Photos by Kevin McCauley/Texas Auto Writers Association
Cliché as it may be, Scandinavian ergonomics expertise becomes even more apparent when sampling global auto brands’ newest tech-infused nameplates back-to-back. At the Texas Auto Writers Association’s Texas Truck Rodeo, two full days of drive time still creates a time-crunch when acclimating to each test vehicle’s interpretation of a human-machine interface. Experts face a challenge: adjust the seats, mirrors, climate control and stereo as quickly as possible so as not to hold up the line behind them, while performing a cursory assessment of navitainment functionality. Moving from system to system can actually be stressful — but step into a modern Volvo, and natural gestures seem to take control.
Previous journalist leave the air-con full-blast? The Volvo understands a swipe across the fan control slider bar to stop the gust. Radio drowning out the engine start note? There’s an actual volume knob below the flat-screen navitainment panel. No fumbling across screens. No scrambling to find a setting in a menu. The knob just falls to hand.
In fact, the only jarring feeling behind the wheel of the 2018 Volvo XC60 T8 E-AWD Inscription under test was the undamped and spongy brake pedal feel endemic to early-generation hybrids with regenerative braking. Everything else in the cabin and from the driver’s seat feels so attuned that the brake pedal’s lack of weight marks a puzzling oversight. The T8’s long nomenclature, a victim of the European trend of “virtual displacement”, defies the logical assumption that this is a turbo V8-powered SUV. Instead, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder sits underhood, forced to breathe by both turbocharger and supercharger and further propelled by a hybrid battery pack and electric motor. Brake pedal feel and naming convention aside, the remaining surprises are pleasant.
Take, for instance, the exceptional level of detail in the dash. You’d never know the open-pore wood stretching from left to right is actually recycled driftwood; premium, but socially responsible. Metal accents in the dash avoid unsightly cutlines by incorporating an embossed Swedish flag near the air conditioning registers. Ironically, Volvo is at its most quintessentially Swedish thanks to a much-needed injection of investors’ Chinese cash, but on the product design side, there were seemingly no strings attached. Grasping the Swedish crystal shifter — Orrefors, of course — it’s clear that Volvo designers are free to create their own brand of art. The undercurrent of national pride is obvious even before spotting the Swedish flag stitched to each inboard seat bolster.
The real surprise, though, comes on the road.
Plainly said, the XC60 moves — fast. Combine the instant torque of the hybrid drivetrain with two types of forced induction, and 400 peak horsepower prove more than adequate for the Volvo to impress in a straight line. As eight close ratios click off, you’d never guess this is a company hedging their bets on an all-electric self-driving future. Few XC60 owners will take full advantage of its right pedal, but with such an eager powertrain at hand, why not give drivers the choice? Dynamic Chassis, Volvo’s name for their drive mode selector, offers drivers a chance to fine-tune steering, throttle and suspension softness or stiffness to their preference and save it as a custom selection. Throw the XC60 a curve with the most aggressive settings, and the suspension is compliant overall, filtering out most medium-frequency vibration. Steering feel lies within segment buyers’ parameters: fingertip-light at parking lot speeds, and hardly athletic on the highway, but well-suited to the vehicle’s size and everyday purpose.
High-spec XC60s get air suspension, which lowers the car at speed for fuel efficiency or raises it by 40 mm for off-pavement excursions. Fully raised, the Volvo bulks up to become imposing, looking all too eager to tackle trails its stock all-season tires might not handle. Riding tall imbues the XC60 with actual off-road credibility in a segment where few comers can actually hit the dirt.
Volvo’s sophisticated suite of autonomous safety technology has matured, without the flashing red light and constant digital bark of its earliest iterations. Instead, upon hugging a lane marking too closely, the XC60 offers gentle-but-decisive steering input correction and a subtle icon in the meter cluster. Too many systems blink, beep and indecisively nibble the wheel, rendering lane departure correction systems a fatiguing annoyance at this stage — but the Volvo gets it right.
Naturally, the XC60 ticks the crossover requisites, with ample cargo space and a full suite of autonomous safety technology. But in this era of shrinking emotional involvement with cars, the Volvo’s intuitive ergonomics and unexpectedly potent powertrain offer a comfortable measure of relief, even before the front seats begin their pulsating Swedish massage.