Volvo XC90 hands-on: The safest Volvo ever is packed full of tech treats

"This is one of the most important days in our history. We are not just launching a car, but re-launching our brand," says Hakan Samuelsson, President and CEO of Volvo, as the cover is drawn off the new Volvo XC90 at a media launch in Stockholm.

The new SUV model is a marker for the future for the Swedish car company. Not only is this a newly refreshed version of the popular XC90, but it paves the way for the design of Volvo Cars of the future, and much of what you'll see on this significant update will be reflected across the future car range.

Three years in the making, the new model brings a refresh in design that starts right at the front, with the grille badge. The arrow of the Volvo logo is now aligned with the diagonal slash of the grille, an updated badge for something of a new beginning for Volvo. 

Sitting at the core of the new XC90 is Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). This new modular chassis approach gives Volvo designers more flexibility to design the vehicles they want, and has been developed in-house for Volvo alone. In that sense, there's been little need to compromise on the new XC90 says Volvo; the company has been able to develop the car they want, sticking to the principles we associate with the brand. 

Serious technology for safety

Volvo has previously outlined its Vision 2020 and that's to ensure that no one dies on the road as a result of a Volvo car. We've seen a number of technologies that move towards this aim, but the new XC90 is a major step forward.

Under the broad umbrella of City Safety, the XC90 is designed to stop you driving into the car in front in stop-start traffic using automatic braking, as well as stop you hitting pedestrians or cyclists in front of you too, whether at day or night.

Lotta Jakobsson, senior technical specialist safety at Volvo, detailed that Volvo had captured video of pedestrians and cyclists in all sorts of different sizes and shapes to create the algrithms that the car uses to identify people and avoid accidents.

There's also a clever new feature that will automatically brake if you're about to turn into the path of an oncoming vehicle at a junction. These technologies work thanks to the cameras and radars that the XC90 carries. It can even detect when someone is going to run into the back of you. The car will tighten the seatbelts and flash the hazard lights to prepare for the crash. The same system gives you 360 degree vision, so you'll be able to park your car without hitting street furniture.

There's another safety feature that will automatically tighten the front seat belts if you happen to run off the road, so you stay in your seat. Those seats are incredibly comfortable, but also designed with safety in mind. There are deformation zones at the base of the front seats designed to absorb a heavy landing and protect your spine. There's also a lot of adjustment, so you'll be perfectly comfortable.

It's not just the front that's safe: all three rows of seats have been designed with safety in mind. The third row are perhaps the most surprising. Volvo say they are designed to be comfortable for a passenger up to 170cm, but we squeezed our 183cm frame into it and found there was still enough headroom. The second row can slide forwards and backwards to give you more space, so this is a great arrangement for those who need to carry more than five passengers.

With no hesitation, Lotta Jakobsson was happy to tell us "this is the safest Volvo ever". 

Bowers & Wilkins audio

All work and no play would make the XC90 a dull boy, but there's plenty of technology in the new car to keep you entertained too. At the top end there's a 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system with a 1,400 watts Class D amplifier, which also features one of the first in-car air ventilated subwoofers.

We didn't have the chance to fully test the system in the new vehicle, but Volvo are making bold claims about it's performance. We especially like the central tweeter, reflecting a hallmark of B&W speaker design. From what we've heard so far, this is a great in-car audio system and there's plenty of connections to make sure you can get your music from where you want, like your phone.

Sensus control, with Apple and Google support

Then there's the central touchscreen panel to hook you up to the rest of the car and the wider online world. The system is called Sensus and working in tandem with the digital driver display and the heads-up display, it means there are virtually no buttons on the centre console. There's a single row for immediate media controls and that's it.

There's more than a passing resemblance in this touchscreen to the Apple iPad, both in terms of size and in terms of touch response. There's a single home button at the bottom and a swipe operation based around three major screens.

From the main screen you get to major in-car functions, like climate, navigation, entertainment, and calling, as well as access to an app space. Each is a large graphical bar, easy to tap to open up for more information, information that can be seen throughout the car.

Tap on the navigation bar, for example, and it will expand to offer you controls and your map. Tap entertainment and you'll be able to browse the sources and pick your music. You get the idea. Relevant information is reflected in the driver display, so your navigation directions will appear infront of you, for example. It's designed to reflect a smartphone experience, but importantly, it's designed to stop you fiddling with your phone. There is also a wide array of voice controls.

In the final bottom space of the main Sensus display you get access to an app. You'll find Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in this bottom space, as Volvo will be supporting both systems when they are ready. Tapping on that app bar will open up to give you the Apple interface, but sadly Volvo didn't have the software to demo, nor a date for when it would be available.

Aside from those major central functions, a swipe to the left takes you through to car functions, giving you tap buttons for all those things you'd expect, like to turn on the lane detection, or to power fold the third row of seats, for example. A swipe in the other direction takes you to apps, so you can access the browser. Of course you'll need a connection to the internet and there will be various options to do so.

You'll also be able to have Volvo's remote connected functions, so you can locate your car or lock it from your phone.

The Sensus system looks good. We're impressed with the touch response and it all seems intuitive enough in a demo environment. Of course, we can't wait to get it on the road and see how it handles in the real world. We'll have to wait to see how Apple and Android systems behave in the Sensus environment and hopefully we'll know more soon.

Driving power

The Volvo XC90 looks great from the outside with a refreshed, muscular, design and the high quality of the interior is welcomed: it's a very comfortable place to sit. There will be three levels of trim available on the XC90 from the entry-level Momentum through R Design and up to the top Inscription level.

There will also be a range of engines available. At the top of the power scale is a 400bph plug-in hybrid, combining a petrol engine with electric motor. Like the V60 hybrid we recently reviewed, you'll be able to choose to drive on electric, with a typical 40km range, hybrid, or hit the button for the full power experience.

Then there are more traditional petrol and diesel engine options, with the 225bhp diesel likely to be the most popular. All are paired with an 8-speed automatic gearbox. There will be front and all wheel drive options.

First impressions last

The previous XC90 was launched in 2002 and this new model has been a long time coming and in the flesh, the new XC90 is a lovely car. 

Volvo is looking to compete in the large SUV sector, against the likes of the Audi Q7 or BWM X5 with this new model and details like the new front LED "Thor's hammer" lighting and the huge Sensus screen mean there's plenty on offer. The fact that many of the safety features come as standard could well be a compelling factor, especially for those with families.

A new badge leads the charge with an all-new car. It's priced from about £41,000, designed to be more affordable and more economical than its rivals, but the top spec with all the extras will take you over £60k. You can expect a public reveal of the new Volvo XC90 at the Paris Motor Show and you can expect to see the new Volvo XC90 on the roads in the UK early next year.