The excellent Volvo XC90 is well known in this office—it being a former Motor Trend SUV of the Year and all. Over the past few years, we’ve thoroughly tested its outright performance and reviewed its driving dynamics. Now, though, Volvo has introduced an ultra-premium, chauffeur-driven model. And that requires a different sort of test.
Worldwide, the rich have done pretty well for themselves—and they’re spending some of that wealth on ever-fancier cars—or more specifically, SUVs. Some of those buyers are looking for something more specific, and they generally fall into two camps. The first wants their 5,000-pound brick to accelerate and handle like a sports sedan. The other wants the opposite: To be driven in muted surroundings while sipping Champagne from custom flutes and seated in heated and cooled 10-way power rear seats with a massage program running.
Enter Volvo, the once sensible-luxury brand that has pushed itself firmly into the full-fledged luxury segment with its latest round of vehicles. It’s targeting group two—no surprise given the brand’s Chinese ownership and the popularity in China of being driven over driving oneself. But Volvo is offering the XC90 T8 Excellence in the U.S., too, so here’s our unusually thorough review of just the back seat.
First, some context: At $106,000, it’s the most expensive model Volvo has ever sold. At the same time, though, it’s also the least expensive vehicle you can buy with this kind of executive rear-seat package, and clearly the cheapest to come with custom Champagne flutes. Does it stack up to the more expensive offerings from Mercedes-Maybach, Range Rover, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce? Let’s investigate.
Volvo has long been known for exceptionally comfortable front seats that offer a great deal of support—a happy side effect of the brand’s commitment to reducing spinal injuries in a crash. The XC90 Excellence adds this comfort to the second row, with two seats separated by a center console (we’ll get to that in a moment), but which sacrifices almost no functionality. They seats are heated, cooled, and offer a number of massage programs as well as adjustable lumbar support, side bolsters, and thigh support. Naturally, they also recline, though because Volvo doesn’t build a long-wheelbase XC90, they don’t recline nearly as far as those from the other guys. How much that matters depends on how much you plan on napping back there. Removable foot rests are included.
True luxury means being coddled and cut off from the noise and chaos of the outside world (why does the proletariat have to be so loud?). The Excellence delivers with a whisper-quiet cabin and a dark window tint that can be enhanced with manual sun shades hidden in each rear door (Volvo should consider making them power-operated if it really wants to be considered ultra-lux). There’s also a partition between the rear seats and cargo area to keep out the wind and noise, and to maintain the cabin temperature when Jasper opens the rear hatch to load your bags.
There’s even a luxury quality to the hybrid drivetrain, though it’s not perfect. Electric motors are nearly silent and can deliver perfectly smooth acceleration, exactly what you want in a limousine. Unfortunately, the integrated regenerative brakes are grabby and the pedal is difficult to modulate smoothly, so your driver will need to relearn his limousine stop technique.
The drivetrain is also connected to big, pretty 21-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile tires, and as good as they look, they’re not good for ride quality. Like many heavy vehicles with big wheels and skinny tires, the Excellence suffers from what I call “heavy wheels,” wherein it feels like each wheel weighs 1,000 pounds every time it goes over a bump or drops into a crack or hole. The best luxury cars, SUVs, and limousines waft down the road.
Sure, you can stash a mini fridge in a lot of cars, and the multiple-six-figure vehicle class adds custom glasses, but no one does it like this. Volvo partnered with Swedish crystal company Orrefors to produce exclusive Champagne flutes with pointed bottoms for the Excellence. What on Earth for? To fit in special holders in the armrest where they can’t possibly tip over like traditional flutes. When not in use, they can be stored (and chilled) in the fridge between the seats.
If you’re not using the crystal, it’s a different story. A heated and cooled cupholder is located directly in front of the flute holders, and it’s the only cupholder in the rear-seat area. Water bottles can be stowed in the door pockets.
Companies that make vehicles like the Excellence enjoy comparing the rear-seat space to the interiors of private jets, so it’s no surprise these cars often offer tray tables. Volvo’s are beautiful bits of engineering made of polished aluminum and fine leather. They fold out from under the center armrest, and the tabletop extends out over your lap. Elegant as they are, though, they require a specific deployment and stowage procedure. The armrest will hit the tabletop if you don’t extend it first, so every time you deploy the table you must extend it before you close the armrest and do the reverse when you put it away. It’s a minor inconvenience and hopefully one Volvo can engineer around in the future.
Naturally, since you’re not driving, you’ll want to be entertained and connected. Volvo addresses this with iPads that are mounted to the backs of the front seats and connected to an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot. With the entirety of the internet at your fingertips, your entertainment options are virtually unlimited.
It does mean, though, that if what you want isn’t available streaming, you’ll need to upload media from your home network via the cloud, rather than just popping in a USB thumb drive or DVD. Make sure to ask your manservant to do it before your journey. You’ll also want to keep the supplied charging cables handy and plug the iPads into the dual charging ports in each docking station periodically (two USB ports and a 110-volt outlet also reside in the center armrest).
Then there’s the matter of controlling the iPads. With no handheld remotes or console-mounted controls, you’ll need to lean forward to tap the iPads directly, which becomes an issue in the passenger’s side rear seat when the front seat is folded forward out of the way. Since the docks don’t adjust, the front-seat passengers will need to adjust their seats in a way that angles the iPads toward you. And because the iPads are completely encased by their mounts with no way to actuate the volume and screen-off buttons (only the home button and headphone jack), you’ll need to use the onscreen control menu (swipe right from the home screen) to change the volume.
As you’re the person who paid for the car and employed the driver, vehicles like this are built around the assumption that you’re in command. To this end, the Excellence offers a touchscreen control panel that pops up between the center armrest and the Champagne flute holders. From here, you can control the seat heaters and coolers for both rear seats as well as activate the heated/cooled cup holder. You can also control the slide and recline functions of the passenger’s side front seat, folding it forward out of the way for more legroom or moving it back to bring the iPad closer. This screen also controls the rear seats’ massage functions. To activate them, though (as well as to adjust the lumbar, side bolsters, and thigh support), you must first toggle the rotary controller and buttons on the side of the seat below the door handle.
This is as far as the Excellence goes, and it’s well short of the established elite players. While you can control the dual-zone rear climate control’s temperature and fan speed from a separate touch panel at the leading edge of the center console between the front seats, there’s no other control over vehicle functions. You can’t even control the stereo, much less monitor or make changes to the navigation, make a call through the hands-free system, control the panoramic sunroof, or roll down the window on the other side of the car. Volvo would do well to add this kind of functionality the next time around.
Bargain or Bust?
While we found some weak points in the rear-seat space’s execution, we hope Volvo takes them as constructive feedback for the next model. As a first attempt at this sort of thing, Volvo’s interior team has done an incredible job amplifying a vehicle that was gorgeous and sumptuous to begin with. The XC90 Excellence is plush, comfortable, spacious, and isolating—and we wouldn’t turn down a chauffeured ride in one any day. It’s also worth reiterating the Excellence is more than $40,000 cheaper than the next-most affordable vehicle offering a complete rear-seat package like this, which helps explain why a few bells and whistles might be absent. That we are even comparing a Volvo to a Rolls-Royce or Bentley is a testament to the work done here. We think Volvo has a spectacular foundation to build from, and we look forward to seeing what the Swedes will do with the knowledge they’ve gained from this build. Don’t be surprised if you see a few of these rolling around posh neighborhoods soon.