Volvo’s Second-Generation XC90

The 2016 Volvo XC90, the second-generation of a sport utility that was originally introduced in 2002. This was a clean-sheet approach on all fronts, from design and engineering through to execution.

Thomas Broberg, Volvo senior technical advisor, Safety, says that the first-generation XC90 introduced boron steel. “We’ve taken that quite a few steps further with the new vehicle. We are close to 40% high-strength steel vs. about 7% of the original. The occupant compartment is surrounded by ultra-high-strength steel.” This structural approach is part of the company’s objective when it comes to safety. Says Broberg: “By 2020 nobody should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.” It is not just about the use of steel, of course. There is also the suite of sensors and actuators in the vehicle that are meant to enhance safety. For example, there is automatic braking applied in cases when a driver turns in front of an oncoming car. The front seats and the front seatbelts are setup in such a way that in the event of the vehicle accidentally going off the road, the seatbelts tighten and then, to help mitigate any spinal damage, the seat deforms (a piece of metal in the recliner crumples) such that it helps absorb crash energy and consequently reduces lateral forces on the spine by about a third.

One of the objectives of designers is to create something—called “down the road graphics”—that allows immediate identification of a vehicle from a point distant in space. So, in Nordic fashion, Volvo has developed a light signature for the XC90, which uses the daytime running lights (DRLs) to create what it calls “Thor’s Hammer.”

Generally car seats tend to look like, well, car seats. Maybe there is a little change in the bolstering or there are leather insets or there is some atypical stitching. But pretty much a seat is a seat is a seat. Clearly, this is not the case for the new XC90. Dr. Dennis Nobelius, Volvo vice president, Vehicle Line Management, says, “We had the chance to redo everything on this car. It was a dream for engineers. It was a nightmare for program managers.” And part of that “everything” is the seat. According to Nobelius, Volvo engineers and interior designers worked with university hospitals and orthopedists to come up with
a seat design that is comfortable (he says that one of the goals was to develop “a Scandinavian sanctuary” inside the XC90) and helps in the event of an accident. The result is a seat that is, in Nobelius’s words, “an efficient design that looks good.”

Volvo’s powertrain strategy is to go with inline four cylinder engines for its vehicles. While this might seem completely understandable for even a midsize sedan, it is somewhat unusual for a midsize SUV. But the engine used for the XC90 is both supercharged and turbocharged. The 2.0-liter engine produces 320 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Michael Fleiss, vice president of Volvo Powertrain, says that he joined the company three years ago from Volkswagen Group because of the “fantastic opportunity” that the new approach to powertrain engineering presented to him (“One diesel, one gasoline architecture.”) The XC90 T6 has the so-named “Drive-E” engine alone. The XC90 T8 is a plug-in hybrid vehicle. This setup includes a crankshaft-mounted starter generator (CISG) between the engine and the eight-speed automatic transmission. It features a 34-kW starter motor. Among its functions are providing a seamless transition between electric drive to hybrid drive; as an engine booster; and as a starter-generator. The 9.2-kWh lithium-ion battery is packaged in the center tunnel of the vehicle. There is a 60-kW electric motor on the rear axle. To accommodate cooling of the system, there are two extra circuits, one that cools the CISG and the rear-axle electric motor and another that cools the battery either passively through the radiator or actively through integration with the car’s climate control system.

Surprisingly, the audio system does not come from a Swedish source but a British firm, Bowers & Wilkens. The amplifier is a 12-channel, 1,400-W device that powers 19 Bowers & Wilkins speakers. One interesting aspect of the speaker setup is that the air-ventilated subwoofer is integrated into the vehicle body, not bolted into it. Explains Volvo audio expert Michael Adenauer, “This increases the subwoofer’s capacity to pulse more air, which enables extremely low bass tones all the way down to 20 Hz. In principle, it turns the whole interior space in the car into a giant subwoofer.”

The T8 XC90, the plug-in hybrid, comes with an Orrefors crystal gearshift lever. While Volvo designers had originally used it in a concept vehicle, they thought it was so distinctive and different that they’ve deployed it in the production vehicle.

The XC90 is being produced in a body shop that was built at the company’s plant in Torslanda for the launch of the vehicle. One interesting aspect of the Torslanda plant is that while the teams of workers that are ordinarily organized in Volvo plants have some 15 workers, in the new setup the team members will number from five to eight. In addition to which, while there are some 300 robots in the plant, that is fewer than the norm. In both the cases of the teams and the automation, the goal is to attain improved flexibility, quality and productivity.

Volvo launched the first-generation XC90 sport utility vehicle (SUV) in 2002. It is launching the second-generation XC90 SUV now. Which, by any measure, is a long time. Of course, there have been a number of issues that the Swedish brand has had to contend with, not the least of which was its sale in 2010 by Ford to Zhejiang Geely Holdings.

But make no mistake: with this second-gen vehicle, this is a full-on Gothenburg execution.

Well, sort of.

You see, the XC90 is a global vehicle, the first to come off of the company’s new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). A vehicle that is meant for markets around the world. A vehicle that will undoubtedly spawn other Volvos.

So, Dr. Dennis Nobelius, Volvo vice president, Vehicle Line Management (he oversees the XC90, S80, S80L, V70, and XC70), says that they knew that if they determined what was necessary in developing a luxury SUV for the U.S. market and nailed it, they would have a successful global product. “We don’t make cars based on Gothenburg preferences.” They did customer research to develop the SUV, an SUV that Nobelius describes as a “Scandinavian sanctuary,” in . . . Los Angeles.

In addition to which, the chief designer, Interiors, at Volvo, Tisha Johnson, happens to be an Art Center graduate and a southern California girl, born and bred. (Her interests: surfing, motorcycling, bicycling, and yoga. Yes, raised in Orange County.) And if there is any-thing stunning about the XC90—and there are a lot of anythings in that regard—know that the interior exceeds expectations unlike, well, practically any other vehicle out there.

Case in point: The XC90 T8 Twin Engine. It is a hybrid. A hybrid with a powertrain that produces 400 hp (an 82-hp electric motor on the rear axle is combined with a 318-hp supercharged and turbocharged I4) and is expected to return 59 MPGe. It is the world’s first seven-seat plug-in hybrid. A hybrid with a ~25-mile all-electric range. An SUV hybrid that has a 0 to 62 mph rate of 5.9 seconds.

That is remarkable, yes. But not the thing that is really surprising.

Also surprising is the fact that this is a vehicle that has comparatively high levels of autonomous driving capability, as in its “Adaptive Cruise Control with Pilot Assist” that permits driving in stop-and-go conditions by automatically following the vehicle directly ahead; acceleration, braking and steering are all handled, at speeds up to 33 mph. Thomas Broberg, Volvo senior technical advisor, Safety, describes this as “a small and humble step,” but one that holds the promise of fully autonomous driving.

Again, surprising, but not really surprising.

Orrerfors is a glassworks established in Småland, Sweden in 1898. At the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, Volvo introduced a concept car, the Concept Estate, which included a gear shift lever that was Orrefors crystal. After all, it was a concept.

The XC90 T8 has an Orrefors crystal gearshift lever.

That’s really surprising.

That’s exceeding expectations.

This is a vehicle that really needs to be seen.

So let’s look at it.