Volvo’s new XC90 kick starts new era for Swedish brand after $11bn investment

After 11 years and $11bn investment Volvo introduces new tech and design for the brand’s future models with its latest SUV


After 11 years – and an $11 billion investment – Volvo is showcasing its future with the second generation Volvo XC90. Yes, you read that right: $11 billion will have been spent between 2011 and 2015. Clearly its new Chinese owner, Geely, is serious about its Swedish purchase.

Volvo’s chief executive, Håkan Samuelsson spelled out the significance of the new SUV to the firm. “This is one of the most important days in our history. We are not just launching a car, but relaunching our brand. This day marks a new era for our company. The XC90 paves the way for a portfolio of exciting new cars to come in the following years.”

It’s fitting that the new dawn begins with a model that best exemplifies the Swedish family car maker’s desire to be regarded as a fully-fledged premium player.

The XC90 is the Volvo that most easily faces off against premium rivals like the BMW X5, Audi Q7, Land Rover Discovery and even the Range Rover Sport. And for its strong US market and burgeoning Chinese one, success in the SUV segment will be a firm base upon which to pitch future models.

The new car is built on Volvo’s new SPA platform, which will underpin future large cars from the firm, ranging from the next generation S60 saloon right through to the larger XC models and potentially a new coupe, which may take the moniker of C90. By 2019 all the Volvo range will have been updated as part of Geely’s investment in the brand. But right now a lot rides on the XC90. As Geely owner Li Shufu said to the Wall Street Journal recently, if the XC90 doesn’t become a hit, “it will be very painful”.

Swedish understatement marries Chinese bling

Due in Ireland next spring, it will have seven seats as standard along with satnav and 19-inch alloys . The exterior is much cleaner than the outgoing model, with distinctive LED lights at the front and a strong, clearly identifiable, front grille. Inside it remains a spacious seven-seater with three proper seats – individually adjustable – in the middle row. The third row can easily cope with two adults while there is still luggage space available even when all three rows are in use. Volvo accepts that most buyers don’t need the third row that much, but like to have them there as a back-up. Similarly with the all-wheel-drive system. Most of the time they don’t need the off-road capability, but they like the comfort of knowing it’s there.

The big news inside is the dash, where all but essential buttons have been removed and replaced by a large, touch screen, tablet-like control panel called Sensus. It controls everything from air conditioning to satnav and will also carry a mirror image of your smartphone and apps courtesy of Apple’s iPlay and Google’s Andriod Carplay systems. Driver’s interact with it through a variety of means; from much-improved voice control to steering wheel mounted switches or the Sensus screen.

Overall it’s eyecatching and offers a truly premium cabin feel, augmented with touches such as a partly crystal glass gear knob. This new interior look will be rolled out in future models as well. Clearly the crystal element is a nod to the brasher Chinese tastes and the XC90 reflects the undoubted battle between Swedish minimalism and preference for natural materials and clean surfaces, with a Chinese preference for a bit more bling. There’s a definite nod towards the tastes of Chinese buyers in the exterior look and interior of the car, but it still retains a touch of Swedish refinement and understatement. Despite the clash of cultures the end result actually works.

Safety technology innovations

The new XC90 also boasts a few world firsts in terms of safety technology, aimed at bringing the the firm closer to its vision that no one will die or be seriously injured in a Volvo new car after 2020. It’s a bold statement that continues to surprise, but Volvo continues to stand by its goal.

The two newest additions to its safety features are a system of protection against accidentally leaving the road, and an automatic braking system that can kick in at intersections.

In the US, 50 per cent of fatal traffic accidents involving a single vehicle relate to it leaving the road unintentionally. In the new XC90 Volvo introduces the “Safe Positioning” ability, which means that in a scenario of involuntary leaving the road, the new Volvo XC90 detects what is happening, and seat belts for front-seat occupants are preloaded to keep them in their places.

The car also gets a new system that automatically brakes if the driver tries to turn in front of a vehicle approaching from the front. It detects the potential crash and automatically brakes to avoid a collision or to limit the consequences in case of an accident.

The wide range of safety systems for the new Volvo XC90 also includes: pre-crash protection in rear impacts, rollover prevention and protection, extended road sign information, a blind spot information system, and queue assist, the last of these is a low-speed automated driving system.

Price tag

The Swedes know how important this car is to the brand, so it’s not surprising to consider the level of investment that went into it, or how two years ago an initial version was scrapped and a full redesign ordered by design boss Thomas Ingenlath. They also realise that since Saab effectively closed, they are the sole motoring representation of Scandinavia.

The rather bold new look – particularly the prominent grille – should work well with Chinese buyers, who are the key to its future. Consultancy firm McKinsey recently predicted China will be the world’s largest premium market by 2020. Few disagree with that.

Volvo also wants to reflect the minimalist design we associate with Scandinavia. And just as the region liked to consider its social democratic model as an alternative to cut-throat capitalism or communism, so Volvo is hoping to be the third way alternative in the premium segment to the aggressive sales pitch from the German brands. However, in its efforts to be discrete and classless it sometimes doesn’t bang its drum loud enough.

There’s an air of confidence back among the Swedes, a belief that unlike the troubled past, both during its time under Ford and shortly afterwards, Volvo will be around for many years to come. The XC90 sets the scene for a strong Swedish alternative to the sometimes brash nature of the premium German brands. And with an admirable ambition to prevent serious crashes by its new cars from 2020 it would be nice to see it in a position of strength by then.

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