Swedish opulence. The automaker's push upmarket wouldn't be so convincing if it weren't for the 20201 Volvo XC90. As the brand's flagship SUV, it seeks to out-style, outclass, and outshine the competition through a distinctly Scandinavian take on luxury.
It's a bit different than the Teutonic standard the market has become accustomed to, but we find this worth celebrating: in a world where everybody seems hell-bent on emulating Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the XC90 marches to the beat of its own drum. It's luxury of an uncommon sort, a refreshing display of independence in a largely homogenous world.
Style, inside and out. The XC90's assault on the status quo begins with the styling, which is clean and uncluttered, an inherently elegant look that follows the "less is more" maxim. A concave waterfall grille and handsome slim headlights decorate a large frame that's absent any creases or hard angles. The body doesn't hide its bulk, but likewise isn't showy about it. The whole affair is restrained and classy.
The interior keeps to the same ethos governing the styling. The minimalistic dashboard is almost too reserved, with nothing more than a slim strip of trim to visually spruce up the passenger side. Trim options include real wood and real metal; with either option the vibe is Buddhist-retreat relaxed. Few physical buttons enhance the sense of happy sparsity.
What buttons and switches are scattered throughout the cabin are top-notch, easily rivaling its German competition when it comes to tangible heft and precision of movement. There isn't anything chintzy about the controls.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the interior are the seats. These thrones couldn't care less about sportiness – their forte is serene comfort. Multi-way power adjustments are found on every model; heated seats come on most trims, and ventilated seats with massaging functions can be found on the option sheet. The latter options are more indulgent, but all of these choices are equally supportive and comfortable.
Technology, safety, and otherwise. How could we talk about Volvo without mentioning safety? The brand renowned for protecting its clientele in a collision pulls out all the punches on their flagship vehicle.
The XC90 gets standard automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist; also thrown in less common features like road sign recognition and rear collision mitigation for good measure. A semi-autonomous driving mode is offered as well.
That battery of equipment greatly reduces the possibility of an accident, an idea near and dear to Volvo, which is aiming for zero deaths or critical injuries in any of their products. In the event an accident should occur in the XC90, its excellent performance in both IIHS and NHTSA crash tests suggest it'll uphold the brand's allegiance to safety.
The centerpiece of the XC90's technology suite is the standard 9-inch touchscreen. When parked, the infotainment software is easy enough to navigate, but good luck trying to work the system on the go – trying to adjust virtual sliders for the climate controls or radio volume is about as easy as giving a cat a bath. Volvo, if you're listening, please consider installing redundant physical buttons for climate and audio functions.
Other gee-whiz features on offer include an all-digital gauge cluster, wi-fi hotspot capability, wireless charging, and a head-up display. Downloading Volvo's On Call app grants smartphone-enabled control of the climate control, windows, and door locks.
High-tech powertrains. At Volvo, more power doesn't equate with more cylinders. All three engine options offered on the XC90 use a turbocharged four-cylinder; the base T5 model ends with that, but the uplevel T6 and T8 engines add a supercharger and hybrid tech, respectively.
The T5 makes 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It has little issue motivating the smaller Volvos, but this three-row SUV tips the scales at nearly two and a half tons. At that weight, even the base front-wheel-drive version feels lethargic with this engine.
The better choice in our eyes is the 316-hp T6. The extra oomph from its added supercharger brings easy acceleration befitting of a luxury SUV. Employing both a supercharger and turbocharger is Volvo's novel way of mitigating turbo lag, and it works. Power comes on smooth and quick anytime a driver stomps the accelerator. The only downside is fuel economy, which checks in at an EPA-estimated 22 miles per gallon combined. This is on the low end of average for luxury SUVs of this size.
The top-shelf T8 is the best of both worlds, using hybrid technology to improve gas mileage and performance. Its 400 horsepower is the result of pairing the T5's turbo-four to a single motor and a 11.6-kWh battery. Despite the weight of all this complexity, it can reach 60 mph in under six seconds or amble along for 18 miles on just electric power – it's a pick-your-own adventure that your right foot gets to choose.
Final thoughts. The 2021 Volvo XC90 is a dapper three-row luxury SUV that feels more runway star than family hauler. Its sleek styling in and out distinguishes it in a crowded segment, and a generous list of standard and available features support its upscale aspirations.
Its only fault may be its name; most folks don't yet equate Volvo with luxury. But we challenge anyone to spend some time in an XC90 and still insist the brand's vehicles aren't fancy. Times have changed, and Volvo – at least this Volvo – is gosh-darn highfalutin.
If it weren't for its price of $64,245 to start, which is nearly $20,000 more than the base model, the T8 would be our choice of the three powertrains. As it stands, the T6 makes more sense for most buyers. It doesn't deliver on efficiency but instead has all the intangibles expected of a vehicle of this caliber: quiet responsiveness, effortless acceleration, and nearly silent operation. A T6-equipped XC90 makes for a formidable luxury SUV amongst some very polished competition.
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