David Motton

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The new Volvo XC90 takes the model upmarket, but to find out if it's worth the extra and there's tow car talent behind its striking looks, read our review

Overview

Here we are testing the new Volvo XC90 – so, what's new? Just about everything.

The old model had been around for well over a decade, so Volvo started with a clean sheet of paper for the new XC90. Say goodbye to the old five-cylinder engine, and hello to a new, highly efficient four-cylinder diesel. Today’s XC90 is lighter, more practical, and promises lower emissions than before. The asking price rises significantly, though, as Volvo pushes upmarket.

What are we looking for? Volvo is pitching the XC90 against the likes of Audi, BMW and Land Rover. The question is, does it have the quality to compete and has the new car’s relatively low kerbweight (for a big 4x4) compromised its towing ability?

Towing

Like most types of car, big 4x4s are getting lighter. However, the XC90 still weighs more than two tonnes, with a kerbweight of 2103kg (including 75kg for the driver). This gives an 85% match figure of 1788kg. The legal towing limit is 2700kg. That’s some 800kg less than the maximum a Land Rover Discovery can legally pull, but the difference is largely academic when a fully loaded twin-axle tourer generally weighs less than two tonnes.

We matched the Volvo to a 2011 Elddis Crusader with a Mass in Running Order of 1642kg. Despite Volvo’s switch from five cylinders to four, and a reduction in engine capacity from 2.4 to 2.0 litres, the XC90 had plenty of punch for towing such a heavy caravan.

There’s a steep hill on our route to the test track, and the XC90 breezed up it, with slick changes from the eight-speed automatic making the most of the Volvo’s mid-range muscle. Once at the track, the engine’s 222bhp and 347lb ft of torque made short work of the 30-60mph sprint, needing just 10.5 seconds.

The new Audi Q7 is even quicker if you opt for the more powerful of the two engine options. But really, we can’t see too many drivers being dissatisfied with the Volvo’s overtaking performance.

The combination of a powerful engine, four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox makes for easy hill starts. The XC90’s electronic parking brake held car and caravan still on a 1-in-10 slope and released smoothly. The Volvo pulled to the top of the slope with ease and tackled the same hill just as comfortably in reverse.

Big 4x4s tend to shine in the hill start test, but aren’t always at ease in the lane-change test, struggling to move so much bulk in a controlled and stable manner. There was no such trouble with the Volvo. Despite rather numb steering the XC90 changed direction quickly and gripped hard; there was no bullying from the caravan.

At motorway speeds the XC90 is just as assured. Sitting at the legal limit the Volvo feels relaxed and composed.

We’ve stopped short of awarding full marks, giving this car four and a half out of five for towing ability, because you can buy more powerful 4x4s with even better overtaking ability for similar money. But otherwise the big Volvo is a very good tow car indeed.

Everyday driving

Volvo offers owners the choice of standard steel springs or air suspension for an extra £2150. Our test car came with air suspension, which improved the ride somewhat, although the XC90 still fussed over imperfect surfaces. Our car was also fitted with 21in alloy wheels, a £1450 option; we suspect air suspension with smaller 19in alloy wheels may be the ideal combination.

Our test car was also fitted with the Drive Mode feature, which costs £395. This gives the choice of Eco, Comfort, Off Road and Dynamic settings, altering the steering weight and the responsiveness of the transmission and throttle, as well as adjusting the air suspension. In Dynamic mode the car rolls less in corners, but ride comfort suffers.

Whatever setting is chosen the steering feels rather inert, and while very capable the XC90 isn’t especially fun to drive. That’s partly down to the engine, which might be powerful and efficient, but it sounds bland compared with the six-cylinder engines fitted to many rivals.

It’s more of a quick and efficient cruiser than a sporting 4x4 in the mould of a Porsche Cayenne. Still, that means the Volvo is quiet and comfortable on the motorway. It’s the kind of car which seems to shrink long journeys for the driver and passengers.

As a solo drive the Volvo XC90 impresses, but a more cosseting ride and a more appealing engine note would improve it further.

Space

More than the way it drives, it’s the look and feel of the XC90’s interior which confirms Volvo’s move upmarket.

Perceived quality is right up with the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz, and a cut above the Land Rover Discovery’s cabin. The design is attractive, the tablet-like 9in screen is neatly integrated, and everything feels precisely made from quality materials.

It’s a very practical cabin as well as an attractive one. The driver’s seat is very comfortable – supportive without being restrictive – and there’s enough electronic adjustment to suit drivers of different stature.

Move to the middle row and there’s lots of leg- and headroom, even with the panoramic sunroof fitted to our test car (part of the £2000 Xenium pack). There’s a hump in the floor for the transmission tunnel, but it’s not too intrusive by 4x4 standards. Air vents between the front seats should keep those in the middle of the car at a comfortable temperature.

Those in seats six and seven also get their own air vents, albeit as an optional extra. It’s part of the Seven Seat Comfort pack, which also splits the climate control into four zones instead of the more usual two.

The middle seats tip and slide to give access to the third row. It’s a bit of squeeze for adults – there’s significantly less legroom than in the third row of a Land Rover Discovery – but children should be happy enough. It’s possible to boost rear legroom by sliding the middle row forwards, but this will soon make those in seats three to five less comfortable.

Most seven-seaters have tiny boots with every seat upright, but at 397 litres to the parcel shelf, the Volvo’s is large enough for a reasonably big shop or a couple of good-sized holdalls. With the third row folded away the luggage space is long and wide, with a capacity of 775 litres (to the parcel shelf). Loading is made easier if you press a button at the side of the tailgate to lower the back of the car – but you have to choose air suspension to get this. With all but the front seats folded away, you get a 1951-litre luggage space (measured to the roof).

The only minor black mark is that the third row is short of legroom compared with a Land Rover Discovery’s. Otherwise this is an exceptionally practical, big SUV.

Running costs

This car is proof that big, powerful 4x4s can be economical. Fuel economy of 48.7mpg and CO2 emissions of just 152g/km make most big 4x4s look thirsty and inefficient; we achieved 26.1mpg while towing.

Low emissions make the Volvo XC90 a much more tax-efficient choice for company car drivers than our favourite big 4x4, the Land Rover Discovery. For private buyers, low tax and fuel bills help soften the blow of the Volvo’s high price (£50,185). In truth, the Volvo is not expensive compared with what Audi, BMW or Land Rover would charge for a similar car, but it’s a big jump for anyone trading in an old XC90. Delve into the long list of options and you can really make the price rocket; with all the extras our test car would cost £67,235.

It’s not as if the car is poorly equipped as standard. There’s plenty of safety kit, although if you want the whole gamut of driver aids you’ll need the £1500 Intellisafe Pro pack. Unsurprisingly, the XC90 has a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, while healthy resale values make the Volvo a reasonable investment.

Technical specs

Engine size1969 cc
Kerbweight2103 kg
85% KW1788 kg
Towball limit140 kg
Maximum towing limit2700 kg
Power222.0 bhp
Torque347.0 lb ft
Official MPG48.7 mpg
CO2152 g/km
30-60mph10.5 seconds
30-0mph9.7 m

Verdict

The new Volvo XC90 shows the way forward for the next generation of big 4x4s. Lower weight doesn’t necessarily compromise towing ability, certainly not when a car still weighs two tonnes. Frugal engines don’t have to mean lacklustre performance, either.

We’ve no serious complaint in terms of what tow car ability the XC90 has. It’s very stable, both at speed and in emergency manoeuvres, and handled the hill-start test with dismissive ease. Its stopping distance was remarkably short, too.

The cabin is beautifully finished, especially in our top-spec Inscription test car. It’s very practical, too, although it’s a shame that some desirable features such as the air vents for third-row passengers cost extra.

The XC90 makes a lot more financial sense for company car drivers than older, less efficient big 4x4s such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Land Rover Discovery. Private buyers, too, should benefit from low fuel bills and reasonable annual Vehicle Excise Duty payments.

And it’s a sensible buy in other ways. The XC90 is extremely safe, especially if you choose some of the driver aids available as optional extras. Resale values are predicted to be strong, too.

It’s disappointing that some of our car’s most impressive features are costly options, and a more comfortable ride and a bit of character from the engine would make the XC90 better still. Even so, this Volvo is a thoroughly impressive car. 

Conclusion

Pros

  • It has a powerful engine and four-wheel-drive
  • It's a stable, punchy tow car
  • Boot space is reasonable with seven seats in place
  • It's practical and economical

Cons

  • Some of the best features are optional
  • It's a big price hike compared to its predecessor
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