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Rigorously intelligent, carefully put together, so Swedish in its design

Maybe it’s a drive more aimed at function than flash, but the new Volvo XC90 is rich in integrity and simplicity, and surely there are worse marketing positions to hold

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 10:35pm

Like people, cars are subject to stereotyping. More than any other purchase – with the exception of clothing perhaps – when it comes to buying a car we cut through the endless technical clutter and performance stats and narrow our vast range of options by appealing to big sweeping generalisations. Audi is all precision engineering. Land Rover all driving up silly inclines. Ferrari all hot-bloodedness. And Volvo? Well, Volvo is for the safety conscious. There are worse marketing positions to hold – and certainly these car companies do all they can to underpin these generalisations in the public consciousness. But sexy this position is not.

So you can imagine my lack of excitement at the arrival of the XC90, the latest generation of the Chinese-owned, Swedish maker’s SUV. Passionless, pristine and with more air bags than a political party, the reassurance that, should I come face to face with a snowdrift or scorching sunshine – the extremes of Swedish weather such cars are built for – I will remain effortlessly comfortable was hardly something to get the pulse racing. Indeed, the car’s everyday driving mode is called just that: “Comfort”. There is something deflating about it.

But then I, my wife, my two small children and my dog – all clues to the fact that the Volvo’s sat-nav was about to take me down the Road to Damascus – piled into the car, together with the necessary equipment and supplies today deemed necessary to take two small children and a dog anywhere. Perhaps it was the overwhelming nasal assault of new leather, or the impressive sound insulation, but an air of calm descended. My eldest announced he liked the seat on which his baby-seat was sat. The youngest fell asleep, a service for which I would gladly pay Volvo without the benefit of this swish, seven-seat mobility.

Yes, it is hard to escape national cliche, but the interior of the XC90 is so rigorously intelligent, so carefully put together, so Swedish in its design sensibility that it has a Zen-like peacefulness to it, as though you have just stepped into a spa-on-wheels. There is the general absence of knobs, most aspects of the car controlled via a central, nine-inch screen – the Human Machine Interface as Volvo is calling it, presumably with a straight face. But what knobs there are are elegantly diamond-cut metal ones. The speaker covers and door handles are sculptural but utilitarian lumps of raw aluminium. Amid the leather there is a lot of wood – but not of the heavy, country house, high gloss kind found in, for example, the cars of upper end British makers, but almost a blonde Scandinavian birch wood, matt and utterly understated.

Indeed, never mind the patriotic purchase – you can see why Swedes, brought up within a warmly pared down design tradition, all seem to drive Volvos, or why Wallander drives one through his palette of sophisticated icy blues and greys. At each turn there is a little extra to make the experience of being in an XC90, or even outside of it, that little bit less hassle than it might be with a comparable vehicle: the door handles glow with a gentle backlighting when you unlock the car at night; phone charging sockets are tucked away in a drawer, there but out of the way; look to the windscreen and there a little clip growing out of it, to put your parking ticket in. Someone has thought very deeply about every aspect of being in this space.

As such, it feels a genuine step on from the previous incarnation of the XC90, quite aside from it being Volvo’s first product to use its entirely in-house Scalable Product Architecture platform (SPA for short, aptly enough) and Drive-E power-train, a lightweight, all-aluminium, four cylinder, two-litre unit. If badging can reflect a mind-set, in recent years Volvo’s rear end letterforms have spread apart, as if the company’s vision itself has become more expansive. Certainly, if the cockpit feel of the XC90’s driving position is anything to go by – all the instrumentation very gently angled around it – Volvo is rapidly looking to fill the still warm shoes of the sadly departed Saab and claim the mantle as makers of the definitive “design” car. Even the dog had no words of criticism.

Petrol-heads might find this emphasis on the interior decor all too Ikea. What about the drive? What about the looks? On the latter count, for my money the XC90 is reassuringly big without feeling cumbersome and, in being less cluttered, is more handsome than, say, the VW Toureg or Audi Q7. But, being Swedish – a fact Volvo is at pains to stress, having stitched a little flag into the seam of a seat – there is nothing shouty about it. The drive, meanwhile, is assured, with the acceleration in ‘Dynamic’ mode scary enough to make the dog whimper and two small boys stop trying to hit each other.

That, naturally, is set within the confines of every safety gadget imaginable: among a couple of world firsts are warnings if you get too close, too fast, too much to one side of the road or the other, if you’re too slow to brake and probably if you get too inclined to show off or start talking about your salary. The Swedes, after all, don’t do conspicuous anything, let alone consumption. It is saying something that Volvo claims this is the safest Volvo ever built. Drive through a narrow traffic calming measure and the cabin goes into sensor frenzy red alert. But that, however, is as loud as the XC90 is ever likely to get. Take it easy man, the car is saying. Think of your children.

That is, of course, not for everyone. Integrity and simplicity are not touchstones that all drivers want to judge their ride by. Truth is that they seem pretty boring in a world that still lauds vehicles primarily on their ability to rocket between the gaps in stand-still traffic. But then these qualities are also in short supply, in life as in cars. That realisation perhaps says it all. Maybe I have finally reached that time of life when function just counts for so much more than flash. Maybe I have to make what feels like a kind of confession. This is a Volvo – and I want one very very badly.

The Volvo XC90 is available in Hong Kong with a starting price of HK$719,800 (promotional price HK$679,800).