Volvo XC90 D5 SE review
by Mike Grundon (11 September 2012)
Change has come to the XC90 at a glacial pace. Over the past ten years, when Volvo has said it has revised its large SUV, I've become used to accepting that what's probably happened is the gearknob has been slightly re-sculpted, a new bulb has been added to the headlamps or the interior leather is a slightly whiter shade of pale.
And so it was with more a feeling of déjà vu than slack-jawed wonder that I stepped into the 2012 model. The biggest change since last year is a smattering of LED lights.
The XC90 is actually up for a major re-launch in 2014. The completely new car will catapult the venerable beast from Volvo's rearguard to point when it'll be the company's first car to be built on what will be known as the Single Platform Architecture – a chassis that will underpin the whole of the next generation of Volvo cars.
But another two years must pass before that happens. Tempus may feel like it's fugiting rather quickly but at the time of writing, 2014 is still a long way off, so how does the current model stack up against the relative newcomers which, let's face it, is pretty well everyone else by now?
My simple answer would be, "uncommonly well". Having just finished covering the thick end of 800 miles along the length of Scotland, twice, my best conclusion is that the big 4x4 hasn't been given a major overhaul because it doesn't need a major overhaul. It's clearly not just my conclusion either; it's still the third best-selling Volvo in the UK, despite being over a decade old and costing up around £40,000.
So what of that 800 mile road test? Well it was a lot more than just tooling up and down the A9 with no more than a water bottle and a Mars bar for company. I took it on a track into the Cairngorms to see a golden eagle, toured the twisting roads of the north-west coast, gave two heavily laden hitchhikers a 100-mile ride (they declared it luxurious and comfortable in the front and back), carried one of my daughters and her riding kit back and forth between stable and horse in Caithness, and packed the car, literally to the roof, before driving another daughter the 270 miles from Thurso to Edinburgh to start year two at university.
And can you believe that according to the onboard computer, I got an overall average of 35mpg from it, despite even an empty car weighing in at over two tonnes?
In this country, the XC90 only comes as a seven-seater and there's just one engine and one automatic gearbox available. There are however five specification levels and a reasonable sized toybox from which to choose extra gadgets. My test car has been a second-level SE model with extras that would push its price tag up to around £45,000. It's a big brute too – seven feet wide, almost six feet tall and approaching 16 feet long.
The book says the 2.4-litre diesel engine pumps 197bhp and 310lb/ft of torque through a six-speed automatic gearbox which is enough to take the car up to 62mph in just over ten seconds. I believe every word. When push came to shove at busy junctions, the big car felt like it could almost do a tyre-spinning take-off.
And so to the virtues that have shone brightest for me in this past week. The steep and twisting hills of Caithness and Sutherland put no serious stress on the powerful engine. The writhing turns of the north-west coast road were a delight from the high vantage point of the driver's seat. The suspension felt a little firm on the potholed track in the Cairngorms, and even on the cobbles of old Edinburgh, but the pay off was very secure cornering in the roads of the deep countryside.
The split tailgate has always been useful. It's meant heaving saddles and rucksacks in and out of the cargo-hold has been easy and it's also made for a comfortable seat with a rain-roof for changing out of my walking boots or just watching the afternoon light on the purple-heathered mountains.
But the biggest deal for me on this occasion was the size of the load bay. The second-row seats fold almost flat, leaving a cavern into which you'd send a search party if you hadn't seen your child for a few hours.
I packed it with a prodigious amount of "essentials" for Lucy's year at university, including a writing bureau, a large African drum, God knows how many boxes of books, CDs and DVDs, several huge suitcases of clothes, a large stereo set up, bags of jackets and shoes, bedding and pillows, cooking utensils, bathroom stuff, a swing-top bin, a laundry basket . . . the list felt endless.
I didn't believe it would all go in when I saw it piled on the street before we set off. I didn't know how it could have all gone in when I saw it unloaded into her flat. The Volvo had proven extraordinarily capacious. If you need more space, you need a Transit van.
In the past I've never felt it easy to get emotionally attached to any Volvo, but on this occasion, I felt it had a sentimental nobility to it. The phrase came to me near Balmoral while listening to a piece of music by Ravel with a similar name. I enjoyed its image as an elder statesman of good breeding; a patrician amongst the clamouring rabble.
If, like me, you're old enough to remember, with fondness, a time when car models changed so rarely that spotters books could be published in hardback without fear of immediate obsolescence, you'll be impressed by the stoical XC90.
If, however, you're a technology native who's impressed with cutting-edge digital multifunctional interfaces with TekWiz and Bluethroat levels of CyberAUTOmaticity (don’t look that up, I invented them), you won't be impressed at all.
I like temperature control knobs with numbers on. I prefer to choose functions from a selection of icon-inscribed buttons rather than taking a labyrinthine journey to them through the glittering gizzards of a computer menu. And I like that the shortarse aid to closing the tailgate isn't a stab-button motorised affair, it's a dangling strap of stitched leather to pull on.
The XC in the name XC90 is not extracted from the word "excitement" – it's as prosaic-looking an SUV as there is anywhere in the world today, but it truly is a most flexible beast that's capable of dirt work, cargo-swallowing, city touring, motorway cruising and just plain and simple happy motoring. I hope the same can be said after the rejig in 2014.