Increasingly, many drivers are choosing SUV’s, not least because they believe them to be safer than less imposing cars. Sadly, this is not necessarily true as their very height and resulting high centre of gravity can make them less stable and therefore less safe than traditional hatchbacks and saloons.
However, Volvo, as befits their safety-focussed heritage, are driving hard to make their SUV’s and indeed their entire model range some of the safest vehicles on the road. In fact, they have publicly pledged that by 2020 nobody will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo.
The safest car ever tested
Indeed, so successful have Volvo been in their safety quest that the widely respected industry standard Euro NCAP organisation have just assessed the recently launched Volvo XC60 SUV as being the safest car presently on the market. Not just the safest SUV, the safest car, full stop. What’s more, unlike many manufacturers who offer extremely costly safety option packs to boost their cars safety ratings, the XC60 has achieved this accolade based entirely on the standard specification, an incredible feat. It trounced the competition in safety scores for both adult and child occupants as well as the range of safety assistance systems. The crown slipped only slightly with pedestrian protection, but even then the XC60 dropped only a few points down the leaderboard.
Volvo, once best known as purveyors of the huge estate cars beloved of antique dealers and the like, have undergone a transformation in recent times. Their takeover by Chinese auto giant Geely in 2010 has seen development budgets increase dramatically, and the fruits of this investment are now with us in models such as the XC60.
As with all manufacturers, the Volvo model focus is on SUV’s, first with the big XC90 and then in mid-2017 with the totally revised mid-sized XC60. Although diesel power is the main XC60 offering, perhaps surprisingly given how sales of diesel vehicles are plummeting, there are nevertheless two petrol models available. Intriguingly, the obligatory hybrid is no slouch, for it boasts a combined output from its petrol and electric motors of 407hp. Unfortunately, it has a price to match, starting at a cool £56,850. However, there is a more reasonably priced T5 petrol option which starts from £37,205 and is very well kitted out even in the base model.
Better than an F-Pace but far cheaper
Our test car was a mid-range T5 petrol in mid-range R-Design trim, retailing at £40,400. As is typical with press fleet motors, it had a number of pricey options fitted, which pushed the on-the-road price up to a cool £47,575. Expensive, yes, but good value when compared to say a Jaguar F-Pace: similar in basic price, overall size, engine power and performance. But optioned up to the same level the F-Pace would set you back closer to £64,000 and still be missing a raft of the safety kit enjoyed by the Volvo.
One notable and almost unique feature offered on the XC60 is the Pilot Assist system, which allows the car to accelerate, brake and steers semi-autonomously. This feature is an option, but impressively almost all the other safety items such as lane assist, blind spot and rear cross traffic warnings are all standard.
So, are all these safety aids helpful, or intrusive – we set out to find out.
Volvo are now firmly in the premium sector
Before reviewing the driving experience, a few words about the car itself. The XC60 is beautifully finished both inside and out, Volvo now having established themselves firmly as a premium brand alongside Mercedes, Jaguar and the like. Indeed, we sampled and used the similar sized Jaguar F Pace SUV as a comparator.
Trim materials are truly impeccable, fit and finish being faultless. In true Scandinavian style, the cabin design is clean and minimalist, a theme which extends to the instruments and controls. Physical switches are few and far between, most functions being accessed through the unusual portrait-format centre touch-screen. This is set up to mimic an Ipad or similar tablet, swiping between menus, and pinching to zoom the nav map.
Unlike most tablet screens, though, the screen works when wearing gloves. Not that you need them very often if you make use of the lovely heated steering wheel which is part of the £525 option pack. This incidentally, includes both a heated windscreen and heated wiper blades, as befits a vehicle designed for the rigours of Scandinavian winters!
This centre display, Sensus in Volvo-speak, is gradually becoming standard fit on every new Volvo model. Despite its stunning display resolution, it’s perhaps not the easiest thing to master, and the absence of physical buttons for quick access to regularly used functions is initially frustrating. Familiarity does soon make its use easier, though, and swiping to access menus soon becomes second nature.
The increasing use of touch-screens in recent models to replace physical control buttons inevitably means that the driver needs to take their eyes off the road, however briefly, to visually locate controls such as the heat temperature control. This could be distracting. However, Volvo has clearly thought this one through, for the touch-screen works very much in tandem with the excellent standard-fit Voice Recognition. So many of the normal control functions can be carried out without needing to touch the screen. Indeed, the voice recognition system is competent enough to recognise and load spoken postcode or address destination entries into the sat nav.
If you still prefer to enter postcodes manually, this can be done conventionally and easily by typing the address or postcode on to the screen. Alternatively, one slightly quirky feature of the screen is that in destination entry mode the bottom corner of the screen converts into a large area where the postcode characters can be drawn individually: much easier to do than to attempt to describe in these notes. Easier, anyway for a left-handed driver: the right-handed amongst us either need to perform contortions to reach across the steering wheel or quickly learn to become ambidextrous! No matter, though, given the other destination entry methods available.
The sat nav itself is a bit laggy in operation, with both the visual map display and audio guidance being fractionally late in confirming the location, meaning that you occasionally arrive at a junction slightly before the map cursor catches up. Similarly, the voice guidance may only utter its instruction just after you have already started to turn, which can occasionally catch you out.
Overall, despite the portrait-format screen, which ought to be ideal for a moving-map display, the sat nav is a little disappointing and is bettered by some competitors, notably the excellent 8″ system used by VW Group products.
Impressive traffic sign display
A second screen in front of the driver replaces the traditional instruments. This screen – 12.3” on the R-Design model we tested – can be set up in several ways, probably the most useful being to show a map in the centre, flanked by the circular speedo and rev counter. The centre of the speedo features a good-sized digital speed readout, with the standard-fit camera-based traffic sign display immediately below.
Helpfully, as well as displaying the prevailing speed limit sign, a red line appears on the analogue speedo at the current limit: belt and braces maybe, but a nice touch. Also, and unusually, the traffic sign notification often shows the next anticipated speed limit stacked behind the prevailing limit sign – neat!
As well as the visual speed limit display, an audible warning alerts the driver to straying over the speed limit. Being linked to the traffic sign camera, this is active for every speed limit detected, unlike some other manufacturer’s offerings. In action it seemed pretty much foolproof, reading every ground-based speed limit correctly, and only missing occasional overhead gantry warnings. The audible warning can be set to operate at either the exact prevailing speed limit or any desired offset such as +5mph.
Connectivity is becoming increasingly important, and the XC60 is well-equipped in this respect, with access to the internet being available either from the driver’s smartphone or by installing a data-only SIM card in the dedicated receptacle. This gives access to such goodies as real-time traffic data, Spotify and other apps without needing a smartphone to be hooked up by cable to the car.
Although firm, the seats are very comfortable, and themselves demonstrate Volvo’s diligent approach to safety, in that they contain collapsible elements designed to absorb accident shocks and protect the occupant’s spines. This feature is a clear product of Volvo’s rigorous analysis of accident injuries.
Better than an F-Pace
The XC60 is a great car to drive, feeling reassuringly solid and very smooth riding. More comfortable, in fact, than the F Pace we tried which felt altogether harsher and more suited to a race track than coping with the broken surfaces and potholes of British roads.
You might expect that this composed and calm ride would come at the expense of prodigious body roll and vague cornering, but the XC60 stays pretty stable during normal cornering, with the variable-rate steering efforts being very well-judged.
The XC60 features Drive Mode settings, which allow you to alter certain dynamic functions and convenience features of the car to suit either the conditions or your personal preference. These include the responses of the engine, gearbox, steering, brakes, stability control and, where fitted, the optional air suspension. Most people will, of course, after the obligatory playtime, be perfectly content to leave the setting in the “Comfort” mode.
The 247hp of the T5 engine is more than enough to ensure sprightly performance, and the claimed 6.8 second 0-62mph time certainly feels realistic. As the XC60 is no lightweight, tipping the scales at over 1.8 tons, this performance comes at a price, meaning that fuel consumption around town is likely to be in the mid-20’s. However, we managed almost 35mpg on mainly motorway driving, much closer to the official combined figure of 39.2mpg.
3600 camera gives a great birds-eye view
Manoeuvring the XC60 is aided by the 360-degree camera fitted to the test car, not a cheap option at £700 but well worthwhile. This combines the images from four separate, discreet, cameras to give an uncanny birds-eye view of the car and its surroundings: very useful when squeezing into a supermarket parking bay in judging the relationship with bay markings and adjacent vehicles. The view from any of the cameras can also be selected individually if required. As well as acting as a reversing camera, the rearmost camera when selected monitors for pedestrians or traffic crossing behind the car, giving a loud audible warning if anything is detected – very useful. Engaging reverse automatically activates the camera system, and it then remains active in either drive or reverse at up to around 10mph.
Lane departure assist systems in lesser cars vary greatly in effectiveness. Many Japanese and Korean models, for example, simply provide an audible warning that the car is about to stray into another lane. Frequently these are irritatingly over-sensitive, triggering every time a wheel strays anywhere near the lane markings, which on narrow country roads can mean the warning sounding every few seconds. Thankfully, the XC60 system is more discreet, vibrating the steering wheel gently in close proximity to the road markings and nudging the steering back into the centre of the lane. This gentle assistance of the steering can sometimes be felt, but is in no way obtrusive and can easily be over-ridden if you ever need to do so. As well as monitoring the lane markings in the centre of the road the system also monitors the kerb-side of the vehicle to prevent running off the road, probably uniquely to Volvo.
Volvo’s safety features, however, go far beyond lane departure systems. At speeds between 31 and 62mph, the Steer Assist system continually monitors and identifies objects in the car’s path, activating once the driver clearly starts to steer away from an object and, if necessary, adding to the drivers’ steering input and braking individual wheels to maximise the car’s evasive potential whilst keeping the car stable.
A further ground-breaking technology is Oncoming Lane Mitigation. This operates between 37 and 87mph and is designed to prevent head-on collisions. If you move out of your lane into the path of an oncoming car, the system will warn you of the potential danger by automatically providing steering assistance to guide you safely back into your lane.
Blind Spot information systems are available on many cars in the form of a warning light in the door mirrors which illuminates if another vehicle is alongside. Volvo’s system, however, goes much further, for as well as providing a particularly large yet discreet warning display in the mirrors, at speeds between 37 and 87mph it automatically applies the steering to bring the car back to its own lane and away from any vehicles in the blind spots on either side of the car.
The XC60 also uses much of the advanced safety equipment from Volvo’s larger 90 series cars, including Pedestrian, Cyclist and Large Animal Detection with fully automatic emergency braking, and Road Edge Detection and Run-Off-Road Protection, which help prevent the car inadvertently running off the road and protect the car’s occupants should this be unavoidable.
Thankfully, none of these systems needed to be put to the test in our week spent with the XC60, however, they are reassuring by their very presence, standing guard silently and mostly unseen in the background.
Pilot Assist: easy to use
One innovative feature which we did try, however, was Volvo’s semi-autonomous driving option: Pilot Assist. This controls accelerator, brake and steering inputs to keep the car in the centre of its lane and at any desired speed up to 80mph, maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front. It’s intended primarily to ease the strain of motorway driving rather than for use on minor urban or rural roads. Needing to operate within the limits of prevailing legislation, the driver still needs to keep their hands on the steering wheel with the system in operation, and the sense of the wheel writhing gently beneath your hands as the car steadily follows motorway curves initially feels strange but soon becomes second nature.
The system is switched on and adjusted via buttons on the steering wheel. Active operation of the system is made very clear by the appearance of a prominent green steering wheel on the driver’s digital display. Once in operation, the system can be disengaged if necessary, by a simple touch on the brake pedal. Alternatively, the driver can override the steering input by steering away from the car’s chosen path, in which case the system will emit an audible bleep of disgust and flash the steering wheel symbol amber in disappointment before handing control back to the driver. Re-engaging the system is easy, though, with one simple steering wheel button press.
We completed a round trip from Guildford to Birmingham with the system engaged for at least 95% of the journey and certainly felt it made for easier and safer motoring on motorways and dual carriageways. Interestingly, the trip saw a couple of instances of aggressive driving, with other cars cutting in front of the Volvo to exit the motorway. Impressively, and inspiring huge confidence in the system, the car reacted instantaneously and undramatically, applying just enough braking to provide a safe gap to the misbehaving vehicle.
Why is the system intended only for motorways and dual carriageways, and not all roads? Mainly because the system relies on “seeing” the white line lane markings on either side of the lane, and on minor routes these are often badly worn or even non-existent, although the system is surprisingly effective at spotting even worn white lines.
So overall, Pilot Assist works extremely unobtrusively and gets a resounding tick in the box for being a novel yet effective driver aid. It’s definitely a big step along the way to the much-vaunted fully driverless cars, although they may be further away than we think, for, although, as the XC60 clearly demonstrates, the more forward-looking manufacturers are well on the way to developing full driverless motors, the delaying factor is likely to be the introduction of the appropriate legislation.
And a big thumbs-up for the XC60 as a whole: superb quality, spacious, quiet and refined, easy to drive, smooth and comfortable. Try one before you order an F-Pace, Audi Q5 or BMW X5, you won’t be disappointed!