Two centuries collided for an instant as my path across Route 3 from Augusta was blocked by a 1970s era Volkswagen Mini-bus. Adorned with the various statement stickers from that era all the way to the present, it was difficult not to recall that Volvos and Volkswagens were owned by kindred spirits that wanted nothing to do with the established modes of both life and transportation. Think back about how many 2-series Volvo 240 wagons, similarly adorned with decals, still populate our roads today. “Hay-haulers” the navigator calls them, a comment on their versatility or the inhabitants — you decide.
So I put the spurs to the new Volvo V90 Cross Country, its supercharged and turbocharged 316-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine swooshing past the aged VW with a swill of 91-octane fuel and dual exhaust pipes baying at the altar of 21st-century performance. Featuring an eight-speed automatic and seamless, but not interactive, AWD, the Volvo leaped forward like a fine athlete and dispatched the VW, as well as most other traffic, in a fashion that old 240 wagons could only dream about.
Perhaps Volvo’s engineers have been dreaming about cars like this for decades, glad to throw off the confining limitations applied by Ford and the Swedish overseers, thrilled by the free rein (and unlimited cash) provided by new Chinese owner Geely Motors. To say that the new V90 has much in common with its ancestral wagons is a mighty stretch.
Volvo has been in the news a lot lately, almost as much as Tesla and for almost the same reasons. Despite electric vehicles (EV) accounting for less than 1 percent of American new car sales (all brands combined), the industry is now in a race to see who can convert their fleets to electric/battery power the fastest. Never mind the cost, the limited range, the resources to make expensive batteries and that there is no infrastructure for “refueling”; damn the torpedoes, make electric cars now! And make them autonomous, and free!
Irony alert: the VW bus is returning — as an electric car. Volvo says that by 2020, all of its products will be electric or hybrid-powered only. Lofty goal. But if the styling is as expressive as this V90, and the cabin comfort and drivability are the same, Volvo’s momentum shift from near-death to relevance again will be complete. But other automakers will be doing the same thing, so competition will be challenging the better mousetrap theory all over the globe.
There are many emotions and reflections from my time with the V90. Essentially an estate wagon in the Euro-paradigm for large wagons — think BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class — the V90 is long, sleek and powerful looking, right down to its Thor’s Hammer LED running lamps. The cabin is spacious and quite impressive for fit, finish and comfort. The power liftgate is fast. The cargo hold is roomy. The interior is hushed, until you crank the 1,400-watt $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins sound system to full throttle. And after the numerous nit-picks that you know will follow, the massaging seat almost makes everything else irrelevant — it’s that good.
Pricing starts at $56,295 with a host of standard features including three years of free maintenance. Dollop on $13,000 worth of options — Nappa leather seating and trim, four-zone heating, active headlamps, 20-inch wheels, laminated side windows with shades, graphical heads-up display, rear air suspension, power rear cargo cover, plus the 19-speaker (19!!) audio system and you have AWD luxury defined by Scandinavian engineering. Take that, you German wiener lovers.
While computers help make today’s automobiles way better, with greater safety benefits, entertainment and information on the go, and much smarter and more efficient powertrains, we are now at the crossroads of driving and just being an innocuous passenger.
The Volvo’s center dash employs an iPad-like touch-and-swipe screen — similar to Tesla. There are negligible buttons. The screen can do almost everything except file your taxes — I think — but is this what we should be doing in a moving motor vehicle, deciphering swipes and pushes on a distracting screen? The climbing death toll data suggests not.
The rest of the dash and the HID unit displays speed limits — three times. The speed limit signs all flash as the limits change, up or down. The steering wheel fights any attempt to change lanes if you don’t signal first — even to avoid the bicyclist hogging the whole right lane. Apply the brakes and start to pull around a turning vehicle ahead, and the Volvo’s forward braking sensors go into hyper-reaction mode, automatically applying full brakes, lights flashing on the dash, and every article in the car gravitating toward the windshield. Stop to pick up the mail and the V90 won’t move forward until you refasten your seat belt.
The combination of nanny-state electronics and the exploding video arcade of constant warnings and messages is a turn-off to enjoying the V90. There has to be a middle ground besides deactivating the devices meant to “assist.” The future is apparently an extension of this Volvo and a grand departure from what we do driving now.