Just released in two versions - five-seat and seven-seat - Volvo's first Sports Utility Vehicle, the XC90 T6 has lots of handy features, as well as more space and a lot more luggage capacity than its Teutonic rivals, as well as pricing that pits the top Volvo right up against the lowest priced German luxury SUVs.
What's more, there are more XC90 models to come, including a lower-priced petrol version, sporting a 5-cylinder low-pressure turbo engine, and a turbo-diesel with the company's acclaimed D5 unit.
The Volvo XC90 is, like the X5 and the ML, classified as a "softroader". It doesn't have a separate high and low ratio gearbox, but it does have a couple of extra features.
The most important of these is its intelligent electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system.
Developed in close co-operation with one of the foremost experts in this area - Haldex of Sweden - the four-wheel drive system in the XC90 operates entirely independently of driver input, with power distributed automatically between the front and rear wheels for best possible grip on all types of road surfaces.
The system is intelligent in that it monitors the vehicle's contact with the road surface and assesses the signals that the driver receives through the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator. This information then helps determine whether, and if so how, the system should respond.
In normal driving on dry roads almost all power is delivered to the front wheels.
If the road surface causes the front wheels to slip, power is proportionately diverted to the rear wheels. With electronically activated four-wheel-drive, AWD engagement takes place quickly, after just one-seventh of a wheel turn, which eliminates wheelspin and ensures reliable road grip.
What this means in practice, as we learned when we drove the car on a very wide variety of road surfaces south of Durban, is that the car always feels sure-footed, no matter whether on tar or very rough and rocky off-road conditions.
The car is fitted with Volvo's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) which prevents the car oversteering in high-speed cornering or on loose dirt or ice.
However, since this works by cutting power and selectively braking the wheels, it can be switched off for off-road use so the AWD system can sense when to switch the power to a non-slipping wheel while still maintaining forward drive.
Another area where the XC90 scores, says Volvo, is in fuel consumption, with the fact that most of the time only two-wheel-drive is used benefitting the car.
However, we would need to test this further as we saw 16 litres/100 km on one car's computer. This did, though, include lots of very fast driving as well as slow rough road stuff.
Volvo uses a straight six-cylinder engine with twin low-pressure turbos to get 200 kW at 5 200 r/min, plus massive torque of 380 Nm in a broad band between 1 800 r/min and 5 000 r/min.
The engine is transversely mounted, and it is this which gives the Volvo its superior cabin space as it allows for a shorter engine bay.
On the road we found the engine punchy and very, very smooth. Volvo claims 0-100 km/h in 9.3 seconds and top speed of 210 km/h - the latter electronically limited - which compares favourably with the X4 3.0i and is significantly quicker than the ML350.
However, both BMW and Mercedes benefit from a 5-speed auto box whereas the Volvo has to make do with a Getrag 4-speed offering.
The gearbox is silky-smooth, though, and has a lockup manual control facility - the latter necessary when traversing steep downhill slopes.
Styling, of course, is a strong point. The XC90 has wonderfully smooth lines, especially at the front, and shows up both the German cars, which now look old-fashioned by comparison. And interior space is plentiful, whether the car is in 5-seat or 7-seat configuration.
The XC90 is 4.8 metres long, just 140 mm longer than the X5 and around 30 mm longer than an ML.
Inside, the dashboard is clean and well-designed, with a simple binnacle containing speedo and revcounter as well as fuel and temperature gauges. The controls are easy to operate, and we especially liked the satellite controls on the steering wheel for the cruise control, sound system, and the built-in telephone.
And, yes, the phone comes as part of the price. It can be either used hands-free, with built-in mikes and speakers, or by means of a slimline handset built-in to the centre console.
There are plug-in points for earphones so those in the back don't have to listen to the same music as the front seat passengers, and options even include a built-in DVD player fitted into the roof.
The ventilation and aircon system is excellent, and there's a separate system for back seat passengers.
Volvo uses a very clever system to stow away the rearmost seat on the 7-seater, and this gives much more load space.
The centre row of seats is also configured so each seat can move backwards or forward to enlarge rear legroom or load space, as required. The centre seat can also be configured to cater for toddlers.
Otherwise everything except the driver's seat can be folded forward, allowing really long items to be carried in safety. Even part of the centre console can be removed to give more space.
Talking of safety, naturally Volvo has made sure it has the safest SUV on the road - as characterised by its first-time Euro NCAP rating. BMW had to add items to the X5 to get its extra star - it was initially rated 4-star.
One of the areas where SUVs get a lot of "bad Press" is in rollover accidents, and Volvo has been careful to address this with the XC90.
Thus the Volvo XC90 is equipped with an active stability-enhancing system known as Roll Stability Control or RSC. The system uses a gyro-sensor to register the vehicle's roll speed and roll angle. Using this information, the terminal angle is instantly calculated and thus also the roll-over risk.
If the calculated angle is so great that there is an obvious risk of rolling over, the DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) anti-skid system is activated. DSTC responds by reducing the engine?s power and also by braking one or more wheels as necessary until the vehicle understeers and stability is regained.
This help reduce the risk of a roll-over accident initiated by extreme manoeuvres.
RSC is the only active stability-enhancement system on the market to measure the car?s roll angle. It was developed jointly by Volvo and Ford Motor Company.
However, if even this doesn't work the passive safety systems step in.
The goal is to reduce the risk of the occupants? heads from coming into contact with the vehicle?s interior roof panel or sides. Volvo has reinforced parts of the roof structure in the Volvo XC90 with extremely tough Boron steel, which is four to five times stronger than normal steel.
All the seats are equipped with seat belt pretensioners to hold the occupants securely in place.
To help prevent the head from striking the car's sides the Volvo XC90 is equipped with Volvo's IC or Inflatable Curtain. IC also helps prevent the occupants from being ejected in an accident.
In the Volvo XC90, all three rows of seats in the 7-seat version are protected by the IC.
Another area other SUVs don't address is the problem of compatibility - when a tall SUV collides with a car that sits closer to the road surface.
The typical SUV has a high ground clearance and thus often comes with high-positioned bumpers. This may create a greater risk of damage to the oncoming passenger car and more serious injuries to its passengers, since the lower car's protective beams and crumple zones simply slip below the front of the SUV without being activated.
To reduce the risk of this type of injury, the front suspension subframe in the Volvo XC90 is supplemented with a lower cross-member, positioned at the height of the beam in a conventional car. This lower beam is integrated into the XC90s structure and is neatly concealed behind the spoiler.
The lower cross-member strikes the oncoming car's protective structure, activating its crumple zone as intended so the occupants can be given the maximum level of protection.
The XC80 has 218 mm of ground clearance, and the driver sits 165 mm higher off the ground than in the Volvo XC70 station wagon.
One of the first things we noticed in the new Volvo is its superb ride quality, no matter what the road surface.
This is is because the multi-link rear suspension is completely insulated, with the dampers and springs attached directly to a subframe. This results in a quieter ride, since road and transmission noise is largely filtered out before it reaches the bodywork.
The front suspension is of MacPherson type and, together with the new ZF steering gear, promotes increased precision and sharp response.
The Volvo XC90 has an extremely wide track (1 634 mm front, 1 624 mm rear) and a long wheelbase (2 859 mm between the front and rear axles). This makes for exceptional stability, with the vehicle behaving very consistently and dependably even on curving, twisting and uneven roads.
And now to the million dollar question - the prices.
The XC90 T6 5-seater automatic comes in at R495 000, while the 7-seater costs R525 000.
In January the lineup will be joined by a lower-priced T5 version fitted with a 2.5T light turbo 5-cylinder producing 154 kW, and later by a D5 turbo-diesel with the 120 kW 2.4-litre 5-cylinder engine.