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2016 Volvo XC90 Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

2016 Volvo XC90 front quarter view

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Once upon a time the Volvo XC90 was the hottest crossover on the market. However, that time was 2003, and while the XC90 remained largely unchanged in the decade-plus that followed, the rest of the world did not. Competitors such as the Acura MDX and BMW X5 were fully redesigned twice during this period. Embarrassingly out-of-date towards the end of its run, the still "first-ever" XC90 didn't even bother showing up for the 2015 model year. But for 2016 Volvo's three-row crossover is all-new. My first impressions were promising. But does the second-ever XC90 drive and function as well as it looks?

More is at stake than seven-seat crossover sales. The new XC90 is the first all-new vehicle Volvo has developed since being sold by Ford to Geely Automotive Holdings--a Chinese company. Though China has passed the United States to become the world's largest auto market, no one thinks much of China's auto companies. Could Volvo possibly turn out an exceptional car under the ownership and control of one? They never quite managed this feat under the ownership and control of Ford.

Though still designed, engineered, and manufactured in high-cost Sweden (the 2016 S60 Inscription sedan is the first Volvo to be imported from China), the new XC90 is priced considerably lower than other European seven-seat crossovers. Plus I haven't yet driven what could prove to be its most direct competitor once it reaches dealers next March, the 2017 Audi Q7. So I'll most directly compare the new XC90 to the last similarly sized, similarly priced seven-seater that impressed me, the Acura MDX.

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 front quarter view

Sophisticated evolution of Volvo's traditional brick. The new Audi Q7 should look this good. more XC90 photos

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 interior

In my first encounter with the new XC90, this interior blew me away.

Tested: 2016 Volvo XC90

4dr SUV twincharged 316hp 2.0L I4 8-speed shiftable automatic AWD

Compared: 2016 Acura MDX

4dr SUV 290-horsepower 3.5L V6 9-speed shiftable automatic AWD

Why the 2016 Volvo XC90?

  Compared to the MDX
Interior styling
Interior styling: Much better Better Worse

The new XC90's exterior attractively updates the brand's traditional brick without being as swoopy as some recent Volvo sedans. The surfaces are much more complex than they appear at first glance. But every curve and transition has been so artfully integrated that no particular detail grabs the eye. Instead, they form a quietly upscale whole that simply looks right. It doesn't hurt that the new XC90 is proportioned much better than most vehicles with sideways engines. Though the XC90 is only 1.2 inches longer than the Acura MDX (194.8 vs. 193.6), its wheelbase is 6.5 inches longer (117.5 vs. 111.0), yielding much tighter overhangs.

The standard wheels are 19 inches in diameter on the base trim, and 20s on the R-Design (sport model) and Inscription (luxury model). These can be upgraded to 20s on the base model, 22s on the R-Design, and 21s (as on the tested vehicle) on the Inscription. For the best dressed box, get the R-Design in "bursting blue metaliic" with the 22s.

The real design story, though, is inside the new XC90. My first impression upon sitting inside one at the Detroit auto show back in January 2015:"Wow, this interior is fantastic." I was blown away.

The XC90 might be much less expensive than its European competitors, but you'd never guess this after sitting inside them. Inside the top-of-the-line XC90 Inscription, leather covers nearly every surface that isn't covered by matte-finished walnut. The hides on the seats and armrests feel luxuriously soft to the touch.

Beyond materials, the XC90's interior styling exudes good taste in the modern-yet-warm Scandanavian way. Large LCD panels for the instruments and infotainment interface push the edge of current tech, leaving the center stack nearly button-free, without engaging in visual gimmickry. No detail appears to have escaped thorough consideration by talented designers. Every review of the new XC90 seems to mention the gnurling on the "engine start" knob and drive mode selector, and this one apparently won't break the pattern.

The Acura MDX's interior approaches the Volvo's in neither design nor materials. Despite (or perhaps because of) plenty of shiny fake wood, it's a relatively pedestrian, even antiseptic place in which to spend time. For a combination of style and materials, it's possible that only the Range Rover Sport compares, and it's nearly 50 percent more expensive.

Feature availability
Feature availability: Much better Better Worse

The new Volvo XC90 also manages to match European competitors in terms of features. If you can get a feature on an Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz crossover, you can probably get it on the new XC90 as well. The tested car had them all: four-corner air suspension, steering-linked LED headlights (complete with "Thor's hammer" running lights), panoramic sunroof, LCD instrumentation, head-up display, four-zone automatic climate control, heated-and-ventilated 16-way front seats with memory, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, around-view camera system, front-and-rear obstacle detection, automated parking system, full-speed-range adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and a full array of collision warning systems.

In low-speed stop-and-go traffic a "pilot assist" function can be called on to manage the steering, acceleration, and braking at speeds up to 30 mph as long as there's a car driving under 30 mph ahead of you and the lane markings are clearly visible. While I don't encounter such conditions in my driving, if you commute in heavy traffic you might love this feature.

One odd omission: the XC90's steering column adjusts manually. Another: unlike in the Germans you cannot get an audio system from that other Scandanavian icon, Bang & Olufsen. But then B&O is Danish, not Swedish. Instead, Volvo offers a 1400-watt, 19-speaker Bowers and Wilkins audio system for about half as much as B&O systems with merely 1200 watts and 14-to-16 speakers cost in the Germans.

Acura doesn't offer nearly as many high-end features on the MDX. Load up both vehicles, and the Volvo ends up with over $7,000 in additional content.

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 rear quarter view

The new XC90 appears especially handsome from the rear quarter. Nicely formed shoulder.

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 instrument panel

Many features, few buttons. Touchscreen enables minimalism.

Price or payments
Price or payments: About the same Better Worse

I don't often include price among the reasons to buy a vehicle that starts at $50,795 and that can top $65,000, especially not a European one, but the new Volvo XC90 proves an exception. You're essentially getting a vehicle with high-end engineering, a high-end interior, and high-end features for just a little more than the semi-premium Acura MDX. A nearly all-in XC90 T6 Inscription might list for $10,055 more than the MDX Advance, but it includes over $7,000 in additional content, for a feature-adjusted difference of about $2,700. Move to the other extreme, and an XC60 T6 Momentum lists for $5,010 more than a base MDX, but the feature-adjusted difference is around $2,000. Specify nav as the only required feature on both, and the sticker prices are just a little more than $1,000 apart, and the feature-adjusted difference only about $600.

A 2017 Audi Q7 equipped like the loaded $67,955 test vehicle will list for nearly $85,000. A BMW X5 with the same boxes checked? Over $85,000. And a Mercedes-Benz GL-Class (GLS next year)? Deep into the nineties--but at least with it you get a considerably larger, roomier vehicle.

Fuel economy
Fuel economy: Better Better Worse

The old Volvo XC90's fuel economy was stuck in the early 2000s. When fitted with a 311-horsepower 4.4-liter V8 (last offered for 2011) its EPA ratings were 13 mpg city, 19 mpg highway. The 240-horsepower 3.2-liter inline-six that powered all first-generation XC90s in recent years managed little better, 15/21.

The new XC90 is a couple hundred pounds lighter than the original one, and its only engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Two liters doesn't sound like nearly enough to motivate 4,400 pounds of all-wheel-drive crossover? Well, this particular engine happens to be both supercharged and turbocharged (the former to avoid the lag usually associated with a large, high-boost-pressure turbo) to the tune of 316 horsepower, five more than the old V8. The payoff: EPA ratings of 20 mpg city, 25 mpg highway. The highway figure is lower than that of the MDX (26), but the city figure is the best for a gasoline-powered fancy-brand three-row crossover.

The trip computer averages during my week with the new XC90 largely confirmed these ratings. With a light foot in the suburbs I observed up to 27 mpg, a couple better than the Acura. Averages around 23 were common. Make frequent use of the boost and the trip computer average sinks as low as 14 mpg, but drive competitors similarly and they guzzle at least as much gas.

Want even better fuel economy? Volvo will soon offer the above engine in conjuction with electric motors that bump total output to 400 horsepower. EPA ratings for the T8 hybrid haven't yet been announced, but they're expected to be impressive. Plus it will be possible to plug in the XC90 T8 then drive it about 17 miles on electricity alone. The downside? The T8 will cost $11,800 more than the T6 even after factoring in a $4,600 tax credit. Fuel savings alone won't justify this bump.

Safety & braking
Safety & braking: About the same Better Worse

Why hasn't the attribute most closely associated with the Volvo brand, safety, come up yet? Not because the new XC90 didn't test well. It earned top ratings in all of the IIHS tests. The thing is, so have many competitors, including the Acura MDX. Volvo figured out a while ago that a large advantage in safety wasn't sustainable--once other manufacturers made it a top priority, they'd catch up--so it has been seeking other strengths, such as interior design.

This said, the new XC90's driving aids function very well. Usually I feel the need to deactivate lane departure prevention systems. They tend to cut in too early and obtrusively. Not the Volvo's. Somehow it steers the XC90 back toward the center of the lane without making the steering feel weird. I left it on most of the time.

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Why Not the 2016 Volvo XC90?

  Compared to the MDX
Handling: Much worse Better Worse

The cons of the new XC90 T6 aren't nearly as noteworthy as its strengths unless you're seeking something the Volvo simply isn't. To begin, the XC90 handles competently, with good stability and moderate lean in hard turns, but doesn't deliver anything resembling fun. The weight of the steering and the firmness of the adaptive dampers (included with the $1,800 air suspension) can be customized, but setting them to "dynamic" only takes the XC90 to the edge of sporting.

In comparison, the Acura MDX handles much more like a well-tuned upscale sedan. It feels lower to the ground (perhaps because it is), its steering is more naturally weighted, and it simply drives better. I didn't like looking at the Acura nearly as much, but I enjoyed driving it more.

If you want a fine-handling SUV but want a nicer-than-Acura badge or interior, then check out the Range Rover Sport. I much preferred the RRS's handling to that of the BMW X5. But your pockets better be deep.

Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: Worse Better Worse

Volvo's decision to limit engine size to 2.0 liters going forward is a gutsy one. Conventional wisdom suggests that such a small engine can't possibly feel sufficient in a 4,400-pound SUV. But the Volvo engine, with an especially strong midrange (295 lb-ft of torque at 2,200 rpm), feels easily up to the task.

Yet I prefer the relatively conventional (3.5-liter V6 with no boost), less powerful (290 horsepower), less torquey (267 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm) Acura MDX engine. Though the Volvo engine's supercharger and turbocharger are good team players, this complicated combination cannot deliver power as smoothly and linearly as the Acura V6. Plus, when revved the Volvo engine sounds like the four-cylinder that it is. The Acura V6 sings a much more thrilling song. Finally, despite similar power-to-weight ratios on their specs sheets, the Volvo takes an extra second or so to get to 60 mph (figure mid-7s vs. low-6s).

The 8-speed automatic transmission in the Volvo and the 9-speed automatic transmission in the Acura both occasionally fail to finesse a shift. Some people might be bothered by how they do what they do. Most won't notice anything untoward.

Want a quicker, more effortless XC90? Then spend the extra cash for the upcoming T8. With 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of electrically boosted torque, the XC90 T8 "Twin Engine" Plug-in Hybrid should provide the immediate, smooth responses and ultra-quick acceleration that the T6 doesn't quite manage. Perhaps this plus the fuel savings will justify its much higher price.

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 front view

Front view connotes quiet strength. "Thor's hammer" DRLs.

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 second-row seat

Comparable second-row legroom to the MDX, but 2.6 inches less shoulder room despite wider exterior.

Other features of the 2016 Volvo XC90

  Compared to the MDX
Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: Worse Better Worse

Even with its optional ($1,800) air suspension set to "comfort," the Volvo XC90 feels overly firm over some bumps. Setting the suspension to "dynamic" makes the impacts slightly harder, but improves body control, so I usually preferred this setting. The Acura rides a little more smoothly, with less of the slight pitching and rocking that tends to afflict even expensive SUVs (laws of physics and all that). But the much more expensive Mercedes-Benz GL-Class does not--its ride could be the bumpiest of the bunch.

Also to the Volvo's credit: I didn't sense the mass of its 21-inch wheels as they worked their way across bumps and chuckholes--a common issue in cars fitted with large, heavy wheels.

Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Better Better Worse

Volvos have long been renowned for seat comfort, and the new XC90's 16-way power-adjustable front seats largely live up to this reputation. Adjustments include cushion length, side bolster spread, and four-way lumbar. The Acura's less adjustable seats are neither as comfortable nor as supportive in hard turns.

This said, I couldn't adjust the Volvo's seats to fit my particular form especially well. Even with the side bolsters cranked in all the way they were a little too widely spaced for my personal build (5'9", 165 lbs.). Plus I kept fiddling with the four-way lumbar all week. They still felt comfortable to me, just not unusually so.

The multi-contour seats in the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class are more comfortable, and the latter even include an effective massage feature. Sadly, you'll get no Swedish massage from the Volvo. But the BMW and Mercedes are also far more expensive than the Volvo, so is it fair to expect the Volvo's seats to be as good?

Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: About the same Better Worse

The new Volvo XC90's second row seat is about as roomy and about as comfortable as most others in the class, standing out in neither manner. The bench can slide back and forth about six inches.

The XC90's third-row seat is a little roomier and more comfortable than the Acura's, and it's far superior to that in the BMW X5. It's still not somewhere adults would want to spend more than a few minutes, though. If you need an adult-friendly third row, try to find the extra cash for the larger, roomier Mercedes GL-Class.

Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: Better Better Worse

The Volvo XC90's relatively boxy shape pays off in cargo capacity. Fold both rows and the resulting floor is seven feet long. The Acura's floor is just as long, but its ceiling is lower and slopes more toward the rear. The result: the Volvo hsa more cargo volume, 86 to 68 cubic feet.

With both rows up in the XC90 there's about as much space behind the third as you'll find in the Acura or the Mercedes, so about average. You shouldn't expect to fit both a large family and its luggage in the vehicle at the same time. It would help if the floor could be removed behind the third row to open up a deep, flat-floored well, as in the new Honda Pilot.

The tailgate does open very high, perhaps because Swedes are often tall.

Controls and instruments
Controls and instruments: Much better Better Worse

A bit more on the new Volvo XC90's interior styling, but with more of a focus on functionality. Though the 2016 XC90 is available with a vast array of features, and many of these can be customized, you'd never guess this from the nearly button-free instrument panel. Nearly everything is handled through the large, portrait-oriented touchscreen. Since this touchscreen uses an array of infrared sensors to detect finger position, it can be operated even with gloves on.

While this reliance on a touchscreen could have been a disaster, as it has been in vehicles from other manufacturers, in the XC90 it works pretty well (in addition to looking great until it gets smudged up). For anything beyond the most basic commands you have to take your eyes off the road and swipe and/or tap multiple times, a potentially dangerous distraction. But the Volvo interface is better designed than most, including Acura's confusing dual-screen setup. With more of a phone-like look and feel than any others I've experienced, it has an elegance that most lack. The virtual buttons are sufficiently large and are usually adequately spaced. The swiping and tapping can even be fun--but this isn't the sort of fun it's safe to have while driving. I'd much rather channel surf via a dedicated old-style tuning knob.

As is usually the case with a complicated, multi-layered interface, learning all of the ins and outs of the Volvo's requires a considerable amount of learning. Many owners will never discover many of the things that can be done. As far as I could tell, I was the first reviewer to dig into the settings (swipe downward near the top of the screen to summon them) and configure the Individual driving mode. This mode wasn't even activated when I received the test vehicle, which had over 8,000 miles on it.

I tried using the voice recognition system to enter a navigation destination. This did not go well, and after a few tries I gave up.


The new Volvo XC90 drives well, handling better than the BMW X5 and riding better than the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, but not as good as it looks. But then it looks amazing, especially inside. You can't get an interior as nice as the new XC90's from a competitor without spending far more money. And even those competitors aren't styled as artfully. The Acura MDX remains my favorite three-row crossover to drive, but it's not in the same league as the new XC90 in terms of design, materials, or features.

In addition to this astounding interior and comprehensive feature set, the XC90 gets exceptional city and suburban fuel economy for its class thanks to an innovative engine and provides a competitive amount of space for people and cargo. Plus it's about as safe as vehicles get. As if all of this weren't enough, it's priced attractively; other European competitors cost far more.

Think what you will of Chinese auto makers, but Volvo's first all-new car under Geely ownership is better than those developed under Ford's supervision, and far better than anything the Swedish company ever did on its own. It should prove at least as popular as the 2003 was, and will likely remain competitive for longer. Let's just not go over a dozen years without a redesign this time, okay?

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 engine

Belt-driven supercharger mounted high on back of engine, turbocharger below it. (Photo of hybrid.)

XC90 Reviews: 2016 Volvo XC90 cargo area both rows folded

With both rows folded, seven feet of floor.

See more 2016 Volvo XC90 photos

Volvo provided an insured XC90 for a week with a tank of gas. Acura similarly provided an MDX a couple years ago. A test drive in the refreshed 2016 MDX was helpfully provided by David Elledge at Acura of Troy (248-283-0299).

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2016 Volvo XC90 pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2016 Volvo XC90. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.

Response from sb222

3:37 pm December 2, 2015

Nice review. May want to fix this- "feature seet, the XC90 is gets exceptional city and suburban fuel economy"...


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Response from mkaresh

11:54 pm December 2, 2015

Fixed, thanks. Last thing I wrote before running out the door. And you know what they say about haste.


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Response from zcd1

4:31 pm December 30, 2015

The new XC90 looks good inside and out.
I wonder whether buyers will be put off by the engine noise?
I had a loaner Audi A6 2.0T quattro the other day, and though there was plenty of power (just about as much as another Audi I used to own, a 2004 A6 2.7T S-line, with its twin-turbo V-6!), it didn't sound at all appropriate to me for a $55+K vehicle.
By contrast, the MDX's V-6 (and the X5's I-6 and the MB's V-6) sounds good - reflecting the vehicle's position in the marketplace...


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Response from mkaresh

5:22 pm December 30, 2015

As it happens I just posted a review of the Audi A6 2.0T. I agree that the Audi four doesn't sound or feel as good as a V6, but it sounds better than other fours, including Volvo's.


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Response from teamsc10190

5:48 pm February 14, 2016

I was initially nonplussed seeing the first photos of the long-awaited XC-90, but that quickly turned to admiration as I saw the car in the sheetmetal. This is one of those cars that is far more satisfying in person than it appears in photos. The exterior is distinctively handsome without drawing attention to itself.

I agree with your assessment of the interior that is sublimely executed in rich materials that make this car a clear standout in it's segment.

Despite Volvo's Chinese ownership, the fine work done on this all-new platform is purely a Swedish endeavor other than the bankbook writing the checks. I agree the XC-90 is the best work they've done to date, with the understanding that Volvo is too small to not succeed with this car that would signify the failure of a Volvo franchise that has been tottering on life-support the past ten years.

On the basis of pricing as part of an overall package, the Volvo seems to be placed well competitively, however purchase price is only part of the value equation. Twenty-first century Volvos' have suffered epoch depreciation that is a critical component of any value measurement. I've not seen anything in the recent history of the brand that would indicate the new XC-90 will change that trajectory. It's going to take a moderate record of extra-base hits and Volvo learning how to handle an upscale client that will ultimately reflect in stronger residuals for the brand. Only time will tell and I for one won't be one of the first guinea pigs to spin the dice. As Dirty Harry asked, "do you feel lucky?"

You also need to be ok with the fact that the money leads back to China. How long do you think the Chinese will shoulder the persistently high costs in Sweden before shuttering Swedish factories? Probably long enough to suck the lifeblood out of Volvo, and sap their intellectual property. I wouldn't be sleeping well if I were the Swedes of Volvo.


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Response from mkaresh

8:40 pm February 14, 2016

The S60 Inscription is the first model to be imported to the U.S. from China. There are likely to be others.

Money only flows back to China if they're profitable.


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Response from teamsc10190

9:41 pm February 14, 2016

The Chinese government is committed to the success of the Volvo venture otherwise Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co. would not have been permitted to transfer $1.3B out of China to Ford Motor Company for Volvo's purchase. Such sums of money only leave China with the full knowledge and participation of the central Chinese government

The all new scalable architecture platform developed for the new generations of Volvo cars likely cost an additional $10B of investment, along with another $5-6B to build three Volvo assembly plants in China and another $1B to build a fourth plant in South Carolina. Pretty clear that this level of investment didn't come from the start-up refrigerator parts supplier founded in 1986.

The central Chinese government has additionally committed to add Volvo cars to approved purchase lists for official fleets that totaled 750,000 units in 2012 to ensure the three Chinese plants are fully utilized.

I don't think the Chinese would be terribly upset if the North American business unit didn't return profit for many years to come. The European and Chinese markets are much stronger for Volvo.

Volvo is the vehicle for teaching the Chinese about western car building methodology and technology and that's the real end game. Be assured that the central Chinese government will ensure Geely's success. Folks who buy Volvos moving forward need to understand where their money will be going. Who knows; maybe people really won't care?


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Response from mkaresh

9:28 am February 15, 2016

I don't think China is nearly the monolith you suggest. Most Chinese auto companies are partly owned by city governments, not the national government, and they compete with each other as much as privately owned companies would. They don't freely share technology among themselves.

Geely is somewhat unusual in that it is privately owned--not associated with any government entity. It is traded on the stock exchange, though, so anyone can buy a piece of it.

It is interesting that Geely is getting some assistance from the central government. They must have curried favor with some of the right people. But you can count on specific individuals in the government benefiting from this relationship, and not just some grand plan for world domination.

The platform wouldn't have cost anywhere near $10b to develop. Whenever you see a large figure for the cost of developing a new car, the bulk of that figure is tooling, especially the dies for stamping sheet metal.


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Response from teamsc10190

3:27 pm February 15, 2016

The point is that Geely doesn't have deep enough pockets to support the cash outlay being expended on Volvo and you can't get money out of the country without the express cooperation of the central Chinese government. This is a lot bigger than Geely.


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Response from Member5143

10:56 am April 11, 2016

test drove this car.

checked the xc90 forums which mention quite a few electronic glitches, with the fancy
screen interface, lack of updates, and the 360 degree view camera shutting down. also
problems with the self parking. also mentioned were water leaks from the roof by
several members.

the car interior, especially on the inscription version is to die for. seat wasn't necessarily
that comfortable. handling, I thought was a bit better than acura mdx. suspension
needs work. even the air suspension transmits too many jolt; leaf rear suspension needs
complete reworking. far too stiff and uncompliant from the rear.

the engine, despite the supercharger portion, feels too slow and unmotivated below
2000 rpm, and with modest acceleration, sounds a bit thrashy. gas milage [also
mentioned by owners on forum] is disappointingly low. compared both to my
Tacoma 2.7 liter 4 cylinder and my 3.0 liter, twin turbo BMW's.

still, i am very tempted to buy it.

I'm going to wait for the "sport hybrid" version of the MDX [similar system to the
acura RLX "sport hybrid".

Until then, I'm hoping not to succumb to a Porsche Macan.


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Response from mkaresh

1:14 pm April 11, 2016

If a Macan has all the interior space you need, I personally wouldn't bother with anything larger and heavier.

Interesting on the standard suspension. I've only driven the XC90 with the air suspension, but assumed as in most other applications it didn't affect ride quality all that much.


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Response from Member5143

2:22 pm April 11, 2016

xc 90 rear suspension and ride are substantially worse without air

macan is a bit small, sadly. have owned 911 and cayman.


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