THE first instalment of a long-term test is often a bit light-on for detail, as author and vehicle are still in that difficult ‘getting to know you’ phase. So the update, inevitably, takes the form of a first-drive review by another name, or a well-crafted regurgitation of the specifications sheet.
We’ll get to the specs at a later date, but for now we have a story to tell, as the statuesque Volvo XC90 we’ve nick-named Black Betty threw up enough small dramas in the first few weeks on fleet to fill several columns.
It all started innocently enough with a standard-issue systems-failure alert popping up in the Volvo’s handsomely designed digital dash display. You know the kind, a disco-strength array of multi-coloured lights and warnings to ‘Act now or lose your seat warmers forever’, or some such dire prediction.
Call me cynical or overly casual, but I’ve become a bit immune to such alerts, due to the frequency with which they tend to pop up on various test cars. Seriously, with test cars these days it’s rare there’s not at least one tyre-pressure warning, passenger-airbag alert or assorted other dashboard advisories urging one to make haste to the nearest dealership.
So, unless it has to do with oil pressure, engine temperature or perhaps transmission status, I tend to take them with a grain of salt, in the hope they’ll go away next time I shut the car down. More often than not they do, but not this time.
The first I knew of our near-new XC90 having some sort of internal drama was when the reversing camera went out to lunch. I presumed I’d inadvertently deactivated it playing with the various menus in the XC90’s iPad Mini-sized touchscreen, but soon after came warnings about ABS and City Safe not working.
Despite repeated Ctrl-Alt-Delete efforts, the alerts stayed resolutely prominent, so I figured I’d better do something about it… eventually.
READ NEXT: 2016 Volvo XC90 Range Review
In the meantime, however, I slipped away in another test car, forgetting to mention to the Good Wife that all was not well with the Big Swede. How was I to know that the system failure had also taken out the fuel warning light? Or that my vertically challenged wife couldn’t actually see the fuel gauge?
And that this was the day Mrs Bulmer planned to collect a friend from the airport – travelling via a busy ring road, with a full brood of kids sampling the Volvo’s spacious rear pews.
After the mobile had rung for the 11th time in as many seconds, in the middle of my specially convened meet-and-greet with the MD of a Seriously Important Car Brand, I had an inkling something wasn’t quite right. That was confirmed when I finally answered the phone, only to confront a gale force assault from a severely annoyed wife.
The conversation went roughly along these lines: “I’m stuck on the edge of the #@%&#%@ ring road, with an empty fuel tank, a car full of kids, and my best friend from interstate quivering in the front seat as semis fly past inches from the car. What the #@%&!”
Angry? More like incendiary, but I immediately leapt into action… and called Volvo’s customer assist line. I’m pleased to report they are friendly, helpful and apparently there to save the bacon of galoots like me who ignore system warnings.
A flat-bed truck and 70-odd litres of dead dinosaur droppings later, we were underway again, with the subsequent dealership visit resulting in a flash of the ECU and Black Betty surging back to her former glory.
Not sure if Volvo also offers ECU flashes for inept husbands, but if so I’m sure the wife will soon be signing me up.
Volvo’s designers missed the mark when they decided to reinvent the key fob. Instead of placing the buttons in the tried and proven location on top of the fob, they mischievously squeezed the lock, unlock and tailgate switches onto its narrow edge, siting the emergency button on the opposite edge.
That may be fine for concert pianists and neurosurgeons, but for sausage-fingered bricklayers like Yours Truly it’s a recipe for horn-blaring wake-up calls for family and neighbours at unseemly hours. Not cool, Sven.
What a knob!
Having dispensed with redesigning the key fob, Volvo’s designers turned their attention to the ignition switch and, we’re pleased to report, they’ve had more success in this endeavour. Sven and his friends eschewed the allure of the now-ubiquitous starter button for something more tactile and, dare we say it, intuitive. The breakthrough in question takes the form of a small protruding knob that you turn right to start the engine, or left to switch it off. Go figure!
By Ged Bulmer
THE bloke who coined the phrase “lightning never strikes twice” obviously hadn’t met my Dearly Beloved.
The ink was still drying on the February issue of Wheels, including my inauspicious introduction to our new Volvo long-termer and its tale of a Good-Wife-left-stranded-on-the-side-of-a-road-due-to-a-misunderstanding-with-the-fuel-gauge, when… it happened again.
In a veritable master class of economy driving, the Better Half managed to calculate her trajectory so perfectly as to get Black Betty home and neatly aligned in front of our garage, with but a thimble full of fuel left in its 71-litre tank.
So, when the Darling Thing called to suggest that perhaps I ought to consider grabbing a small pot of diesel on the way home, I thought, ‘Surely she jests’. But the joke, as the Bee Gees once harmonised, was on me.
Talking through the scenario, I gathered that the Volvo had arrived home under its own steam, but that the trip computer was indicating a big fat zero in the distance to empty column. “No problem,” I countered, with the emphatic air of a man who knows what he’s talking about. “Trip computers generally err on the pessimistic side, so there’ll be enough to get to the servo.” The ‘servo’ in this instance being fully half a kilometre away.
Arriving home sans diesel, I probed a little further as to the cause of my spouse’s alarm. “Well, it’s making a funny sound when you try to start it,” she cautioned. “Hmm, but it is starting?” I enquired. Nod.
Thank goodness for modern diesels with high-pressure fuel systems that don’t need to be bled after running dry.
So, to the XC90 I went, sliding into its gorgeously-sculpted tan leather seats and turning the ignition switch with the casual confidence of a Man Who Understands Such Things.
There followed a few seconds cranking, perhaps a half moment more than is the norm, before the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel rattled, fired and settled into its comfortable idle. I in turn smugly settled back into the plush leather, flush with the knowledge I had once again shown Man’s mastery of machine.
Selecting reverse, I used the camera image on the excellent 12.3-inch touchscreen to guide me back down our tricky driveway and into our neighbour’s, where I selected ‘D’ and… the music died.
Once I’d finished banging my forehead repeatedly on the XC90’s leather-trimmed wheel, I was forced to accept several things. First, Volvo trip computers don’t lie. Second, when my wife says, ‘The car is out of fuel’, it really is OUT of fuel. Third, should my wife ever decide to pursue a new career, I see a huge future for her in the US sport of hypermiling, where geeks attempt to extract the optimum mileage from their Toyota Prius hybrids.
Frankly, I don’t think the man they call the ‘Father of Hypermiling’, Wayne Gerdes, stands a chance.
Lessons learned this month
- The XC90’s fuel filler won’t accept an ordinary jerry-can nozzle; a secondary flap in the filler neck stops it. Using the wrong nozzle involves a diesel bath.
- Said nozzle lives in the spare wheel well, beneath the cargo bay, but you won’t know this until you read the owner’s manual.
- The Volvo’s printed owner’s manual doesn’t detail where the fuel nozzle is located.
- The electronic owner’s manual, accessed via the touchscreen, is simple and easy to use.
- The touchscreen doesn’t respond well to a diesel-coated digit.
By Ged Bulmer
“OOH, Daddy, it’s a Mercedes!” These words, uttered with the shrill delight of a seven-year-old on first sighting of the Volvo XC90, could be music to the ears, or a dagger through the creative heart of the Swedish SUV’s designers.
To be fair, it was dark and my poor kid has never quite got over the loss of our previous Mercedes-Benz ML350 long-termer. But I still might get her eyes checked as, while our XC90 bears a passing resemblance to several other large, black and blinged-up SUVs, the Merc isn’t one of them.
While it’s possible to pick elements of Jeep, Range Rover and even BMW in the XC90’s statuesque silhouette, it ultimately comes together into something that is uniquely Volvo. I like that it’s not overly embellished, that the designers knew when to lay down their crayons. To me, the styling is emblematic of the car itself; big, roomy and ever so practical for its primary task of hauling large families in comfort.
We’re not a particularly big family but our kids seem to have this ability to attract dirt and friends in roughly equal measure, so seats six and seven are utilised more often than our humble brood might suggest.
WHEELS REVIEW: 2015 Volvo XC90
Access to the third row is easy, thanks to a simple flip-and-slide mechanism on the second row. It’s decently roomy back there but longer-limbed-types can plead for extra legroom via fore-aft adjustment on the second row.
There are individual air-con vents and cupholders in the cheap seats, and folding headrests that allow the third row to be left in situ without compromising rear visibility.
You don’t need to be off your face to recognise the benefits of Volvo’s big luxury SUV.
Fold the third row flat into the floor and the XC90 flaunts one of the best and biggest cargo bays in the business. Minimal wheelarch intrusion ensures maximum luggage space, and the electric tailgate makes life that little bit easier. A trio of bright LEDs shining from both sides and above are appreciated when loading at night.
Back in the 40-20-40 second row, the centre seat can be folded flat to create a load-through space, or to put space between the inevitably warring parties.
Seat comfort is excellent whether you’re in the first or third row, with nicely sculpted and supportive pews clad in soft and lightly aromatic leather. For families still in the booster stage, there’s also the winning trio of inbuilt booster seats across the second row.
Decent size door pockets and second-row seat-back nets complete an excellent comfort and convenience package, the one glitch being a glovebox the wife has declared too small. I’m no expert on such things, as there’s always the centre console, but I did take perverse pleasure in watching her fumbling about trying to locate the discretely mounted (read, almost invisible) electronic switch that opens the thing. Nice one, Sven.
Auto industry PRs wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they passed up the opportunity to option to the hilt their media demonstrators. Our friends at Volvo chose a middle path with Black Betty, adding just enough bling for it to be appreciated, yet not enough for it to be ostentatious.
They added metallic paint ($1,750), heated front seats ($375), tinted rear glass ($850) and drive-mode settings ($160), for an all up price of $93,085. For the record, that’s about $11K less than the similarly sized but significantly more powerful Audi Q7.
By Ged Bulmer
WHETHER it’s an oversight or a deliberate ploy on my part to save the best bits for last, like that cherished final bite of a sweet treat, it occurs to me that nigh on half a year into our journey with the Volvo XC90, I’m yet to dedicate a column to how the big Swede drives.That’s because there’s been so much other stuff to write about, but we can’t look past those key quantifiers of vehicular excellence: ride, handling and performance.
The sheer verve of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel never fails to impress. Frankly, it strains credibility that an engine of such modest capacity can shift the Volvo’s near two-tonne mass with such alacrity, but it does.
Like ugly men with glamorous partners, small engines punching above their weight are by no means new, or indeed exclusive to Volvo. Yet the XC90 stands out as an impressive piece of engineering. Its vital stats are compelling enough – 165kW/470Nm and 0-100km in 7.8sec – but they can’t adequately explain what an effortlessly excellent powertrain this really is.
Hitched to a sweetly calibrated eight-speed auto, the engine serves up an astonishing amount of turbocharged grunt from ridiculously low revs, and does so in an overwhelmingly smooth and refined manner. Crack the throttle at urban speeds and it responds with impressive zeal, the auto serving up its collection of well-spaced ratios in near seamless fashion, the resultant acceleration ensuring Black Betty is usually at or near the front of any traffic-light pack.
Out on the open road and there’s more than enough underfoot to tackle caravans or other slow-moving chicanes, without the fear and/or humiliation of running out of road. That’s still the case when loaded to the gunnels, as we discovered on a recent family holiday. With a brimmed 71-litre fuel tank, four passengers and a load of gear, the Volvo barely raised a sweat as we surged over hills and cantered down dales.
Like ugly men with glamorous partners, small engines punching above their weight are by no means new.
Impressive as the engine is, the clever auto proved equally stellar. Rarely found wanting for the right gear, it delivers crisp, well-timed upshifts under acceleration, and deft downshifts when needed, adding a dash of engine braking on descents and into corners.
Crucially, the suspension also handled the extra weight without any issues, maintaining good ride comfort and body control while still managing to avoid the bump stops over lumpier stuff.
The laden driving experience leads me to think that the XC90 would also be a good choice for towing Old Paint to Saturday pony club. Rated as it is to tow 2250kg, and with that sparkling diesel four-pot beneath its snout, it’s just one more handy attribute in a vehicle that lives up to its Sports Utility moniker admirably.
Wring out your smalls
Back in 1990 Nissan came up with what now seems an ill-informed plan to slot the terrific RB30 3.0-litre petrol six into the GQ Patrol. A free-spinning non-turbo that had seen stellar service in the Skyline, its application in the hulking Nissan Patrol was optimism in the extreme. Cue the unedifying sight (and sound) of goggle-eyed drivers buzzing their lumbering behemoths to the cut-out before slam-shifting the chunky gearbox in a desperate attempt to maintain momentum.
No such issues with the XC90, thanks to technological advances that ensure it trumps the 1990 petrol Patrol by 33kW and 176Nm, with a litre less capacity.
By Ged Bulmer
STUDENTS of Norse mythology, or simply fans of the bawdy and bloodthirsty SBS TV series Vikings, will know that the Norsemen of medieval Scandinavia burned their dead chiefs in a ship-like funeral pyre, en route to their final destination of Valhalla.
I considered showing the same respect for the XC90 but soon realised Volvo would probably prefer it back unsinged, even if the funeral pyre is the ultimate sign of respect for a Scandinavian warrior.
Respect is very much the appropriate descriptor for emotion accrued over the six months Black Betty has graced our driveway. During this time, there hasn’t been a lot of pillaging, but plenty of packing, plodding and perambulating.
Of course, the Vikings were known for more than just sacking and pillaging; among their skills was the ability to craft lightweight vessels that combined speed and durability. While this land-based descendant of that Nordic bloodline may not be particularly svelte or rapid, it’s surely a masterpiece of durable design, evidenced by the fact it’s still in one piece after a hammering from a voracious horde of tiny horned warriors.
VIDEOS: Volvo XC90
Life was undoubtedly hard for the Vikings as they bobbed about the Baltic, but consider the battering this Volvo XC90 copped at the hands (and feet) of the rampaging Bulmer brood and their ferocious little friends.
I’ve no idea how car companies calculate a lifetime of doors being slammed with the ferocity of Thor’s hammer, of seat backs being furiously pummelled by angry little legs in dirty little sneakers, and of touchscreens prodded with the sensitivity of an angry inquisitor. But as I watch the handsome black XC90 emerge gleaming from its ritual cleansing at the hands of the Druids at Sprinkles car wash, I marvel at how well it stood up to the rigours of this particular campaign.
With footwells finally clear of wrappers, receipts and rubbish, windows wiped clean of olfactory offerings, and a mysterious smear on the back seat sent to forensics for identification, I can once again admire the big Swede’s handsome lines.
Minus road grime and pigeon poop, the XC90’s honest, muscular design still looks fresh and distinctive. It may lack the dramatic headlights, plunging rooflines and raked pillars of some rival SUVs, but its elegant surfacing and fine detailing lends it a suitably premium Euro air, while that box-like body delivers the space a modern Viking crew requires.
SPECS & FEATURES: 2016 Volvo D5 Momentum
That restrained pragmatism continues on the inside. Deceptively simple but undeniably elegant, it locates various vehicle system controls within the (prone to smudging) 12.3-inch touchscreen. With its swipe up or across interface, the screen proved a little frustrating at times as it isn’t entirely intuitive, but we’ll forgive it that sin for the obvious decluttering benefits.
Clutter is something the roomy Swede easily accommodates, thanks to its generous 651 litres of boot space, or a still-respectable 291 with the third row in use. Fold both second and third rows and there’s room for 950 litres of stuff you don’t need from Ikea, accessed via an electric tailgate worth its weight in Aldi coupons.
The high seating position found favour with my vertically challenged better half, while the rug-rats in the cheap seats had nothing to complain about, with individual ventilation controls and ample space between to avoid fisticuffs.
The stylish leather-clad pews provide excellent support and comfort for short or long trips, while the versatile configuration and ease of folding the other rows meant loading a raiding party was ever easy.
Refined, roomy and utterly practical, the XC90 is a superb family wagon, and surely one of the best of the breed.
While full burial rites for this Viking warrior may be out of the question, there is another Norse tradition that’s arguably more appropriate, involving ritual drinking. And that’s surely something Swedes and Aussies can agree on. Skål!
The glitch is back
As a poverty stricken student I did my share of running-out-of-fuel stunts, so these days rarely allow a tank to get near vapour. But The Wife likes to live dangerously and swears that the Volvo’s trip computer is errant, randomly recalculating from 70km remaining to 0km in the blink of an eye.
The seat heater on the passenger side has also started switching off of its own volition recently, which begs the question whether an earlier electrical glitch that threw out systems and required a visit to the dealership to flash and fix has paid a return visit.
Dare to believe
If you’re a bit old-school and struggle to see how a 2.0-litre four-cylinder twin-turbo diesel can possibly propel 1970kg of Sweden’s finest down the road with anything approximating alacrity, then do yourself a favour and take an XC90 for a spin. In combination with its excellent eight-speed auto, the Volvo’s 165kW/470Nm four-pot is a revelation, proving easily capable of hauling a full payload of passengers and luggage in impressive style.