We Go Glamping with Our Long-Term Volvo V90 Wagon

What started out as a way to disprove the SUV turned into a sumptuous getaway.

Aaron GoldWriterRobin TrajanoPhotographer

The fact that SUVs are marketed as the ultimate adventure vehicles has always raised eyebrows at the Automobile compound; after all, big wagons like our Four Seasons long-term Volvo V90 have been the bedrock of family travel since SUVs were little more than glorified pickup trucks. But what the V90 lacks in plastic body cladding it makes up for with all-wheel drive, a big cargo bay, and a roof rack that can carry 220 pounds of whatever to any godforsaken backwater one longs to visit.

With this in mind, we set a plan for our V90: I would take it on the mother of all camping trips, loading it to the gills with gear in order to prove the staff's deeply held belief that anything an SUV can do, a station wagon can do better.

But then I stumbled upon Ventana Big Sur on California's central coast, which offers high-luxeVent fully-equipped tents to well-to-do wayward travelers, and I began to reassess. After all, why take it with you when it's already there? And so it was that my wife Robin and I packed ourselves into the largely empty Volvo. Forget about camping—we were going glamping.

Leaving Los Angeles, we skirted the Pacific on the 101 freeway, then cut inland on the San Marcos Pass, a two-laner where the sport of choice seems to be driving 10 mph under the limit and then speeding up to 80 when a passing lane appears. Happily, the Volvo was able to blow past these bozos with ease. I still can't get over the fact that the T6 engine can develop 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft from a mere two liters. We all know the old trick of raising the redline to get an impressive horsepower number, but the V90 is a two-and-a-quarter-ton car that would lay such shenanigans bare. The supercharged and turbocharged T6 may be a bit of a Rube Goldberg device, but it's one that actually delivers.

We stopped for a lunch in San Luis Obispo, a mission town-turned-college town that I find charming but Robin dismisses as an outdoor shopping mall, then picked up the Pacific Coast Highway just up the road at Morro Bay. All that remained between us and our destination was 90 miles of the most stunning coastline this country has to offer. Carloads of tourists preclude rushing up PCH, but who would want to do that? We lowered the windows, opened the massive panoramic sunroof, drank in the scenery, and breathed in the sea air.

Two glorious hours later we arrived at Ventana Big Sur and followed the signs past the camping sites to the glamping sites, nestled into a gorgeous redwood-lined grove. Here we found our digs: A safari-style tent on a wooden platform with a queen bed, gas and wood fire pits, and a sink with running water. Cold night ahead? We could use the instant-hot faucet to fill the supplied hot water bottles, or we could just switch on the electric blanket.

Glamping, we soon discovered, is a lot like camping: Woods, bugs, smoky campfires, and a walk to the bathroom. The difference is that once you walk back from the bathroom, you can slip between thick Harbor Linen sheets, pull out your tablet and watch Netflix over high-speed Wi-Fi. Need anything? Just text your request to Ventana's concierge, then sit back in one of the big Adirondack chairs and wait for your wish to be fulfilled.

Ventana allows glampers to access all of the resort's facilities, including the spa, pools, hiking trails, and a daily wine and cheese reception. Call-to-order shuttles—Volvo XC90s in a color scheme identical to our wagon—will happily whisk glampers to any corner of the resort, but we chose to drive ourselves up the hill to the resort's Sur House restaurant for dinner. (Thank goodness for the V90's standard-fitment front parking sensors, which saved me from an embarrassing run-in between the left-front fender and a tree stump while squeezing the big Volvo from behind our tent.)

After watching the sun set over the ocean, we sat down to a fantastic seafood feast: Kanpachi crudo and steamed mussels for two, followed by Mt. Lassen trout for Robin and a life-changing squid-ink tagliatelle with Dungeness crab and uni butter for me. (I had no idea what uni was, and Robin waited until after dinner to tell me: Sea urchin gonads. Gross, but delicious.)

We had a lovely lie-in the next morning, the silence of the woods broken only by the rushing brook just outside our tent. After breakfast and a soak in the Japanese baths, we set out to explore more of Big Sur's spectacular coast.

One of the things I appreciated most on this trip—besides the Sur House's cinnamon rolls, which are made from croissant dough—was Pilot Assist. We don't ever rely on semi-autonomous systems like this to drive us (Darwin Award, anyone?), but Pilot Assist worked well on PCH, where the Volvo was happy to help steer itself through the gentle curves. One can't tune out entirely; the system looks for steering input as a sign that the driver is still alive and in command, and a lapse of more than a few seconds brings a stern admonition from the car. But it also eliminates that all-too-human tendency to steer toward the thing we are looking at. I was able to take in more of the scenery, and more safely, than if I had been driving without the car's assistance.

Returning to our redwood grove, we decided it wouldn't be a proper campout without a cookout. Burgers and dogs? Nope, we were glamping, so it was ribeyes all the way. Ventana provides a supply of firewood so dry I got thirsty just looking at it, and though I was once named my Boy Scout troop's lowest achiever, I was able to get a roaring fire going in no time. Despite this outstanding display of manliness, Robin chose the gas fire pit to heat up her cast-iron pan. We set out our meal on linens and dinnerware supplied by the resort, popped open a bottle of red, and had steak under the stars. Among the goodies we found in our tent was a comprehensive s'mores kit, so we put my raging fire to good use before retiring to the comfort of our tent.

The morning came too quickly, and it was time to set off for home. Instead of hugging the coast, we turned inland on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a twisty lane that I quickly discovered is great for motorcycles but too narrow for a big Volvo wagon. The V90's default ride is on the firm side of comfortable, which I interpreted as a veiled promise of sportiness, but even with the adaptive suspension set to Sport, the hefty V90 proved to be more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. After 18 years together, I know most of Robin's nonverbal cues for "knock it off," so I dropped my speed and we took in some fall foliage, a sight Los Angelinos like us rarely get to enjoy.

An instant later, or so it seemed, we were back home, another great road trip all too quickly in the books. So what did we learn? For one thing, camping is a hell of a lot better when you can enjoy 100 percent of the experience with 5 percent of the work. And while we didn't actually bring all the gear with us, I'm pretty sure that most of it would have fit in or on the Volvo (the queen-size bed, admittedly, would've been a challenge). Maybe I didn't provide conclusive proof that our V90 can do everything a crossover SUV can, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

Our 2019 Volvo V90 T6 AWD Inscription
ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $60,445/$70,290 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/316 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,200-5,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD station wagon
CONSTRUCTION Unibody
STEERING Electric power assisted rack and pinion
TURNING CIRCLE 38.7 ft
SUSPENSION, F/R Double wishbone with coil springs/Integral axle with air springs
BRAKES, F/R Vented disc/vented disc
WHEELS, F/R 20-inch alloy
TIRES Pirelli Cinturato P7, P235/35 ZR20
EPA MILEAGE 24 mpg (combined, est)
L x W x H 194.3 x 74.0 x 58.1 in
WHEELBASE 115.8 in
TRACK, F/R 63.7/63.7 in
HEADROOM, F/R 37.8/37.7 in
LEGROOM, F/R 42.2/35.9 in
SHOULDER ROOM, F/R 57.5/55.9 in
CARGO CAPACITY (SEATS UP/DOWN) 19.8/69.0 cu ft
WEIGHT 4,245 lb
WEIGHT DIST, F/R 53/47
EPA MILEAGE 21/31/25 (city/hwy/combined)
FUEL CAPACITY 15.9 gal
FUEL RANGE 493 miles
FUEL GRADE Premium recommended
0-60 5.8 sec (manf. est. )
TOP SPEED 155 mph
EQUIPMENT: STANDARD Pilot Assist semi-autonomous drive system with adaptive cruise, control and lane-keeping assistancem Collision detection and mitigation with automatic braking, Panoramic sunroof, Aluminum roof rails, Nappa leather trim,
10-way power-adjustable heated and cooled front seats w/ adjustable thigh and side bolsters, Driver's seat memory, Navigation, WiFi hot spot, Harmon-Kardon premium audio system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Keyless entry and ignition, Rear view camera, Rear parking assistance, Hands-free power tailgate, Luggage cover
EQUIPMENT: OPTIONAL Advanced Package (head-up display, active LED headlights with washers, semi-automatic self-parking, 360-degree parking camera, front parking assistance), $2,500; 20" Inscription wheels, $800; Massaging front seats, $600; Bowers and Wilkins premium audio, $3,200; Heated steering wheel, $300; 115-volt outlet, $150; Rear air suspension, $1,200; Charcoal headliner, $200; Roof load bars, $250; Metallic paint, $645
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