Volvo hopes to ride tech advances to sales gains


With unremarkable global sales of 460,000 last year, Volvo is not looking for the kind of renaissance in which everyone sits around painting.

Rather, it wants people to jog into its showrooms, do some test-drive calisthenics, and then sprint home in a new Swedish safety-mobile.

To that kinetic end, it will field a whopping seven new models over the next four years.

The first ashore to colonize the Volvo showrooms will be the completely redesignedXC90, the automaker's large luxury crossover. Dealers should have good supplies of the gas-engine T6 model by July, and the T8 hybrid by October.

The XC90 debuted at the dawn of this millennium, and has gone without significant revision until now.

Suffice it to say, it had become a little long in the bicuspid.

The new XC90, however, is a very fresh business and a very innovative design exercise. The T8 model, for example, qualifies as the world's first seven-seat, plug-in hybrid crossover.

I recently drove the T6 and T8 at a regional show-and-tell and came away feeling Volvo had gotten the sweet part of the bat on this particular pitch. The cars were nicely styled outside, and rich, comfortable, and roomy inside. The cars' considerable techiosity was highlighted by a rather Apple-escent touch-screen control center that was nothing short of exceptional.

The XC90, which starts at $48,900, eschews the V-8s and diesels that abounded when Ford was the mayor of Volvoville. In its place is a two-liter, four-cylinder engine.

That engine, said Lutz Stiegler, Volvo's director of power-train engineering, is lighter and smaller than its V-8 forebears, and boasts more efficiency. And it better be more efficient, since we're asking a mere two liters to haul around an all-wheel-drive vehicle weighing in the vicinity of 2.5 tons.

With the help of both a turbocharger and a supercharger, plus the good offices of variable valve timing, direct injection, and an electric water pump (which is less parasitic than the usual engine-driven pump), this mighty mite delivers a hefty 316 horsepower via a slick eight-speed automatic gearbox. That's enough power to get this big guy from 0 to 60 in a little over six seconds, which is quite respectable.

In the case of theT8, placing this engine in harness with an electric motor raises the horsepower ante to 400 and drops the 0-to-60 times into the mid-fives.

The T8's driveline is an interesting case. While the T6's front and rear wheels are connected to the front-mounted engine by shafts, the T8 hybrids are not. Here, the engine drives the front wheels, while the electric motor powers the back ones and a lithium-ion battery resides in the cavity where the T6 driveshaft lives.

You may be wondering why the XC90's engine employs both a turbocharger and a supercharger. The reason is this: An engine has to get close to 3,000 r.p.m. before the turbo is generating a significant boost in the velocity of the air entering the combustion chambers, hence the term turbo lag. A supercharger, on the other hand, provides instant gratification. So, the supercharger provides the initial boost, and then the turbocharger takes over.

The T6 has a combined mileage estimate of 22. The hybrid has a gas equivalency rating of 59 when running only on electricity, which it can do for about 20 miles.

The XC90, with a base price that can go up to $70,000 in T8 form, is a pleasure in either flavor. Power and handling are a plus, the steering is precise and properly weighted, and braking is solid.

The interior is as comfortable as it is lovely, and very well-equipped, even on the lowest rung.