This is what we've been waiting for, the first truly new Volvo since they went to China. Well, since Ford sold Volvo to China's Geely Group in 2010; Volvo is still in Sweden, and clearly its traditional culture of safety and technology expressed in Scandinavian Moderne design remains unchanged. So how new is the new XC90? It's so new I wonder why they didn't call it the XC100. It's so new I had to consult the owner's manual to open the glove compartment … but the manual was in the glove compartment. It turns out a button on the center stack pops the latch, but I still needed the manual to learn how to use the "Sensus" touch screen and navigate the computer menus: Swipe sideways as well as up and down; and all the familiar smartphone gestures -- pinching and double-tapping and so on -- work here too, even with gloves on. Or we can just talk to it.
In another car, by now I might be irritated, but in the XC90 I was intrigued. I sat there for a long time, reading and swiping and poking and adjusting. Each function became clear just before frustration set in. The graphics are sophisticated. The interior is gorgeous. The seats are wonderful. The sound system is killer. Every inch of fit and finish is first-class. By the time I got to the Monroney sticker, I was expecting an MSRP around 75 grand, but with a fully $15,000 worth of extras it was "only" $66,705.
Finally I remembered I really ought to go for a drive. I was able to start the engine without help, though the lovely knurled switch behind the shift lever has to be rotated, not pushed. Selecting Drive, Reverse, Park and all that is completely straightforward. (There's no pulling the lever backward to go forward, or goofy buttons to manipulate.) I set the electronic e-brake to engage whenever I shifted into park.
More agreeable surprises: It's called a T6, but under the hood is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine that is both supercharged and turbocharged to an impressive 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. It's unexpectedly quiet and smooth, and it pulls hard. The transmission is an 8-speed automatic with manual shiftability. The default is front-wheel drive, but up to half the power goes to the rear wheels as needed. Steering, suspension and braking are faultless. Just aft of the keyless ignition switch is a beautifully faceted scroll bar: Push it to call up the drive-control screen, and then roll it to select eco, comfort, off-road, dynamic or personal, the driver's customized setup. Each mode changes the car's personality. Dynamic (this replaces "sport" in the most fashion-forward cars) is nearly too aggressive, but it shows that although the XC90 is the most luxurious Volvo yet, it can be driven not just fast, but hard too. In off-road mode, the differentials lock and Hill Descent Control activates; the steering, throttle, transmission and electronic stability control are set for traction; engine stop/start is deactivated and, if the optional air suspension is available, ground clearance increases by 1.6 inches. (This should work in snow also.)
Being a Volvo, the XC90 is stuffed with active and passive safety gear. Here's just one example: Pilot Assist, which accelerates, decelerates, steers and stops the vehicle at speeds up to 30 mph, so long as the lane markings are clear and there's a car in front to follow. I wasn't able to find the right combination of traffic to try this.
Especially in gleaming Onyx Black, the XC90 has tremendous presence, and it looks elegant, sumptuous and grown-up, as though it should be parked outside Lincoln Center on a particularly ceremonial opening night. One reason we buy cars is because of how they make us feel about ourselves. The XC90 made me feel smart and hip and up-to-the minute, like the latest Apple product does, and it's quite satisfying to drive, too. I might never figure out everything the XC90 is capable of, but then I still don't know all that my iPhone can do and I'm on my fourth one of those. Does the XC90 represent constructive change, the sort that ushers in a new day? Drive one and decide for yourself. But ask the dealer for a tutorial first.
Corner-following "Thor's Hammer" lights
Built-in child's booster seat
22 MPG overall doesn't seem enough
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.