2018 Volvo XC90 T6 Inscription Road Test Review
(4 / 5)
The date was April 9th, 1860. A man by the name of Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville had been toying with a machine that supposedly captured sound waves. To those around him, he seemed mad. But that’s the life of an inventor.
It wasn’t until 2008 that a recording surfaced. More accurately, a piece of paper was discovered in a Parisian archive. American researches discovered it after it had been filed away around 150 years earlier, and it was a series of squiggles which appeared to correspond to sound waves. It was created by de Martinville’s invention, the phonautograph, and was designed to study the way sound waves worked.
When an American organisation called First Sounds discovered the recording, they set about turning it back into sound. It revealed a female voice, with a slightly scratchy background. The singing is quite haunting, and it certainly isn’t what you’d predict as becoming a YouTube hit, especially the recording itself only lasts 10 seconds. The vocals behind the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune hasn’t been identified, however it is now thought to be the oldest ever recorded sound. You can listen here.
While Thomas Edison’s phonograph became the standard for music for decades, out recording of sounds has increased in both length and quality. The word recording was used to name the flat vinyl discs which were etched with a miniature version of the sound waves. Then, when amplified, the needle’s vibrations created a depth of bass and treble the likes of which had never been heard before.
Four- and eight-track magnetic tapes soon followed, and due to their smaller, more durable format, a simple question was raised: could recorded music now be truly portable? Fitting any of the above methods to a car wasn’t feasible; however, Sony popularized the compact cassette tape through its Walkman. Suddenly, auto manufacturers saw the potential for portable audio.
Cassettes thus remained the norm for many years, but the digital age brought the compact disc with its crisp, high-quality sound, and it is still the standard for audio fidelity.
But while having a six-CD stack in your glove box used to be a feature to boast about, it is also fairly limiting in how much music you can choose from, which is why most people today use their phones, paired via Bluetooth. A standard phone can hold the equivalent of hundreds of compact discs, with sound quality that’s almost indistinguishable.
Because of this paradigm shift in listening standards, car-makers have had to follow. Nothing demonstrates how far the world has come when a manufacturer wants to charge you to fit a CD player. Yet, that’s exactly what Volvo has done with its new XC90. To have a CD player, you’ll need to fork out an extra AU$160.
Not huge money, but given how music is now consumed, it won’t be long before CD players aren’t available at all. However, after you hear how an MP3 file sounds through the utterly brilliant Bowers and Wilkins stereo fitted to the XC90, you’ll probably be ditching the compact discs quicker than you can say Au Clair de la Lune.
With clear treble, bowl-shaking bass and enveloping surround sound, it takes a concert experience to a realistic level. The sound settings are completely customizable, too, so you can dial in a level that suits you. But the sound is only part of the interior appeal of the XC90.
Up front sits a huge 12.3-inch tablet interface in the dashboard center. With intuitive gesture control, anyone who can operate an iPad can search through all the menus and options available. Swipe left from the home screen to access infotainment apps, swipe right to view a screen of virtual buttons for vehicle controls. Swipe down from the top and you can fiddle with various vehicle settings, such as the color of the ambient lighting.
Directly in front of the driver is a massive TFT-based instrument display, and being completely digital, it’s able to display virtually any information you ask of it. Navigation can be shown not only on the huge center infotainment screen but in between the dials, meaning less time with eyes off the road.
Look through the rest of the interior and you’ll notice the smooth hide across all seats, and with plenty of adjustment across seat-back, squab, and bolstering, all shapes and sizes can be accommodated. It also smells like a Bentley Mulsanne inside—the tanning is beautiful. It’s a seven-seat SUV, meaning the entire family can be catered for, and the outboard seats in the second row have integrated boosters, which saves having to fit a child seat for kids aged four and up.
Inside and out, it’s a beautiful-looking machine, which is no mean feat given the segment it’s in. SUVs tend to be based around a two-box design, with the edges rounded off, and though that’s true of the XC90, thanks to its stunning headlights and asymmetric grille, it’s arguably the most attractive SUV on sale to date.
Under that wide bonnet, where previous XC90s utilized inline six-cylinders, Volvo’s quest for efficiency means it now has a four-cylinder under the bonnet. If that sounds inadequate given this car’s two-tonne bulk, the outputs from the 2.0-liter engine are a healthy 314 bhp with a heady torque figure of 400 Nm. How are those figures possible? You may be surprised to learn this diminutive motor is helped along by both supercharging and turbocharging.
For low-end torque, the supercharger kicks off initially, giving it enough shove to get it hustled to 100 km/h in 6.5 seconds—not bad for a family bus. At higher revs, the turbocharger takes over, giving the XC90 plenty of power for overtaking or high-speed running. While this ‘twin-charging’ technique has been used before, never has it been so effective in its application. We do miss the good old straight-six sound, however.
If you’re not giving it plenty of herbs, the XC90 can be very hushed and relaxed. It’s not quite as plush a ride as Audi’s Q7 (the Volvo’s closest competitor), but on the right road the XC90 feels lighter and easier to handle.
Its grip is very good, and though it won’t challenge an X5 through a tight set of bends, the BMW can’t match the Volvo’s presentation or build quality. Nor is it as versatile.
Activate the Drive Mode button and the ride height increases, allowing you to take it off-road. Of course, it doesn’t have a low-range gearbox, but don’t let that put you off. Volvo’s expert work on the traction and stability control give this car more grip on slippery surfaces than its slippery shape would suggest.
If you let the tires down, it churns through sand and will widen the eyes of onlookers as you go sailing past them on the beach. Or you can leave the tires and simply sail up a snowy mountain road, leaving the stability control to sort out traction at each corner, adjusting torque to every wheel individually using subtle braking of each wheel.
But where the Volvo really shines is refinement. This is a beautifully smooth and quiet machine, able to traverse different surfaces without letting too much rumble or thumping through. On city streets, you can immerse yourself in a cathartic state by simply turning off the radio, listening to the sound of silence as you cruise along unperturbed by the goings on outside. Step inside and you step away from the world for but a moment. But if you happen to drift off daydreaming, the car has got your back.
Remember, this is a Volvo, meaning safety is its number one priority. It’ll self park, it scans the road ahead for pedestrians, and it will brake autonomously if you haven’t done so in time. It also warns you if you’re approaching a vehicle too quickly, or if you’re travelling behind too close.
With radar-based cruise control, it can set a distance between you and the car in front, braking and accelerating itself to maintain that gap. Forget to check your blind spot when changing lanes? It’ll let you know. And if you happen to wander out of your lane slightly, it will gently nudge you back in, guiding the wheel to ensure you don’t clip a curb. While it’s not quite a self-driving car, it’s the closest thing. However, if you’re not comfortable with all that tech taking over, simply swipe the big screen and switch it all off. You’re now in total control.
If diesel’s your fuel of choice, there’s a torque-rich oil-burner available as well. Perhaps more future-proof, though, is the XC90 T8. With both petrol and electric power on board, it can run on batteries alone and charge up from your home power point. In full electric mode, it truly is the sound of silence.
This is a beautifully smooth and quiet machine, able to traverse different surfaces without letting too much rumble or thumping through.
With a five-star crash rating, superlative comfort, plenty of power, well-judged suspension, and technology galore, the XC90 fancies itself as the ultimate family car. But sometimes it pays to leave the family behind and head out onto the open road.
We all need to enjoy the peace and quiet.