MOTORING

Volvo XC90 – the Swedish SUV master

By Melinda Ferguson 22 September 2019

An ode to minimalistic Swedish design, world-class tech and safety, the refreshed XC90 recently landed in SA.

In July 1924, two old buddies – Gustav Larson and Assar Gabrielsson – met up for dinner in Sturehof, one of Stockholm’s most popular hangouts.

They both ordered crayfish. But this was not just any old catch-up meal. As they sucked on the freshwater crustaceans, the friends came up with an idea to design and manufacture what they described as “The Swedish Car”.

Their dream was to put Sweden on the world motoring map and give local buyers more choice in a heavily American-dominated market. The aim was to build a car to suit the icy Nordic climate and embrace quality, safety and Swedish simplicity.

At the time, Europe was abuzz with innovation. Sweden had stayed neutral in the Great War, but the conflict had taken its toll on the economics and psyche of Europe. Now, five years later, Europe was rising from the ashes.

Larson, an economics major and sales guru, was the money man, while Gabrielsson embraced the tech and design side. Larson had previously worked for SKF, a ball-bearing company that offered to finance the first 1,000 cars. Thus, the name “Volvo” – meaning “I roll” in Latin – was born in reference to SKF.

Less than two years after the crayfish dinner, the first Volvo – the open-topped, four-cylinder, ÖV4, nicknamed “Jakob”, rolled off the line in April 1926:

Volvo ÖV 4 (Photo supplied)

By 1933 the company had delivered 10,000 cars, posting impressive profits. The sales strategy was based on a single principle: Let the customer drive the car.

Volvo has pioneered safety systems in motoring, with the company’s 1944 sales pitch – “We did not invent the car, but we set the safety standards” – becoming the cornerstone of the company branding.

In 1959, engineer Nils Bohlin, poached from Saab by Volvo, invented the three-point seat belt, one of the most important inventions in motoring history. Volvo could have made billions by patenting the invention but made the tech available to competitors in order to save lives.

A year later, in 1960, Volvo developed softer plastic dashboards to lessen body injury in the event of an accident. By the early 1970s it had an Accident Research Team, which went on to analyse more than 40,000 car crashes.

In 1987 Volvo unveiled front and rear fog lights and the airbag.

In 2019, the ground-breaking safety systems include self-steering, autonomous stop and start and City Safety, which brings the car to a halt if an impact looks likely.

In 2016 Volvo Cars CEO, Håkan Samuelsson, caused a stir when he boldly announced: “Our vision is that, by 2020, nobody should be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo car.”

VOLVO XC90 2019

In mid-August, I cracked an invitation to the launch of the refreshed Volvo XC90, the six- or seven-seater SUV in the same premium segment as the BMW X5, Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class.

Besides a few new wheel designs and a palette of fresh colours, there have been minimal changes to the 2019 XC90. Its predecessor made its local debut in 2015, going on to win Car of the Year in SA in 2016. The adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” applies, as if there ever was a SUV that came close to perfection it was the XC90.

Engine range

The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine remains unchanged with three petrol and a single-turbo diesel models available in the line-up.

The entry-level T5, with 187kW/350Nm, and a claimed fuel consumption of 7.6L/100km, is followed by the T6 (235kW/400Nm and 8.0L/100km). Then there’s the exciting (and rather pricy at R1,668,500) top-of-the-range T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid unit, which is not only turbocharged but electrically charged, delivering 300kW (235 kW + 65 kWe) and 640Nm (400Nm + 240Nm).

The diesel derivative D5, is the queen of frugal consumption, with a claimed 5.7 L/100km, while it packs pretty impressive power with its 173kW and 480Nm of torque.

The ride

All derivatives share an eight-speed automatic transmission that is smooth and unfussy.

Also, the suspension in the refreshed XC90 is impressive. Let’s get a little technical here. The standard set-up consists of double wishbones at the front while the rear gets multi-link suspension. However, the optional air-suspension is the bomb that allows various drive options – Eco, Comfort, Off-Road and Dynamic.

All units at the launch were fitted with 20-inch wheels and had the optional air suspension. I was particularly impressed with the XC90 in Dynamic mode, with a noticeable upsurge in performance and throttle response.

However, if you are an SUV speed-freak, the XC90 will probably be a bit staid. It is certainly not going to outrun a Porsche Cayenne, an X5 or a Q7, but Volvo has never pretended to wave guns in the speed game.

The tech

In recent years Volvo has shaken off its old-man, fuddy-duddy image with products across the SUV range, from the XC40 to the XC60 and the XC90, which are sleek, sexy and supported by world-class tech.

Let’s get to the heart of things. The XC90 has the most user-friendly touch-screen and infotainment system in the business. I was recently informed that Tesla’s is superior, but as I haven’t driven a Musk Mobile I’m sticking with the Volvo.

Dubbed Sensus, the nine-inch screen resembles a tablet, with a pinch function to zoom which allows one to swipe between menus. And it’s damn intuitive. The system senses what apps you use most frequently – like navigation or music – while minimising the ones least used to the bottom of the screen. You don’t spend time distractedly searching for apps when your eyes should be on the road.

Then there’s new tech by way of Volvo on Call – situated above the rear-view mirror – which allows one to request anything from directions to emergency assist, and can even detect if the vehicle has been involved in an accident. I tried VOC and spoke to a locally based call centre, which sent directions to our lunch venue within seconds.

If you’re like me and serially lose your vehicle in parking garages you’ll love the downloadable smartphone app that connects to your XC90, sounding the hooter or flashing the headlights as well as enabling a remote start.

It is really a very clever SUV – even connecting to your home WiFi while parked in the driveway and downloading software updates.

The sound

The Bowers & Wilkins audio system features a 1,476-watt Class D amplifier (a more efficient digital setup) and 19 B&W speakers. I wholeheartedly agree with SA Volvo’s MD, Greg Maruszewski, that the XC90’s sound system is one of the best in the world.

Our sound engineers have searched obsessively for audiophile perfection,” notes Greg. “Using a radically new approach, they developed a unique room transformation technology together with the Swedish audio software specialists Dirac Research. This technology makes it possible to recreate the acoustics of a specific room inside the car. The result speaks directly to any music lover’s soul, wherever you’re seated in your XC90.”

Interior and loading

Here’s where the Swedes are tops. They target a discerning buyer with quality soft-touch leather, un-plasticky surfaces and Zen-like minimalistic design. Even Swedish glassmaker Orrefors’ optional cut-crystal transmission lever is classy when compared to the rather blingy Swarovski gear knob in a German rival.

The refreshed Volvo XC90 Inscription T8 Twin Engine Interior Detail – Orrefors Gearshift

There’s ample room in the six-seater option, with spacious third-row seats. With all the seats folded down, you get 1,856 litres of utility space, which is almost big enough to move a dwarf’s home from Middle Earth.

Safety

The refreshed XC90 holds the safety flag high. Like its 2015 predecessor, it has a host of systems, such as Run-off Road Protection, which springs into action if the vehicle leaves the road and automatically tightens the front seatbelts. It also retracts the brake pedal, and compresses the seat to minimise spinal injuries.

A world-first in the XC90, Automatic Emergency Braking activates if another driver swerves in front of you and can also anticipate and brace you for impact when a vehicle is about to rear-end you.

As a kid, my first taste of Sweden consisted of dancing to Abba, admiring my nine-year-old reflection in the lounge window, pretending I was the redhead Anni-Frid, swaying to the beat of Waterloo and Mama Mia. The only Volvo I recall from childhood belonged to the rather sombre doctor who lived down the jacaranda-lined street from our Johannesburg family home.

A lot has changed since then. Abba is no longer on the playlist and that fuddy-duddy Volvo of my childhood has transformed into a world-class product – refined, intelligent, sexy and classy.

The XC90 is a testament to everything that the Swedes have mastered, since way back in 1924 when two men met over crayfish. DM

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