2018 Volvo XC60 T8 Review: Loads of Impressive Tech, Not That You'd Notice—and That's the Point
With a twincharged hybrid powerplant and every imaginable safety system, over-complication was a real threat. But simply put, Volvo (mostly) nails it.
Skepticism among car journalists is about as common as HPV in the sex-having demographics, and equally tolerated, mostly because the trait is a useful defense against car manufacturers' occasional, let's say, "artful exaggerations." Thirty years ago, those aggrandizements might have been about "high-tech turbo wheels" (skip to 02:43 for that particular gem, but the whole compilation is worth a watch), though in the modern luxury-car space the focus of hyperbolic excess has mostly shifted to semi-autonomous safety technology.
And while there is certainly a macho, you-can-pry-this-shifter-from-my-cold-dead-hands undercurrent to the typical auto writer's suspicion of a car's various abilities to make its own evasive decisions, some of the wariness no doubt originates, as it does in my case, from experiencing the occasional false-positive that causes a purported safety system to morph into a PCP-crazed hitchhiker trying to grab the wheel and make a run for heaven. Full panic-braking at 80 mph on the highway induced by a windblown plastic shopping back, or a paranoid lane-keep assist that screams bloody murder and shoves the car halfway into the passing lane every time a minivan tries to overtake on the right, tend to stick in the memory.
Still, it was odd to see a driver briefing—the typically subdued early-morning meetings between peppy, earnest auto executives and assorted grumpy, jet-lagged, impatient car writers that kick off every new-model press event—devolve into full argument. Yet there I was, in a Denver hotel ballroom, wading into an increasingly tense back-and-forth between two other journalists and Malin Ekholm, vice president of Volvo Cars Safety Center, over the potential conflict of interests between the brand's City Safety With Steering Support system, which can add extra steering to fully maneuver the car around an obstruction, and Oncoming Lane Mitigation, which helps avoid collisions with cars traveling in the opposite direction. The question that kicked off the bickering was: If a driver steers into the oncoming lane in order to avoid, say, a tire in the middle of his path, and there's a car headed towards him in the opposite lane, which system prevails? Does City Safety With Steering Support help avoid the tire while putting the car in the path of the oncoming vehicle, or does Oncoming Lane Mitigation keep the car out of the opposite lane even if it means hitting the tire? In other words, if a panicked driver attempts to avoid an obstacle by veering into oncoming traffic, which bad result would the vehicle prioritize, and why, and how?
Misunderstandings multiplied until time constraints ended the discussion in a stalemate—there were cars to drive, and we were on a tight schedule—so I slid behind the wheel of the 2018 Volvo XC60, ran my fingers over the lovely driftwood trim, and wondered whether the vehicle preferred I die by looming bus, or an 18-wheeler's discarded rubber. From both a practical and emotional standpoint, this seems like something one should know about his car.
Morbidity aside, that's a real-world question. No version of these technologies is infallible, all of them need to play well together, and the XC60 comes standard with a whole slew of them—Lane Keeping Aid; Run-off Road Mitigation; Run-off Road Protection; Oncoming Lane Mitigation; Driver Alert Control; Automatic Braking After Collision; Collision Mitigation with Braking Including Intersection, Cyclist, Pedestrian, and Large Animal Detection—and can be optioned with many more: Blind Spot Information with Steering Assist; Rear Collision Warning with Braking; Cross Traffic Alert; Adaptive Cruise Control; Semi-Autonomous Drive; and Distance Alert. A number of them are clever; Run-off Road Protection will sense when the vehicle has left the roadway proper and prepares the driver for the consequences by electronically retracting the safety belt, activating a spine-protecting element in the seat, and deploying the airbags and retracting the brake pedal in advance of a collision. Still, on paper, the sheer number of systems at play is enough to make one forget there's a driver involved at all.
Luckily, that isn't the case inside the car, which doesn't feel like a sci-fi laboratory run amok but instead an upscale, elegant, and well-engineered luxury. Volvo seems to be playing entirely in its own sandbox in the luxury space, away from the Big Three Germans and the Americans, Japanese, and English brands that are chasing them. It makes for a unique product in a way that, I presume, a Lexus must have seemed back when it debuted in 1989.
The XC60 does an excellent job reproducing the feeling of the wonderfully luxuriant XC90 SUV, but in a more manageable size. Indeed, especially from the front, the XC60 could be mistaken for its larger sibling, and with its subtly elegant styling and slashing, dramatic Thor's Hammer light signature, bolsters the argument that Volvo is making the best-looking mass-produced vehicles in the world right now.
The T8 model we drove combines the brand's twincharged—that is, both super- and turbocharged, in that order, which cuts down on turbo lag—2.0-liter, 313-horsepower inline four-cylinder with a pair of electric motors at the rear wheels good for an additional 87 horses. That comes to a total of 400 horsepower, a serious amount of power matched in the midsize crossover category only by the Porsche Macan Turbo. (And, at 472 lb-ft, the Volvo has more torque.) Yet a Volvo rep was quick to point out that the company "is not trying to build a sports car here," and thank god for that; why seemingly every car company feels the need to add some pointless performance bona fides for a high-riding commuter-slash-family-hauler remains a mystery. Instead, make crossovers, like the XC60, quiet, smooth, fuel-efficient (56 MPGe or 26 mpg with premium fuel), spacious (the 10.4-kWh battery is hidden away in the center tunnel, freeing up interior room) and luxurious.
The Volvo has plenty of pull for highway passes, the eight-speed automatic scored a solid A- for finding the right gear for the task, and the roughly 4,800-pound car was hard to unsettle on some of the twisting and higher-speed Colorado mountain roads that seemed purpose-built for the task. (The air springs, an $1,800 option, certainly helped in that regard.) Twitchy and mostly numb steering aside, this is how I want a crossover to drive: with an emphasis on comfort and luxury, not athleticism. (Yes, there was more body roll than in a comparable Alfa Romeo or Maserati crossover, and no, I did not care.)
Other automakers should likewise strive to make crossovers as effortlessly handsome inside as our Inscription-level XC60, though Volvo remains unique in its ability to create a sense of luxury without fourteen different interior materials and kaleidoscopic textural contrasts. It's that oft-evoked Scandinavian minimalism, I suppose, best illustrated with the curling, climbing ribbon of wood trim on the dash, and it makes certain elaborate German and American interiors look as if they were designed by Zombie Spaceman Liberace—hat-on-a-hat to the Nth degree.
Of course, Swedish eccentricity abounds, most noticeably in the engine-start knob, which you rotate rather than push, and the large, vertically-oriented infotainment system and climate-control vents. The choice of a thumb-scroll for the drive selector interface also stands out as odd, and a more substantial gear selector that made neutral harder to stumble into—because, really, when do you put an automatic-transmission car into neutral?—would be welcome.
It was quickly apparent that inside the XC60 is quite the pleasant place to spend an afternoon—the leather-wrapped, ventilated, and massaging front seats from the $3,000 Luxury Seat package, as well as the vibrant 15-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system for an additional $3,200, certainly helped—so my attention quickly turned to whether I could fool the myriad safety nannies, specifically the lane-keep assist.
I could. It was not very hard, in fact. But as it turns out, there was more to it than that—in fact, I came to appreciate and agree with the system's pliability.
As a bit of background, it's important to note that I think the point at which use of self-driving technologies become widespread will be particularly dangerous, both because of the technology's proven habit of lulling people into a false sense of security and due to the volatile on-road mix of human drivers, and human-autonomous tag-teams where either entity might be in charge at any given time. It's one thing for capable software to make a driving decision; it's quite another for said software to make a decision counter to what the human driver wants to do, which is a scenario I've experienced on more than a few occasions. A driver should never be forced to compete with his own steering wheel, or throttle, or brake pedal.
There was no such issue with the Volvo systems. At first, I simply aimed the car in such a way that it would cross the central lane divider on a two-way street (not to worry—there was plenty of visibility and zero oncoming cars), and crossed it with nary a peep from any system whatsoever. Complete failure! I thought.
Then, I played around with varying degrees of steering input and drift and throttle, and use of signalling. The system kicked in roughly half the time, the wheel gently rotating sufficiently to bring the car back into its proper lane before seizing in my hands in a moment of temporary paralysis, like a fainting goat, after which I found myself once again in full control.
You can't trust a safety system that only works half the time, I thought to myself, moving on to fiddle with the infotainment system and seat controls. As I was zooming in on the map and trying to figure out how to change the radio station, the road started curving sharply to the left, and the car drifted toward the shoulder. The car recognized the meander and lightly corrected course; I noticed the revision immediately, but even if I hadn't, the stiffening of the wheel would certainly have won back my attention. The system worked exactly as it was designed to work—when I wasn't paying sufficient attention.
At dinner, I spoke at length with Ekholm, the head of Volvo's Safety Center. I explained my antipathy towards both the upcoming, let's call it "mixed-use driving phase," where cars with extensive self-driving capabilities share the road with human-only-driven vehicles, and towards systems that at any point wrest control from the driver. At one point, I explained the stages of my thinking about Volvo's safety interventions and how much I trusted them, starting with, "This self-driving technology doesn't work very well," and ending with, "I experienced the safety system work in real-world conditions, so I know it's there, but I wouldn't trust it to drive the car for me."
"Yes, exactly!" Ekholm replied.
In fact, that's what differentiates Volvo's systems, which have in the past been dinged as somehow not as good as, say, Tesla's, or Mercedes-Benz's. But it seems to me this is a difference not of capability, but of philosophy. Volvo built its reputation on safety innovation—this is the company that invented the seatbelt back in 1959, after all—and from a number of in-depth conversations with various Volvo representatives, it's clear that the people involved think about these questions deeply, un-cynically, even existentially. Ekholm, for example, would pause for long stretches before answering certain questions—to the point where PR reps, eager to fill a silence, would often jump in to provide their own packaged answers. But she was not avoiding my questions; when I implied as much during one exchange with a particularly diligent flack, Ekholm looked surprised.
"Not at all," she replied. "I'm simply thinking about your question." And that was clear: she never threw out a pat, jargon-laced answer to any question, instead delivering considered, sometimes cautious answers about what the system could and could not do—but also, why. According to Ekholm, Volvo's systems are not limited by technological know-how, but by how the company thinks about safety in a fundamental way.
Ekholm told me about how every Volvo system, no matter how complicated, starts with the seat: how the driver sits in the seat, how that positions her in relation to the controls and the rest of the interior, how she interacts with the vehicle and, by extension, the world outside the vehicle. Every system, she said, considered the driver first and foremost; the car would never override a driver's decision. It may assist during certain evasive or braking maneuvers, but the decisions are made by a human being. That's why, she said, the XC60 allowed me to cross the median line: based on my steering input, the vehicle assumed, correctly, that I wanted to cross the median line, and so it stood down. That likewise explained the quasi-Trolley Problem between City Safety With Steering Support and Oncoming Lane Mitigation, because "in the situation where an object that city safety is designed to brake for, cars, pedestrians etc., and you as a driver initiate the evasive maneuver, the City Safety steering will in effect inhibit the oncoming steering support." There's no good solution to the proposed problem because it's an inherently lose-lose situation, not because Volvo's technology isn't advanced enough. No technology can solve that problem, and knowing that, Volvo defaults to its basic position—the driver is in charge—only stepping in to assist when necessary.
This, to me, seems like the best philosophy for a safety system, and it's no coincidence that it produces an ineffectual "Look, Ma, no hands!" parlor trick. It reminds me that many other brands originally marketed (or continue to market) their semi-autonomous systems as both a safety feature and a convenience feature—and just how dangerous that is. Saying, "Hey, this car has the ability to monitor the situation and possibly assist when something goes wrong," sends an entirely different message than shouting, "Hey, this car can drive itself for those times when you don't want to!" Volvo, which is open about developing its technologies for sale to other brands, is nearly unique in its devotion to the first message at the expense of the latter; it's the philosophy of a company that's not enamored by technology for its own sake, but sees it as a tool to help the real driver—a soft, vulnerable, fleshy bag of squishy bits, sitting in a seat, holding a wheel, possibly thinking about what's for dinner.
Despite the company's newfound ability to wow with design and luxury showmanship, it's nice to see that traditional Volvo stolidity and responsibility is still baked into the vehicles' DNA. The company's massively ambitious, entirely unlikely goal of no deaths in a Volvo vehicle by 2020 is being undertaken with the least flashy, arguably most reasoned, and essentially conservative approach to autonomous safety: one that keeps the driver squarely in charge. The more I think about that, the safer I feel.
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