VOLVO knows not all drivers in need of a large family car want a hulking SUV. For the past 20 years it has offered a four-wheel-drive estate car with sufficient ground clearance to make it into a music festival campsite and enough space for five people, their tents, their luggage and a ukulele or two.
The new V90 Cross Country continues that line of go-anywhere – well, almost anywhere – estates that are more affordable than a large, luxury SUV. Not to mention more car-like to drive and easier to load with dogs, antiques or whatever else takes your fancy.
There’s also the matter of taste. In the minds of some drivers, a big SUV is a statement of aggression, built to dominate the road, whereas an estate car is a nondescript workhorse, as neutral as Switzerland.
Is the V90 Cross Country a practical family car — as long as you need only five seats? How does it measure up against the Swedish firm’s seven-seat XC90?
The price is a promising start. The entry-level version is the £40,350 D4 diesel, liable for £450 a year in road tax in the second to sixth years of ownership. A basic XC90 leaves little change from £50,000, starting at £48,655 for the D5 diesel. The V90 with the same engine, reviewed here, costs £44,150.
However, at the business end of a family car – namely, the boot – the V90 Cross Country is at a considerable disadvantage to the XC90. It has a 560-litre boot, whereas the big SUV boasts 775 litres; fold all the seats down and load it to the gunwales and you get 1,526 litres in the estate, 400 litres less than in the SUV.
You may have noticed from the pictures that the V90 Cross Country is one of the more handsome estate cars on the road. With its Scandi-chic style, it could be a four-wheeled extra from an episode of The Bridge.
But your Labrador won’t care one bit about the styling when its face is pressed against the heavily sloping rear window, even if the load sill is nice and low. And there’s no cargo net attached to the luggage cover.
A Mercedes E-class estate is considerably more accommodating, holding 640 litres. However, the Volvo’s seats fold flat at the touch of a button in the boot, and the powered tailgate doesn’t open grudgingly like some; in fact you may need to step clear sharpish to avoid being clocked on the chin.
Our test car was fitted with a Family Pack. For £450 you get booster cushions that spring up out of the normal seats, electric child locks and a pair of sun blinds in the back. It doesn’t seem good value for money, given you could buy a pair of Isofix-mounted high-backed seats with side-impact protection and a set of sun blinds for considerably less. And manually setting child locks is no hardship.
You could happily spend a couple of days at the wheel, with the family aboard, driving to the south of France or the foot of Italy without feeling fatigued
The rear passenger space is generous, and the seats are comfortable on long journeys. Volvo has put air vents for back-seat passengers in the door pillars, and the rear headrests can be lowered at the touch of a button on the dashboard.
In the front, this is one of the most elegant interiors of any family car. The seats and driving position are comfortable, and the touchscreen controls are not difficult to master. You could happily spend a couple of days at the wheel, with the family aboard, driving to the south of France or the foot of Italy without feeling fatigued.
That’s not just because the interior is so calming. The driving experience is soothing, too. Volvo’s engineers didn’t want the V90 Cross Country to be sporty, like a BMW; they wanted it to be relaxing. And it is.
So forget about the High Performance driving mode, because it’s a misnomer. Nothing will excite the driver if they floor the accelerator; this car is designed to make calm, considered progress.
The D5 four-cylinder diesel engine provides acceptable performance (0-62mph in 7.5 seconds) and fuel economy (53mpg), and the eight-speed automatic gearbox shifts cogs quickly enough. The optional air suspension (£1,500) is probably not worth paying for, but it was hard to tell, as Volvo had also fitted the optional 19in alloy wheels to our test car, which affected the ride.
The transmission has a smart clutch that allows the car to operate in two- or four-wheel drive, saving fuel on normal roads but ready with extra grip when you’re off the beaten track. The all-wheel drive comes into its own when you’re towing: the V90 Cross Country D5 can haul an unbraked trailer of up to 750kg, or a 2,500kg braked trailer. It is also always engaged from a standstill to help prevent wheelspin.
The Cross Country rides 65mm higher than a standard Volvo V90, and has a protective skid plate under the engine, hill descent control and other features you’d expect in an off-roader. We didn’t get to try them out.
Though some rival estate cars, and indeed the XC90 SUV, have the edge for boot space, Volvo’s adventure-seeking estate car has enough going for it to maintain its popularity for another 20 years.