Volvo XC90 (2017) review: The best big SUV you can buy right now?

When you look at timeline of the Volvo brand, you can pretty much split it into two sections, before and after the XC90. The first Volvo SUV was a huge success, and the second marked a return to the cutting-edge safety the Swedish car maker used to be known for. Since the XC90, Volvo has ushered in the all-new V90, S90 and now the XC60 and they all maintain the high level of tech and design we first saw on the 2017 XC90.

Volvo’s most recent SUV contains a wealth of technology such as a heads-up display (HUD), semi-autonomous parking and ride-height control. But the most impressive thing about the new XC90 isn’t the sheer amount features it has, but the way they’re deployed. The technology in the Volvo makes the car easier to live with.

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Volvo XC90 review: Design

Although the XC90 is full of technology, it’s all deployed unobtrusively. Volvo has clearly taken the approach that technology is there to aid the driver and passengers, making the car easier to use. After opening the door using the XC90’s keyless entry, the Volvo is able to use its hydraulics to intelligently reduce the car’s height so it’s easier to get in the car.

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The Volvo’s grille is only the first part of a car that seems to go on forever. Despite nice proportions, it’s hard to ignore the sheer size of the car, and before jumping into the redesigned cabin, you’d be forgiving for thinking driving the Volvo is a daunting process. But that’s where Volvo’s use of technology changes things.

Volvo XC90 review: Interior

Once you’re in the new Volvo XC90, it’s clear the car’s premium exterior extends inside, too. However, the cabin is both bright and airy, and you won’t find many buttons or switches either. Instead, the majority of features on the XC90 are controlled via portrait-oriented touch screen.  

The XC90 uses Volvo’s Sensus UI, and while it was impressive in 2015 and 2016 when we tested the XC90, it feels slightly dated now. In many ways it’s like using a tablet, you can swipe up, down, left and right to switch between menus, and many features are displayed like an app drawer on an Android device. While that’s great, the system feels slightly more primitive than the tile-based UI of something like the BMW 5 series, and it’s nowhere near as sharp as the widescreen menus of the 2017 Mercedes E Class.

Nevertheless, if you haven’t used any other systems, you won’t find much wrong with the XC90’s, as it’s both simple and easy to use. That performance extends to the satnav, too which I found to deliver instructions clearly, and in a prompt manner.

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The XC90 also has a Head Up Display, and it’s probably one of most impressive features in the SUV. Displaying everything from your speed, to the current speed limit and basic GPS instructions, the HUD enables you to keep your eyes on the road – and it’s probably the feature that will change how you drive the most.

Audio

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Technology isn’t just for usability and safety, it’s for entertainment too, and the Volvo delivers in spades thanks to its impressive Bowers & Wilkins sound system. Capable of producing enveloping, immersive sound with the clear balance you’d expect from the British hi-fi brand, the XC90’s sound system represents another piece of tech designed to enhance the driving experience.

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You have full control over the speakers both front and back, and it will balance out the speakers to give you better sound. And, of course, all of this is done via the big touch screen, so there’s no fiddling with dials. After pairing my iPhone 6, I found the sound to be clear and detailed, with all areas of the soundscape treated equally. That meant the Volvo XC90 was just at home with classic music say, as it was with 90’s RnB.

Volvo XC90 review: Parking assistance

Instead of forcing you to manoeuvre out of parking spaces, the XC90 comes with a range of features to make this trivial but often tricky task easier. The Volvo’s four cameras give you a good view of the front, back and sides of the car, and it can even sew the feeds together for a ingenious 360-degree, top-down view.

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Better yet, the front and rear feeds can also feature helpful yellow lines that show you where the car will end up given the current steering angle. To give a better sense of distance, the Volvo’s proximity sensors also alert you to closer objects, giving you time to react, or even assess them with the car’s cameras.

Despite all these features, Volvo makes parking the XC90 even easier by including a semi-autonomous parking-assistance mode. After selecting Park Out, the Volvo will ask you to select a gear (reverse or forward) and cover the brake, while continuing your observations.

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Park In mode is even more intelligent. Once in Park In mode, the XC90 uses radar to measure each parking space, and after finding a suitable one it simply tells you which gear to select. After that, the Volvo is able to steer itself into the spot, only asking you to cover the brake and change gear when needed. Although it requires a synergy of highly complex monitoring systems, the end result is a system that makes your life easier.

Volvo XC90 review: Drive

In the same way, driving the Volvo is designed to be easy – and it’s thanks to a number of background processes and features that only appear when you need them. Proximity sensors warn when someone is walking behind the car, while audible warnings keep you aware of the car’s surroundings when mirrors won’t suffice. Although the car still has blind spots like a regular vehicle, the XC90 will warn you when an object has entered them.

At times, though, driving the Volvo XC90 can feel like a comfortable but slightly disconnected affair. That’s great – but when you really want to feel the road, the technology allows it. After flicking to the car’s Dynamic mode, the SUV’s powerful T6 engine makes itself known, and gives the car an extra level of performance never hinted at in Comfort or Eco mode. At the same time, the car’s suspension lowers to bring you closer to the road, while the steering also becomes more direct. 

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Although the model we drove had a conventional petrol engine, it’s also available with a plug-in hybrid that allows you to switch between “pure” electric, for short-range city driving at up to 75mph, or a hybrid mode that delivers fuel and emissions savings with a conventional engine’s range and performance. Considering the number of vehicles of this type that are driven around cities for much of the time, this is an incredibly smart system.

Volvo XC90 review: Verdict

The new Volvo XC90 may share the same DNA as the original model, but the technology has made it a new breed of vehicle. By using advanced technology to enhance safety, usability and comfort, the XC90 is the most radical, sophisticated Volvo yet – but still stands for all of the marque’s traditional values. When compared to the Audi Q7 or the BMW X5, it’s unique, stylish and sophticated – but also user friendly. Throw in the safety aspect you’d expect from Volvo – as well as acres of space – and the XC90 could be the perfect choice for larger families. 

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No, it’s not self-driving, although it’s easy to imagine that in 20 years’ time its grandchild might well be. But in many ways, the XC90 shows the maturity of technology in cars: rather than complicating matters, its technology makes driving and using the car an even simpler, more intuitive experience. For anyone who loves technology, the XC90 is simply a beautiful experience.

For another view of the Volvo XC90, take a look at the Volvo XC90 review from our sister title AutoExpress.

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