The 2017 Volvo XC90, or How the Swedes Got Their Sexy Back

wheel-to-wheel copy

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

If you’re of a certain age (or have listened to enough Woody Allen jokes), then you know “Swedish film” is a loaded term. Back when Hollywood still had to reflect good ol’ American values in every movie it made, theaters in the seedier parts of cities began showing these foreign flicks. Compared to your typical American fare, they were a little more mature, a little more passionate, and a little less clothed.

Yes, back in the ’60s and ’70s the classier adult movie theaters peddled skin flicks not as smut, but as tasteful, high-brow “Swedish films.” Soon, all those buxom blondes and mop-haired lumberjack types cavorting on screen in adult situations gave Sweden the reputation of being the sexiest country in the world. Unfortunately, another Swedish export, its cars, just couldn’t compete when it came to sex appeal.

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Don’t get us wrong — this writer has owned two vintage Volvos. But for decades, Sweden’s big two (Volvo and Saab) designed for safety and practicality first, then comfort. Looks came in next — or maybe just behind engineering, as well as ergonomics. Anyway, styling always seemed to rank somewhere at the middle-bottom of the Swedes’ to-do list. There have been some glaring exceptions, of course, namely the Volvo P1800 and Saab 900 APC. But consider this: If French cars are synonymous with the avant-garde, Italians are known for passion, Brits with elegance, and Germans with minimalism, it’s telling that Sweden’s automotive icons are (mostly) lovingly compared to bricks and shoes.

After that dowdy “classic era,” the Swedes had a bit of a lost period. Saab succumbed to GM’s toxic mismanagement, disappearing for good in 2012. Under Ford ownership, Volvo seemed to go out of its way to make its cars look less like a Volvo. The results weren’t encouraging. By 2008, Ford had jettisoned the struggling company, leaving its future in doubt, too. But it was rescued by Chinese Geely Automotive, which gave the company free rein to build the cars it wanted. The result has been one of the swiftest automotive comebacks in recent history.

In 2013, Volvo debuted a new styling language that would translate across an all-new lineup. That language first made it to production in 2015 as the XC90. And now, some five decades after its movies got America all hot and bothered, Sweden’s cars are finally getting down to it. The XC90 isn’t the newest SUV on the road anymore, but we’ll be damned if you can find a sexier one within $50,000 of its price tag.

Oh, and in T6 R-Design trim, it goes like hell, too.


2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

First, just look at it. Even in a monolithic shade of Onyx Black Metallic, there’s no way you could look at the XC90 and find a bad angle. The minimal brightwork does wonders in breaking up all that sheet metal, while the subtly flared fenders keep the SUV from looking slab-sided. Up front, the “Thor’s Hammer” headlight design is quickly becoming a company hallmark, while the simple front grille recalls the Volvo P1800 without looking retro. Out back, the parentheses-shaped taillights echo the design on the current S90 sedan, while their vertical portions are a flourish that dates to the station wagons of the early ’90s. At a time when Mercedes and Audi build SUVs that are largely indistinguishable from one another, and BMW and Lexus offerings get busier with each update, Volvo has gotten it just right.

Exterior pros and cons

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ It looks good from any angle. Two years in, it’s still our favorite SUV design on the road.

+ There are subtle nods to the company’s past while feeling thoroughly modern.

+ The 20-inch R-Design wheels and dual-exhaust tips make the XC90 look like a brute in a bespoke suit.

– It makes the case for owning any other premium SUV difficult — luxury, price tag, or performance be damned.

– It’s also difficult for this opinionated auto journalist to find constructive faults with the design. Well played, Volvo.

– It’s due for a refresh in the next year or two. We’re keeping two fingers crossed that the design stays this pure and elegant.


2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The base XC90 makes due with Volvo’s E-Drive 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four. In hot T6 trim, this engine gets a supercharger, too, bumping power up from 250 to 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a slick eight-speed automatic transmission, the 2½ ton SUV rockets from zero to 60 in just 5.3 seconds, making it one of the quickest vehicles to ever wear the circle-and-arrow badge.

And despite it being a 2½ ton four-cylinder SUV, the T6 sounds good. It’s quiet and unobtrusive in most drive modes, but when you shift it into Sport Mode, the turbocharged/supercharged E-Drive seems to come alive. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, all tucked into that massive engine bay under black plastic, but there’s a reason why E-Drive variants have wound up on Ward’s 10 Best Engines list three years in a row. It has a bark and bite you just don’t expect from most four bangers — especially ones in three-row SUVs.

Powertrain pros and cons

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ In turbocharged and supercharged spec, the E-Drive packs a serious punch for such a small engine.

+ It’s urbane and responsive around town, as well as throaty and aggressive when you want it to be.

+ It’s even more evidence that Volvo has figured out how to do performance.

– Power in a heavy SUV comes at a price. Despite an EPA 20 city/25 highway rating, we regularly saw 18 MPG around town.

– With all that room in the engine bay, we can’t help but fantasize about bigger, more powerful engine options.

– As quick as it is, there are faster competitors out there.


2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Scandinavia has long been a hub for furniture and industrial design, and in the XC90, Volvo brings it all back home. At first glance, the Nubuck and Nappa leather R-Design sport seats looked out of place in the XC90 — or in any Volvo for that matter. Especially with their aggressive bolstering and adjustable thigh supports, they look like they’d be more at home in a BMW X5 M or something like that. But then you hoist yourself into the things, and they suit the character of the T6 perfectly. They’re gripping and supportive when you want to drive in anger, but on long drives, they’re incredibly comfortable. Shame on us for doubting Volvo on its six-decade-plus quest to design the best seats in the world.

There’s plenty of legroom in the second row and a respectable amount in the third-row, though the headrests impede on rear vision when they’re empty. With the back row folded down, there’s an impressive 41.8 cubic feet of storage space, giving you plenty of room for passengers and all their stuff.

Back up front, the XC90’s dashboard was a revelation 2½ years ago. Now that a similar design is found in the S90, it’s not as revolutionary. But it’s no less beautiful either. Soft touch materials and leather are superb, switchgear is nicer than the stuff found in some vehicles twice its price, the aluminum accent pieces are elegant, and the R-Design carbon fiber trim is sporty. Again, with the German automakers seemingly playing catch-up with themselves, Volvo has found an opening and come up with one of the best interiors in the world at any price.

Interior pros and cons

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Fit and finish, as well as attention to detail, are superb. Even the key fob is upholstered in black Nappa leather.

+ Adjustable R-Design seats are well-bolstered for aggressive driving. But most importantly, they’re comfortable for long drives, too.

+ Volvo now offers a nicer interior than most of its German, British, American, and Japanese competition. Yes, you read that right; this isn’t your grandfather’s Volvo.

– Even with the panoramic sunroof, there’s a lot of black in here.

– With the third-row seats up, rear visibility suffers.

Tech and safety

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Volvo has long been known as “the safety brand,” and you’re reminded of this every time you get in the XC90. That’s not because the SUV is an IIHS Top Safety Pick + or that it has an IIHS five-star safety rating — which it does. When you reach for your seat belt, you see it has “Since 1959” stamped into it, referring to the year three-point belts became standard on Volvos. It would be years before other automakers followed suit.

But that’s not the only way you know it’s safe. If we have one major gripe with the XC90, it’s that its safety equipment gets a little too pushy. Our T6 had the Vision Package (a $1,950 option) and the Convenience Package ($1,800), which include a blind-spot information system, 360-degree cameras, park assist, and Pilot Assist, Volvo’s semi-autonomous driving system.

With all the nannies on, the XC90 becomes a sentient back-seat driver, which is both disconcerting and frustrating. If it doesn’t like your line into a bend, the steering wheel locks up (which is jarring the first time it happens at highway speed), and it corrects it for you. Going too fast? You’ll get a blinking warning on the speedometer, and it’ll automatically slow down. If it doesn’t think you’re braking fast enough, it’ll overcompensate, turning some routine deceleration into near-panic stops.

As impressive as the technology is, we kept most of these functions off. We instead enjoyed driving ourselves and listening to the superb Bowers & Wilkins stereo, a $2,650 option. Aside from a good-looking volume knob and a few buttons on the dash and steering wheel, virtually everything is controlled by Volvo’s 9-inch touchscreen and Sensus infotainment system. It’s a good looking interface and relatively intuitive, but its iPad-like swipe screen makes it a chore when you need to move between screens full of safety functions. It can be so distracting, in fact, that we’d recommend waiting until the next stop light to flip between screens.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Not only does it have the latest safety hardware, but crash tests prove it’s also one of the safest SUVs out there.

+ The Sensus system is good looking and easy to use; the adaptable digital instrument panel is great.

+ Bowers & Wilkins stereo is pricey, but it’s one of the best systems on the market.

– As impressive as the semi-autonomous programs are, at best they take a lot to get used to. Worst case is they can be disconcerting and ultimately distracting.

– Sensus does a lot, but that means you usually have to swipe through several screens to find what you want.

– Options packages will hurt your wallet. Our XC90 had nearly $18,000 worth of add-ons.

The drive

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

It would be one thing if the XC90 were just a pretty face. It would be another thing if it just had a good powertrain — or a nice interior. But don’t mistake any of our praises as empty gearhead bluster; the XC90 is the real deal. It is pricey. The T6 starts at $51,000, and our tester rang up at $69,105. But it’s pretty, fast, and it has one of the nicest interiors around. It also seats seven comfortably, is incredibly safe, and has some of the latest technology on the market. It’ll make a dedicated gearhead smile and impress the car agnostic people in your life. Put that together, and you’ve got one of the best in the world.

The XC90 is deceptively tall. This 6-foot-plus writer had to haul himself up and into those upright, well-bolstered R-Design thrones, which caused us to wonder about the shelf life of the seat’s outer bolster. But once you’re behind the wheel, visibility is excellent and every control is easily within reach — not that we’d expect anything less from a brand that built its reputation on ergonomics.

Around town, the XC90 behaves like you’d expect from any premium people-mover. It’s quiet and compliant, absorbing most road noise and potholes without a fuss. It can fit your entire family without anyone feeling shoehorned in. And with the back seats down it can haul just about anything you can fit into its 85.7 cubic feet with both rear rows folded.

Then, on the open roads, move the knurled knob on the console to Sport. The shift points change, traction control relaxes a bit, and the XC90 loves to be pushed. Even in the snow, we found it to be lively and engaging, with no problems coming from the standard all-season tires. The T6 designation means you get all the gas-fueled power Volvo offers. (The T8 Hybrid now offers 421 horses and 502 pound-feet.) Then, after a long day of driving, you’ll park it and head indoors. Once you walk away from it, you will stop to look back at it. Every time. We guarantee it.

Wrap up and review

2017 Volvo XC90
2017 Volvo XC90 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Any way you slice it, the XC90 is one of the best vehicles on the planet. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that a good effort doesn’t always go rewarded. Volvo is living the dream of any automaker that was once on the ropes: Land a hit, and watch the money come flowing back in. It just usually doesn’t go this way. Look at the AMC Eagle, NSU Ro80, Studebaker Avanti, or Saab 9-5. They were all innovative models, but they weren’t enough to save their moribund companies. In most cases, a new leaf doesn’t amount to anything other than a final, tantalizing “what if.”

But Cadillac has come back from the brink, and so has Jaguar-Land Rover. Lincoln is trying to do it, too. The changing times of the 21st century seem to be a good opportunity for automakers to reinvent themselves. So far, Volvo has seized the chance faster and with more aplomb than just about anyone else.

In 2015, the XC90’s first year on sale, Volvo sales jumped 24% in the U.S. In 2016, sales were up an additional 16%, and in January 2017 numbers were up even higher. After years in the wilderness, Volvo has come roaring back, and the XC90 has a lot to do with it — to the tune of nearly 50,000 sales over the past two years.

The XC90 is that rare, singular comeback model — the one that seems to confirm Volvo has what it takes to keep Swedish cars on our roads for years to come. With the sublime S- and V90 already here, as well as a new 40-Series on the way, it looks like the automaker is well on track to reach its goal of fielding an all-new lineup by decade’s end.

In 2014, Volvo looked like it might not survive. Just three years later, it’s elbowing its way into “World’s Best” conversations. The Swedes have finally figured out how to bring their penchant for design and, yes, sex appeal to their cars. We would say it’s better late than never, but with results like this we’d be crazy to gripe at all.