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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Volvo XC90 sensibly spiced

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When driving the old Volvo XC90 I had the urge to wear Izod, sip lattes, and drone on about Consumer Reports safety ratings. The Swedish ute was the stereotypical suburban Preppy-mobile with tank-like invulnerability and a yawn-inducing boxy design.

Not anymore. The all-new, 2016 XC90 is stylin’.

Featuring dramatic headlights shaped like Thor’s hammer, you might expect Chris Hemsworth himself to step from this bold SUV. Talk about your ugly duckling transformation. Credit new Chinese ownership. Or Volvo’s flagging market share. Whatever. The 2016 XC90 has X-panded its appeal to Yuppies who want the neighbors to know they’ve arrived — without sacrificing its core, conservative constituency.

Starting at $49,895, the three-row XC90 is price competitive with its German nemeses, the $55,000 BMW X5 and the $49,000 Audi Q7. Volvo offers this beauty in two trims – elegant “Inscription’ or “R-Design” for the sport-minded. Like Kim Kardashian after a shopping trip to Somerset Mall, my $66,705 XC90 Inscription was accessorized with all the latest luxury gear. Behold:

■ Tesla-like, iPad-like screen

■ Cadillac-like heads up display

■ BMW-like handling

■ Audi-like good looks

■ Acura MDX-like LED headlights

■ Lincoln-like moon roof

■ Cadillac-like rimless mirror

Call it the Volvteslaudibimmerllac MDX. The XC90 is a confection of flavors wrapped in a distinctive Volvo shell. The flagship SUV introduces a new, signature “iron grille” that will set the design tone for the line. It’s bolder than the old mouth, but is marred by Volvo’s logo. I still find the diagonal stripe off-putting — as if the Volvo is a rolling DO NOT ENTER traffic sign. At least the Swedish designers have the presence of mind not to paint it red.

But this face belongs to the peepers. Thor’s hammers are stunning. Elton John, you need glasses like these. If the original XC90’s dorky eyes looked like goggles stolen off a Minion, the second generation is the Light Runner from Tron. With split flog lights along the skirt, the front end is a perfect balance of grille and lights.

Distinctive coming and going, the Volvo boasts rear, trademark vertical taillights that rival the Fox Theater’s marquee. And like its smaller stablemate — the XC60 that I ogled last winter — the XC90 thinks outside the box with full, curvy hips.

Sexier. Bolder. Hold the bling. Hemsworth in a business suit.

But the sweet confection inside is what makes the XC90 stand out. Your nostrils are met by the sweet smell of Nappa leather seats and wood trim. Evoking its native land’s lush woods and crafted furniture, Volvo calls it a “Scandinavian Sanctuary.” Ergonomically-shaped seats “that resemble the human spine.” Diamond-cut controls for the start/stop button and volume control. Crystal glass gear lever by Swedish glassmaker Orrefors (only available in the hybrid model).

On the functional side, I can tell you the infotainment display is the best vertical computer tablet this side of a Tesla Model S. The tablet screen responds instantly to the touch like your smartphone — a welcome change from sluggish auto displays. Unlike rival German consoles (or Cadillac’s fussy, haptic CUE display) that are festooned with buttons — the Volvo’s commands are buried in the iPad, making for an uncluttered, wood-trimmed console. Like simple-yet-elegant Scandinavian furniture, this Swede makes you want to stay awhile.

Then you stomp on the gas pedal and you get ... a four-banger.

A supercharged, turbocharged, 316-horse four-banger to be sure. But still a four hauling around a 4,400-pound sled. This may satisfy the right foot of the traditional Volvo user — but what about the lead foot of the German performance crowd? Smoother 6-cylinder engines from Audi and BMW offer similar performance numbers as well as more efficient turbo-diesel options.

All these upgrades add 10 grand to the old XC90’s $39K sticker price, moving the ’16 out of the bargain basement to main floor jewelry case. And for the first time the thought creeps into your mind: Why am I paying $66,000 for a luxury 7-seater when I could have a $46,000 Ford Explorer Sport with a smoother, twin-turbo V-6 turbo and 365 horsepower?

Ah, but the center console is gorgeous with a rotary engine start knob and a sliding door that covers the cup holders. Just like a Honda Pilot, which sells for $20,000 less, and ... the thoughts creep in again (indeed, the XC90’s sliding door is not nearly as versatile as the Pilot’s clever creation).

What about safety you ask? As expected the boron steel-reinforced Volvo is a fortress of safety systems including world-first “intersection auto brake” and “off-road crash spinal protection”. Happily I didn’t test either, but I did use the excellent 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitor, cross-traffic alert, and lane-departure warning - which (ahem) comes in handy when you’re distracted by the touch screen.

Yes, distracted. As attractive as the tablet is, it requires a lot of touching and swiping to get around, which is at odds with Volvo’s stated obsession with safety (though I should also note the voice recognition is superb). Maybe being sexy and practical isn’t so easy after all. Like running across the street in 5-inch heels.

And you see the problem with luxury SUVs these days. Mainstream brands offer many of the same safety systems for much less. No wonder Ford’s Explorer is sticking its neck into the premium category with its 2016 premium Platinum model. At 10 grand less than the XC90 it will blow it away in straight-line performance while offering similar tech options, AWD, entertainment, plus a wood steering wheel, plus quilted leather seats (that got your attention, yes?).

So Volvo called in Thor’s hammers.

After a week with the big, black Swede, my mpg was a practical 22 mpg and my “hey, that’s nice” factor was a 10. That’s what a luxe-owner wants to hear. The handling was superb, the heavily-weighted leather steering wheel a scalpel in my hands (don’t get carried away Payne, it’s still an SUV).

Admired as a segment buster when it debuted in 2003, the long-overdue second generation has finally arrived and does not disappoint. It’s a refreshingly different choice in a luxe segment dominated by German makes. If only that diagonal stripe didn’t bar the grille.

Volvo no longer means DO NOT DRIVE UNLESS WEARING IZOD.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com

2016 Volvo XC90

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle

Price: $49,895 base ($66,820 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter, supercharged, turbo inline 4-cylinder; Twin-engine, plugin hybrid with 2.0-liter, supercharged, turbo 4-cylinder mated with electric motor and 65 kW lithium ion battery pack

Power: 316 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque (inline-4): 400 horsepower (plug-in hybrid)

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.1 seconds (2.0L 4-cyl as tested, manufacturer); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 4,627 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 20 mpg city/25 highway mpg/22 mpg combined

Report card

Highs: Gorgeous — that’s a Volvo?; tablet-sized touch screen

Lows: Tablet controls can be distracting; more engine options, please

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★