) and a total power output of 400hp. The efficiency on the XC90 is now a whopping 55 MPGe (mile-per-gallon equivalent).
Will you be able to tell as the hybrid system switches between electric and combustion systems as you drive? I certainly couldn’t as I sailed through Los Angeles’ Brentwood neighbourhood, which really seemed to be this tall, square rig’s natural habitat, anyway.
The steering and brakes on the XC90 are exactly middling: Sensitive enough to avoid total numbness but bland enough to be forgettable. (I presume that those who want an SUV that can perform like a sports car aren’t barking up Volvo’s tree in the first place.)
What I did feel — where Volvo excels — was safe. Cared for. Even peaceful. It was a particularly heartening feeling to experience during this coronavirus pandemic, when the most critical safe space outside the home is the car.
I felt safe because I knew I had the full spate of Volvo’s famous safety systems, including standard side impact protection, parking assist and full collision avoidance. They excelled at being present but never felt until needed, like that good butler we all dream about.
Some of the more aggressive lane-keeping and safety systems, such as those in the BMW M850i, actively work against your own driver’s input at times if the car believes you’re doing something unsafe. Plus, I was bolstered and buttressed with heated seats, walnut wood inlays and a 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system.
The handsome XC90 was a rolling pod of Scandinavian design, refinement and luxury. The wool, as it happens, was the icing on the cake. I’m all for it. — Bloomberg