When my family moved from the United Kingdom to New Jersey in 1993, our new car was a dark green Volvo 850 wagon. This car would be the one to deliver my sister and me to all manner of playdates, sports games, school dances, and even an occasional house party. This would be the car I decided to liberate from the driveway as an unlicensed 15-year-old delinquent, only to be caught by my parents as they walked home through the neighborhood. This would be the car my sister rear-ended someone in after her first time taking the SATs; she blamed it on being focused on the test. Sure.
The 850 wagon became a part of our family over more than two decades, hauling our junk and us around. We did trips from New Jersey to Wisconsin and Illinois with two adults, two kids and a dog crammed inside. My dad and I completed a two-month, 11,000-mile cross country trip in 2002. Once my sister went to college, the car spent some time in Ohio with her. When I was at school in Florida I hauled it down to Orlando with me several times. I even put it on Amtrak’s Auto Train after my last semester, from Florida to Virginia.
The point is, the 850 was ingrained in our family DNA in the same way a family pet would be. In fact, the 850 long outlived our adopted German Shepherd, who so loved to curl up in the trunk on long drives. (Rest in peace, Sarge.) I also loved to tuck into the third rear-facing row as a child, less so as an adult.
But now it too is gone. So when I told my family I would be driving back East to see them in a 2020 Volvo V90 Cross Country, they were all keen to give it a once over. After 3,500 miles I was happy to let someone else take the wheel for a few typical around-town Volvo errands: picking up natural orange wine from the artisanal wine shop, helping move a fire pit from one backyard to another, stuff like that.
Editor’s note: This story is part two of three (read part one here) chronicling a cross-country road trip undertaken in mid-November 2020. Volvo provided the vehicle, but that was the extent of the automaker’s involvement. Jonathan and his fiancée Caitlin both tested negative for the coronavirus multiple times before, during and after the drive and followed local health regulations throughout. — Kyle Cheromcha, The Drive Editor-in-Chief
2020 Volvo V90 Cross Country Specs
- Base Price (as Tested): $55,545
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder | 8-speed automatic transmission | all-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 316 @ 5,700 rpm
- Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 2,200 – 5,400 rpm
- Ground Clearance: 8.3 inches
- EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city | 30 highway | 24 combined
- Cargo Space: 25.5 cubic feet | 53.9 cubic feet with rear seats folded
- 0-60 MPH: 6.0 seconds
A Little Swedish History
The 2020 Volvo V90 Cross Country is not a brand new car. It’s been on the market since 2017 as a more rugged version of the svelte V90 wagon. To Volvo, more rugged means some body cladding, lifting the car 2.3 inches for a total of 8.3 inches of ground clearance, and standard all-wheel-drive. All motivated by a singular engine option, the twincharged (turbocharged and supercharged) 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 316 horsepower, sent to the road through an 8-speed “Geartronic” automatic transmission. The starting price is $54,900, which covers a long list of standard options like navigation, heated leather seats, a panoramic moonroof, swiveling headlamps, hill descent control and a safety suite including Volvo’s ProPilot Assist, which is a combo lane-keep and adaptive cruise system that works quite well to ease highway fatigue.
Volvo’s most recent design language has received almost universal praise from enthusiasts and ordinary buyers alike—put simply, they just look great. And they’re a far cry from the brick-like sedans and wagons many of us grew up with. This makes sense, given the changes Volvo as a company has undergone in the span of time between when my family bought the 850 wagon in 1994, and today.
Back in 1994, Volvo was a wholly Swedish-owned company, as it had been for the previous 67 years. In 1999 the heavy industry arm of Volvo sold the passenger car operation to Ford, which attempted to pump some big-brand energy back into Volvo for another 14 years. Ford’s ownership of Volvo—in a division which, at various times, also included Aston Martin, Land Rover and Jaguar—is remembered as a largely dismal failure today. Eventually, Ford offloaded Volvo to Geely, a Chinese automaking giant. While that may not seem like an auspicious turn of events, it certainly proved to be a positive step for Volvo.
Under Geely, the embattled Volvo brand has enjoyed a true revival. Whereas the pre-1999 Volvo was very much a form over function affair with boxy designs and comfortable yet utilitarian interiors, the post-Geely Volvo is a vision of electrified luxury that still retains safety as a core part of its reputation. Volvo purists from the pre-Ford and Geely days decry the loss of their beloved square-shaped wagons and sedans, but realistically this was a necessary step to bring Volvo up to speed with the competition. Don’t forget that the Chinese market, which Geely is highly focused on, demands a higher degree of aesthetic luxury which has not previously been a part of Volvo’s product.
So this is a big, tech-packed, luxurious European wagon with a striking exterior and well-planned interior, it must be selling very well, right? Ha. As of 2018, less than two percent of all vehicles sold in the US were station wagons. And of that, 80 percent of those wagons sold were Subaru Outbacks. Volvo has sold less than 6,500 V90 Cross Country wagons since 2017. For perspective, Subaru sold over 700,000 Outbacks in that same period.
The closest competitor to the V90 Cross Country would be the Audi A6 Allroad and Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain. They’re also more “rugged” takes on the Euro wagon, but the Audi is physically smaller and priced about $10,000 more than the Volvo. Mercedes-Benz started bringing its lifted E450 wagon to the U.S. this year, starting at $67,000. There are other reasons for the discerning buyer to consider both of those cars, no doubt (rear-wheel drive and a smooth inline-six in the Benz, and better overall handling in the Audi, for starters). And plenty of potential Volvo buyers will.
To say it’s a niche market is not quite niche enough for the space that the V90 Cross Country occupies in the larger automotive market. But it’s a space my family is very familiar with, having spent the previous 25 years getting to know the 850.
The Family Tests the 2020 V90 Cross Country
My sister drove home from a nearby hiking trailhead, noting the V90’s big step up in interior materials used from our old 850. Fitting, since she just received her master’s degree in Material Futures. Her favorite part was the full-length moonroof. She didn’t quite get her seat perfectly adjusted but liked the overall feel of the seats. Her last thought came back to the makeup of everything, noting that Dad’s old 850 felt much more utilitarian next to the luxurious V90 Cross Country.
When my mom took the wheel for a day of carting us around to various antique shops—sort of like the old days—I was able to try out the back seat experience. I’m just over six feet tall but was very impressed with the rear legroom of the V90. Rear seat heaters are a big plus, and that double-length moonroof is much more impressive from the rear seats.
Before they bought the 850, my parents test drove a few BMWs. My mom remembered visiting a Volvo dealership right after a BMW dealership and thinking that the Volvo really drove like a tank compared to the BMWs of the early 1990s. Now in 2020, she drives a 2016 BMW 340i with manual transmission, so we were able to nearly recreate the BMW to Volvo comparison. The assessment was much more positive this time; the V90 CC hides its size and weight much better than our 850 ever did.
She started driving in “Comfort” mode, but after a bit, I switched her over to my custom “Individual” mode, which lets you mix and match drivetrain, steering, and suspension settings. With drivetrain in “Dynamic,” which is the sportiest setting—steering in the heaviest for best feedback, and suspension also in “Dynamic”—she marveled at how the V90 really tightened up and felt much more like the sport sedan she’s accustomed to. She also really liked the HUD.
When asked if she liked the other electronic aids like Lane Departure warning or Blind Spot warning her answer was simple: “I didn’t need any of that because I never left my lane and never put anyone in my blind spot.” Right, Ma.
My dad helped me shoot some photos of the car one evening. Driving the car down to my photo spot, in the passenger seat next to him, felt really right. Really familiar. We arrived at the little lakeside beach and also familiarly, he was grumbling about how he wished he had brought a cigar. Dad “supervised” from the sidelines while I did my thing with the camera.
I also had him step in for a portrait with the V90, which turned out looking more like a billboard thanking Swedish road workers, but I also think it’s weirdly fitting. As we drove back to the house, my dad asked if it would be possible to buy this exact V90 Cross Country once Volvo finished letting journalists drive it. I told him I’d ask.
Suffice to say my family really liked the car, but realistically my fiancée Cait and I are the ones who added 7,000 miles to the odometer over 30 days as we drove from Los Angeles to New York and back. From the high-speed multi-lane interstate byways that we crossed the country on to one-lane dirt tracks through state forests, the V90 Cross Country handled it all beautifully.
It took a little bit of driving to really dial in what we liked and didn’t like in terms of the electronic aids. In the end, we kept most everything on, except from the lane-keeping assist that shook the wheel or even steered the car back into your lane in its most aggressive setting. On smaller, more narrow roads, the system was overly intrusive; luckily it was easy to disable via the iPad-sized touchscreen on the dash.
The twincharged four-cylinder engine handled crossing up and over the Rocky Mountains with ease. The eight-speed automatic never seemed to hunt for the right gear, always finding just the right ratio for the needed power. The Bowers & Wilkins sound system was a blessing for pump-up-jams in the morning and chill tunes in the evenings, plus some audiobook listening for those long stretches across the Plains.
Simply put, there was never a moment on the road when we wanted something different. The V90 Cross Country became our home on wheels for two weeks while we made our transcontinental crossing. While in New York, the Volvo quickly found its place in our 2020 family DNA; it all goes back to the fact that while change is inevitable, it doesn’t have to make things unrecognizable. There is in fact a common through-line running between these two cars from two different eras—beyond the shape, they feel connected on an intrinsic level. Both solid, singular and safe in a way that’s almost unexplainably comforting.
Obviously, I have something of a bias here. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, after all. What’s more telling is how my family reacted, because they’d be the first to point out if this slick new wagon didn’t stand up in ways big and small to the weight of our collective memories of that 850. And we had to laugh. No one had said “Let’s take the Volvo” in a while, and suddenly, it felt extremely right.
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