In another world, I’d have a proper job that pays proper money. Writing about cars for a living is a privileged existence, but it doesn’t pay the big bucks. And while I get to drive some of the world’s finest cars, I’m often left with a sense of crushing disappointment.
Take the Volvo XC90 T8, for example. A month to the day since I reluctantly handed the keys back to Volvo, I still haven’t come to terms with my loss. And as we know, 2016 has been a year filled with sad losses.
- Volvo XC90 review: 2015 UK first drive
- Video: We tried the £3,000 premium sound system in the XC90 and it was brilliant
- More opinions on Motoring Research
I’ve made no secret of my irrational hatred of the new breed of crossovers and SUVs. I’m old enough to remember a time when cars would slot neatly into categories and the world knew where it stood. The blurring of the lines has left me feeling dazed and confused.
But I still have a great affection for a proper, full-size SUV. And while the Volvo XC90 might not be the kind of SUV you’d take on a jungle expedition – I’d borrow a Toyota Land Cruiser for such antics – it’s more than capable of facing up to the toughest challenge in the world: family life.
Allow me to explain.
The XC90 isn’t new to me. I attended the UK launch in Yorkshire and have fond memories of being perched on a hillside listening to a Last Night of the Proms rendition of Jerusalem, streamed through the outstandingly good Bowers & Wilkins audio system.
Engage the so-called ‘Gothenburg Concert Hall’ setting and it’s akin to being in the front row of the Bournemouth Pavilion listening to an orchestra. I’d like to say it’s like being in the Gothenburg Concert Hall, but I’ve never had the pleasure. But take it from me, it’s good enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention.
If you’re buying a Volvo XC90, you might as well add £3,000 to the purchase price, as it’s a must-have upgrade. Even if I do find Volvo’s decision to charge £300 for Apple CarPlay a little Scrooge-like. Bah humbug, or whatever they might say in Sweden.
I’m reliably informed – by a Volvo test driver, no less – that the word is ‘lurendrejeri’. Yes, Volvo, not offering CarPlay for free is a bit of a fiddle. But I digress.
Last Christmas I drove an XC90 D5 from Devon to Scotland (and back), before concluding that my life wouldn’t be complete until I had one parked outside my house. There are other things that would make my life complete – Keeley Hawes on speed dial, Brentford FC in the Premier League, and a lifetime supply of Hobnobs – but you get the picture.
With the benefit of hindsight, the D5 wouldn’t be my first choice of engine. Frugal it might be, but it falls just short of being able to power this two-tonne SUV without breaking sweat. A Yamaha-built V8 engine would do nicely, but Volvo is committed to a four-cylinder future, so there’s no chance of that.
Which brings me back to the T8. Right now, this is as close to perfection as you can get. There are faults, of course there are, but to point them out would be like flying to New York on Concorde and then complaining that the flight was too short.
But in the interests of balance, let me list the minor indiscretions I listed under ‘nitpicking’ in my Moleskine notebook. Weirdly, in the two XC90s I’ve spent an extended period of time with, the passenger side heated seat had a tendency to switch itself off. Annoying, if you enjoy the feeling of a warm bum.
Then there’s the sat-nav, which at first looks great in its tablet-style portrait mode. But the map is woefully short on detail and terribly disappointing to anyone who has experience with, say, a new Audi. And don’t get me started on the issue of fingerprints ruining what is a central part of the cabin.
Yes, Volvo puts a small cleaning cloth in the glovebox, but you just know that will be lost within the first couple of months. Or your youngest child will have used it to blow their nose. And by including the cloth, Volvo is acknowledging it might be an issue. A small detail, perhaps, but I told you I was nitpicking.
I could also point to the claimed 134.5mpg on a combined cycle, but surely nobody buys a T8 and expects to achieve such a lofty figure. In reality, after a week of driving, we were seeing figures in the mid 30s. An eco-hybrid this is not. In fact, be prepared to get on first name terms with your local petrol station cashier.
But that’s where the nitpicking ends. Whilst acknowledging that in this case love might be blind, I’m struggling to find any real issues of note.
Take the styling. Somehow, Volvo has managed to build a car that remains elegant and graceful – a stark contrast to the SUVs churned out by the Germans. While a Q7, X5 and whatever Mercedes-Benz is calling its large SUV these days might look brash, brutish and menacing, the XC90 somehow blends into its surroundings.
It’s not that it’s small. A length of 4,950mm and width of 2,140mm pitches it neatly between the BMW X5 and Audi Q7. In other words, somewhere between a cathedral and the town hall. Yet it looks no more out of place than a tanning shop in Alderley Edge.
Then there’s the packaging. Because Volvo designed the XC90 for electrification from the ground up, the battery pack makes no difference to the size of the boot. Meanwhile, opt for the Mercedes-Benz GLE plug-in hybrid and you’re left with a box in the boot that resembles something your mate Bill knocked up in his shed.
It gets better. The fit and finish in the cabin is such that, even when your wife suggests visiting the in-laws or heading to a retail park on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll be only too pleased to oblige. Just be prepared to spend the entire day longing for the drive home.
A word or two about the engine. The T in T8 stands for Twin Engine, which means you’re treated to a 320hp petrol engine at the front and an 87hp electric motor at the rear. You don’t need to be Rachel Riley to calculate that this gives the XC90 a total of 407hp. Four hundred and seven!
The top speed of 140mph isn’t going to trouble the black luxobarges on the outside lane of ze autobahn, but the time it takes to reach 62mph might. Engage ‘POWER’ mode and this luxury appointed Stockholm penthouse suite will hit the mark in 5.6 seconds.
Think about that for a moment. This full-size, seven-seat SUV is quick enough to go hunting sports cars on a B-road. Not that you’ll want to do any kind of chasing or hunting in the XC90. The car is too well-mannered for such nonsense.
But by ‘eck does it feel quick. In power mode, it’s as though a bolt of electric runs through the XC90’s body, as if magic dust has been sprinkled on Santa’s reindeer. All of a sudden, the gas pedal requires only the slightest of touch before you’re hurtling towards the next bend.
At this point you’ll discover that the XC90 will lean a little if you’re too enthusiastic through the bend. But to complain about body roll in an XC90 is like criticising your armchair for not chilling your wine. Comfortable, relaxing and safe – three things your sofa shares in common with the XC90.
Sadly, you can’t equip your three-piece suite with four-corner electronic air suspension. On steel springs, the XC90 is perfectly fine. Add the air suspension and you’ll feel like you’re driving across a bed of marshmallows laced with the fur from a chinchilla. You could drive over Chipping Norton and not feel it.
OK, I’m fully aware that this is turning into a love letter penned for the Volvo XC90. But the internet is awash with rational car reviews about steering feel, load capacity and CO2 emissions (it’s 49g/km, in case you were wondering).
But, just occasionally, a car comes along that ticks all the boxes. Emotionally and rationally, I find the Volvo XC90 so damn appealing I just had to open my heart. Money no object, I’d buy an XC90 tomorrow and spend the rest of my life drenched in smug satisfaction.
I’ve even taken the liberty of speccing my ideal car. Sadly, it comes in at £84,200, some £20,000 more than the entry-level T8 Momentum and around £84,000 over budget.
Dear Santa, if you’re reading this, I’ll take mine in Twilight Bronze, with 22-inch rims, air suspension, Bowers & Wilkins and a few extra toys thrown in for good measure. I’ll collect it from the Volvo dealer at the North Pole, ta.
The night before I reluctantly handed the car back to Volvo, I was driving home along the M5, children cocooned in the back, wife Whatsapping in the front seat. I glanced over my shoulder at my two children, safe in the knowledge that daddy was driving the safest car in the world. If you’re a father, you’ll know there’s a lot to be said for that.
Unfortunately, this particular daddy can’t afford to buy the safest car in the world. Sorry, kids. If you work hard at school, you might get a proper job that pays proper money. Then you can afford the nicer things in life.
To Volvo, I say this: your mission to ensure nobody should be killed or injured in a new Volvo is admirable, but it can’t do much about crushing disappointment.