Since 2010, Volvo has been overhauling their lineup of vehicles, flush with cash after being acquired by Chinese firm Zhejiang Geely. With renewed focus on safety and luxury, they’ve done great work with the redesigned XC90 SUV and the completely new S90 sedan. This year sees the culmination of a ground-up redesign of the XC60 CUV, a more compact version of the XC90.
The 2018 XC60 is part of an enormous CUV market fueled by increasing demand from younger people either starting families or needing more space to stow adventure gear (or both!). Yet, Volvo isn’t really making that kind of mainstream push here. With refinements like wood paneling, leather seats, and carefully selected tech features, the XC60 is still designed around luxury and safety — Volvo hallmarks.
Last week, I got to take the XC60 for a test drive on mountain roads around Denver, Colorado to see how Volvo’s tech features have been progressing. Appropriately enough, I found that Volvo is taking a very safe approach to tech — while the brand sees fully autonomous, electric vehicles in its future, they’re by no means trying to rush things along.
Volvo’s semi-autonomous Pilot Assist II feature embodies that caution. You can see it from the name, which intentionally or unintentionally contrasts sharply with Tesla’s Autopilot system — Volvo wants to make it abundantly clear that they aren’t trying to replace human drivers just yet.
Pilot Assist II is, in practice, like an advanced cruise control. Using cameras and sonar, the software can maintain and adjust speed according to the car in front while keeping the vehicle in its lane. While Pilot Assist II can steer through gentle, gradual curves, it’s unable to handle anything that would require more than slight movements from a human driver (and certainly not the twists and turns of mountain roads). Little wonder that the Pilot Assist II won’t work unless you’ve got hands on the wheel, ready to take control at any time.
That limitation is a feature, not a bug. Folks at Volvo have clearly been aware of Tesla’s problems with semi-autonomous driving, most of which have come from drivers believing the car is capable of more than it actually is. While fully autonomous driving is clearly going to be safer than human driving in time, semi-autonomous driving is always going to present this unique kind of danger — it’s going to be hard for us humans to know when we’re supposed to be in control!
Volvo has decided to err on the side of caution. Pilot Assist II is only supposed to help make tedious highway driving a little more comfortable, and while Volvo can always push out software updates to make it more capable, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Volvo leave it at that until they’re ready to go into full autonomy — something that won’t be ready for quite a few years yet.
All that said, it’s hard to call Pilot Assist II a selling point. While it did keep my XC60 in lane around gentle curves, needing to have my hands on the wheel meant that I could have easily done the driving without much extra effort. It’s neat to see in action, but I can’t say it adds much value to the vehicle.
Fortunately, there’s a lot else to like. Volvo’s entire suite of safety features is here, including BLIS (Blind Spot Information System). BLIS will turn on a light on the sideview mirrors if the car’s sensors pick up cars in your blind spots, helping to avoid collisions. If you’re tired and start to drift out of your lane, the XC60 can also gently turn the wheel to get you back between the lines. Forward collision detection can help you brake to avoid hitting pedestrians, animals, or objects that suddenly appear in front of you, as well.
Most of those features can be found in competing vehicles in some form. Volvo does have one really cool feature that we don’t see as often in evasive steering assistance. If you’re simply too close to a collision and need to swerve, the XC60 can apply the brakes just enough to keep you from spinning out of control. That’s how it works in theory, anyway — fortunately, I didn’t end up having any reason to try out that feature during my test drive!
On the inside, it seems like Volvo still has a bit more work to do on their Sensus Connect infotainment system. At first, it’s great — the home screen of the 9.3″ portrait touchscreen presents four clearly presented options for navigation, music, calling and texting, and a wild card spot that can be assigned to any number of third party services, including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Spotify, Yelp, and Pandora.
Past that, the experience can be frustrating. The touchscreen isn’t particularly responsive — it can sometimes take two or three taps for a command to register, and swiping from the home UI pane to vehicle features or diagnostics takes a prolonged drag instead of a good flick. You’ll really need to either rely on your front passenger or learn the voice commands. While Volvo has improved their system’s ability to understand natural language, it’s still mostly keyword-based. You’ll need to study up on those voice commands ahead of time and hope you remember them on the road.
Volvo reps stressed that voice commands were meant to be the primary mode of interaction, but with how easy it is to get flustered with even relatively high-quality voice recognition systems, I think it’s important to get the touch UI just right, too. To their credit, Volvo has mitigated this problem by running Android Auto or Apple CarPlay in a window instead of fullscreen. That makes it possible to use those better third-party UIs for music and navigation while still being able to access Volvo’s interface immediately if you need to.
But, Volvo is still learning when it comes to tech — the driving part they’ve gotten down nicely. The XC60 comes in models with Volvo’s T8, T6, or T5 engines. I tried out the T8 (the 400 HP hybrid twin engine in white) and the T6 (the 316 HP gas engine in blue), and both were terrific in their own ways. The hybrid gives you an incredibly quiet ride with a decent amount of power. The T8 XC60 doesn’t feel as powerful as it is, though, in large part because of the extra weight of the electric battery in the rear of the chassis.
The T8’s brakes are a little more touchy, too. The XC60, like many other hybrids, uses the brakes to help recharge the electric battery. If you can get used to the brakes, I think the trade-off is worth it — while Volvo doesn’t have official EPA numbers yet, it’s clear that the hybrid uses far less fuel than the T6. The T6 does feel lighter and sportier on the road, though, so which one you’ll prefer depends on where your priorities lie. Regardless of engine, the XC60 has an optional air suspension system that makes the ride very smooth and comfortable.
The comfortable ride dovetails nicely with the interior, which exudes luxury. The XC60s Volvo provided to media on the trip were fully kitted out, but Volvo has made sure that even the standard trims look and feel premium. The high-end Inscription trim does add a few more interior and exterior features, most notably driftwood paneling and access to a luxury seating package that includes nappa leather and heated and ventilated seats. Most safety features come standard, but the Blind Spot Information System is part of the $1,100 Vision package, which can be added to any trim.
Speaking of options, we’re not getting out of here without talking about our favorite! Speaker systems in luxury cars have gotten crazy good as of late, and that’s true here, too. The XC60 can be equipped with a 15-speaker, 1,100 watt Bowers & Wilkins sound system. Not only does it sound fantastic, you can tailor it to your liking by adjusting the soundstage to envelop the whole vehicle, just the driver’s seat, or just the rear seats. You can also use preset soundstages, from a more intimate studio to a wider stage. There’s even an extra roomy setting based on the acoustics of the concert hall in Volvo’s native Gothenburg, Sweden. If you’re a big fan of opera or classical music, expanding the soundstage with the concert hall setting makes a huge difference!
While the XC60 is a smaller version of the XC90 (it features the same assembly and drivetrains), it’s not coming in cheap. The T6 XC60 starts at $44,900 and goes up to the mid-$60,000s for a fully featured model. The T8 XC60 starts at $52,900 and can get into the $70,000 range, but it does qualify for a federal tax credit of $5,000, making the hybrid only marginally more expensive than the solely gas-powered T6.
If you’re in the market for a luxury CUV, it sure seems like the XC60 is worth looking into. While not all the tech features are perfect, the XC60 is a thoughtfully designed car aware of its place both in the segment and on the road to autonomous driving. With this redesign, Volvo has moved the XC60 into the future — just not too far.
Disclaimer: Volvo covered our travel and accommodations for this test drive event. All thoughts and opinions are 100% our own.