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PowerSteering: 2017 Volvo XC90 Review

PowerSteering: 2017 Volvo XC90 Review

By Christian Wardlaw, April 12, 2017

Introduction
Volvo withered under Ford Motor Company ownership, and nearly died before rescue came in the form of the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., Ltd. If that sounds like a Chinese conglomerate to you, take a bow.

While a Chinese company has infused cash into Volvo, the company remains headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden. The vehicles are designed, engineered, and built in Sweden, and the latest XC90 introduced a number of critical components that will help Volvo to survive its near-death experience. Highlights include a Scalable Product Architecture, new family of Drive-E engines, Sensus infotainment system, and a range of semi-autonomous driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design photoFor this review, we evaluated a 2017 XC90 T6 Inscription with metallic paint, 21-in. wheels, a 4-corner air suspension, extended leather interior treatment, and every option package. The price came to $74,390, including the $995 destination charge.



What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2017 XC90, it’s helpful to understand who buys this SUV and what they like most and least about it.

J.D. Power research data shows that Volvo XC90 buyers tend to be younger and more affluent than the average for the Midsize Premium SUV segment. Their median age is 48 years old compared with 57 years old, and their median household income is $236,111 compared with $188,247. The gender split is nearly identical, with 60% of XC90 buyers being men compared with 61% for the segment.

Volvo XC90 buyers are less likely to agree that their friends and family think of them as someone who knows a great deal about autos, with 60% agreeing with this statement compared with 65% for the segment. At the same time, 65% of XC90 buyers agree that they are willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly, compared with 55% segment average.

Unsurprisingly, safety is important to XC90 buyers, with 58% strongly agreeing that they will pay extra to ensure that their vehicle has the latest safety features. At the segment level, 44% of Midsize Premium SUV buyers agree. When it comes to reliability, just 50% of XC90 buyers strongly agree that it is their first consideration when choosing a vehicle, compared with 60% for the segment.

Performance is not high on XC90 buyers’ lists, either, with 46% strongly agreeing that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration compared with 56% segment average. Volvo XC90 buyers are also slightly more likely to disagree that a vehicle is just a way for getting from place to place (76% compared with 73% for the segment).

Buyers say their favorite things about the XC90 are (in descending order) the interior design, exterior styling, visibility and safety, driving dynamics, and seat comfort. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the XC90 are (in descending order) the engine/transmission, storage and space, climate control system, infotainment system, and fuel economy.


What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2017 Volvo XC90 performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM

Exterior
When self-driving cars finally arrive, it will be beautiful design that convinces a consumer to choose one brand over another.

Think about it: If people no longer care about driving dynamics, and all vehicles are necessarily technologically advanced in order to use autonomous roadways and to entertain their passengers during the journey, and safety is no longer a concern, people will buy new vehicles the way that they buy clothing, select cosmetics, and choose zip codes. In other words, they’ll pick the vehicle that reflects best upon them.

Should this future come true, Volvo is on a proper path to success, and not just because of the XC90’s advanced driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems. Just look at this SUV. There isn’t an awkward proportion, clumsily penned line, or tacked on tchotchke to be found upon its flanks. It is gorgeous.

Interior
If the XC90’s exterior styling represents perfect balance, the interior is downright delectable. The test vehicle had the Amber leather color, which covers the seat faces, center console, and door panels in a glowing hue that compliments the Linear Walnut matte-finish wood trim and contrasts sharply with Charcoal carpets, headliner, and dashboard.

Scandinavian minimalism rules within the XC90, and details like the knurled metal on the engine start knob surprise and delight this Volvo’s driver. This approach does, however, force compromise. Eliminating clutter from the control layout means that many of the XC90’s features and functions are accessible only by using the Sensus infotainment screen that dominates the center of the dashboard in fingerprint-smudged glory.

Seats
Volvo is known for comfortable seating, and the XC90’s front chairs do not disappoint, especially when equipped with the optional massage function. Tall second-row seat occupants, however, will not be as happy, perhaps complaining about the hard front seatback plastic that contacts their shins.

Equipped with a third-row seat, this area is habitable by adults only when second-row occupants are willing to slide forward a click or two, and only for short trips. On a positive note, Volvo shapes the bottom cushion to provide a modicum of thigh support, a rarity for a third-row seat.

Climate Control System
Though they reside at the lower margin of the main Sensus menu, which is easily accessed via the button at the bottom of the display, by embedding the temperature and seat heating and cooling controls within the touch screen Volvo has created unnecessary hassle for XC90 drivers.

A better solution would be to place stereo volume and tuning knobs at the lower corners of the Sensus display and use the panel where the volume knob currently resides for the climate control functions. That would add clutter, but it would also add simplicity in terms of the user experience.

Infotainment System
Aside from dissatisfaction with fuel economy, XC90 buyers cite Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system as their least favorite thing about this SUV. That’s easy to understand.

Sensus looks and works like a tablet computer. It offers a main, or “home,” display showing primary information, and users swipe left or right to access configurable tiles that serve the same purpose as applications on a smartphone. The button at the bottom of the screen provides speedy return access to the “home” screen. If you’ve ever used a smartphone, using Sensus comes naturally.

Now, ask yourself how easy it is to use your smartphone while driving. If you find it difficult, then you’re also likely to find using the Sensus system difficult. The concepts are familiar, and the screen is larger, but at 70 mph you’re still hurtling down the road at roughly 100 ft. per second. How much distraction can you afford?

Beyond the question of usability while driving, Sensus takes a long time to load after you’ve started the XC90, especially the navigation system and the radio. So be sure to upgrade to the stellar Bowers & Wilkins audio system so that you can enjoy lushly rendered music to soothe your frustration.

Storage and Space
A large glove box, big door panel bins, and sizable cupholders don’t make up for the XC90’s tiny center console storage and lack of practical storage space. There is a smartphone tray, which is nice, but anything else gets tossed into the cupholders, which means there is no room for the Thin Mint Frappuccino (yeah, it exists).

Behind the third-row seat, Volvo provides 15.8 cu. ft. of cargo space. It is configured in such a way that you could stand two full-size suitcases back there and still close the liftgate.

Most XC90 owners are likely to keep the third-row seat folded flat, providing a large, cube-shaped cargo area ready to tackle up to 41.8 cu. ft. of cargo. Maximum volume measures 85.7 cu. ft. These volumes are substantially larger than many competitors and approach the amount of space supplied by full-size SUVs.

Visibility and Safety
Unless the third-row seat is in use or is raised with the headrests up, outward visibility is excellent. Volvo also provides camera views ranging up to 360 degrees in every direction, as well as a head-up display that is difficult to see while wearing polarized sunglasses.

Safety is a Volvo hallmark, and the XC90 receives impressive crash-test scores. It misses receipt of a “Top Safety Pick+” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) due to “Marginal” performance of its headlights.

A long list of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems is standard on every 2017 XC90, making a blind-spot information system with rear cross-traffic alert, Pilot Assist semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping control, and Park Assist semi-autonomous parking the only options of this type.

The test vehicle had everything Volvo offers, and on two occasions during the course of a week the technology behaved in such a manner as to have potentially caused rather than resolved a problem.

The first issue was related to the forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking system. Approaching an intersection in the middle of a curve, the Volvo detected a vehicle stopped in the left turn lane ahead. Because of the curve, this stopped vehicle was actually straight ahead of me, but my lane was going to bend right at the curve. The Volvo, however, could not perceive this, and so as I approached it first activated the warning system followed in quick succession by a momentary activation of the emergency braking system.

Needless to say, this frightened everyone in the XC90—my wife, our two children, and myself.

The second issue was related to incoherently repainted traffic lanes on a local freeway. They kink to the left three feet for just a few moments before kinking right again. People who are not paying much attention to their driving fail to perceive this nuance, especially when driving into late afternoon sunlight. And that was the case with a driver next to the Volvo.

I knew that the person in the lane next to me had not moved left at all, so I directed the Volvo toward the rightmost portion of my lane of travel. The Volvo, however, assumed I was drifting onto the road’s shoulder and automatically steered the SUV back toward the center of the lane, attempting to put the XC90 dangerously close to the clueless driver next to me.

Neither of these situations encourages me to believe that fully autonomous vehicles will arrive any time soon.

Engine/Transmission
Modern Volvos are equipped with the company’s new Drive-E family of powertrains. The T5 model has a turbocharged, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, the T6 has a turbocharged and supercharged, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, and the T8 adds an electric motor to the T6 engine, providing plug-in hybrid technology with short-distance electric driving range.

All three employ an 8-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive is optional for the T5 and standard for the T6 and T8. The base XC90 T5 is front-wheel drive. Drivers can select from Comfort, Dynamic, Individual, and Off-Road settings to tailor response to specific requirements.

The test vehicle had the T6 engine, which supplies robust, effortless power. However, there is a granular and coarse nature to this power plant, from its engine note to subtle vibration when it revs. As a result, drivers are left thinking it is unrefined, standing in stark contrast to the cabin’s quality materials. On a positive note, the transmission performed flawlessly at all times.

Fuel Economy
During a week of testing, the XC90 T6 returned 21 miles per gallon. That figure falls just short of the EPA’s official estimate of 22 mpg in combined city and highway driving.

Driving Dynamics
Equipped with large 21-in. aluminum wheels and an adaptive air suspension, the test XC90’s ride and handling traits proved impressive. On winding mountain roads, I felt that this combination masks to a large degree the true limits of the heavy and tall SUV.

As far as ride quality is concerned, the XC90 was nearly flawless. An attentive driver can detect the artificiality in how the air suspension quells certain body motions, but the majority of the time the XC90 felt rock solid but never stiff.

Steering proved excellent, though somewhat eager to return to center, and the brakes performed faithfully. When hot, however, they emitted a grinding noise that I have also noticed in the XC90’s platform-mate, the S90 sedan.


Final Impressions
According to J.D. Power research, exterior styling is as important as reliability when buyers choose a new vehicle. If this is true, Volvo will continue to enjoy resurgent sales of its beautiful XC90 SUV.

There are challenges associated with this Volvo’s infotainment, driver-assistance, and collision-avoidance technologies, but they’re not necessarily egregious in comparison to other vehicles. Aside from reworking Sensus and making it easier to access commonly used controls without interacting with the touch-screen display, where Volvo can best improve the XC90 is with regard to the drivetrain’s refinement and in terms of practical storage space on and in the center console area.

Otherwise, the XC90 is an impressive effort, enjoyable to drive, comfortable, practical, luxurious, and ready to protect your family in the event of a collision.

Volvo supplied the vehicle used for this 2017 XC90 review.

For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.


Additional Research:


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