Crossovers

From Duett to Hammer of Thor: The rise of Volvo's XC90 SUV

The 2016 Volvo XC90 won many awards since its introduction last year, proving itself an elegant and capable SUV. We trace the history of Volvo models that led to the new XC90.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

From its "Hammer of Thor" headlights to its Sensus infotainment system to its comfortable and capable ride, the 2016 XC90 marks a new high point for Swedish automaker Volvo. Not only did the car win award after award from the automotive press at large, it also took the win in Roadshow's three-way Rivals comparison of luxury SUVs.

But where did the XC90 come from? Volvo has long had an excellent reputation for safety, but it wasn't generally known as an SUV maker. The evolution of the XC90 really begins in the late 1990s, but elements can be traced back to a model from the 1960s.

The XC90 also represents a new era for the company kicked off by a change in corporate ownership. Volvo began building autos in 1927. It started in Gothenburg, Sweden, where its headquarters remain today. In 1999, Ford acquired Volvo, folding it into its Premier Auto Group, along with Land Rover and Aston Martin. Cutting costs during the 2008 recession, Ford sold Volvo to Chinese automaker Geely in 2010.

Volvo P210 Duett

Volvo


Volvo P210 Duett

SUVs evolved from trucks, with notable examples such as the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet Tahoe being enclosed body versions of pick-up trucks. The Duett, introduced in 1960, was Volvo's first real commercial vehicle, often seen with a van body but also as a people carrier, or estate in European terms. The name Duett implied that the car could be used as a work van on weekdays and a family car on the weekend.


Volvo 850 AWD

Volvo

Volvo 850 AWD

In 1996, the 850 model becomes the first Volvo passenger car to offer an all-wheel-drive system. The 850, in production since 1991, comes in sedan and wagon form. The 850 AWD, designed to compete with the Audi Quattro and Subaru Legacy, uses an all-wheel-drive system that defaults to a 95/5 percent front to rear torque split. In slippery conditions, the system automatically diverts torque to the wheels that need it most, similar to most modern all-wheel-drive cars.


Volvo V70 XC

Volvo V70 XC

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Volvo V70 XC

In 1997, Volvo still had not introduced an SUV, but it followed up the discontinued 850 wagon with the V70, changing up its model naming. Most importantly, Volvo released a variant called the V70 XC, featuring standard all-wheel-drive and increased ride height over the base V70. The V70 XC came with a 193-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine, and the words "Cross Country" on the rear. Notably, the V70 XC becomes Volvo's first step towards a modern SUV.


2008 Volvo XC90

Volvo

Volvo XC90 (first generation)

In 2002, Volvo was finally ready to release an SUV. The first generation XC90 built on the company's all-wheel-drive and wagon-building expertise. The 2002 model eschewed rugged SUV looks in favor of a more car-like appearance, yet its raised suspension gave it useful ground clearance. The base model came with a turbocharged five-cylinder engine, with optional all-wheel-drive, while the T6 model got a twin-turbocharged 2.9-liter straight six-cylinder engine with standard all-wheel-drive. The success of the first XC90 leads Volvo to launch two more SUVs.


2008 Volvo XC70

2008 Volvo XC70

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Volvo XC70

Acknowledging thirst for SUVs in the market, Volvo formalizes the V70 XC's status by renaming it the XC70, making it the XC90's little brother in 2003. Although still closely tied to the V70 wagon, the XC70 shows improved ground clearance and standard all-wheel-drive. For the 2008 model year, Volvo releases a generational update, putting the XC70 on a new platform. In our review of the 2008 XC70, we were very impressed with its Dynaudio 12-speaker stereo, which also marked a trend towards the kind of luxury elements we would see in the current XC90.


2016 Volvo XC60

2016 Volvo XC60

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Volvo XC60

With the XC60, introduced in 2008, Volvo satisfies an interest in smaller, premium SUVs. As is clear by its model designation, the XC60 slots in beneath the XC70. Although lacking a wagon heritage, the XC60 shows off more SUV-like proportions. It measures 8 inches shorter than the XC70, but comes in more than 4 inches higher. In our review of the 2016 model year XC60, we found that Volvo developed a four-cylinder engine using a smart supercharger-turbocharger combination forced induction system. This new four-cylinder engine in the XC60 T6 also sees use in the new XC90.


2016 Volvo XC90 T6

2016 Volvo XC90

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Volvo XC90 (second generation)

Volvo's XC name didn't come about until the late 1990s, and wasn't formalized into a model name until 2002, with the original XC90. The latest generation of Volvo's luxury SUV sets a standard for the company's future direction, with new drivetrain, cabin and safety technologies. Despite being a three-row SUV, Volvo shows that four cylinders are enough.

The base T6 model comes with a 2-liter engine using the same supercharger-turbocharger combination as the XC60, while the XC90 T8 complements that engine with electric propulsion, achieving 400 horsepower. That power couples with a very comfortable ride and an elegant interior, while the Sensus navigation system includes many smart information features. Active safety features brake and steer the vehicle to avoid common collision situations.