The 2016 Volvo XC90 and the 2016 BMW X5 are large luxury utility vehicles for buyers offering European cachet with all-wheel-drive hauling capacity. Each was its maker's first-ever crossover SUV years ago, and both have refinement, handling, and features unimaginable in older SUVs.
While the big Volvo is new for 2016, the BMW is now in its third model year. Each is among our highest-rated premium SUVs. The Volvo starts just below $50,000, while the BMW is about $5,000 higher. Top-level versions of each run above $70,000. So which is the right one for you?
The Volvo has more useful third-row accommodations than the BMW. Despite its evolutionary, even reserved design, the interior reads as more luxurious than that of the more functional BMW. But the X5 offers sportier and higher-performance versions, though they're a small part of its total sales. The two achieve identical scores in every category of our ratings except fuel efficiency, where the Volvo is incrementally higher.
Design and comfort
The XC90 has a crisper, more fluid shape than its 15-year-old predecessor, but it's very obviously a Volvo. The designers have managed to disguise the size of this seven-seat vehicle, which looks smaller than it actually is. But it downplays its luxury, refusing to telegraph any hint of prestige on the outside. Volvo says its buyers “do not look for a brand that defines them.”
It's the widely-praised interior where the full force of Volvo's luxury becomes apparent. Layered shapes in stitched leather, matte wood, and textured metal suggest Scandinavian furniture, while the seats are exquisitely comfortable. The tablet-style 9-inch center touchscreen has fast responses and an intuitive interface without layers and layers of sub-menus.
The X5 too is more graceful than earlier generations. A tapered roof, a lower window line, and careful side sculpting give it a hint of sport-wagon identity despite its tall sides. But the handsome, aggressive "twin kidney" grille leaves no doubt that it's a BMW.
The BMW cockpit offers neutral or brown leathers over the standard black leatherette, and you can even get a reddish-brown. Its controls are more purposeful, set in the monolithic bulge of the latest BMW dash design. The BMW iDrive controller on the console gives the driver access to huge quantities of audio, navigation, settings, and operating information.
The Volvo offers more interior space in the third row that matters to family buyers. Theater-style seating puts each row slightly higher than the one in front, while the second-row seats slide forward and backward. The third row can accommodate two adults if they bargain for legroom. Outward vision is excellent —aided by large windows and the standard panoramic sunroof.
The BMW conveys a warm ambience for at least four adult passengers, though seat comfort isn't perfect; front buckets are somewhat flat. Second-row seats adjust for rake and are split 40/20/40 for flexibility. The optional third-row seats are very small, only for occasional use by smaller riders. The tailgate is split, with a lower piece that drops like that of a pickup truck, while the upper glass portion opens like a minivan tailgate.
Powertrain and performance
Most Volvo XC90s will be powered by a 316-horsepower turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 22 mpg combined, and all-wheel drive is standard. A plug-in hybrid variant can run on its gasoline engine, a 60-kilowatt (82-hp) electric motor on the rear axle, or both together. Its electric range is rated at 13 miles.
On the road, the XC90 handles like a car, with good steering feedback, predictable roadholding, and sprightly performance despite its small engine. Noise and vibration are more noticeable than in many luxury SUVs, though.
The BMW X5's base engine is a 300-hp, turbocharged inline-6, paired to an 8-speed automatic transmission. The V-8-powered xDrive50i gives performance fans 0-to-60-mph acceleration times of just 4.7 seconds. There's also a 3.0-liter turbocharged X5 xDrive 35d diesel, plus an X5 xDrive 40e plug-in hybrid, powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor built into the transmission. A 9-kwh battery under the load bay gives 14 miles of electric range, but precludes the third-row option. The gas engines perform the plug-in and diesel by a wide margin, but all are strong enough. Choosing a drivetrain largely comes down to a personal ethos.
The X5 only feels like a true BMW if drivers engage one of the two Sport modes; otherwise, electric power steering and a host of electronic active-safety systems to control handling, roadholding, and roll stabilization rob the driver of steering feedback. Sport modes stiffen the suspension and provide much flatter cornering with somewhat more feel.
Safety and features
The XC90 gets excellent safety ratings from the IIHS and has been named a Top Safety Pick+ winner, but the X5 was only partially tested by the IIHS. The NHTSA, on the other hand, gives the BMW X5 its top five-star overall rating, but has yet to test the new XC90. Both vehicles also have a full suite of electronic active-safety systems.
The two cars have quite different personalities. The Volvo is quietly luxurious, with a focus on making all seven occupants comfortable and keeping the driver alert. The BMW is theoretically sportier for four or five occupants, with an occasional third row that most buyers forgo—but its performance and handling only snap into focus if you use specific drive-mode settings.
Either is a good choice, in our view, and which one you choose requires comparing cost, luxury, performance, and the value of that third row.
This article first appeared at The Car Connection.