Flying into Mangalore’s Bajpe airport, you realise that this city, on the southern end of Karnataka’s coastline, is a bit of an oddity. The airport is a ‘tabletop’ one, located on top of a flattened hill, and the approach into it during the monsoons is rather dramatic (and in my case, bumpy). The reason I call Mangalore a bit of an oddity is that despite being on the shores of the Arabian Sea, the town has a feel like that of a hill station, and the winding, undulating roads through the city make it feel like one.
I wasn’t in Mangalore to enjoy the town for too long, however — I was there to drive the new Volvo V90 Cross Country, the latest offering from the Chinese-owned Swedish carmaker, and the third in its ‘90’ series of large cars, following the XC90 SUV and the S90 luxury sedan. The first impression is that this is a big car. It is visually striking — you can make out that the suspension has been raised, but it does not have the ‘tall’ stance of an SUV. That is because the V90 is an estate, a form factor that has failed in India time and again.
A brief history of the estate in India would be appropriate here. There were obviously coach builders in India who transformed Padminis and Ambys into estates, but until Tata came along with the Tata Estate in the early-90s, alongside the Sierra, there was no purpose-built estate in India. My friend Anuj’s dad owned a Tata Estate, and while there weren’t too many cars to compare it to back then, it was, put bluntly, terrible to drive. After that, we got the Suzuki Baleno Altura, which, for those who remember, was a very nice vehicle and from Maruti at that, so there was a certain amount of build quality and performance.
The old Baleno sedan platform never did really take off, because it was a rather pricey offering at a time when people preferred the ‘Steam’ (Esteem). Then you had Skoda’s firstgeneration Octavia Kombi, which an old girlfriend’s father owned and which was a great vehicle for fun activities (wink, wink), but which also failed commercially, as did the Opel Corsa Sail. They were all nice cars, but Indian buyers wanted a boot, despite the obvious benefits of an estate for families. Of course, Audi did sell all the RS6 Avants it got to India, but that car was just a carrier for a 550-horsepower motor — it could have been shaped like Donald Trump, and people with money would still have bought it.
So why has Volvo been so brave as to bring a luxury estate into India? When it comes to its Rs 60 lakh sticker price, it is more expensive than the S90, which is similar in most respects. It is more expensive than the brand new BMW 5 Series, as well as the long wheelbase Mercedes E-Class. Well, the first reason is that this isn’t your average estate. In Volvo’s ‘Cross Country’ mode, which is designed for mad Nordic people to go reindeer hunting in Lapland (or so the visuals would have you believe), it comes with 210 mm of ground clearance, which is more than some SUVs, so when the roads aren’t the best, you are not worried. despite sitting inside a luxury barge. Plus, allwheel drive for the win.
Also, while the V90 is very long, just like an XC90, it isn’t very tall. Thus it’s not only easier to climb into and out of, simple physics comes into the equation, so a lower centre of gravity becomes obvious when you attack the switchbacks on the lovely road between Mangalore and Madikeri, in Coorg. Sure, you’d rather be on this road in one of the several classic and original SS80 version of the Maruti 800 that are somehow preserved in this part of India. But really, ensconced inside the luxury cabin of the V90, you don’t think that. Volvo has tried to keep the interior of the V90 slightly separate from its other 90 cars, with a threetone colour scheme instead of the white of the S90 and the black of the XC90. Volvo also claims that there are other upholstery options, and the seat massager is quite nice too. What I liked the most though (and this may sound a bit pedantic) were the inside door handles, made from a single-machined piece of aluminium – it felt properly Scandinavian.
The 9-inch touchscreen controller remains the same, as does the brilliant Bowers & Wilkins sound system. I played Prince’s Purple Rain at full blast, and set the sound system to that of the Gothenburg Philharmonic Hall, and while driving through the monsoon clouds shedding their load as we approached the Taj Vivanta, it felt like I was in the middle of an acid trip. While the V90 almost insists that you sit in the driver’s seat, as do all Volvos, it isn’t half bad at the back. Plus, being an estate, space for luggage is phenomenal, and if you have a mid-sized dog like a Labradoodle, he or she can enjoy it back there too.
This is a lovely car, and it drives really nicely too. The 235-horsepower, two-litre diesel in the single D5 specification the car will be available in does hint that it will have some turbo lag, but it has something called ‘Power Pulse’, which stores compressed air in a cylinder to get the turbocharger up to speed quickly. I can imagine how much more fun this car would have been in the T6, 300-plus horsepower petrol engine specification that the Americans get. But then again, you’re not buying this car for performance. The V90 is a tad expensive, possibly because unlike its rivals, Volvo does not put its cars together in India But is it time to buy an estate in India? That, unfortunately, is not a question that I can answer with certainty, but if this car is any indication, then possibly yes.
What we like: Design, features, comfort
What we don’t: More expensive than a BMW 5 Series