The new Volvo XC90—improved under Chinese ownership

July 24, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC

When the Chinese carmaker Geely acquired Volvo, many questioned whether Geely would be able to maintain the quality of the beloved Swedish brand, let alone improve it. But today, five years later, those doubts seem to have been squelched: The all-new Volvo XC90 is handsome, technology-rich and a worthy successor to the original XC90, Volvo’s bestselling SUV.

I had the pleasure of testing Volvo’s latest recently in Santa Monica. Not exactly the kind of tough turf to show off its all-wheel-drive capabilities, but I understood Volvo’s choice: SoCal is ground zero for people who want—and like to show off—their wheels.

I first drove the T6 (from $48,900), the less powerful version (316 horsepower), which shares a 2-liter 4 cylinder engine with its more expensive stablemate, the T8. Climbing inside, I had a rare experience: immediate surprise and delight. Volvo had handed me the higher-spec T6 Inscription model, which was swathed in blond nappa leather (how LA), tasteful aluminum inlays and 20-inch wheels. The whole cabin felt airy and bright (thanks to a laminated sunroof 50% bigger than its predecessor’s), and the attention to detail was clear—diamond-cut control knobs, orthopedically designed seats, a large swipeable touchscreen. The 1400-watt, 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system was equally impressive and offers multiple settings, including Gothenburg Concert Hall (nice Swedish touch!).

Driving the T6 was a pleasure, too. For a large, three-row SUV, the XC90 felt spry with smooth power and feather-light steering. The only thing I didn’t like was the heads-up display, which was slightly blurry and hard to read in the Santa Monica sun—more of a distraction than an assist.

One of the many clever things the Swedes did in the XC90 was to raise the height of the third row of seats, theater-style, which gives passengers back there better visibility. Volvo also gave them cupholders and storage compartments. The second row of seats can recline and also slide forward and backward five inches for customizing comfort. Both the second and third rows can also fold flat, which yields a healthy 85 cubic feet of cargo space.

I also drove a T8 (from $61,900), which carries the distinction of being the world’s first seven-passenger plug-in hybrid. With the addition of the electric motor, the T8’s ‘s power jumps to 400 horsepower with 472 lb. ft. of torque. The T8 was itching to go faster, a sensitive racehorse when accelerating and braking. The Volvo folks onsite assured me that in the pre-production version I tested, some of the final finessing—smoothness of the throttle tip-in and the brake pedal sensitivity—would be further refined. But even with all that oomph, the company claims that the T8 gets 59 mpg combined (gas and electric modes).

The good news continues: for all the XC90’s good looks and brawn, there’s a MENSA-level brain in there, too. Back in 2007, Volvo publicly promised the world that by 2020, no one would ever be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car. Continuing to make good on that promise, the XC90 boasts no fewer than 16 world firsts in safety, including auto braking at intersections, new pedestrian and cyclist detection sensors, and a rear-collision avoidance system, to name a few.

While all that technology is invisibly working while you drive, the interactive systems inside the XC90 are also working to make you feel secure. On the easy-to-use touchscreen, you can drag and drop icons to customize what options you see, and the owner’s manual is one top-to-bottom swipe away for ease of reference. The voice-activated commands are actually intuitive: I told the system “I’m freezing!” and the XC90 immediately adjusted the temperature upward. And when I got to the end of a narrow dirt road in the Malibu canyons, the plan-view camera system helped me execute a multi-point turn while watching the screen and never getting too close to the steep drop-off on one side.

Volvo has long been a safe choice for buyers, literally, but never a truly luxurious one. With the 2016 XC90, that changes and the likes of Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Lexus had better pay attention—there’s a serious new player on the luxury scene, and one that offers a refreshingly different version of high-end quality.