A stylish, understated large SUV that’s beautifully built, has space for seven, is packed with clever new technology, and is even affordable to run. The XC90 majors on ride comfort, refinement and safety, and can take you and the whole family a long way in total comfort. It comes highly equipped, too, with a sumptuous cabin that sets new class standards for quality and design.
Few SUVs offer buyers the ability to express their individuality quite like the XC90. For starters, each trim (Momentum, R-Design and Inscription) gets a bespoke grille and front end treatment, with the sportiest versions getting more angular lights and vents to give this Volvo a bit more purpose. The eye-catching full LED headlights are standard on all versions, and the smallest wheels you can choose are 19 inches across – rising to 21 inches on top-spec cars. Despite its considerable size, though, the XC90 manages not to look too brash or imposing.
Expert rating: 5/5
What's the interior like?
All the materials in the XC90 look and feel expensive, and high-quality. The leather covering the dash and centre console is soft and beautifully stitched, the main dials are digital, and can be changed to suit your own individual taste. The switches are almost jewel-like, with textured metal surfaces and a pleasingly chunky, robust feel. The only note of criticism is that, good as the XC90 is, the interior of the (newer) Audi Q7 feels even better when it comes to that final level of solidity.
There are only eight buttons on the dash – including one to open the glovebox – so the cabin is kept totally free from clutter. The driver’s seat has standard six-way electric adjustment, plus extending thigh and lumbar support, and side bolsters that can be made as figure-hugging as you wish. It takes a while to find the perfect set-up, but drivers of all shapes and sizes will be able to find a comfortable, supportive driving position. The infotainment system operates via a touchscreen in a similar way to a tablet, with swipe-and-tap controls that will be familiar to anyone that’s used an iPad. We’ve found it a bit confusing to navigate, but it is very customisable and we suspect that once you’ve dialled in your preferred settings, it’ll be much more intuitive. Apple CarPlay and – for cars from 2017 onwards – Android Auto is included.
Visibility is excellent, with clear views out of the front and rear screens, and big mirrors, so that it's easy to judge the car's dimensions. You don't sit up quite as high as in, say, a Range Rover Sport, but you don't have to climb up to get inside, either. Large windows, a panoramic sunroof (standard on T8 models, but optional on others) and light materials also mean it feels airy and spacious in the XC90. You can even spend extra on making the cabin feel like a Swedish spa, with a variety of wood, leather and metal trim finishes to choose from.
Expert rating: 4/5
How practical is it?
The XC90 is one of the most versatile family cars money can buy. It could teach a few MPVs a thing or two about interior space, with room for adult passengers in all three rows of seats. Access to the rearmost pair is a bit tricky, but folding them up and down into the floor is simple, and they are mounted close to the middle of the car to give those in the back a better view. The seats in the middle row recline, fold and slide individually, so that you can rearrange them in whichever way suits you best.
Even with all seven seats up, the boot will still carry some 318 litres of stuff, but fold them down and you’ve got a really massive 1,868 litres available. The loading bay is totally flat, and there is no lip to catch your bags on when swinging them into the boot. If you choose the T8 hybrid version, then there is a little less foot room for the middle passenger in the back, but apart from that the XC90 is near faultless in this area. Only a Land Rover Discovery and Audi Q7 come close to matching the XC90 for versatility and boot volume.
Expert rating: 5/5
What's it like to drive?
As standard, the XC90 comes with steel springs, and a simple leaf spring across the rear to save weight and make more space for the boot, seats, and electric motor in the T8. However, we think the optional air suspension is well worth considering, although it's not cheap. With these optional springs fitted, it rides really well, soaking up crests and bumps with ease, and feeling generally smoother and more comfortable than the standard suspension, particularly at low speed. On larger 21-inch wheels, we’ve found that you feel smaller imperfections intrude into the cabin.
There are three different drive settings to choose from - Eco, Comfort and Dynamic - but even in its sportiest mode, there is fair bit of body roll in the corners, especially in the heavy T8 hybrid. Still, for a two-tonne SUV, the XC90 handles well, with positive, consistently weighted steering, and decent grip from the four-wheel drive system. It feels very planted and stable at all times, but puts the emphasis on comfort above all else, so if you’re looking for the sharpest handling big SUV, then a Porsche Cayenne is a better bet.
Expert rating: 3/5
How powerful is it?
There are four engine choices in the XC90. There’s just the one diesel, called the D5, and there petrols, called T5, T6 and T8. The latter is a hybrid, with an electric motor adding extra power and giving an electric-only mode.
The 235 horsepower D5 diesel is a strong performer. Rivals with six-cylinder diesels are a bit quicker off the line, but the engine is flexible, delivers plenty of torque even at low revs, and works in fine harmony with the standard eight-speed automatic gearbox.
The petrol-power, 250 horsepower T5 is the entry-level option, and is smooth, quiet and generally adequate for everyday motoring, but you’ll have to work it pretty hard if you want to get a move on, as it doesn’t have the effortless grunt of the diesel or the more powerful petrol engines.
The 310-horsepower T6 also needs working to get the best from it, but does feel pretty quick, even though it’s not quite as refined as the diesel, getting strained if you push towards the upper reaches of the rev range. In place of a big V8, Volvo has the T8 Twin Engine – a plug-in hybrid. It takes the 2.0-litre petrol from the T6 and adds a pair of electric motors for a combined 407 horsepower and lots of torque. It drives the rear wheels via a motor and has a pure electric range of around 27 miles. It’s also capable of completing the 0-62mph sprint in just 5.5 seconds when required, with the motor giving you instant acceleration from very low revs.
All of these engines feel surprisingly strong for their size, but the gearbox can be a little slow to react, and doesn’t work as smoothly with the hybrid and petrol engines as it does in the D5. Most rivals offer quicker versions of their largest 4x4s, but most of these sporty SUVs are also a lot pricier.
Expert rating: 4/5
How much will it cost me?
As a premium SUV, the XC90 matches rivals like the Land Rover Discovery and Audi Q7 for price, with not much difference between the three. We compared the diesel-power XC90 Momentum Pro D5 with the Land Rover Discovery SD4 SE and the Audi Q7 45 S line. The Discovery is slightly cheaper, but has the poorest fuel economy which will bump up the running costs. The Audi is better, but its big 3.0-litre V6 engine can’t compare in fuel economy with the smaller 2.0-litre engine in the Volvo, which means that driving the XC90 will cost you less in fuel. Over thousands of miles and several years, that will make a big difference.
The Land Rover is likely to hold its value better than the others, with the Volvo second and Audi third, but Volvo’s costs for service, maintenance and repair likely to be significantly cheaper than the others. Overall, we would expect the Volvo to be slightly cheaper when factoring in whole life costs, closely followed by the Land Rover, with the Q7 significantly more expensive.
Expert rating: 5/5
How reliable is it?
Volvo had a well-deserved reputation for reliability for some time, but the 2018 JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study saw the company plunge down the rankings from its joint first place in 2017, leaving it in the bottom half of the manufacturer table with a score below the industry average. However, this is likely due to issues with newer models, and as this version of the XC90 has been on sale for several years, we’re pretty confident that owners shouldn’t face too many issues. Should something go wrong however, Volvo offers a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty.
Expert rating: 4/5
How safe is it?
Few brands take safety as seriously as Volvo does. In fact, it invented the three-point seat belt in 1959, and all the belt buckles in the XC90 are engraved with the date of that breakthrough. Things have moved on since then, and the XC90 comes with some impressive safety gadgets beyond the standard six airbags and traction control that helped it to a maximum five-star rating from Euro NCAP. For example, it can detect if the car leaves the road and is about to have a crash, and the seats have a special cushion that absorbs the impact to protect your spine. The brake pedal will automatically retract to avoid knee injuries for the driver, and it also has traction and stability control to prevent an accident in the first place. It has sensors to detect cyclists and pedestrians, and will apply the brakes itself to avoid a collision if required. Lane departure warning, tyre pressure monitors, and traffic sign detection are also standard on every model. Safety options include adaptive cruise control, a self-driving traffic mode, and blind spot monitoring, as part of the Intellisafe pack.
Expert rating: 5/5
How much equipment do I get?
Even the cheapest Momentum trim comes loaded with equipment, most of which you would have to pay extra for in the XC90’s rivals. Every model gets at least 19-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, dual-zone climate control, sat-nav with European maps and lifetime annual updates, rear parking sensors, DAB radio, a powered tailgate, Bluetooth and automatic lights and wipers. Quite the exhaustive list, but if you step up to R-Design trim, then Volvo will add sports seats, bigger wheels and digital instruments. Top-spec Inscription versions get plusher leather, with extra pieces on the dash and doors, integrated sun blinds in the back, and electric adjustment for the front passenger. Yet even this flagship version is a fair bit cheaper than rivals like the Range Rover Sport, and the XC90 comes with a lot more as standard than either a BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne. There is a fairly extensive options list, but it’s worth mentioning the 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins premium stereo – it is comfortably the best in-car system we have come across.
Expert rating: 5/5
If you want a family car that can cope with adventure holidays, school runs, trips to the tip and everything in between, the XC90 really does have all bases covered. The hybrid T8 version also makes a superb company car. As an SUV, it offers superb levels of comfort and refinement, oodles of space for up to seven adults, and decent off-road ability. It’s one of the safest cars in its class, very fuel-efficient, good to drive and beautifully made. What’s more, it also looks great and comes better equipped than most of its rivals, with a brilliant infotainment system. In case you hadn’t already guessed, we highly recommend it.