Volvo XC90 review: Can a big seven-seater SUV make sense as a low-carbon, low-emission eco-car?

Christian Broughton

Last month I became part of the problem. Eight years ago, when I bought my current car, I was on the right side of the debate. Diesel was the low-carbon option, and petrol was a badge of dishonour, so I resolved that I would go green, driving my family on holidays when I could, and flying less. I would be a good global citizen. And when the eco-think got a bit dull, I could still put my foot down and satisfy the occasional calling of that inner boy racer. Yes. it was all very clear.

But diesels are now caught in an ethical haze. My decade-old BMW estate (the choice of the centrist dad for many years) is no longer welcome in central London. I’ll be charged £12.50 if I drive into the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, on top of the congestion charge, and from 25 October 2021 I’ll face that fee any time I head inside the North and South Circular when the zone expands.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Sadiq, you’re right. You don’t need to tax me to win this one, green guilt will work just fine. I cycle through London most days, and I know the familiar taste of traffic fumes that lingers until lunchtime. I know it smells even worse somehow in school playgrounds. I want to change, to move with the times. And besides, I wouldn’t say no to an excuse to buy a new car.

Trouble is, which car? With apologies to Toyota, it can’t be a Prius. I’ve got nothing against them (how could a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan resist?), or those little square BMWs for that matter, but the green hype about electric cars just doesn’t sit well with the brief my old estate car used to satisfy: our next buy must be roomy enough to lug a family of five with dog and/or luggage, offer a little bit of luxury, look good, and come with the moral high ground fitted as standard. We can’t all fit in a small hybrid for a really long journey, and no battery pack known to humankind will drag us to the Alps without the back-up of an internal combustion engine of some description.

So this week I’ve been test-driving Volvos (yes, plural – we’ll come to that). OK, I know, Volvos have a certain connotation. Also this week, a friend complimented me on the elbow-patches on my new jacket, but I think she meant it, and she knows about fashion, and I don’t think these events are linked. But you know what I mean. Wallander did something for the brand image, but Kenneth Branagh in the windswept Scandi landscape is not exactly Steve McQueen in Bullet.

To be fair, Volvo knows this. In one interview, a couple of years back, the UK MD admitted he wants “to get past the point where you tell people in the pub that you have bought a Volvo and their response is, ‘You did what?’” But here’s the thing: I really like the XC90. It’s almost five years since its redesign by the British former Bentley designer Robin Page, and still looks good – especially the “R-Design” models, which have sportier styling. And it’s just had a facelift, albeit a minor one. You can now get yours in an all-new shade of “Thunder” grey, bringing the monochrome options to nine, the others being “Ice White”, “Savile Grey”, “Bright Silver”, “Osmium Grey”, “Onyx Black”, “Birch Light”, “Pebble Grey”, and “Crystal White”. The only actual colour is blue. I am not making this up.

Despite being Chinese-owned, Volvo wears its Swedishness well, and yes I fell for it completely. Any wooden surfaces have a matte finish, more like a posh coffee table than the shiny veneer of an old Jag. The door handles are understated little sculptures. The seats are as comfortable as anything Scandium can sell you. The glass roof makes it all feel airier, lighter, sleeker than other European macho black leather concoctions.

It’s also a truly massive car – bigger in the back than the BMW equivalent. This is crucial: skis and snowboard can be stacked down the middle, splitting up the two kids in the middle bank of seats and still allowing room for Child Three to sit in the row behind; it’s an arrangement that allows no opportunity whatsoever for a rogue elbow to cause family friction halfway down the autoroute. And when you add all the tech things that my old car doesn’t have (Apple CarPlay, head-up display, upgraded speakers) it comes in a lot less than the equivalent Audi rival.

But what of the ethics? Well, Volvo has an ear for an attention-grabbing pledge. Exhibit A: no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo from 2020. Hard to argue with that (“So, will Sir be taking the Volvo, or would Sir like to live dangerously and ferry the children around in a more lethal option?”). This is an extremely middle-aged admission, but the safety stuff is quite amazing. It practically drives itself, breaking if you get too close to the car in front, reading the speed limit signs and steering smoothly round corners without any input from you whatsoever. Volvo takes issue with this, and say the XC90 is definitely not self-driving, but (perhaps unwisely, granted) I definitely took my hands and feet off the controls while it happily steered somehow, so I’m not sure who else was driving at that point if it wasn’t me or the car. That said, you do soon get a prompt telling you, politely, to stop being frivolous and put your hands on the wheel again. You can’t help but think that without lawyers briefing against the idea, this could quite easily be marketed as an almost-driverless car.

The other pledge is where the eco credentials come in. Volvo was quick out of the blocks in saying, back in 2017, that all new cars launched from this year will be partially or completely battery-powered, so that none of their models have only petrol or diesel engines.

For the XC90, the T8 is the plug-in hybrid. Charge it up for four hours and you can go 25 miles without burning a drop of fossil fuel. It’s also incredibly quick when it uses electricity and petrol at the same time. Great for city-living families, but on the long and winding road across France, no one will be stopping to charge a battery, so you’ll end up essentially driving a massive car with heavy (flat) batteries and a two-litre petrol engine, and that’s not really the point.

Next up are two petrol versions. These are more frugal than you think, if you drive suitably frugally, but my real-world test showed that when you get impatient on the autobahn and put your foot down, you end up stopping off at a lot more Tankstellen than you were expecting.

The Volvo XC90
The Volvo XC90

So finally there’s a diesel. Yes, that is indeed where my quest began, with my existing big family-friendly diesel. But this diesel is different. Diesels that are “Euro 6 compliant” don’t have to pay to enter the Ulez, and compared with petrols, they chug out only a tiny amount more of the gases that cause nasty respiratory problems while exhaling considerably less carbon into the atmosphere.

And Volvo has contributed a new piece of eco-jargon: “mild hybrids”. The phrase doesn’t really sound exciting, perhaps proving that they know their target market perfectly, but it means that these hybrids do that clever thing F1 cars do, storing excess energy in a small battery when you brake and using it when you need it. The result, Volvo claims, is that the new B5 offers a 15 per cent reduction fuel and emissions over the D5 I drove. The diesels are fast, you don’t need to charge them for four hours, they’re good to go for the Ulez, and a long-haul will release a lot less carbon to heat the planet than a flight.

So after two lengthy drives across Europe with two different engines, I’ve finally arrived at my decision. If I were to retire my old family-friendly diesel now, and swap it for a model fit for 2019 and beyond, I’d choose… a family-friendly diesel. Only this one really is different: it almost drives itself, looks after city-dwellers’ lungs, is relatively climate-friendly, and if you look really very closely indeed you’ll see it’s an even more perfectly Scandinavian shade of grey.

The Volvo XC90 B5 R-Design starts at £56,585. For other options and further information visit