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Volvo XC90 plug in SUV foretells smarter, cleaner automotive future

The redesigned three-row SUV with a plug signifies a comeback for Volvo and a future of cleaner, smarter, safer cars.

The turbo and supercharged twin engine has a battery powered motor that you’ll only notice when you pass by the gas station. It can drive itself at low speeds, and is loaded with the kind of safety technology Volvo is using to deliver on its promise of making deathless cars by 2020. And it’s gorgeous.

But inside and out, it is a whole, distinctive vehicle, and not an amalgamation of Ford parts.

The exterior is understated refinement. There isn’t anything jaw-dropping about one particular feature but front to back there is a consistency that bestows confidence. Some luxury models try too hard, with menacing grilles and coupelike roof lines that reek of the kind of arrogance that says “Because I can.” The XC90 is gorgeous in its oneness.

The rounded, rectangular grille is flanked by headlights split by T-shaped daytime running lights that Volvo describes as “Thor’s Hammer.” The body is clean down the sides, with aluminum bands on the rocker panels complementing the aluminum integrated rails on the roof. The top-of-the-line Inscription trim comes with 20-inch alloy wheels, but for another $750 the tester had 21-inch alloy wheels, giving it a muscularity matched by the shoulders.

The balance carries through on the inside. Real wood trim fills the doors, center console and dash, contrasting with nappa leather trim on the lower parts.

The center controls consist of a small band of buttons, including one for the glove box, and above it, a tablet-sized touch screen that controls everything, from the digital owner’s manual to the self-perpendicular park function. Like Tesla’s large touch screen, Volvo’s system doesn’t leave you wanting dials and knobs. Since the XC90 is loaded with features, the touch screen houses many functions. By the end of the week, alternating between steering wheel controls and the touch screen was relatively mindless and natural.

We never got used to the placement of the start/stop switch in the console, but the car shuts itself off once in park. The console has ample storage, as well as cup holders that can be hidden with a wood cover. The gear stick made of Swedish crystal might be the only ostentatious part of the car aside from the round Bowers and Wilkins speaker sticking out of the dash. The spartan design of the cabin, the synthesis of hard and soft materials, made me feel privileged each time I got in.

The ventilated nappa leather seats, with over a dozen comfort settings for both driver and passenger, made that privilege very comfortable. The Swedish flag on the inseam was a nice touch too.

The three seats in the second row all come on their own track, making them versatile in accommodating seven passengers or reconfiguring the space for road trips. The second row also gets its own climate controls.

The seats can collapse to make a table or footrest for third-row passengers, or the latch on the top of the seat slides it forward for easy access to the third row. The latch is too firm for most grade-schoolers to activate on their own, which is disappointing. The lack of power folding seats, available in the Ford Explorer or Honda Pilot, is an odd oversight. The third row has decent shoulder and hip room, but legroom and headroom is best for kids. Adjusting the second-row seats will let the XC90 fit 6 adults comfortably for shorter journeys.

Once on the road, the XC90’s hybrid powertrain is quiet, smooth, and effortlessly powerful. The electric motor supplements a direct-injection 2-liter engine that utilizes both a supercharger and a turbocharger in generating 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. All that machinery is heavy, but at just under 4,400 pounds the XC90 is lighter than the BMW X5 and other luxury SUVs.

Six drive modes in the all-wheel-drive family hauler are accessible via a scroll bar on the center console. At low speeds, there is an off-road function we did not test. Power mode ratchets up the torque and strips off all that domestic civility, so you can feel how the supercharger and turbo slough off any concerns about the car’s weight. Volvo claims a 0-60 mph time of 5.8 seconds. Fun.

We had more fun spending our time in Pure mode, which provides up to 19 miles of all-electric range in silent operation. In the near future, when most cars come with a plug-in option to optimize around-town use, they should look at the XC90 as a model. It can be almost unnoticeable, or owners can geek out with the heavy regen braking to squeeze more juice out of each mile. Switching between the modes, which includes Save mode to preserve the battery for when you get off the highway, for instance, can be done at speed. Battery power is capped at 75 mph.

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