The art and pitfalls of the smart SUV

Date:14 February 2018 Author: Lindsey Schutters Tags:, ,

Driving the Garden Route offered the perfect time for a family of four to contemplate the convergence of technology and motoring. By Lindsey Schutters

Two-and-a-half hours of charge for 35 km of driving range. Well, 38 km if you go downhill and are hard on the brakes. But still. That’s not a good return on investment. And remember that you need those batteries full if you need four-wheel drive. It would be ample for my work commute, mind you. Charge it overnight and again at the office. It’s a shame the provided cable is so short, though. But none of that matters now. Right now this fully-laden SUV still has 200 km to go before we get home and the range says 235 km. Consumption is hovering at around 9 litres/100 km, a far cry from Volvo’s claims. The batteries are all but dead at this point too. Completely spent on the short trip from Sedgefield to Wilderness.

The open road isn’t the place for a hybrid; that’s a lesson I learnt on this very same stretch of road about two years ago in a Toyota Auris hybrid. This isn’t the same kind of party, though. The battery pack in the XC90 T8 is in the centre tunnel between the front and rear seats and doesn’t encroach on boot space. It’s also a plug-in hybrid so the motor is less of an oversized alternator that robs the engine of efficiency. But it still has a full separate drivetrain to lug around that isn’t being helped by a stiff headwind as the last breath of a snowstorm blows up the Garden Route.

I didn’t always have my doubts about this formidable car. I’m still a believer in the Volvo formula of two-litre, four cylinder engines in all of its cars. The XC90 T8 has the T6’s turbo- and supercharged petrol engine good for 249 kW and 440 N.m, with the electric motor contributing a further 65 kW and 240 N.m. If the Polestar badge on the back wasn’t enough warning then the urgent shove in the backside when I fully open the throttle reminds me of the power that lurks beneath the family-friendly exterior.

Power with responsibility

Keeping the car on the road while I’m making full use of the available power is an array of tech which now includes a mid-corner gear hold function. It seems silly, but that feature is literally there to stop any mid-corner gear changes that can unsettle the car. A microscopic component of the larger autonomous system that culminates, bear with me here, in the Drive Me autonomous car solution that is currently undergoing testing in the Swedish car maker’s hometown of Gothenberg.

And that’s where the conceit of this Polestar XC90 that is pretty much driving itself back to Cape Town starts to fall apart. On the one hand you have one of the most advanced self-driving cars on South African roads that its creators are using as a pet project to show off both the dynamic potential of the dual drivetrain and the company’s safety advancements.

To be clear: I back a Volvo-branded horse in the race to eliminating road deaths, especially after the company stated that it accepts full liability for the safety of its autonomous systems. That was in reference to the Autonomous Drive Level 4 cars in the Drive Me pilot programme and in response to how Tesla handled the tragic fatality in early 2016.

Back in Autonomous Drive Level 2 country where there is only adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist working in tandem, I can comment on the quality of the Pilot Assist system. The end 2016 software update that liberated Pilot Assist to operate up to 135 km/h and without a car ahead seemed a bit weary of tight bends when I tested it in the S90, but it operated well on the way to Knysna and repeats that performance on the way back. Yes Audi and Mercedes-Benz are bringing Level 3 cars to market, but I’m hesitant to outsource overtaking manoeuvres to a computer when South African drivers are as unpredictable as a wild animal.

Cabin fever

In the cabin the 9,5-inch Sensus touchscreen interface still dominates the dashboard. Seven luxury leather seats are comfortable with my wife and I making full use of the first row massage functions. I enjoy live-recorded albums on road trips and set the Bowers and Wilkins audio system to its Gothenberg Concert Hall acoustics-replicating setting after asking Google to play Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album. Later on, while my family is asleep, I focus the audio on the driver seat and clear some backlog from my podcast queue.

This is what you pay your R1-million for: the effortless mile-munching with all the safety systems working together to lull you into a true sense of security. You buy a luxury family carrier for the piece of mind that your loved ones have been given the absolute best protection against the ills of the world. We were stuck in roadblock traffic coming into Swellendam, a nightmare scenario for parents of two small children who had just woken up from a nap and were eager to stretch their legs at the promised surprise location. With the XC90 negotiating the stop/start driving bit, I was free to concentrate on solutions to the unhappy children problem.

Is the 8,7 litres/100 km fuel consumption the car averaged over the round trip ideal for mostly highway cruising? No. I could’ve shaved almost two litres off of that figure in the D5 diesel model and still had access to 99 per cent of the same features. But I know that the drive to work the day after we got back was purely on electric power and that trip figure is a lot better than what a Range Rover Sport would do and you lose the autonomous features with that.

We are yet to gaze upon the mountaintop of hyper efficiency and 100 per cent autonomy, but cars like the Volvo XC90 are the sherpas that lighten the load and guide the way. My eldest is six and she isn’t impressed anymore when I let technology take the wheel. To her its normal. She even says she doesn’t want to drive when she grows up. She also takes plugging a car into the mains in her stride only questioning why we still need to stop at the fuel station when we already charged at home.

As we quietly cruise through the charred remains of the Knysna forest I reflect on the past. Our insatiable need to strip resources from the earth is partly to blame for the devastation. The invasive pines that fuelled the inferno are a hangover of a simpler time when there wasn’t much planning for the future. We walked with some of the last remaining elephants, their fallen ancestors victims to the intersection with human expansion. Maybe bad fuel economy from the infantile state of hybrid technology isn’t that bad. It’s just tax that this generation is paying to reverse the damage. You know, the sins of the father… But none of that matters now. It’s all about getting the next generation home safely.