Volvo bills XC90 as world's first 7-seat plug-in SUV


SANTA MONICA, Calif. ? Just when it seemed like Volvo might have lost its edge, along comes the new XC90 crossover.

Volvo, the Swedish brand, packed the new version of its high-end SUV with just about every feature that a luxury buyer could request. If the the fancy touchscreen and new seats aren't enough, consider that it can drive itself up to 30 miles per hour. Yes, drive itself.

Volvo also gave it a headline: The world's first modern seven-seat plug-in hybrid SUV.

Plus, it comes in a gorgeous package. The front end, in particular, has been redone to give it a classic, clean Scandinavian look that should wear well over the next few years. There's even a new distinctive front-end signature ? daytime running lights in the shape of a sideways T that Volvo calls the "Hammer of Thor."

It's a remarkable comeback for a brand that looked like it might be headed down the wrong fjord. In fact, Volvo appears to returning to its roots, when it developed a loyal following as a standalone brand before it was acquired by Ford. Back in the day, Volvo was known for cars that endure endless Swedish winters while innovating on safety at a time when other automakers largely ignored the issue.

Ford let go of its foreign luxury brands during the recession. Volvo was snapped up by China's Geely Holdings and Jaguar went to India's Tata. But unlike Jaguar, Volvo didn't quickly attract new attention with slick high-impact marketing and a bevy of new models. Volvo has stayed relatively quiet, turning out shapely prototype vehicles for auto shows with only hints that it was about to stage a comeback.

The XC90 is that comeback. As a three-row SUV, it's big enough and expensive enough that Volvo could pour in its best. It becomes a showcase for all that is promising about the brand. Volvo spared no attention to detail. We were impressed by its:

Comfort: Each of the two rear rows is a little higher than the row in front of it. This "stadium seating" approach allows rear-seat passengers to better see the front-seat passengers and out the windshield. Also, the rear seats are offset from the three in front of them, also making for improved sight lines. The second-row seats move easily to clear a path to the back.

Headroom is ample in the XC90 except for tall passengers in the third row, which automakers figure will usually be occupied by kids. Volvo is making a big deal about its redesigned seats aimed at better spine support. The seats did seem especially comfortable ? and Volvo says they will be available with side bolsters, cushion extension and massage.

Powertrain: The new XC90 will come in two versions. The T6 has a four-cylinder engine that makes up for its small size by being both turbocharged and supercharged for maximum performance and gas mileage. The T8 uses the same engine but is the plug-in hybrid. It is matched with an eight-speed transmission.

The T6 comes in all-wheel-drive and develops 316 horsepower. The T8 gets an 87-horsepower boost from its electric motor that, when used in combination with the gas engine, is good for 400 horsepower combined. As a result, Volvo says it can leap from zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.6 seconds. It has an electric-only driving range of about 17 miles before its gas engine kicks in, enough for many daily commutes. Its lithium-ion battery, located near the rear axle, takes about two and half hours to charge fully from a 220-volt outlet.

Safety: Volvo isn't about to let loose of its image as the safest auto brand. In the case of the XC90, it burnishes the reputation by introducing a new technology: an automatic braking system to prevent drivers from dangerously turning into oncoming traffic. If the system detects that a collision can occur during a left-hand turn, it automatically prevents the turn from happening.

The XC90 also has a system designed to protect passengers if the vehicle runs off the road, automatically tightening the front-seat belts if it detects the vehicle is unexpectedly leaving the pavement.

Electronics: We put the self-driving system to the test. The XC90 was able to stay in its lane and keep pace with the car in front of it in heavy stop-and-go traffic on the freeway. The only requirement is that you at least let your fingertips touch the steering wheel so that the vehicle knows the driver is still engaged. Just one problem: The car in front had a tendency to dart ahead, briefly leaping beyond 30 miles per hour. In that case, the system disengaged, requiring the driver to re-engage it when traffic slowed down again. It was a mild annoyance to what otherwise is a promising precursor to fully self-driving cars.

XC90 also stands apart with an interesting touch-screen in the center console intended to mimic tablet computers. That means it can be swiped with a finger up and down, and right and left. Volvo says it went to lengths to try to separate information drivers need to know, like speed and settings, from things they may want to know, like infotainment options. Still, we found there was a lot more information on the screens than the average driver could process without becoming overly distracted. There's a good alternative: Many key features can be operated by voice.

Volvo says it expects to sell about 15,000 XC90s in the U.S., a respectable number given the size of the brand and the luxury-level pricing. It will compete against the likes of the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Acura MDX and Infiniti QX60. The T6 will start at $48,900 and will come to showrooms in July. The T8 will start at $71,600 and arrive in October. Add a $950 destination charge to both.

If the vehicle's reliability can match its features, the Swedes could be on the precipice of catapulting right back in play against its best German and Japanese competition.