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Tanks for Nothing: the Volvo XC90

Volvo’s new SUV – the school run favourite – is bigger and bolder than ever

This is in no way a scientific study, largely because it’s based on a sample of just one, but I reckon the typical school run has more Volvo XC90s blocking the road between 8 and 8.30am every morning than any other type of car.

It’s been that way for some time – Volvo’s largest estate-cum-SUV has been the yummy mummy’s choice of wheels since it was launched in 2002. Why? Well, being a Volvo, it’s safe as houses and clearly shows Mum is a responsible parent. More significantly, it’s big enough to bully its way down narrow side roads, forcing oncoming traffic to scatter – Volvo Mum reverses for no one. And that state of affairs is about to get worse, for there’s a new XC90 (XC for Cross Country) on the block and it’s bigger than ever.

Taller, longer and wider than before, the all-new XC90 is massive and frankly intimidating for other road users. It’s going to be a huge success.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the car, though, is the fact that it’s here at all. Six or so years ago, Volvo’s future looked distinctly precarious. Then-owner Ford wanted to sell up and bidders were few and far between. For a while it looked as if Volvo, like fellow Swedish carmaker Saab, might go under. But then along came Chinese firm Geely to the rescue, and this is the first visible fruit of the new partnership.

Although it is available elsewhere in the world with two- or four-wheel drive, manual or automatic transmission and five or seven seats, for the time being every XC90 sold here will have seven seats, a slick eight-speed auto, four-wheel drive and a genuinely luxurious interior as standard.

Despite looking every inch a Volvo, the latest XC90 is totally new in every respect. It uses a new platform that Volvo claims is safer, lighter, longer and better balanced than before. It certainly allows better use of interior space, with plenty of room for those seven seats – the third row is spacious enough for an average-sized adult, rather than only being suitable for the kids. In fact, it’s the interior that really lifts the XC90 above its competitors. Simple and elegant, the XC90 is a thoroughly modern place to be. The dashboard is dominated by a large nine-inch tablet upon which can be found virtually all the car’s controls. Some are hidden away in computer-style menus and sub menus, and are accessed by swiping and prodding the screen as you would an iPad. But once your preferred settings are saved it works like a dream. Best of all, it means that the car’s minor switchgear is noticeable by its absence: there are just eight buttons on the dashboard.

Intuitive in use and great to look at, the only odd thing about this highly intelligent piece of equipment is the name Volvo has elected to give it: Driver Information Module, or DIM for short. It’s far from dim. Clean, uncluttered, practical and comfortable, the Volvo could only be Swedish: Geely has done well to leave the Volvo designers to get on with it. It performs pretty well, too.

Unlike the outgoing XC90, which had five-, six- and even V8 cylinder engine options, every new XC90 is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. There are petrol and diesel versions with turbocharging, supercharging and electric hybrid technology to offer a full range of options. The most popular will probably be the D5 diesel, which has a punchy 225bhp on tap, enough for a 7.4 seconds time for the 0-60mph sprint. That’s coupled with low (149g/km) CO2 emissions and strong economy figures, too. Not bad for a ‘humble’ four-pot 2.0-litre diesel, though the performance is undoubtedly helped by the car’s low overall weight.

This lack of avoirdupois is obvious from behind the wheel, as the car feels lively and eager while the automatic box is also up to the task, being unobtrusive in use yet quick to change gear when needed. The brakes are powerful and the car remarkably refined when it comes to wind noise: this is a very quiet car. If there is an elephant in the room, though, it’s the ride comfort, which is over firm most of the time and frankly fidgety on broken surfaces. Volvo’s chassis engineers have obviously looked at rivals such as the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne and, unfortunately, decided that the chassis should be tuned more for sporty handling than ride comfort.

Don’t be taken in by the appearance in the option lists of air suspension, though.

In terms of comfort, it’s even worse than the standard set up, despite the appearance of driving modes that can be set by the driver – ‘dynamic’ is just that, but Volvo needs to check the dictionary if it thinks the alternative is ‘comfort’. Frankly, it would do well to remember that this is not a two-seater sports car but a seven seat family estate, with full-time four-wheel drive to boot.

That said – and the Cross Country name notwithstanding – the XC90 is not a full-blown off-road machine. But with short overhangs front and rear, it does mean a certain off-road competence is guaranteed (and a bonus of the air suspension is the ability to raise the car by 40mm to help clear rocks). Nor does it want for much when it comes to equipment. Among the standard features is automatic opening of the tailgate: all you need to do is waggle your foot under the rear bumper and the tailgate will rise majestically. And, of course, it is laden with advanced safety equipment, the latest of which is ‘Run off road protection’. The new XC90 automatically detects if the car has left the highway, ready to instantly tighten seat belts and keep the occupants securely in place. There is also a mini shock absorber in the seat frame, which reduces vertical forces (and therefore spinal injuries) by up to a third, while the system also uses all manner of sensors and detectors to try to prevent the car leaving the road in the first place.

Bigger, safer and (ride comfort aside) undoubtedly better, the new XC90 is an impressive piece of kit, so good that Auto Express has declared it the car of the year. God help the rest of us on the school run. 

Volvo XC90 D5 Inscription, £50,185, www.volvocars.com