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It has big boots to fill and talented rivals to face. Is it up to the task?

The new Volvo XC90 is the culmination of a remarkable period in Volvo’s history. Just six years ago – normally the period of time you’d want to develop such a car – Volvo was perched on the edge of uncertainty.

A nose-diving global economy, falling sales and the desperation of then-owner Ford to extricate itself from European concerns left Volvo adrift on much the same perilous waters that eventually pulled Saab under.

Even the immediate solution to its woes – acquisition by Chinese company Geely – seemed precarious. What chance its recovery with a potentially fickle and impatient foreign investor at the head of the table?

But the clouds have parted spectacularly. Geely (from the outside, at least) has apparently been content to sit back and let the Swedes do what they do best: come up with neat, idiosyncratic solutions to the multitude of challenges that face a comparatively small European manufacturer.

Consequently, the XC90 is not merely a replacement for the firm’s flagship model. It’s also teeming with recently developed technology that will underpin a raft of new models in the next decade - as can be seen by the 2017 Volvo XC60 and Volvo XC40 models.

That’s for tomorrow. Today, the car must simply be very good. Which isn’t simple at all, of course, because Volvo’s new halo is a premium large SUV, and that segment is hardly stocked with underachievers.

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Among them is Land Rover, a company also divested by Ford and which has gone from strength to strength under foreign control. Volvo will have noted the company’s rise with interest and will hope to convince buyers that its take on seven-seat, all-wheel-drive luxury is at least as compelling as the one that has emerged from Gaydon in the past 18 months.

There are three trim levels to choose from: Momentum, R-Design and Inscription and only two four-cylinder engines, plus a plug-in hybrid version. The entry-level D5 model is likely to be the most popular, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.

Volvo XC90 engine line-up and trim levels

A total of three engines are available on the XC90 (and all of them are four cylinders), with the B5 nomenclature applying somewhat confusingly to both the base petrol and diesel ICE units. There's also the Recharge T8 AWD, which not only has super- and turbo-charged boost for the petrol lump, but is also a plug-in hybrid (the clue's in the name). This offers a claimed near 60-mile electric-only range. 

Unsurprisingly, manuals are absent, with every car getting an eight-speed Geartronic auto 'box with an all-wheel drive transmission. There are five trim levels available: the base Momentum (B5 petrol only); Inscription Expression (T8 only, and is effectively Momentum kit but with Inscription styling); R-Design (the most popular, and therefore available on all the engines); R-Design Pro (D5 petrol and T8 only); and lastly the all-singing-all-dancing Inscription Pro (T8 only). With diesel being offered on one trim level only, that alone tells you where the market is heading.

Volvo XC90 design & stying

Although it is new in every conceivable way, the XC90 isn’t a dramatic visual departure from its predecessor.

It’s essentially a tweaked translation of the original brief: a big, squarish and high-shouldered seven-seater in the Volvo mould. That’s fine. A Range Rover Sport the XC90 isn’t, but utilitarian good looks and neat touches like the standard ‘Thor hammer’ LED headlights help it to stand out from the bland-athon that includes everything from the Audi Q7 to the Kia Sorento. Such is the impact it has been passed onto the V40 and will be seen on the next gen XC60 and the XC40.

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The underpinnings are far more novel. The XC90 is the first car to sit on Volvo’s new modular platform, dubbed SPAR (Scaleable Product Architecture). This technology claims to use a higher percentage of hot-formed boron steel than any other manufacturer and allows the XC90 to be larger, lighter, safer and better balanced than previously.

The platform also enables shorter overhangs and a longer wheelbase, a layout helped by the engine bay’s need to be big enough for only four-cylinder engines.

Preservation of interior space and weight reduction are also the reasons given for the use of a transverse composite leaf spring in the rear axle. The manufacturer is adamant that its design, when incorporated into a new multi-link suspension, means it has less of an impact on third-row space.

Alternatively, you can opt for air suspension, which does away with the leaf spring and the coil springs in the front wishbones and offers a range of driver settings that include the ability to raise the body by 40mm in off-road mode.

Although it is not particularly intended for the muddy stuff, the XC90 will initially be four-wheel drive only. Its on-demand system is based around a fifth-generation Haldex coupling that’s capable of sending 100% of torque to the rear but generally taxes the front alone. The hybrid T8 differs in that its all-wheel ability is delivered by the 81bhp electric motor on the back axle.

Up front, the T8 uses the same 317bhp petrol engine found in the T6. Sharing an identical four-cylinder architecture with its diesel equivalent (along with an eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission), the unit employs turbocharging and supercharging to improve on the output of its predecessor’s V8 while emitting just 179g/km CO2.

The diesel D5 goes even further. Thanks to i-ART, which locates fuel pressure sensors in individual injectors rather than collectively controlling them via the common rail, the unit develops 222bhp and 347lb ft of torque for CO2 of 149g/km, putting the two-tonne XC90 on a par with a two-wheel-drive BMW X5.

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There is rumours gathering that Volvo are planning to let their performance division Polestar loose on the XC90 and create a rival to the Audi SQ7.


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