Why Volvo’s making it big again
Spacious, sturdy and safe, the revamped Volvo V90 is back with a vengeance, says Charles Rangeley-wilson, who relives the car’s heyday aided by a 1980s playlist
Charles Rangeley-wilson drives the Volvo’s revamped V90
IWAS looking forward to my week with the new Volvo V90, the car the company should have been building these past 20 years. I even had a 1980s playlist on my ipod. Backseat teenage journeys were always in a large Volvo estate, my father’s default pick from the company-car list. A 265 GL was the first. It replaced some dreadful Renault, which had replaced a Bristol when the price of fuel went through the roof.
The Volvo was a welcome step back towards comfortable motoring. It had a six-cylinder engine and could easily swallow an autumn term’s worth of books, a hi-fi, LPS, posters, lamps and duvets from London to a muddy valley in Sussex. And it had a cassette player. When I look at one now, I can hear The Cure (my choice) or Glen Campbell (my father’s).
The 265 became the 760, became the 960, became the 850. I learned to drive in one (the 760) and I bought the last (the 850) from my dad, when he retired and it was my turn to have a family. Those big Volvos had become an almost timeless icon of dogged, pioneering safety and spacious practicality. No one else built cars like these.
For a teeny window of time, the 850 morphed into the V90 and then Volvo had a collective brain freeze and replaced its sine qua non with a shrunken version, the V70, and, for a full generation, everyone with a growing family missed out on the ‘classic’ Volvo. Mercedes, then Skoda particularly, stole the market in enormous estates. Now, with a fresh injection of cash, Volvo has found its way again and the V90 is back.
An AWD (all-wheel drive) D5 Inscription version was delivered almost new and gleaming fresh to my Norfolk driveway, just in time for the sugar-beet harvest. Before it got covered in mud, I took a few minutes to be struck by the looks. Volvo has the styling spot on.
My AWD version was powered by a four-cylinder turbo-diesel (they’re all four-cylinder now), so was a teeny bit growly when pressed hard, but not intrusively so. This one had plenty of power and lowdown shove. It’s not a car that encourages you to get a hustle on, anyway. Volvo has deliberately built a relaxed, mile-munching cruiser. Basically, you engage D, leave it there (no flappy paddling needed) and glide about the place in immense comfort, cocooned by every safety feature known to man.
I had the car for a week, bustling to the shops and back for a few days, before undertaking a very long round trip (fruitlessly) chasing woodcock in West Wales. The return journey of 254 miles was taken non-stop in the dark and the rain, full tank, ipod connected, caffeine injected and it says a lot about the comfort of the car that I got out at the far end with no aches or strains. The boot swallowed all my gear—i took a ton of stuff—and looked only a quarter full. Plus, with the front seat (which was as comfy as Volvo seats always are) set as far back as I needed, there was still enough room for a tall passenger behind me.
It’s a very good machine for consuming vast tracts of tarmac in pampered comfort—ski trips, summer weeks in Scotland or the entire family and dog off to see Granny at Christmas. So far, so very Volvo. However, there were niggles, or rather a singular niggle, in the shape of Sensus, the car’s
touchscreen computer system. It hadn’t bugged me in the XC90, so perhaps it was the journey, but whoever developed the interface needs to try working the thing at night, in the pouring rain in heavy traffic somewhere near Dudley. There are no easy-to-hand buttons or dial-like controls; it’s all touchscreen or voice command, so that most tasks (finding Radio 6, a phone number, another route) involve a laborious scroll through menus or talking to a computer.
It’s a clever system, but using it saps too much attention from the road ahead—and that’s not very Volvo at all. Verdict: a dial and a button might lie between very good and great, but the big one is back and not before time.