Say the name, Volvo, and you conjure up an image of a big, boxy wagon that's safe—but Spartan. If that's what you have in mind, it's clear you need to spend a little time behind the wheel of the Swedish automaker's new XC90, as we did during a couple days' drive along the Mediterranean coast near Barcelona.
First launched in late 2002, the XC90 helped to reshape the sport-utility segment, as much as it redefined the Volvo brand. Moving away from the classic, truck-like SUV design, it was stylish, sporty and comfortable, on-road and off. No wonder it quickly became Volvo's worldwide best-seller. Sales have slowed in recent years—no surprise in an increasingly crowded segment. So, Volvo has had to amp things up with the latest XC90 redesign.
That was all the more of a challenge considering the project was just getting underway while Volvo itself was being sold off by Ford Motor Co. to a new parent, the Chinese upstart Geely. Intent on rebuilding Volvo after years of neglect, Geely has invested $11 billion to develop a whole new family of vehicles and the engines that will power them. The XC90 is the first of those new models to roll off the line. And it's more than enough to assuage skeptics. Inside and out, the look is contemporary, elegant and well-executed, retaining an unmistakably Scandinavian feel—starting with the distinctive headlamps Volvo has dubbed Thor's Hammer. It's a big step up from the old XC90—and more than enough to rival such European competitors as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The new XC90 maintains Volvo's traditional focus on safety, with a wide range of systems designed not only to reduce injuries in a crash but to prevent them in the first place. The outgoing Volvo XC90 was one of the safest vehicles on the road, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and with such new systems as Rear Collision Warning and Pilot Assist, expect the new 2015 model to be even more so.
But it's also a lot of fun to drive. And here's perhaps the biggest surprise you'll discover during a test drive: the sportiest model is also the most environmentally friendly. The "base" T6 model features a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine making 316 horsepower. The plug-in hybrid T8 bumps that up to 400 hp by pairing the gas engine with an electric motor. The all-wheel drive combination will take you from 0 to 60 in 5.8 seconds, yet you'll make an estimated 59 "MPGe," a complex calculation that factors in the 25 miles that the T8 can deliver in electric-only mode.
Starting around $49,000, the XC90 is clearly the sort of new flagship Volvo needed. Whether you call this new model Swedish or Chinese, it's going to change the way a lot of people think about Volvo.