Can the Volvo XC60 Redeem the Luxury Crossover?

This (Chinese-owned) Swedish SUV is a smart and sexy argument that bigger might be better.

Volvo

Go ahead and guess the top-selling luxury crossover SUV in Europe. Wrong. It's not the Mercedes GLC300, nor the BMW X3, nor the Audi Q5. For the past three years, the volume king crown in this growing segment of pricey, fattened-up station wagons has gone to the Volvo XC60.

This year, Volvo is introducing an all-new version of the XC60. Built on the same modular platform—with the same core 4-cylinder engine and much of the same breathtaking interior design—as last year’s stunning full-size XC90, this high-achieving middle child in the Volvo family is tailored to an American market hungry to drive a crossover that feels as good as it looks.

An attractive crossover SUV? Nearly impossible. This is a style of vehicle that no one wants to look at, and yet everyone wants to buy. Never in the history of car-making have consumers been so enchanted with such an impossibly homely style of car. 

At the luxury end, Mercedes comes close to sexy with the GLC, as do the Jaguar F-Pace and Range Rover Velar. But the true north of this segment are the Nissan Rogue and Honda CR-V, which sell at a rate of around 40,000 units a month, and which have largely supplanted the sedan as America's vehicle of choice. The ascent of the crossover SUV is so dramatic and pervasive we've become numb to how ugly the vehicles actually are. They are distended station wagons, they are ectomorphic SUVs. 

But the new Volvo XC60 makes a powerful case that the crossover can actually exist on a road without causing aesthetic upheaval.  

It's a big league statement for crossovers, as well as a redemption for the XC60, which starts at $41,500. The old crossover hadn't been meaningfully updated in nearly a decade, and was unsightly and bulbous, a tottering mass of sheetmetal looked 1,000 pounds heavier than it actually was. By comparison, the new XC60 is positively rakish, a carb-averse lothario. The grill is sleek, the nose clear and refined, and a tendon runs from the front of the hood to the rear, giving the body an athletic, close-to-the-ground feel and helping highlight a slimming, sporty cutout between the wheels. 

Hey Volvo, welcome back from the brink of oblivion!

Volvo

After flirting with death for years under the sloppy stewardship of Ford, this quintessentially Swedish company was sold seven years ago to Geely, a Hangzhou-based Chinese industrial conglomerate known mostly (to those who knew them at all) for building delivery vans, taxis, cargo carriers and heavy-duty transmissions. 

An investment of $11 billion was made into reinventing the marque—almost all of it raised from financial markets and paid back with interest (“unlike Jaguar Land Rover,” a Volvo executive pointed out). For the past three years, Volvo has turned a profit. 

That’s how it happened. The stern corporate parents at Geely were unsentimental about Volvo’s success. The purchase was not a vanity move. And that lack of sentimentality forced the Volvo team back in Gothenburg to develop a product that would be economically viable, on-brand and looking to the future. It would sink or swim on its own.

So Volvo developed the SPA—aka, the Scalable Product Architecture—platform that underpins the 60 and 90 vehicles in Volvo's lineup, which will add up to as many as 8 different cars. The dash-to-axle section of the SPA is fixed; the rest of the platform segments have adjustable lengths. That means the platform can theoretically accommodate anything Volvo's engineers can conjure.

And flights of fancy would they take?

"The whole platform was designed with electrification in mind," says Dean Shaw, VP Corporate Communications, Volvo Cars USA. "The reason is we saw electrification in the future and we wanted to contain the engineering within Volvo, so we didn't have to go out and use other builders. We're starting with plug-in hybrids and eventually going to full battery."

What's new in the Volvo XC60?

Volvo

The short answer: everything. Starting with the SPA platform, and the two new engines, the XC60 shares a lot of design, technology and engineering with the XC90. Driving on the backroads of Cataluña, Spain, where Volvo flew a handful of American journalists and put us up for a couple days, the XC60 feels familiar. The Nappa leather is plush, the very Scandinavian blond-silver wood is as meticulously joined as it is in the XC90, though in the crossover the grain all runs forward, in the direction of travel. Details like these—careful and clever, without all the fuss—add up. 

The XC60 has a lower roof, athletic haunches, and more tumblehome on the side of the vehicle. The overall effect: The driver feels more connected with the car. The interior is as open, warm and sparse as the XC90, with the same diamond starter knob and elegantly UX'd 9" touchscreen. There is a new ribbon that runs the entire width of the car interior. Overall, the XC60 feels more fitted, or more tailored, as it were, than the XC90.

I'm driving the T6, with the 2-liter turbo- and supercharged 4-cylinder engine that produces a workmanlike 315 mph and costs $48,700 (the range from T5 to T8 is $41,500 to $56,700). The T6 is nimble in any of the three available factory-set driving modes and it feels lithe despite weighing a touch more than 4,000 pounds. The steering is a bit of a letdown—it didn't offer enough feedback in the fast turns leading up Montseny, the mountains looking out onto the Mediterranean littoral—though it's not as numb as the Mercedes GLC. There is a double wishbone front suspension that keeps the car calm through the corners. Go ahead and try to unsettle the XC60. You don't have the guts.

Outside, the front is dominated by Volvo's "Thor's Hammer" headlights, which now intersect with the front grille, and the grille has a convex profile rather than the concave on on the XC90. The hood runs from the grille to the windshield, and the a-pillar has a faster, more raked angle. 

The XC60 has a much faster look than its bigger sibling—and every other Volvo, actually, with the possible exception of the new V90. It's design has a timeless depth to it. Some ambitiously designed cars look dated the moment they're made (that's you, BMW i8). Others will obviously age in step with the marketplace. If a crossover could become a classic, this—and perhaps the F-Pace—stand the best chance. 

The XC60 has a full suite of autonomous driving and collision safety features that are functionally as good as anything else on the road. Listed out, the features form a jumble of seemingly intersecting capabilities. There is collision avoidance up to 37 mph, "City Safety," which identifies cyclists, pedestrians and large animals and helps steer away from threats at speeds up to 61 mph, as well as On Coming Lane Mitigation, where the forward-looking radar will detect an oncoming car and turn you back into your lane to avoid an accident. But there's also Blind Spot Information System. And Run-off Road Mitigation. There's also an “electric fence” that keeps the car on the road. 

You get the picture: It all adds up to an extremely smart, safety-first car that pushes a vigilance that our creeping fatality numbers clearly require. The Pilot Assist system is a "Hand on the Wheel" autonomy package, which will help you steer at speeds up to 80 mph, but will by design prevent you from becoming too dumb to negotiate your own curves. 

"Inspired Confidence" is the marketing phrase Volvo is using to sell the XC60. That dovetails nicely with Volvo's extraordinary claim that by 2020, nobody should be seriously injured or killed in one of its cars.  Like the 2020 claim, the Volvo XC60 is an ambitious car for Volvo in the most important luxury segment in the world. Will it inspire the confidence of the American buyer? Probably.