Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
It was just five years ago that Hyundai put South Korean automotives on the global map by redesigning the midsize Sonata from a dull sedan into a stunning, flashy and technology-filled showpiece. Almost immediately, the technology spread to all the other Hyundai cars, as well to everything from Kia, its newly adopted partner. Hyundai’s SUVs benefitted too, although they seemed almost as after-thoughts.
Since then, the SUV market has skyrocketed, so Hyundai improved the Santa Fe to new levels of function and luxury, with two versions, including a slightly shorter Sport, that keeps its distance larger than the compact crossover Tucson. For the 2016 model year, and for the first time since Hyundai technology peaked, the Tucson gets its moment in the sun, and the timing couldn’t be better for the new CUV (Crossover Utility Vehicle).
The compact crossover segment that numbered about five vehicles a decade ago now numbers over 40. Everybody has one, or two, and some are outstanding. All of them are in hot pursuit of the affordable segment stars — the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, and, more recently, the Mazda CX-5.
As of right now, one out of every three vehicles sold is an SUV, and the compact CUVs are flat taking over. It makes sense, because if you want something that can haul a little more, offers more storage room, and has the anxiety-free stability of all-wheel drive, then the most compact SUVs also offer more maneuverability and fuel economy.
The Tucson used to be a more modest and less expensive alternative to the top sellers, but the new 2016 Tucson goes immediately to the head of the class. It is completely redesigned, and now resembles a compact version of the stylish Santa Fe. Its high-tech stuff either stands out immediately, or resides more subtly beneath the skin, where it makes the vehicle stiffer, handle better, is safer and more versatile.
The last Tucson redesign came in 2010, and it was a solid step upward, but nothing like this one. Before approaching the many details, consider that the new Tucson starts with front-wheel drive available as a $1,400 option in all versions. The SE starts at a base price of $22,700; the SE Pop starts at $23,450; the Eco at $24,150; the Sport at $26,150; the Limited at $29,900; and the Limited Ultimate at $32,650. It’s hard to find a capable compact car for $25,000 these days.
Tucson is a nice, warm-weather city in Southern Arizona, but Hyundai first introduced the Tucson to the media in Minneapolis, right on the University of Minnesota campus. It was a nice setting, and we enjoyed driving it through the Twin Cities and off along the St. Croix River that separates Minnesota from Wisconsin. It was a clever move by Hyundai, because not only was it a neat site, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize that in a couple of months, the weather would turn cold, and the snow would be underlined by ice — making SUVs with their all-wheel drive a great source of relief.
Surprisingly, when you first examine the Tucson close-up, it is 8.5 inches shorter than the Santa Fe Sport, a vehicle that seems compact itself. Hyundai reasons that the core family will probably choose the Santa Fe, the empty-nest family would probably choose the Santa Fe Sport, and the singles or newly married without kids will go for the Tucson.
I think Hyundai may have underestimated the Tucson, because it might remain the perfect vehicle for couples with one or two young children, and it might just as likely be the choice of the kids-are-gone couples who want the convenience of easy parking, sporty handling and high mileage. And while the kids are growing up, the Tucson would make the ideal second car.
Mike O’Brien, vice president of Hyundai’s corporate product planning, pointed to the bold and dynamic design, touches such as full-length panoramic sunroof, color luminescent instruments and an 8-inch touchscreen, LED outside lighting front and rear, 17-inch or premium 19-inch wheels, greatly improved rigidity, improved sound isolation, and two impressive new engines.
The current Tucson is 173.2 inches in overall length and the new one will be 176.2, which leaves it shorter than the CR-V, RAV4 or Escape. The current one was constructed of 18 percent high-strength steel, while the new one boasts 51 percent. That helps overall body rigidity to be improved by 48 percent, and helps the Tucson move ahead of the CR-V, RAV4 and Escape in sound suppression.
Structurally, Hyundai made all the passenger compartment pillars stronger, as well as the floor, and even the underbody is designed for improved air-management. That conspires to aid the very impressive 0.33 coefficient of drag as you slice through the wind.
Power also is improved with two engine choices. One is the 2.0-liter direct-injection 4 that has 164 horsepower and 151 foot-pounds of torque. The optional upgrade is interesting — a smaller-displacement 1.6-liter 4 that has direct injection and is turbocharged, offering 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque that remain constant from 1,500-4,500 RPMs.
Remember, horsepower looks good in advertising, but it is torque that provides the grunt to launch a vehicle. And to get up to peak torque at 1,500 revs — barely above idle — and maintain it to 4,500 revs, is impressive indeed.
Tucsons come in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and transmission choices are a 6-speed automatic, or a 7-speed dual-clutch unit. That one is like the precise race-track shifter that has no clutch pedal, but two clutches enclosed inside the transmission. As you accelerate in, say, second gear with one clutch engaged, the computer induces the second clutch to preselect third gear, and when it comes time to shift, the transmission instantly switches which clutch is engaged.
The all-wheel drive system is an improved plan that uses gentle braking or reduced power to a wheel that wants to spin. Depending on which model and equipment you choose, you can have a governing mode that you set to Eco, Normal, or Sport, each of which adjusts the engine power, transmission shift points and steering firmness.
Suspension has been reengineered, with MacPherson struts and four-point bushings in front, multilink rear, and Sachs shocks on all four corners. The plan was to improve handling and also accident-avoidance, and inspire confidence in the driver.
I have suggested to Hyundai officials for the past few years that all the ingredients are impressive, but getting them all coordinated — and getting the steering and cornering up to proper performance levels — are all that remained. On the car side, the new Sonata, Accent, Genesis and Veloster have proven that to qualify as “mission accomplished,” and it took only a brief driving example to indicate the Tucson has carried out that same achievement.
Along with the obvious interior improvements, the new Tucson offers more. You can get 31 cubic feet of cargo behind the second row of seats, and there is a neat, dual-level cargo floor that drops 2 inches below normal floor level to secure certain things. The hands-free rear liftgate first made a feature of the entry-luxury Genesis sedan now follows the Santa Fe and is incorporated onto the Tucson; stand behind the vehicle for 3 seconds with the key fob on your person, and the hatch lifts.
There are windshield, front facia and rear view cameras, for warning that a car, or pedestrian, is entering your danger zone. While driving, sensors and radar warn the driver, and if you don’t stop, it brakes for you. That system also works for blind spot, lane change, and rear cross traffic alerts.
Rear seats are heated, along with, of course, the 10-way power driver or 8-way passenger seats. Also, it seems every company is trying to find some unique touches for audio systems. In the Tucson, when you change stations and hit on a song you like, push a switch and you can go back to the start of the song. That’s one of those black-magic tricks of modern technology, and it fits well into the new image of the new Tucson.
Filed under: Autos, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
Maybe you’ve heard about the techniques of professional drag-racing, where drivers line up at the amber starting lights, then time it as perfectly as they can to launch without “red-lighting” an instant before the green light shows.
If you can find a place to try that in the ol’ family truckster, it’s fun. And if you happen to be driving a 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, it’s more than just fun. Sure, it costs a little more than the garden variety Charger — close to $65,000 — but it comes fitted with a 707-horsepower supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi, and various accompanying toys.
One of them is that on the instrument panel, along with showing you your speed and RPMs and fuel gauge, you can switch to several screens. One of them, under “performance,” gives you a cluster of numbers between the speedometer and tach. Set it for 0-60, or 0-100, or a quarter-mile, and then hit the button when you’re ready to go. It counts down, and when it gets to your starting time, you accelerate as hard as you dare. The readout not only gives you a timed clocking of how you did, but it also shows your starting-line reaction time, for how close you cut the launch to the quickest possible time.
I found a deserted stretch of rural highway, and set the device for 0-60. Then I hammered it. After a couple runs, I showed a best time of 4.4 seconds. Dodge says the car will do the quarter mile in less than 14 seconds, and I have no reason to question that. If you know of a deserted stretch of rural highway, you realize immediately that you could spend a few bucks refueling before you get over the adrenaline kick of spending an afternoon playing with that Charger Hellcat.
The best thing about it, along with the looks and the amazing performance, is that when you simply start the engine and crack the throttle, people stop and stare, while you’re just happy your windows didn’t shatter.
The Dodge Charger had become something of a throwback, a large sedan with sporty overtones, which in a world of sleek and high-tech competitors seemed to have a questionable future. But as things have evolved, the Charger has matured into a a grown-up sedan for all seasons, starting with a potent 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, with 292 horsepower and available all-wheel drive. Move up to the legendary Hemi V8, and you can choose the 5.7-liter version with 370 horses and 395 foot-pounds of torque, or the Scat Pack with a 6.4-liter V8, 485 horses and 475 foot-pounds of torque. More than enough power…if there was such a thing. Of course, there isn’t.
Dodge decided that if it was going to compete with similarly retro ponycars like the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro, it would bring back the Challenger, which really was a Charger fitted with a coupe body. Heavy, yes, but with the Hemi engine, it has been a successful muscle car.
Dodge SRT engineers weren’t done, and they created the mind-blowing supercharged Hellcat version of the 6.2-liter Hemi, which develops 707 horsepower and 650 foot-pounds of torque, efficiently working to hurl the Challenger or the Charger Hellcat to a measured top speed of 204 miles per hour.
That made the Challenger one of the fastest cars on the planet, and with the same powertrain, the Charger becomes the fastest and most powerful full-size sedan ever built, and in my opinion, simply feels more balanced with all that power.
In the process, Dodge also redesigned the Charger for 2015, with some neat contours in the sides of its sleek body, and a meaningful hood scoop back there behind a new macho-looking grille. I still like the looks of the Challenger, but if you’re like I am, the Charger is the first 4-door sedan you might prefer to its 2-door coupe sibling.
For sheer sporty driving, a Chevy fan isn’t about to choose an Impala or Malibu over a Camaro, and Ford buyers aren’t looking at a Taurus or Fusion above the Mustang. But the Charger is properly nasty looking, and I prefer it as a balanced and enormously powerful sports sedan that you can enjoy even while you take your neighbors out for a ride in the back seat.
Mark Troestle, Dodge’s manager of the SRT performance arm, said the Charger redesign came from the simple objective of: “Making the front end as outrageous as 707 horsepower is. We have a different grille with a more prominent chin.
“We wanted to build the quickest, fastest and most powerful full-size sedan in the world. It’s tighter, leaner, like it’s shrink-wrapped. It’s both rational and emotional. And when you park it and walk away from it in a parking lot, you’ll look back just to see how cool it is.”
The roof and rear doors are the only panels remaining from the previous Charger. It’s a bit lower, and wider, and the LED foglights underline the attention to detail of the front, while pulling the C pillar rearward, practically onto the decklid, stresses the length and wraps into the rear corners, where the signature Dodge taillights show the flow of LEDs that encircle the whole rear panel.
The interior has an 8.4-inch touchscreen, and new seat design provides improved support. The steering wheel is sports-minded too, with a flat bottom and comfortable grip areas. There are paddles on either side of the steering wheel for shifting the 8-speed automatic manually.
You also get two key fobs with the car, one red and the other black. When you’re going somewhere, you use the red one, and enjoy all that power and fabulous sound. If you have another family member taking the Charger SRT Hellcat for the evening, you can give them the black key fob. They might not even realize that with the black key, the engine is limited to 500 horsepower, rather than the full 707.
As if nobody could get in over their heads with 500 horsepower.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions, Weekly test drives
By John Gilbert
Hurry! If you live in the warmer part of the country, there’s no urgency; but farther north, where the ominous approach of cold weather and a little snow and ice is nearing, sports car driving can become a seasonal venture, and the leaf-changing time of autumn might be the best time possible.
If you own a Porsche Cayman, or a Jaguar F-Type, an Audi TT, BMW Z4 or an Alfa 4C, there’s no real urgency, because you undoubtedly can afford to pick your spots. But if you want the same thrill, possibly amplified by the knowledge that you beat the system by spending about one-fourth of the required investment of the above-named roadsters, then run — don’t walk — to your closest Mazda dealer and pick off a 2016 MX-5 Miata for half the sticker price or less.
The base Miata Sport starts at $24,915, and moving up to the Club is $28,600, with the top Grand Touring starting at $30,065. The Club is what I drove, and it adds a limited slip and Bilstein shock absorbers and an inch larger wheels if you pick the Sport package.
Jump into the Miata, flip the closure lever and lower the top with one hand — no power gizmos, please. Start up the Skyactiv engine, shift into gear and take off. The feeling of exhilaration is instant and always the same. Fantastic. If it feels even more compact than you anticipated, it is. Its 154.4-inch length is more than an inch shorter than the original was in 1990, although wheelbase as 1.7 inches stretched on the new car, and width is a couple inches more.
With Mazda, the power and torque numbers mean very little. If it feels fast enough to give you a thrill, it is. The new Skyactiv 2.0 has 155 horses and 148 foot-pounds, and the outgoing 2.0, without Skyactiv technology, actually had more horsepower at 167 at 7,000 revs, with less torque at 140. I never know how Mazda does it, but the new car feels quicker in a more coordinated way where the engine, gearbox, electric power steering and suspension all contribute.
For 2016, even the crustiest traditionalist among Miata fans will have to admit that as good as the first three generations of the Miata have been, the fourth-generation version gives you the largest jump forward in technology, and also provides some visual exhilaration, from the first time you lay eyes on it.
First reaction to the term “sports car” is that it must have a rigid body that stays flat around the tightest corners, even if that means you risk outright harshness over any road irregularities in real-world driving. We accept that. Mazda, however, doesn’t. The new Miata has an almost surprising feeling of compliance — not softness, but a little bit of leaning in tight corners, and even a little nose bobbing under heavy braking. Maybe the Miata’s ability to feel comfortable and secure at all times, rather than steely, track-day firmness might cost you a second around a road-racing track. But you appreciate the compliance every time you get behind the wheel.
Also, when it comes to those hard-driving track day ventures, a little leaning in tight turns is no problem if it’s completely predictable, doesn’t cause you to compromise your driving aggressiveness, and actually gives a good driver time to anticipate the shifting G-forces.
Mazda has long established a reputation for building an honest “fun” driving experience into every vehicle it produces, and up on the pillar as the standard of Mazda’s “zoom-zoom” philosophy is the Miata. Actually, Mazda prefers us to call the car the “MX-5” for reasons best known to those image-makers in Hiroshima, Japan, who don’t seem aware of the enormous advantage of name-recognition. Grudgingly, the company now seems to allow its people to call it the “MX-5 Miata.”
By any name, Mazda’s 2-seat sports car has become a standard of the entire industry for being a simple, no-frills approach to flat-out fun driving. Competitors may attempt to challenge it, but nobody has come close to providing the same flair for the amazingly low price.
For 2016, the fourth-generation MX-5 Miata adds a decided new look and personality. Rod McLaughlin, the car’s vehicle line manager, stressed those four core values that Mazda would not alter: “Light weight, affordable, a roadster, and fun to drive,” he said. “Our job was to turn those principles into engineering. ‘Kansai’ engineering involves how it feels, sounds and looks. Takao Kijima, the third-generation manager, made sure all benchmarks turned into emotional values.”
McLaughlin’s challenge was to expand on the traditional simplicity of the Miata, while also incorporating the unique features that Mazda has made standard issue on all its vehicles. That includes high-strength steel for increased rigidity and lighter weight, plus the Skyactiv treatment whereby a compacted, stylish and streamlined look and design must keep up with Mazda’s new engine technology and self-made transmissions.
The term “Skyactiv” has become commonplace in publications, but don’t settle for superficial explanations that consist of the name without technical explanation. The true definition of Skyactiv springs from Mazda’s decision to look into the future and realize the company had to make a move to an entirely new way to build engines, and cars, if it wanted to rise above the 30-mpg norm to more like 40. Mazda’s holistic approach started with a design and production of an engine from the bottom up, inside out, with everything on the cutting edge of technology.
A simple glance at the beautifully tuned exhaust manifold pipes winding rhythmically around the block. That doesn’t fully explain that there is a chain-driven dual-overhead camshafts, direct injection, 155 horsepower at 6,000 RPMs and 148 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600 revs, and a redline of 6,800. The variable valve-timing can keep the valves open in Miller-cycle fashion, and fuel economy figures show 27 city and 36 highway for the automatic or 34 mpg for the 6-speed stick.
A trademark of the engine, when it was introduced on the Mazda3, then accompanied thorough revisions of the Mazda6 and the introduction of the crossover CX-5, is extremely high compression ratio but with the ability to burn regular gas. Stuffing all the technical advances into the 27-year-old heritage of the Miata had to be a major challenge, but Mazda pulled it off.
At a glance, the new car has the look of a small exotic more than a bargain sports roadster, starting with the large and comparatively menacing grille opening, with angular slits for headlight eyes, vast departures from tradition.
“At the time of the Miata’s 1989 launch, there were no true lightweight sports cars available,” said Lead designer Jacques Flynn. “This car has established such a rich pedigree as a true icon that it is a huge honor for me to be involved with it. It has always been the perfect light sports car — under 2,200 pounds — and we had to make sure we met our demands for technology but also tradition.”
Mazda gives you the option of using minimum 87-octane regular or 91-octane premium gasoline, noting that you will get full power with premium.
At the MX-5 Miata introduction in California, I had an early departure to fly back to Minnesota. Since my co-driver could spend the rest of the afternoon driving all versions of the car, I drove the first part. As it happened, our best efforts to follow the map and use all of our GPS instruments and our common sense failed when highway construction got us hopelessly lost.
We zoom-zoomed around all sorts of back roads and neat, twisty highways, and we finally arrived at the lunch stop by coming to the country club by the back way. The main issue with our wandering in the wilderness is that I had to drive the whole way. Oh darn!
I got an extreme dose of driving the Club version of the MX-5 Miata, and found it thoroughly enjoyable whether on freeway stretches or around tight curves and switchbacks. Can you use a little extra exhilaration in your life, even on a mundane drive to work? Of course. And the Miata, or MX-5, provides that, every day. But hurry, so you can beat the northern snow.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
The new Mazda CX-3 is fouling up some long-standing family logic. While test-driving the proliferating array of trucks and SUVs has always been enjoyable and educational, our preference is for the dynamics of lower and sleeker cars, and the theory remains that anything bigger than “big enough” is too big.
But in the last couple of years, two pivotal new ingredients have evolved: One is age, on our part; the other is downsizing, on the part of the auto industry. Those two elements create an intriguing new junction for our consideration — to say nothing of millions of others. Without excessive size, you can still get SUV assets of a slightly higher vehicle with better visibility that’s easier to get into and out of, and has all-wheel drive to easily conquer the worst of Up North winters.
A couple of years ago, Mazda made it tempting with the CX-5, a pleasingly compact crossover SUV. We drove it around Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, where its agility and power felt more like a sporty car. A compact SUV with the highest of high-tech power and features.
“Hmmmm,” we hmmmed. The CX-5 was the first vehicle that incorporated the full effect of Mazda’s fantastic Skyactiv technology, a holistic approach to building engines, transmissions, all-new suspension, a creative all-wheel-drive system, and an aerodynamic chassis and body and interior all in unified harmony — a concept that has followed in every Mazda vehicle since.
And now, for 2016, along comes the CX-3, significantly smaller than the CX-5 but still with more than adequate room and a bold, fresh design. Mazda officials say not to consider it a downsized CX-5, or a taller Mazda2, upon whose platform the CX-3 is based.
We may be hooked. Amid an armada of new and downsized “CUVs,” the CX-3 was introduced as an early 2016 model, right after the compacted Jeep Renegade, right about the same time as the new and diminutive Honda HR-V, and just before the Fiat 500X and Hyundai Tucson. After brief exposure, the CX-3 might be the pick of the new litter.
The CX-3 blends all the features that convince mainstream buyers they need, as well as want, an SUV. If the CX-5 handles like a sporty sedan, the CX-3 is lighter, lower, better balanced and handles even better. Its looks makes you realize it is in the CX-5 family, and it has the large grille is the new identity face of all things Mazda. But its confluence of contours and exterior lines makes the CX-3 stand alone.
At 168.3 inches long, the CX-3 comes in various forms. The basic Sport starts at $19,950, the Touring starts at $21,950, and the GT starts at $24,990. All-wheel drive adds $1,200. A fully loaded GT version can be had for $28,160. All have the same 2.0 engine. The midrange Touring includes cross-traffic rear camera view, and the GT adds 18-inch wheels, LED lighting, paddle shifters, and leather seats with suede trim.
Also available are lane departure and blind spot warning, a moonroof, crash mitigation, adaptive headlights, remote start, and the ability to go beyond normal Bluetooth to social networking and communicating via e-mails. It even offers a car-finder device that can be programmed into your smartphone.
Under the hood, the CX-3 has Mazda’s exceptional 2.0-liter Skyactiv 4-cylinder, which is the smaller of two new 4s that power all the Mazda sedans as well as the CX-5. It doesn’t seem to give up any performance to its larger brother, and it can achieve heroic gas mileage figures consistently over 30 miles per gallon, thanks to delayed valve timing and its extremely high compression ratio while still burning regular gas.
All that helps Mazda fool you with performance that outhustles the simple figures of a mere 146 horsepower and 146 foot-pounds of torque. That sounds mild, but the thorough combustion of Skyactiv technology reinforces another Mazda tradition: If it feels powerful enough, it is powerful enough.
Behind the wheel, acceleration is brisk, and fuel economy shows 29 city and 35 highway estimates with front-wheel-drive models, and 27 city, 32 highway with heavier all-wheel drive. One big asset is the 6-speed transmission Mazda built in-house to incorporate with its Skyactiv breakthrough is smooth and sure in its shifting and makes the CX-3 feel much quicker than several competitors, particularly those deploying CVTs — continuously variable transmissions.
In addition, there are steering-wheel remote paddles and a Sport mode to closely simulate manual shifting by holding gears in the sweet spot of the torque range, while also matching revs on downshifts, and recognizing hills and terrain where more-aggressive or more cautious shifting might be appropriate.
Part of its CX-3’s lightness comes from a combination of 63 percent high-tensile steel in the body, with the remainder ultra-high-tensile. Mazda includes its safety ring structure, which features a straight frame with rings running around the belittling and also from top to bottom along the A and B pillars, surrounding the occupant compartment with high-tensile steel. The design distributes any impacting force to the lower perimeter of the chassis.
My personal preference for interior design always has been to keep it simple, and the CX-3 wins there, too, with a horizontal dash accented by a 7-inch center nav screen, and a neat heads-up display screen on the dash in front of the driver. The factory navigation system costs $400.
The all-wheel drive system is a unique unit that Mazda calls “i-Activ.” Stan Hortinel, an engineer who was production manager on the CX-3, said the system reads steering angle and input, and also calculates other elements including temperature and brake fluid pressure.
“On dry pavement, and at normal temperatures, the system uses wheel-speed sensors to read the surface and anticipate cornering, and can switch torque to help maintain traction,” Hortinel said. “If there’s water on the road, it reads the power you’re using and the steering as well as the friction, so when you hit water the CX-3 detects it and predicts rather than reacting.
“It’s the same when there is snow and ice on the road. Your wheel-speed changes and the car’s response changes, based on the temperature sensors and steering wheel angle. The system takes in all the information and applies the torque properly to each wheel.”
Reinforcing that explanation, which is a key for anyone who drives in changing seasons, production engineer Jacob Brown said: “With the all-wheel drive system, there is never 100 percent of the torque going to the front wheels. Maybe, in perfect conditions, as much as 98 percent might go to the front, but even something as slight as a slight incline or decline would cause more power to go to the rear.”
Up to 50 percent of the power can go to the rear under slippery conditions. The system was introduced on the larger CX-5 two years ago, and weighing in 20 percent lighter than its big brother, at a mere 2,932 pounds, the system works impressively on the CX-3.
At the CX-3 introduction, at Westlake Village, California, Mazda showed video comparisons where Subaru’s system allowed a lot of slipping and the Honda system proved more reactive than anticipatory.
In dry weather, the front-wheel drive CX-3 is lighter and sportier to fling around curves, but the all-wheel drive models not only feel more planted in cornering maneuvers, but add another asset for those of us in the north country. All the more enticing to former car families.
Filed under: Autos, New car introductions
By John Gilbert
The Volvo XC90 is an automotive rarity. While it is entirely new for 2016, it combines every contemporary and futuristic new element together in perfect harmony to make a whole that is far greater than just the sum of its parts.
The new XC90 is the largest Volvo, and as large SUVs go, it might be my favorite. Understand that I really like small, compact crossover SUVs, and with the herd of new ones hitting the market this year, I am a long way from determining a favorite among the smaller “CUV” group. With larger SUVs, I have less hesitation: The 2016 XC90 is so loaded with technical, aesthetic, performance, comfort, and safety features that anybody looking for a luxury SUV should be urged to consider it.
My impression from the first photos I saw was, “So this is what would happen if Volvo tried to build a Tahoe?” Thus, I was pleased to be invited for the introduction of the new XC90 in Santa Monica, Calif., because the vehicle is vastly more impressive in real-life than in those first photos. Yes, it is bigger and a bit more squarish than the more curvaceous original XC90. But in person, it looks classy, not boxy; stylish, not stodgy.
At 194.8 inches in length, the XC90 is 10 inches shorter than a Tahoe, and 30 inches shorter than a Suburban, but it makes excellent use of its interior space and can tow up to 5,000 pounds with engine choices that include 400 horsepower and 372 foot-pounds of torque.
As unique as the exterior looks, that might be the least impressive of the new XC90’s assets. It comes in three designations — the Momentum, the Inscription, and the R-Design. Each can be had with the choice of engines: the T6, which is a new and sophisticated 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with both supercharging for low-end thrust and turbocharging for high-end power, or the T8 “twin engine” alternative, which has the same T6 engine linked to a C-ISG battery pack/electric motor unit to generate electricity for the latest in hybrid technology.
The T6 produces 316 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque and will zip from 0-60 in about 6 seconds with an EPA fuel economy estimate of 22 miles per gallon. The T8 produces 400 horsepower and 472 foot-pounds, improving acceleration time to 5.6 seconds and attaining a lofty 59 mpg high. With both engines available in all three models, all can be obtained in basic form or with popular options grouped in Vision, Convenience, or Climate packages, and a full slate of specific options also are available.
Prices for well-equipped standard vehicles range from $48,900 for the Momentum T6 or $68,100 with the T8; the high-performance R-Design ranges from a $52,900 base T6 to $70,000 for the T8; and the Inscription opens at $54,500 as a T6 or $71,600 for the T8.
Shortly after the introductory drive, during which we sampled both engines and spent a lot of time enjoying the T8’s full-power hybrid, I got a chance to test a T6 Inscription for a week’s follow-up. Scaling the steep hills of Duluth, taking the freeway to Minneapolis, or negotiating the rocky North Shore of Lake Superior, those numerous features, and the enormous, full-length skylight/sunroof that is enlarged 50 percent, made it a dream vehicle for summertime cruising or Highway 61 Revisiting.
Volvo has had the best seats in the industry for decades, and in the new vehicle, they’ve been redone, with the same familiar Swedish orthopedic stability and comfort, but with slimmer backrests redesigned to create more rear knee-room. The second-row seats slide an inch and a half fore and aft and recline, and one-hand access to the third row is handy, whether the seats are in place for 7-passenger use, or folded down to offer 85 cubic feet of storage.
The first XC90 in 2005 was an extremely adventurous attempt by Volvo to enter the realm of Sport-Utility Vehicles. Of course, Volvo did it in its own inimitable fashion, going for sport and utility, but only after living up to its commitment without compromise on vehicle safety. I witnessed one flung through the air in a rollover test at the Gothenberg, Sweden, safety center. After coming down on its roof and rolling over four and a half times, the crash-test dummies were healthy enough to get ready for more rides.
It was an impressive vehicle, with a high-performing Yamaha-designed V8 engine inside a shell that was like a taller, stronger, bulgy version of Volvo’s legendary V70 and XC70 station wagons, making it well suited to take Volvo into an expanding SUV world.
For the 2016 restyling, nearly everything has changed in Volvo’s world. First, Volvo officials can hardly remember the days when the Swedish company was owned — and some say held back — by Ford Motor Company. It was threatening solvency as an independent at a time when a Chinese holding company that also owns the Geely car company took over ownership.
China was zooming upward to become, primitive or not, the largest car-market in the world. So it was a perfect match. Volvo needed only an infusion of money to keep building safe and now-stylish cars, and China beckoned with enormous potential. To sell cars in China, a company must partner with a Chinese car brand, and with Volvo now a sibling of Geely, that is no problem. There are a lot of Volvos being sold in China, where a new construction facility is in the works, meaning there will be a lot more to come.
Meanwhile, back in Sweden, Volvo has streamlined its engine line, hiring Lutz Stiegler to be director of powertrains, German accent and all. Experienced and impressed with the BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen powertrains of his German homeland, Stiegler has the background and the discipline to oversee one of the biggest new engine plans in the industry.
Volvo no longer will be producing vehicles with V8s, or the in-line 6, or 5-cylinder engines. Every Volvo vehicle including S60 sedans, V70 wagons, and, yes, XC90 SUVs, will now be powered by the new 2.0-liter, in-line 4-cylinder, making up for any power shortages with supercharging, turbocharging, and electric motor bolstering. The sophisticated 4-cylinder represents completely new architecture, Stiegler explained, and can be used in both gasoline and diesel applications.
In the XC90, we’re dealing with the gasoline version, which requires additional power over and above a typical 2.0. An advance combustion system, with high compression and variable valve operation, and advance boosting from the Eaton supercharger for low-end power, and the Borg-Warner turbocharger for the high end, that transverse-mounted 2.0’s 316 horsepower peaks at 5,700 RPMs, and the 295 foot-pounds of torque peaks at 2,200 RPMs and holds it up to 4,500 RPMs.
If the way you’re driving convinces the computer that you don’t need the hard-accelerating low-end boost from the supercharger, it is decoupled so as not to use any of the belt-driven power taken to run it. In that form, it is designated as T6, and it easily propels the 4,627-pound XC90 around curvy highways or through the mountains. Premium fuel is suggested, but not demanded.
The new SPA platform, flexible enough to also underpin all future large Volvo sedans, has a newly designed suspension, including a rear unit that features transverse springs to keep it low, and air suspension all around to make ride-height adjustable. It handles as though it thinks it’s a sports sedan, more than an SUV, and it feels low and stable, clinging to the prescribed arc you’ve established with the steering wheel. The all-wheel drive models feel even more stable than the front-drive models, although the lighter front-wheel drive feels more agile and more tossable, if you’re into that type of excitement.
For the ultimate XC90, the potent little T6 engine can be upgraded to the T8 version, as a hybrid model. The 316 horsepower jumps to 400 with the addition of 87 horses from the LG battery pack, which has its vertically aligned 96 Lithium-Ion cells mounted mid-chassis, and add the kick of an extra 87 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque. When all the equations are compared, the XC90 grows from 316 horses and 295 foot-pounds of torque to 400 horsepower and 475 foot-pounds of torque, once coupled to the hybrid system.
The added power improves 0-60 times from 6.1 with the non-hybrid to 5.7 with the added electrical charge. A larger difference is growing from 25 miles per gallon to an estimated 59 mpg with the hybrid.
“We developed electrification with the platform, so we built the starter-generator integrated with the crankshaft, and the Lithium-Ion battery pack’s six modules fit longitudinally down the middle of the car,” Stiegler said. “Power from the engine goes to the front wheels, while the battery powers the rear wheels, augmented by the gas engine.
“The combustion engine and electrical system go very good together. Electrical power is most efficient at low speed, and combustion engines are more effective at higher speed. So we take most of the low-end away from the combustion engine and make it electrical, then at higher speed we go to the combustion power. And we combine the two for hardest acceleration.”
The hybrid can operate for 16-17 miles on strictly electric power, and once depleted, the electrical power can be rejuvenated by the engine and the brake energy recuperated from the rear axle, or by plugging in the vehicle. A full charge can be gained in 6-7 hours on a household 110 plug in, or in 3-3.5 hours at 220. The T8 has a unique feature that allows the driver to switch to a manual charging system to bolster the system to allow 7-8 miles of pure electric operation, an impressive device for some international cities that have zero-emission restrictions for vehicle operation.
Stiegler pointed out that Volvo will continue to pursue advances in electrification, and while he said he is impressed with the performance of the all-electric Tesla. “But if everyone drove Teslas,” he said, “it’s completely unrealistic to expect there to be enough charging stations.”
“Our T8 is ideal, because it makes sense to use the plug-in electrical power in town, and after driving it as a pure electric around town, you then can use it as a normal hybrid, with the combustion engine providing most of the power while recharging the battery pack.”
If the sticker prices seem steep, consider the amount of high-tech equipment that comes standard, such as the 8-speed Geartronic transmission with start-stop shutoff at stoplights, instant traction and stability on the all-wheel-drive system, double-wishbone front and rear integral suspension, adjustable drive modes, and a seemingly endless array of safety features.
Every XC90 also includes collision avoidance for vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, lane-departure warning and roll stability control, with all manner of airbag and Volvo’s typical insistence on the high-strength steel unibody safety cage. While aluminum is gaining popularity for its strength combines with lighter weight, steel construction can consist of five levels: mild, high-strength, very high-strength, extra high-strength, and ultra high-strength.
Jan Ivarsson, senior technical advisor of safety for Volvo, explained that the XC90 has, “a passenger compartment completely encircled with ultra high-strength steel,” and also adds a technique for off-road crashworthiness.
A vision package includes blind-spot detection in full-surround style; convenience package offers adaptive cruise control and parking assist; and the climate package offers front and rear heated seats. A Bowers & Wilkins audio upgrade adds 1,400 watts and 19 speakers, 4-corner air suspension, heads-up display, wheels measuring 20, 21 and 22 inches, a wood steering wheel, and integrated child booster cushions.
Volvo stresses that they don’t want cars that drive themselves, and prefer to offer an amazing array of cameras and radar devices to detect warn of lane variations, obstacles front and rear, with the ability to tighten harnesses, and load up brakes in an attempt to assure that drivers are conscious and aware of how to make themselves and their occupants as safe as possible. The car can detect a loss of attention and gently alert the driver that it might be time for a break.