THE Swedish have an innate ability to create masterpieces of minimalist design. Functionalism is always at the core of their creations, but harder attributes are tempered with gracious lines and organic materials. Their tastes reflect a culture that has always shunned excessive displays of wealth in favour of a less-is-more approach in which the very best materials and purity of lines are employed to produce something of high quality.

And there’s no better example of this uniquely Swedish ethos than the motor vehicle you’re looking at here. And that’s not merely with reference to its looks, either. Every facet – from the XC90’s high-shouldered functional aesthetics, to its scalable underpinnings and one-size-fits-all engine – is positively Swedish from conception to execution.

It’s a big vehicle – nearly five metres long with a wheelbase just shy of three metres in length – that wears its bulk well. The first of Volvo’s vehicles to use the firm’s modular Scaleable Product Architecture (SPA) platform, the XC90 is ostensibly larger, lighter, safer and better balanced than its predecessor. Unlike the BMW X5, for example, that disguises its large underpinnings with muscular, shrink-wrapped styling, the XC90 has an imposing, square-jawed, utilitarian shape and incorporates the brand’s latest design language. This pragmatism, though, is softened by design chief Thomas Ingenlath with details like the “Thor’s Hammer” elements in the XC90’s LED headlamps and the exaggerated curve of Volvo’s signature elongated rear lights.

Step inside and you’re faced with what we think sets a benchmark for interiors in this segment. CAR testers don’t usually give emotive feedback on their score sheets, but descriptions such as “sublime”, “beautifully crafted” and “tastefully executed” were scribbled down.

Our test car came equipped with the Premium Pack (a R55 000 option) that includes heated seats, head-up display, a 360-degree camera, power-adjustable front seats, a superb Bowers & Wilkins audio setup, blind-spot information system with cross-traffic alert, and keyless entry and start. We suspect many buyers will select this option, but even without it, the XC90’s interior is beautifully finished and features perhaps the best touchscreen interface we’ve experienced in a test vehicle. Volvo calls it Sensus Connect and whereas most brands’ infotainment systems opt for fiddly control dials, this Volvo’s tablet-like screen affords the user access to the infotainment system, climate controls and vehicle settings which, in turn, lends the facia an elegant and uncluttered appearance.

The seats – albeit clad in optional perforated-nappa leather (at the cost of R11 000) in our car – are beautiful pieces of design in their own right. The padding is armchair-like, yet occupants benefit from ample support around the thighs, sides and shoulders. Furthermore, the XC90 comes in a seven-seater configuration as standard. The third row comprises a pair of foldaway seats that can accommodate two adults in comfort and, cleverly, the three rows have been arranged theatre-style with those further back mounted higher up to enhance the sense of spaciousness.

Given the XC90’s exterior dimensions, it was not surprising that testers praised the ample leg-, head- and shoulder-room availed to all the Volvo’s occupants. The luggage bay is capacious, too. Open the powered rear hatch and, with the two third-row seats folded flat, it has a capacity of 464 dm3, which is more than that of the Range Rover Sport (392 dm3), Mercedes-Benz GLE (384 dm3) and BMW X5 (368 dm3).

The newcomer’s safety specification is, as expected, comprehensive and appended by Volvo’s proprietary IntelliSafe package that collectively employs its monitoring and auto-braking functions to avoid collisions with objects, vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. It also features two world-firsts – Run-off Road Protection, and Auto Brake at Intersections. The former is
designed to help protect front occupants if the SUV veers of the road by automatically tightening the seatbelts; the special energy-absorbing seats are designed to limit spine injury
as much as possible. The latter will automatically apply the XC90’s brakes if the driver attempts to turn in front of fast-moving, oncoming vehicles.

In terms of its on-road performance, the XC90’s ride quality was closely scrutinised because the Volvo’s rear multilink suspension eschews a pair of coil springs for a composite leaf spring that’s mounted transversely along the rear axle and spans the two control arms. It’s an eccentric configuration: Volvo suggests it frees up rear passenger and cargo space;
we found it handled road imperfections deftly, especially if you consider that the test unit was shod with optional 21-inch tyres.

One of our testers did, however, feel the XC90’s low-speed damping wasn’t quite as effective as one would expect from a premium SUV, but it proved a minor criticism of a composed and otherwise well-damped ride. For the record, Volvo also offers an air-suspension as a R22 500 option, which does away with the transverse leaf spring.

The performance of the engine divided testers’ opinions most. As alluded to earlier, Volvo has adopted the rather leftfield strategy of using one engine block, one transmission (an eight-speed auto) and one drivetrain (AWD only) for the entire range. Can the versatile 2,0-litre, four-cylinder Drive-E motor, which is available in petrol and turbodiesel guises, be competitive when most of its rivals’ engines have six-cylinder configurations ... or will it be out of its depth?

In this T6 guise, the engine is both turbo- and supercharged to produce 235 kW and 400 N.m of torque. Those figures certainly match those of its rivals. And the XC90 certainly doesn’t feel underpowered. Its acceleration times were on par with expectations and the engine never sounds or feels like a four-pot taking on more than it can chew. At idle and low speeds, the powerplant can sound a trifle unrefined, but then again, so do many of the new-generation, small-capacity turbopetrols.

The advantage of such an engine is fuel efficiency and, although a figure of 11,1 litres/100 km on the fuel route was worse than the class-leading CAR index of 9,6, in real-world terms the XC90 is decently frugal.

Another upside of this smaller and lighter engine is that our braking tests indicated an excellent average 100-to-zero km/h braking time of 2,88 seconds and speaks to the XC90s mass of 2 127 kg, which is at least 100 kg lighter than its BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Range Rover equivalents.



TEST SUMMARY

As always Volvo offers the left-field option, but whereas in the past that usually meant a compromise somewhere along the line, with the new XC90, that is no longer the case. The Swedish newcomer is a genuine rival to the X5, Mercedes-Benz GLE and Range Rover Sport.

It comes with a benchmark interior and, while there are question marks about the suitability of a four-cylinder engine in this segment, the Volvo’s turbo- and supercharged powerplant never feels underpowered. Indeed the engine feels well suited to the XC90’s intended application as an SUV that slots in neatly between the sportier, road-biased Germans and more off-road Brits. The XC90 is a proper premium SUV – it’s big, luxurious, comfortable, has excellent road manners and incorporates innovative safety technology.

As the first in what will be a raft of new SPA-platformed models, the future bodes well for the Swedish marque.