Countless companies – not to mention some of Australia's well-travelled politicians – could learn a thing or two from Volvo's public relations strategy over the years.
Above all else, one simple and sanitised message has resonated from the Swedish car maker since its inception: that of safety. Plans to produce fatality and injury-free vehicles to market by 2020 simply reinforce the message, adding to a long list of milestones including patents for the three-point seatbelt.
But therein lies a problem for Volvo's latest creation, the XC90 SUV, which goes on sale in Australia this week. Yes it is incredibly safe, with world-first technology including a semi-autonomous driving function which tags the vehicle in front and automatically brakes and steers at speeds below 50km/h.
But during Volvo's extensive development of the new model, which dates back to before 2011, the competition has made some key gains in this segment as well. Think new Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz GLE and established offerings from BMW, Range Rover and Porsche – all with a renewed emphasis on safety and comfort.
That means that, more than any other vehicle, the XC90 needs to raise the bar for Volvo among its competitors. Has the 12 year wait between models been worth it?
Priced from $89,950 (plus on-road costs) in Australia, the XC90 will be available in two grades (Momentum and Inscription) until the fourth quarter, when the flagship R-Design grade is added to the range, moving the price ceiling to a lofty $122,950. The entry price marks a circa $20,000 jump on its predecessor – a factor Volvo Australia believes represents a better resolved vehicle on the road and a more polished finish.
A beautifully presented interior scheme comprising seven seats is a major proponent for the pay more-get more cause. It is dubbed Volvo's 'Swedish sanctuary', resplendent with clever slimline seats that take up little cabin room yet cosset passengers and reduce excessive spinal forces during a crash. A meticulously crafted centre display with only eight physical buttons employs a digital tablet-style screen as its main portal, a system matched by a wholly digital driver instrument cluster.
Excellent design is bolstered by strong functionality across the XC90's seven seat layout. The second row of seats features fore and aft adjustment on the outer pews, bringing more spatial versatility, while the centre seat boasts Volvo's oft-praised in-built child booster. The theme is carried over to the rear where two identically sized seats reside, positioned in a stadium-like arrangement to ensure maximum use of space. With all seats occupied, the XC90 has a useful 398L of boot space, which is increased to a capacious 1091L as a five-seater and extended to 1900L when both rear rows are folded flat.
Key to the newfound functionality is the interior's design, but equally the platform that underpins it. The XC90 is the first recipient of Volvo's new scalable architecture – a platform that will soon be found across an entirely new Volvo range by 2018.
In addition to contributing to total weight savings of 125kg, the XC90's underpinnings feature a double wishbone front suspension and an integral axle rear featuring a composite leaf spring in the place of coil springs. The transverse leaf spring parallels the rear axle to liberate more interior space.
As for how it drives, the XC90 makes some improvements over its predecessor, but its ultimate positioning in this segment is a little clouded. Where Range Rover stands for off-road ability, BMW for on-road dynamics, Audi for design and Benz' AMG division for brute performance, the XC90 is somewhat unsure of itself.
Riding on optional 20-inch wheels, our base model car becomes brittle and even sharp over b-grade country roads. The rear end is particularly prone to thudding over sharp imperfections, while small amplitude bumps and ripples constantly judder through the chassis. Driving an identical vehicle with standard 19-inch wheels takes the edge away, but cannot hide imperfections within Volvo's in-house tuning.
Instead, it is a vehicle with a $3760 optional air suspension pack that best softens the bumps underneath, delivering a more compliant everyday ride. Given the stark contrast, it will be worth prospective buyers driving both packages before settling on their decision…
The XC90 doesn't possess the same dynamic acumen as the benchmark X5. Instead there is body roll present and a tendency for the front end to push wide during sportier driving – irrespective of whether air suspension is fitted or not. The steering tracks faithfully through corners, with desirable weighting around the ratio and a solid on-centre feel.
Its off-road credentials are limited mostly to gravel roads, with only a hill descent control function found among its list of standard fitments. A 2250kg towing capacity with a minimal 225kg towball rating will also limit the XC90's caravaner appeal.
Two engines will be offered initially in the XC90, with a third 'T8' petrol hybrid due to join them early next year.
The entry level D5 features a twin-turbo diesel motor that produces 165kW at 4250rpm and a generous 470Nm of pulling power between 1750-2500rpm, which Volvo says is capable of propelling its 1970kg mass from 0-100km in 7.8 seconds and consuming an average of 6.2L/100km.
Bringing a $4000 premium, the petrol-powered T6 uses both a supercharger and turbocharger to generate a healthy 235kW at 5700rpm and 400Nm between 2200-5400rpm, enough to move it to triple figures in 6.5 seconds and achieve an average fuel consumption of 8.5L/100km.
It is the T6 that impresses most during a range of driving. Its flexible power curve and pleasing mid-range performance feels energetic and spritely against the diesel, which tends to become breathless at higher revs and is prone to some turbo lag. Real-life fuel economy of either engine hovers around 9.0L/100km in a mix of conditions.
All engines are allied with an eight-speed automatic transmission which drives all four wheels via a Haldex system.
The bigger issue with the XC90 is that its $20,000 jump in pricing hasn't shrunk the accompanying options list, which is instead extensive and costly. Even its two world-first safety technologies – a run off-road system which braces occupants before a collision, and the already mentioned semi-autonomous driving function - are both optional extras. In the base model car, buyers of "the world's safest SUV" are even asked to fork out for blind spot monitoring and a speed limiting function.
What you do get in base model form is 19-inch alloy wheels, leather interior trim, sat nav, four-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, a power-operated tailgate and a comprehensive suite of safety systems that includes airbag coverage for all occupants, automated emergency braking, lane departure warning and reverse camera.
There are some minor packaging gripes also, like the fact there is only one USB port or that the narrow cabin renders the firm and perched centre seat in the second row largely redundant for anything other than small children. The rearmost seats are snug too, with a recommended 170cm tall limit for passengers.
Withstanding these factors, the XC90's global product manager Lars Lagstrom makes no hesitation in identifying the vehicle's brief: "Our ambition with this car was to be leading in safety, design and human machine interface. That was the mission."
Does that qualify the XC90 as the best-rounded SUV in its segment? Time will tell. The XC90 is brilliant in safety and design, but might be missing other key ingredients for everyday Australian buyers.
2015 Volvo XC90 pricing and specifications
On sale: August 2015
Price: from $89,950 (D5); $93,950 (T6) plus on-road costs
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel (D5); 2.0-litre turbo/supercharged petrol (T6)
Power: 165kW at 4250rpm (D5); 235kW at 5700rpm(T6
Torque: 470Nm at 1750rpm (D5); 400Nm at 2200rpm (T6)
Transmission: 8-spd automatic; AWD
Fuel use: 6.2L/100km (D5); 8.5L/100km (T6)