There we were, lost somewhere amongst the winter-wilted olive groves dotting the gently drifting hillsides of Spain on a stretch of road less traveled than most. We had already spent several hours behind the wheel of Volvo’s newly updated 2016 XC90 in its plug-in hybrid “T8” iteration, an arctic white review model loaned to us by the Swedish auto manufacturer to test drive for the afternoon on the Catalonian coast, along a serpentine route designed to underline the car’s agility, luxuries, and performance, all against the backdrop of the craggy Mediterranean coastline. Never to complain when given the combination of a new car and an open road, we charged from coastline into the interior of the Spanish farmlands until we realized we weren’t quite sure where to go next.
After navigating countless roundabouts (aka auto roulette), threading through numerous toll booths, and even detouring off course for an impromptu off-road test through a dusty conifer forest, the confident plug-in-hybrid XC90 had suddenly lost all willingness to map our course any further, leaving my fellow journalist and I to find our way back to our starting point the old fashioned way following roadsigns (Volvo reps apologized, explaining the navigation system was still being fine tuned).
Despite the technological setback, neither of us found much reason for concern. Our bemusement of our predicament was born after two days driving the new Volvo, during which time we discovered our 4-wheeled Scandinavian friend sported a surprising amount of comfort and safety features quietly integrated into its handsome, understated design. If there was any vehicle to find yourself lost in the countryside of a foreign country driving, the Volvo XC90 was the ideal vehicle.
The last time the XC90 was gracing the roads as a brand new model Nelly and Nickelback were still topping the music charts*. But good things come to those who wait, and it seems Volvo bided their time carefully, waiting to refresh their top-selling vehicle with a slew of interior, exterior, technological, and performance improvements all designed to instill the sort of thankfulness for the inanimate proselytized by Marie Kondo. Everywhere details – great and small – seemed to communicate the premise this was to be a lifetime partnership between car and owner, where driver and materials would age gracefully together.
Volvo representatives seemed to support this assumption directly, underlining the new XC90 as the spiritual flagship of the brand’s design principles first insinuated by the sexy trio of concept vehicles unveiled a year ago. As Volvo’s Chief Designer of Interiors Tisha Johnson explained during a morning presentation before our drive, the new XC90 took the core principles of those exploratory concept vehicles to formulate a singular “purposeful product” honoring the brand’s past (specifically the iconic Volvo P1800), an automotive manifestation encompassing Sweden’s long history of nautical lifestyle and aesthetics, the country’s love affair with nature, modernist architecture, and the open road, tying them together with the ingrained cultural predisposition favoring simplicity. It was hard not to get the sense Volvo built this car to represent both brand and nation.
Swedes are famed for their humility, but one could sense Volvo was keenly aware of the fine foot they had set forward with this new model, revealed by the glint-eyed smiles and evident pride as they pointed out the numerous improvements and additions made to the XC90, inside and out:
It’s safe to say the new Volvo is a whole greater than the sum of its parts, but each of those parts have been thoughtfully considered and designed to reflect the values of a Scandinavian sensibility connecting design and engineering as car to road. It’s not hard to imagine the XC90 will be a popular choice amongst luxury car buyers seeking subtle sophistication over ostentatious luxury styling which currently dominates the segment – buyers educated in modernist furnishings and architecture, alongside customers seeking a fuel efficient plug-in hybrid option in the crossover SUV segment. We’re looking forward to seeing how Volvo uses the XC90 as a design springboard for future models embracing the brand’s interwoven connection of Swedish culture and design, happy to know a secret smiling spider hides waiting inside each XC90.
*Amusingly, the Volvo team preloaded late 80’s Swedish pop rock duo Roxette into the XC90’s audio system to accompany our drive; we politely turned this off.
Volvo provided Design Milk airfare, lodging, and meals for attendance of this press event.