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Volvo aims its reinvigorated crosshairs at the medium-sized SUV ranks with a premium offering

It wasn’t so long ago that Volvo was commonly thought of within car industry circles as ‘that funny Northern European, semi-premium car-maker that nobody wants’.

Former custodian Ford had reportedly been pitching around for a new owner for the firm for more than a year when, in 2010, China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Ltd invested $1.8bn to buy the ailing car-maker – and then promptly invested even more in brand-new engines and platforms.

Volvo resists the temptation to let the roofline drop away at the rear, keeping plenty of tension in the bodyside

At the time, it looked like some particularly bold decision-taking. How things change.

Five years on, Volvo’s story is continuing to look like the perfect advert for Chinese ownership of a big European car-maker; Volvo is flourishing, and Geely’s strategic vision is paying off too.

Global sales are 20% up from where they were five years ago, while profitability is up 50%; and, with Volvo’s help, Geely has developed the technology it needs to launch China’s first European-style premium car brand of its very own: Lynk&Co. Suddenly you can see why Geely invested all that money.

And now the first of the really big-selling new-breed Volvo models has hit the showrooms, and it’s the subject of this road test: the all-new XC60 SUV.

The ’60-series compact 4x4 uses the same platform and many of the same engines that power its bigger sibling, the Volvo XC90, and so in many ways it is exactly what it looks like: a boil-washed XC90.

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But a car with the new-groove, tech-savvy Scandinavian design appeal of the XC90 and most of its comfort, versatility and capability, but available at prices starting well under £40,000, could plainly accelerate Volvo’s growth into a new, higher gear.

The XC60 range starts with 188bhp ‘D4’ diesel and 251bhp ‘T5’ turbo four-cylinder petrol models, before rolling in a 232bhp ‘D5’ and culminating with a 400bhp-plus ‘T8’ plug-in hybrid that promises to be an interesting alternative to the usual performance SUV.

Front-wheel drive and four-wheel drive versions are available, likewise both classically restrained styling options and thoroughly new-age-Volvo ‘R-Design’ trims.

It was the big-selling 188bhp, four-wheel drive D4 R-Design we elected to test. But is it one of the best SUVs for a family?

Volvo XC60 design & styling

Volvo’s impressive recent design form continues with the XC60, which oozes class inside and out.

Underpinned by Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), the XC60 shows flashes of resemblance to its bigger XC90 sibling – like the Thor’s Hammer headlights – and sits on the same platform, but the XC60 manages to carve out enough of a difference to be distinguishable in its own right.

It’s longer, wider and lower than the previous-generation model too, but has a higher ground clearance and isn’t any heavier.

It’s also nicely proportioned to allow it an airy, spacious cabin inside while striking a sleek, understated, Nordic-chic exterior that isn’t particularly flashy, but neither is it emotionless and bland like many of the snoozefest SUVs in the class.

As standard the XC60 gets all-wheel drive and a double-wishbone front suspension with a rear multi-link arrangement.

Like the XC90, it gets a transverse composite leaf spring in the rear axle, allowing a light, compact design with, in theory, a smoother ride and improved noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) compared with what you’d get with a regular coil spring set up. Height-adjustable air suspension (which allows an additional 60mm of travel) is available as an (expensive) option – and our test car was equipped with it.

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All ‘SPA’ Volvos benefit from the lightweight and strong qualities of the modular platform, and get the same power-assisted electromechanical rack and pinion steering system, the characteristics of which can be personalised through the different drive modes available: Eco, Comfort, Dynamic, Off-Road, Individual.

These modes also affect the brake pedal feel, throttle response, damper settings and, if fitted, air suspension's ride height.

Every model has an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and the engine lineup consists of three 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engines: diesel D4 and D5 units along with a 251bhp turbo T5 petrol.

Later this year a T8 petrol-electric plug-in hybrid will join the range. The D4 will be the big-selling sweet spot of the range, with 188bhp on tap and 133g/km of CO2 emissions.

Volvo XC60 interior

Volvo has given every reason for potential XC90 buyers to talk themselves into its more affordable relation as much of the larger car’s aesthetic appeal, usability and material quality has been ushered into the latest offering.

The pair are closely related enough that even seasoned commentators were forced to find the differences in side-by-side comparison.

The XC60 R-Design’s sporty seats felt thin and gave me an ache in my upper back. Good under-thigh support, though

The differences, then, are subtle: vents have been remodelled and switchgear swapped out, but essentially all the important fixtures are transferred, including the portrait-orientated infotainment screen that dominates the dashboard.

This is to the smaller car’s benefit; we rightly lauded the Volvo XC90’s take on an SUV cabin, and its downsizing has done nothing to dilute the impression of sitting in a well-thought-out space.

The larger’s XC90’s cabin ambience, which manages to seem vaguely Scandinavian without lapsing into the appearance of an IKEA kitchen, is well translated, as is the high-quality fit-and-finish of predominantly premium materials.

The R-Design model on test had an eight-inch digital instrument cluster which, when combined with the nine-inch touchscreen, evokes the sort of technologically advanced ambience that Audi is currently thriving on.

On the subject of the Sensus infotainment system, there’s a deviation in opinion here.

Its operation is based around a tablet-style set of touchscreen menus, and for some it represents the future of such things; for others, the touchscreen’s arrangement is a less-than-perfect solution – prominently kicked into touch by rivals which have persevered with separate controllers.

Much of that is down to personal taste, although considering the manufacturer’s mania for safety, it is somewhat ironic that it still indulges the idea of prodding a very small keypad at motorway speeds.

Objectively, the system is generally fine – it could do with a faster refresh rate and better sensitivity – but that applies to virtually every on-screen setup which isn’t contained within a Tesla. Nothing of the common or garden variety task (connecting a smartphone, for example) is likely to prove taxing, and the standard nav software is serviceable.

Ditto the stereo system. Our test car also feature the cost-option of a CD player; sadly, with no loft or time machine immediately available, no CD could be found to test it.

You sit obligingly high in the car, on leather-upholstered seats that offer a decent enough compromise between comfort and support, and without any doubt that the surrounding space is of a capacious sort.

The rear quarters follow suit: they’re usefully more roomy than those of the model being replaced, though nothing exceptionally spacious for the class, but adults of all sizes should find themselves being made comfortable.

The focus on the passenger contentment has penalised boot space a wee bit, though: the XC60’s 505 litres capacity is respectable but not quite on par with the amount offered by most of its big-name rivals.

That’s a mild deficiency each buyer will have to rate for themselves; for us, the impressively square, flat loadspace seemed ready for most big family tasks. 

2.0-litre Volvo XC60 D4 diesel engine

For evidence of the sheer competition there now is in the mid-sized, premium-branded SUV market, consider this: you can take what amounts to an engine and gearbox from the larger and more expensive Volvo XC90 – albeit in detuned form – drop it into a smaller, lighter car, and still fall short of the class standard on performance and drivability.

The XC60’s diesel engine and standard eight-speed automatic gearbox allow it to hit an acceptable standard on acceleration and responsiveness, but it’s impressive in neither respect.

Stability and traction control systems remain fairly unintrusive in ‘Dynamic’ mode

You can see that represented in our recorded acceleration numbers – a like-for-like Audi Q5 is more than half-a-second quicker from rest to 60mph and almost half-a-second quicker from 30mph to 70mph through the gears. You can also quite plainly appreciate it from the driver’s seat.

The eight-speed gearbox feels slightly hesitant both away from a standstill and when swapping ratios under load, and the engine is less free-revving than some comparable diesels.

Where both hit back is under lighter throttle applications and in a more laidback mode of usage, an area in which the XC60 surprised more than one of our testers with its mechanical refinement in particular.

There’s an elastic feel to the way the transmission slips before fully engaging as you apply middling amounts of power; it can be bothersome when you’re in a hurry or looking for any meaningful driver engagement in manual mode, but somehow it seems to make more of the engine’s torque when you’re just punting around with the transmission in 'Drive' mode.

There’s plenty of low- and mid-range torque to go on and so fairly brisk but relaxed progress is easily made, and the XC60 motivates its mass without making hard work of it until faster overtakes are required. Those planning on towing with the car might be well advised to opt for the more powerful diesel engine, though.

Volvo matches the XC60’s good mechanical refinement with equally good cabin isolation, keeping the car’s interior laudably muted on the motorway and preventing wind noise from becoming intrusive as it sometimes can in more upright cars.

So it’s true to observe that drivers who’ll rarely use more than a not-so-arbitrarily-selected 60% of the car’s performance – who’ll activate Volvo’s ‘Pilot Assist’ semi-autonomous auto-steering radar cruise control at every motorway opportunity, for example – may consider their car the match of any rival.

Volvo’s long-standing preference for slightly over-assisted, isolated-feeling controls makes for a light and slightly spongy-feeling brake pedal which, combined with the iffy body control of our air-sprung test car (which we’ll come on to), also made hard stops less precise and smooth than they might have been.

That’s as part of the bargain struck in order to make the more gentle stops less physically demanding, of course – which, you’d imagine, many Volvo drivers would value.

Volvo XC60 cornering

As we’ve written so many times, what constitutes a great-handling mid-sized SUV is a complicated thing to define.

In outright terms, the answer may simply be ‘a Porsche Macan’, but for someone who wants the comfort, isolation, versatility, space and convenience that most cars of this type afford – and that, in many cases, the Porsche does not – that answer may be as good as useless.

The XC60's mass oscillates a bit under heavy braking and on turn in

However you prefer to define that idea, few would expect the new XC60 to set the premium SUV class standard on handling dynamism and so perhaps few will care that it doesn’t.

But we’re not here to overlook the shortcomings of the car’s suspension and steering on that basis, because to do so wouldn’t be fair on Volvo’s competitors – nor would it be much use to you.

In air-suspended form and on optional 19in alloy wheels at the very least, the XC60 is a car that falls between two stalls, providing a driving experience that doesn't stand out in terms of its ride nor its handling.

It’s a dynamically competent car, and as secure in extremis as anyone could want a Volvo to be.

But the ride is excitable and hollow over poorer surfaces and sharper-edged bumps; the steering is overly light and remote; and the handling slightly mushy, unresponsive and lacking in both balance and bite – even by SUV benchmarks.

In some of those ways, we can imagine the car is precisely as Volvo wanted it to be – and as many owners would prefer it; but not in all of them.

The XC60’s occasionally clunky ride is perhaps its most disappointing dynamic blight, and the one you may be least forgiving of in both an SUV and a Volvo.

The air suspension does a reasonable job of suppressing surface roar but given an averagely testing ridge or edge to deal with it thumps and sometimes almost crashes. It’s been a criticism we’ve made of all air-sprung Volvo’s sharing this platform, but is more notable here than anywhere.

After that, we’d bemoan the fact that the XC60’s ‘Dynamic’ driving mode doesn’t do a better job of producing much of a sporting driving experience (body control ranges from decent downwards) – admitting the same caveat with which this section started: that, in all likelihood, an owner won’t care. We simply can’t pretend that we don’t.

Volvo XC60

XC60 prices have risen sharply compared to the outgoing model (by around £4000), but that still keeps the car broadly in line with the premium rivals it’s up against, and in return for your cash you get plenty of kit.

Of the three trims levels to choose from – Momentum, R-Design and Inscription – we’d say entry-level Momentum will suit most fine.

Have a D5 R-Design. And if you cover a lot of motorway miles, add the Intellisafe Pro pack

You still get cruise control, keyless start, automatic lights and wipers, 18in alloys, rear parking sensors, dual-zone climate control, a gorgeous leather interior with heated front seats and a 9.0in portrait-style Sensus infotainment system with DAB radio and sat-nav.

Of course, this is a Volvo, so you get a host of safety features thrown in too. There’s an advanced form of autonomous emergency braking that recognises cars, cyclists and animals and can even help you safely swerve out of the way of oncoming traffic and back onto the correct side of the road, should you need to – while the semi-self-driving Pilot Assist comes as an option.

The latter’s one of the market’s better systems, though not the match of Mercedes’ equivalent by most tester’s estimation.

It does seem a bit off that you need to pay £300 to get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

If you’re desperate for the air suspension on a model that doesn’t have it (it’s standard on R-Design Pro and Inscription Pro) you can add it as an optional £1500 extra.

Over three years you can expect the XC60 to hold onto its value better than most rivals, but its engines aren’t any more efficient.

3.5 star Volvo XC60

The latest XC60 ought to be as close to a home run as Volvo has enjoyed under Geely’s ownership and in several important respects the SUV pays out on the initial promise.

Much like the larger Volvo XC90 it resembles – and the model it replaces – the car likely fits very neatly its buyers' concept of what a modern, premium-badged 4x4 should look, sound and feel like.

The right product at the right time, but wanting the right dynamic finish

But, in this trim level at least, Volvo has not successfully nailed the way such a machine ought to drive – and on optional air suspension, the deficiency compared to its rivals is too noticeable to make any recommendation of the XC60’s strengths particularly emphatic.

That’s unfortunate, and is obviously reflected in the modest star total; a result that a differently equipped version of the car may have exceeded.

Superior comfort, though, and an accommodating turn of speed are woven so intrinsically into the notion of a premium SUV that the measure of their shortfall is far-reaching.

This XC60 is close enough to genuinely good as to end up being likeable, but assuredly no nearer to compelling.

Volvo XC60 First drives