After 12 years, the Volvo XC90 has finally gotten a full redesign. The three-row XC90 separates itself from the hugely competitive "I need a minivan but don't want a minivan" class with understated Scandinavian design inside and out, spacious second- and third-row seating, class-leading interior materials and an impressive array of safety features.
On the other side of the coin, the new XC90 suffers from a busy ride, and the new turbo- and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder isn't always up to the task of moving an SUV of its size.
What Is It?
The 2016 Volvo XC90 is a three-row, seven-passenger luxury SUV that is available exclusively with all-wheel drive. The only available engine at launch is a 2.0-liter, turbo- and supercharged four-cylinder that comes in the T6 model. A hybrid T8 model that joins the lineup later uses the gas engine to drive the front wheels and an electric motor to power the rear wheels. The only transmission on either model is an eight-speed automatic.
Prices start at $49,895 for the base model T6 Momentum. Stepping up to the more luxurious T6 Inscription will set you back $55,495, while the similarly equipped but sportier R-Design starts at $53,895.
Our test vehicle was a top-trim T6 Inscription with a slew of options that add to an as-tested price of $66,855. Some of these options include the $1,600 Vision package (blind spot monitor, 360-degree camera) and the $1,950 Climate pack (head-up display, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel), and a further $1,800 for the Convenience package (park assist, adaptive cruise).
How Does the Four-Cylinder Engine Perform?
It's almost unheard of for an SUV the size of the XC90 to only offer a four-cylinder engine. The trick up its sleeve, however, is that this Volvo's four-cylinder uses both supercharging and turbocharging to deliver up to 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.
Volvo estimates that this powertrain will be good for a 0-60 run in 6.1 seconds, but from the minute we got behind the wheel we doubted the claim. There's a decent tug from a dead stop but then power seems to vanish quickly. Track testing confirmed this, as our test vehicle's best 0-60-mph time was 7.4 seconds. And that was done by shifting the automatic manually through the gears in the vehicle's Performance mode. Keeping it in standard Drive mode netted a 0-60 time of 7.9 seconds. For reference, the Acura MDX takes only 6.5 seconds, while the Land Rover Discovery Sport takes 7.7 seconds.
As always, track numbers never tell the full story. This time, however, the story doesn't get better away from our coned-off asphalt. On an open road, with constant cruising speeds and little elevation, the four-cylinder is a peach, humming along quietly just above idle. For most of us, though, our real world involves hills, stop-and-go traffic and speed changes.
The gridlock of Los Angeles proved to be the Volvo's biggest hurdle. In normal Drive mode, the throttle is sluggish, and the Sport mode (which must be engaged manually every time you start the car) isn't much better. The fuel-saving stop-start feature is one of the roughest we've encountered, as it shuts off earlier than you expect and restarts later than you want. We're all for saving fuel, but this calibration needs a tune-up.
Hills are the next biggest challenge for the big Volvo and its small engine. Even with eight gears to pick from, the Volvo can never pick just one when confronted with a grade. It constantly switches between winding out lower gears and barely hanging on to higher gears. It's frustrating and not remedied by Manual mode, which times itself out. Using the Volvo's adaptive cruise on a highway grade resulted in a loss of up to 10 mph.
Lest you think it's all bad news, in steady-state cruising, the XC90 performs well. It'll accelerate from 30 to 55 mph like a champ and its engine noise is well concealed.
How Is the Ride Quality?
As with the powertrain, the XC90's ride quality varies considerably depending on the conditions. On smooth, sweeping roads, the XC90 is planted and confident. Throw a frost heave, pothole, patch of concrete or other road imperfection in there and the confidence disappears.
Equipped with optional 21-inch wheels, our XC90 test vehicle crashed over significant bumps and got jittery over the small ruts. Despite how cool they look, we just can't recommend 21-inch wheels and tires on this SUV.
No matter where you drive, one thing stays the same: This new Volvo drives smaller than it is. Unlike the Acura MDX, Audi Q7 or Mercedes GL, the XC90 feels tight and tidy on the road. It's only when you peek in the rearview and see all those headrests that you're reminded of how many rows this SUV has.
How Luxurious Is the Interior?
As good as it looks from the outside, the XC90's interior is even more impressive. The cabin is spacious on its own, but the impression of spaciousness is striking. Outward visibility is excellent, and the cabin feels open and airy. Materials quality is definitely up to luxury car standards, as attractive to the eye as it is to the touch.
The Inscription model's interior trim isn't just class-leading, it's class redefining. The matte finish wood trim is so elegantly assembled and richly textured that it reminds us of the wood paneling that's optional in the Rolls-Royce Wraith. The rest of the interior displays a similar level of construction and quality.
Dominating the dashboard is the new portrait-oriented 9-inch Sensus touchscreen. Volvo bundles most of the XC90's features into this tablet-like interface to support a clean, nearly button-free design. Operation of the Sensus screen is very similar to that of any tablet or smartphone, and just as with those devices, primary commands are intuitive, but it does require quite a bit of time to learn the ins and outs.
Once you've put in the time it takes to learn the ropes, the system is remarkably fast. It's not quite as fast as Google Maps on an iPad, but it's close. If we had our choice, we'd muddle some of this clean design with physical knobs/buttons for climate control and seat heating/ventilation.
Like the rest of the XC90, the front seats are all new and are a highlight of the vehicle. They feature a ton of adjustments including thigh support and lumbar, and should fit virtually any frame. The sliding-and-reclining second-row seats are wide, with plenty of legroom, and are suitable for actual adults for long periods of time. The second row also has an optional integrated child seat that leaves more room for additional passengers than a typical aftermarket seat.
The XC90's third-row seats are intended for occasional use. The average adult will be confined by a lack of headroom and legroom, but smaller passengers will fare just fine. Vents keep air circulating but there are no dedicated third-row climate controls. The second and third rows of seats are incrementally raised to create a theatre-like view outward, giving the impression of greater space.
How Much Cargo Space Is Available?
Up to 15.8 cubic feet of space are available behind the third row, including a handy under-floor storage bin. Fold those seats flat and that space expands to 41.8 cubes. With the second row stowed, the maximum capacity grows to 85.7 cubic feet. Among direct competitors, these figures are the most generous in the class.
In addition to raw space, the XC90 features an optional flip-up panel to secure shopping bags with a combination of an elastic strap and hooks for handles. The act of loading cargo is also simplified with a hands-free tailgate that senses a swipe of a foot under the rear bumper, opening the large hatch.
Furthermore, if equipped with the optional air-ride suspension, the liftover height can be lowered via buttons located just inside the tailgate.
What Safety Features Are Available?
All 2016 XC90 models feature autonomous braking with day or night pedestrian and cyclist detection, seatbelt pre-tensioners, collapsible seat mounts to reduce vertical impacts, lane departure warnings and emergency and convenience telematics.
Optional features further increase the safety quotient with rear collision alerts that flash the brake lights, blind spot warnings, cross-traffic alerts, a surround-view camera system, lane keeping assist and automated parallel and perpendicular parking. As of this writing, the 2016 Volvo XC90 has not been crash tested.
What Kind of Fuel Economy Can You Expect?
The Volvo XC90 T6 has an EPA estimated fuel economy rating of 22 mpg in combined driving (20 city/25 highway), making it one of the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered vehicles in the class.
In our testing, we averaged 17.6 mpg. Our best tank came during our standardized 116-mile test loop that typically returns numbers close to a vehicle's highway rating. In this case, the XC90 only managed 22.3 mpg.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Acura MDX: The MDX undercuts the Volvo's base price, but when equally equipped, comes within a few grand of the Volvo. It comes up short in terms of cargo capacity, materials and design, and uses an easy-to-use, but outdated infotainment interface. On the plus side, it benefits from strong all-around performance, plenty of standard features and excellent safety scores.
Audi Q7: Even though a redesigned Q7 is on the horizon, the current model is still notable for its engaging handling, premium look and feel and efficient diesel engine. But its limited cargo capacity and mediocre fuel economy from the standard gasoline engine can't compete with the Volvo.
Land Rover Discovery Sport: Like the Volvo, the new Discovery Sport is powered by a four-cylinder motor and includes a bucket of active safety features and a self-parking system. The Land Rover's interior is less special, but easier to use.
Mercedes-Benz GL-Class: With a base price about $10,000 higher than the XC90's, the bigger Benz is only a fringe competitor to the Volvo, but it offers more space, a better ride and more competent engines, and it has better ergonomics.
Why Should You Consider It?
It's elegant on the outside, luxurious on the inside and features all the latest safety features you could ever want. It also has one of the most sophisticated touchscreen displays you'll find in any SUV.
Why Should You Think Twice?
Though competent for light duty, serious hills and abrupt merging can strain its small engine, and the suspension doesn't cope well with rough pavement. That touchscreen looks great, but it can take time to figure out.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.