2016 Volvo XC90 Test Drive: Two Versions of One Luxurious New Midsize SUV

What do Thor’s hammer, Orrefors Crystal, a large touchscreen display, sumptuous leather, diamond cut controls, integrated child booster seats, and access to the great outdoors have in common? They can all be found in a new luxury midsize SUV, the 2016 Volvo XC90.

Aimed at consumers who are considering purchasing the Audi Q7, the BMW X5, the Mercedes-Benz ML, the Acura MDX, or the Infiniti QX60, the Volvo XC90 is not a budget class midsize SUV by any means. It is total luxury with all the bells and whistles one would expect. How can it hope to compete in a category that is dominated by brands associated with premium features and premium prices? I’ll get back to that in a moment, but let’s start with a quick overview of who Volvo is and what their place is in the market.

Full Disclosure: Volvo paid for my travel to Santa Monica, my room, transportation,and meals; there were no conditions or expectations made regarding what I chose to write about with regard to my experience.

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The 2016 Volvo XC90 T8

Volvo was officially founded on April 14, 1927, in Gothenburg, Sweden; its first managing director was Assar Gabrielsson, and its first technical manager was Gustav Larson. According to the site HighNames, rather than being named for one of the company’s founders, Volvo is a conjugation of the Latin word volvere:

Despite that Volvo is a Swedish company the founders didn’t name the car Viking or Nordic or anything like that. They decided on the Latin word volvere, meaning to roll. It seems a logical word choice since the purpose of working on a Swedish car project was to build cars that could withstand the cold Scandinavian weather and uneven roads – basically a car that rolls. What they did is only conjugate the verb volvere in first person (because unlike in English many other languages use similar but still different words when saying I roll, you roll, etc) and voilà – you have Volvo. It’s like the car speaks to you – I roll.

From the beginning, Volvo vehicles were designed “to withstand the rigors of Sweden’s rough roads and cold temperatures. This emphasis on durability has been a feature of Volvo products ever since.” Safety was also a priority; in 1927 Volvo’s founders stated that “Safety is and must be the basic principle in all design work”.

The 1927 Volvo PV4 "Jakob", the first Volvo sedan

The 1927 Volvo PV4 “Jakob”, the “covered” version of the first Volvo sedan; this one was rescued from a barn in the 1970s!

When you think of Volvo, what are some of the first adjectives that comes to mind? For me those words would be “safe” and “boxy”, but that’s because I’m 48, and I can remember the popular 240 model of the 80s all too well (my first boyfriend drove one).

Volvo 240

photo courtesy of All-Carz

The reason boxy comes to mind is pretty obvious, but the reason I have always considered Volvo’s to be safe cars deserves a little more digging.

If you take a look at the list of Volvo’s research and development milestones, you’ll note that many of them are safety related; here are just a few from that source and others around the web:

  • 1944 – Laminated glass was introduced in the PV model
  • 1959 – Volvo safety engineer Nils Bohlin invents the modern three-point seat belt. [Shortly after, Volvo gave the patent away, “because they decided it was too important to keep to themselves.“]
  • 1967 – The rear-facing child seat is introduced. The child seat was developed by Volvo in collaboration with Associate Professor Bertil Aldman of the National Swedish Council for Road Safety Research.
  • 1969 – Reel belt added to the front seats of Volvo cars.
  • 1972 – Seat belt reminder is invented.
  • 1973 – Bulb monitor is invented by Volvo. The bulb monitor is a lamp on the instrument panel that lights up when any of the car’s lamps that are important for safety are not working.
  • 1976 – Volvo becomes the first car manufacturer to introduce an effective system for exhaust gas cleansing, the three-way catalytic converter. The Lambda probe measures the oxygen content of the exhaust gases.
  • 1978 – Volvo’s researchers construct a special belt cushion for children who have outgrown the child seat and are up to 12 years old.
  • 1979 – The wide-angle rear mirror is introduced to avoid accidents caused by the blind spot.
  • 1991 – Volvo releases the Side Impact Protection System (SIPS).
  • 1998 – Whiplash protection system introduced that included a very robust headrest close to the occupant’s head and a clever seat design that gave uniform support in a collision.
  • 1998 – Inflatable side impact curtains introduced that can absorb 75% of the energy generated when the head is thrown sideways.
  • 2002 – Rollover Protection System (ROPS) introduced by enhancing their “SUVs’ stability with a sophisticated electronic Roll Stability Control system and secondly, [improving] the car’s safety structure with extremely tough boron steel in the roof.
  • 2003 – Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) which “uses cameras and radar to watch for vehicles alongside and offset to the rear of the Volvo. When a car enters the blind spot area, a warning lamp comes on near the door mirror, giving the driver ample time to react.”
  • 2008 – City Safety system which uses “laser detection to work out whether a collision with the car in front is likely, and if the driver doesn’t brake, the car will do it. And the system works up to 31 mph.”
  • 2010 – Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake, which is a system that uses radar and cameras to warn a driver “if somebody steps out in front of the car, and then brakes automatically if the driver fails to.”

… and on it goes.

Volvo’s vision for the future is that “cars should not crash”; their goal is that by 2020, “nobody should be killed or injured in a new Volvo car.” I had to do a bit of digging, but interestingly enough, the Volvo XC90 is already one of 9 vehicles that has no driver fatalities in 2009 – 2012; that’s a pretty good start. I also managed to find a 1995 report showing that the Volvo 240 earned my confidence that at the time it was one of the safest vehicles on the road. If you go to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and plug in Volvo, you’ll find that their currently offered vehicles, the S60, the S80, the V60, the XC60, and the XC90 are all top safety picks.

In 1999 Volvo was acquired by the Ford Motor Company, and in 2010 it was acquired by Geely Holding Group.

While today’s Volvo may have some design similarities to the models which came before, it is a whole new animal, and it is one worth admiring.

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The XC90 T6

The all new 2016 Volvo XC90 is a second generation vehicle, a complete update of over 14 years in the making for Volvo’s popular XC90 model, which has been available since January 2001. The XC90 is manufactured at Volvo’s Torslandaverken (Torlanda Works) factory on the island of Hisingen, which is about 7.5 miles away from Gothenburg.

Here’s a picture of the former XC90 body style.


“Volvo XC90 V8 — 02-26-2010” by IFCAR. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The all-new 2016 Volvo XC90 is available with two major engine types, the T6 AWD and the T8 AWD Twin-Engine Plug In Hybrid. A full fact sheet on each is available here [.pdf will open in new tab], and you can read a full Volvo sustainability report by clicking here [.pdf will open in new tab]. 

This week I had the opportunity to drive both the T6 and the T8 models for a few hours over through winding mountains, busy city streets, parking lots, and the open road. Here are my impressions …

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The XC90 T6

Both the XC90 T6 and the T8 have these things in common

The new body style has an aggressive front end with a distinctive sideways “T” in its LED lights that make up the “Thor’s Hammer” I mentioned at the beginning of this post. If you see a vehicle with two Ts on their side coming at you at night — and you know what you’re looking at — you’ll have no doubt that it’s a new Volvo.

The front end on both XC90 models has a large stylized Volvo symbol set on an almost 3D vertical grill;

Side note: the circle with an arrow emerging from it which is also commonly identified as the symbol for the war-god Mars/Ares and for the element Iron.

As such, the ideogram has long been the symbol of the iron industry, not least in Sweden. The iron badge on the car was supposed to take up this symbolism and create associations with the honoured traditions of the Swedish iron industry: steel and strength with properties such as safety, quality and durability.

Yes, that symbol is also commonly known as the male symbol, versus the feminine Venus/Aphrodite symbol (a circle with a small cross below it), but now you can see (if you ever wondered about it) why the male symbol’s presence was never intended as a less than subtle indication of who should be driving Volvo’s vehicles.

The interiors of both XC90s we drove were incredibly comfortable with heated and ventilated front seats that were extremely adjustable and body-hugging without being too tight — as should be expected from vehicles in this price range, of course.

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Volvo XC90 T8

Both the T6 and T8 models that we drove had full roof sunroofs which served to bring the great outdoors into the vehicle. The front portion of the sunroof can be popped open for a bit of fresh air, or it can slide completely open over the back half. There is an included shade that could be automatically deployed to keep the sun off of us and heat out of the vehicle. 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Test Drive.02

Information and controls were easily accessed or viewed from the steering wheel …

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Volvo XC90 T6

… the driver’s information cluster, which includes an LCD information center in the middle …

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Volvo XC90 T8: note the school zone warning with posted speed limit

… the center console …

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Volvo XC90 T8 center console: note the Orrefors crystal shifter and the diamond cut controls

… and from the large touch screen in the center of the dashboard.

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Volvo XC90 T6

Rather than a push start, the T6 and the T8 employ a twist knob in the center console. When the key is within range and the brake pedal is pressed, you twist the Engine knob to the right to start the car. Turning it to the left when the vehicle is in Park will turn the car off. 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 Test Drive.08-002Drive modes are selected by pressing the diamond cut spinning wheel below the ignition knob; this pulls up a screen on the dashboard that allows you to choose which mode you’d prefer. On the T6, choices include Eco, Comfort, Off Road, and Dynamic.

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Volvo XC90 T6 drive modes

On the T8, choices include AWD, Save, Pure (all-electric), Hybrid, Power, Off Road, and Individual.

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Volvo XC90 T8 drive modes

Both the T6 and the T8 are available with a auto-engine-shutoff feature I’d not tried before, but it is one that is supposed to save fuel, especially when you are consistently stuck in traffic. The way it works is that when you are stopped at a red light, for example, or bumper to bumper traffic), the engine will actually shut off, but any accessories you have running (like the AC, heater, or the radio) will continue to operate as before. When you put your foot on the gas, the car will automatically start again, and you’ll continue on your way. I noticed a little bit of a rumble from the engine starting in the T6, but in the T8’s hybrid mode, I honestly couldn’t even tell when it kicked on or off. You can override this feature by pressing the “A” button at the bottom of the center console.

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Volvo XC90 T8 Center Console

There is an optional integrated dog cage available for both XC90 models, and it can be configured to give your dog the run of the entire back cargo area or to keep him or her in a slightly more confined area so you can also haul groceries or gear.

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The self-parking mode is something that my drive mates and I enjoyed trying out; I’ll show you our attempt later in this post under the T6 section, but here is an example of the professionals doing it coupled with a demo showing how the XC90 is able to get traction and move the vehicle, even when only one tire is able to get a solid bite on the ground — perfect in ice or mud.


Both the T6 and the T8 feature premium Bowers & Wilkins sound systems which can be adjusted and customized to get the best sound for your favorite music.

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Both the T6 and the T8 come in three basic design packages: Momentum, R-Design, and Inscription, and each package has optional features which can be added to significantly increase the functionality of the vehicle, as well as the price.

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You can get into a Volvo T6 for as little as $48,900 and a T8 for $68,100; the features and packages that you add can will make the XC90 substantially more expensive, but when you consider that these are cars which are meant to stay on the road for many years and for many, many miles, you can likely also expect to get excellent resale value from them when the time comes to upgrade.

The Volvo XC90 T8

This was the first XC90 my group was allowed to test; it was a completely loaded out with every bell and whistle, and although I don’t have a window sticker to share (these were pre-production models not quite ready for US pricing), I was told that the final figure for something comparable would be in the $84,000 range.

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The XC90 T8


For the money, you’ll get one of the most technologically advanced, feature-laden, and luxurious midsize SUVs available today.

Starting the 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 for the first time was a trip; it was in Hybrid mode, and I wasn’t sure that I had actually engaged the engine; the car was that quiet. Of course the dashboard and driver’s cluster lit up showing me that the engine was running, but it was still an adjustment — as was shifting! You may have used paddle shifters on your steering wheel before, but the T8 has an actual Orrefors crystal shifter that rather than being physically shifted into P, N, D, R, and so on, it simply requires a little push in whatever direction is needed to get to the gear you require.

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Volvo XC90 T8 Orrefors Crystal Eye gear shift

It’s necessary, at least at first, to look at the driver’s cluster to see which gear you are in. I got more comfortable with the system as I used it; it wasn’t difficult or “bad”, just different and oddly elegant. The Auto engine feature was so smooth that we could hardly tell when it had stopped or started when we stopped and started in traffic or at a light, and the car was quiet both inside and out.

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Volvo XC90 T8: note the shift modes shown in the driver’s cluster

Driving the T8 was a dream; we were only in it for almost 2 hours, but that was enough time for me to decide that if there were any options missing, I certainly wasn’t aware of them. In Hybrid mode the car was plenty powerful, and in Pure mode (full electric) it had a range of about 17 miles. The T8 includes a power charging cable, and there is an optional high-speed charger that can be installed at your home for the fastest and most efficient charge.

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The T8, being a hybrid, has a gas engine up front and the electric motor in the rear; the batteries have been placed in the middle for safety and stability, giving the T8 the ability to be the world’s first 7 seat midsize hybrid SUV.

1-Volvo XC90 T8 engine and batteries

Here are some more pictures of the T8’s interior …

While it’s quite impressive for the XC90 T8 hybrid to be able to have a third row seat, it is definitely going to be best used by people of shorter stature and children, and of course you’ll give up substantial cargo space by employing it. Both Chloe and Gloria, my two friends that I drove with each day, are under 5’3″; you can see them in the gallery below as they tried out the third row. Chloe had this to say about sitting in the very back of the vehicle:

The luxury feel is definitely extended to the third row, and I love that as a passenger, you don’t get that feeling of being excluded from the rest of the car; it actually felt like I was in the front row.

I’m 5’10”, and I’ll admit that I wasn’t even tempted to climb back there to try it out.

This was probably the first hybrid that I’ve driven that I thoroughly enjoyed. It had power when I needed it, it was extremely quiet and smooth, it was absolutely luxurious, and the technological gadgets and interior doo-dads could keep me satisfied for ages. The approximately $84K price kind of puts the kibosh on my ownership fantasy, however.

The Volvo XC90 T6
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The XC90 T6

If you don’t want to invest in a hybrid engine, but you still want an extraordinarily luxurious mid-size SUV that can seat 7, then the 2016 Volvo CX90 T6 could be for you.


The interior is just as lovely, and the model we drove included something I have never seen before — an integrated child seat in the middle section of the back row! I’m a grandmother, and it is a hassle to swap seats with my daughter whenever I have her kids for the day. Yes, I’d still need to put the two baby seats on either side of this booster, but it would be one less accessory to move over, and I am all about the (safe) conveniences.

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When not in use, the middle section can either transform into a slim middle seat, or you can pull down the center console for a backseat drink-holder area

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Here are some more interior shots from the T6 …

Here is Chloe’s and my attempt to use the self-parking mode in the XC90 T6; as you’ll see, it was easy and actually pretty fun!

This particular XC90 T6 AWD loaded-out Inscription version comes in at just under $67,000.

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Driving either the 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 or T8 is akin to getting into a technologically advanced spaceship that can do almost everything but drive itself. It doesn’t hurt that while riding or driving both, I felt safe and incredibly comfortable.

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About the Author

Judie Lipsett Stanford
Judie is the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of Gear Diary, which she founded in September 2006. She started in 1999 writing software reviews at the now-defunct smaller.com; from mid-2000 through 2006, she wrote hardware reviews for and co-edited at The Gadgeteer. A recipient of the Sigma Kappa Colby Award for Technology, Judie is best known for her device-agnostic approach, deep-dive reviews, and enjoyment of exploring the latest tech, gadgets, and gear.