I don’t often get the chance to drive large-capacity sport-utility vehicles as they’re meant to be, but this last holiday was (sort of) an exception. I drove a 2016 Volvo XC90 AWD Inscription to metro Milwaukee and back and brought along my family. Here’s where the “sort of” comes into play; my wife and I have no kids, but our three collies rode along behind the front seats. A borrowed rooftop carrier handled most of our luggage. (Note to Volvo Car USA: The Green Bay Packers “sticker” is a magnet.)
I had already come to regard the first all-new Volvo XC90 in more than a dozen years as the future of luxury transportation. Even loaded to the gills and topped with that rooftop carrier, it managed about 20 mostly freeway mpg, enough to match its city EPA number.
Actually, my first impression from a shorter drive earlier last year was that the XC90 is the future of high-capacity transportation. It’s a seven-passenger, three-row model that gets plenty of power from a turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas, direct-injection engine powering all four wheels. It’s the largest engine that any new Volvo coming in the future, including the S90 sedan, will ever have. The only upgrade will be the plug-in hybrid T8 powertrain that bumps the T6 turbo-/supercharged four from 316 horsepower to a cool 400.
Big as the XC90 is, it feels light on its feet. It’s 194.8 inches long, on a 117.5-inch wheelbase. At 69.9 inches high, it doesn’t feel that tall when stepping in and out. Volvo has not joined the ranks of BMW competitors that are trying to beat BMW dynamics — at least, what BMW’s dynamics used to be. This is an SUV you’re supposed to forget you are driving (while still paying close attention to traffic around you). Nothing about the steering, handling, or acceleration makes you want to find a twisty mountain road. Nothing about all that makes you wish you were driving a Bimmer either; the handling is sufficiently crisp, and the steering provides decent feedback.
Like BMW and all the competitors that want to be BMW, the Volvo XC90 has adjustable dynamics. I have a tough time caring about, and trying out, these systems. (BMW used to be able to find the right chassis balance without making its drivers do the fine-tuning.) The Dynamic mode lowers the XC90 by 0.8 inch when above 84 mph. It also adapts four-corner active dampers on the air suspension (which was an $1,800 option on my $66,855 loaner) and shifts the eight-speed automatic at higher revs. I tried it just long enough to learn that I didn’t need this mode for this drive. You — and Volvo — don’t want to see what happens when collies get carsick.
I did click on the Eco mode somewhere near Ann Arbor during the return drive, to avoid having to stop for gas within 10 miles from home. In this mode, it goes into “Eco-coast” when you lift off the throttle above 40 mph, thus cutting power and saving gas. I made it. Guess Eco works.
I also tried the adaptive cruise control with Pilot Assist, but only briefly. Fact is, there isn’t much to do with this system because it works only up to 30 mph, and you rely on the car in front of you, which almost always will accelerate past 30 on most any street or road. The new Pilot Assist II, to launch on the 2017 Volvo S90, does not require following another car, and it allows autonomous steering up to 80 mph. This would make the agonizing, stop-and-go drive through Chicago perhaps as easy as the rest of the trip … especially when the express lanes are open in my direction.
The future of autonomous driving has come into focus just in the first few weeks of this new year. While Cadillac has delayed introduction of its Super Cruise highway semi-autonomy until next year, Mercedes-Benz introduced its next step in the new E-Class that made its debut at the North American International Auto Show last week. Mercedes, which is Volvo’s chief rival in such advances, says if you signal for it, the new E-Class will change lanes autonomously while on a highway or freeway.
Volvo plans its test of Level 4 autonomy on about 31 miles of highway in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2017 and wants to next test somewhere in the U.S. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles put the kibosh on that late last year when it issued operator rules for autonomous vehicles that require human drivers to always be in control. But then last week, ahead of the president’s appearance at the Detroit show, the Obama administration announced a $4 billion pilot program to study the technology, thus taking the leadership away from California.
Though I will be among the last drivers to give up a manual-equipped car — which can’t be made autonomous — I’m growing more comfortable with the fiercely growing trajectory of autonomous driving. For a seven-hour drive on tedious interstate in a big, luxurious SUV with your family, a bit of extra comfort (and, therefore, safety) is a welcomed thing.