Cape Town - It arrives in small and strange ways. It’s in the look of astonishment on face of the babysitter when you get home from your big night out at 8.54pm.
It’s in the rolled eyes of your millennial colleagues when you ask what a Harry Styles is, and that moment when you realise all three of your kids can dress themselves with varying levels of competence.
This is the moment middle age arrives, and it strikes me as most unlikely that it is mere happenstance that at around the same time I have been starting to look at Volvos in the same way you used to look at Cindy Crawford. And look, not the V40, which is a perfectly nice little car but not really good enough to worry the Volkswagens of this world.
'Labrador of motoring'
No, I’m talking about real Volvos – family cars. For twelve unbelievably long years – long enough for two model incarnations in a standard automotive lifecycle - the original XC90 soldiered on as the much-loved family Labrador of motoring, taking millions of children across the world to their schools and sports. That car was brilliant. In production from 2002 to 2014, it was a vast SUV without ever being perceived as aggressive or imposing.
It was safe and comfortable and reliable. In fact it was so good and enjoyed such longevity that for many people the XC90 was Volvo and that was that.
But readers with longer memories will remember a different time, a time before the world of luxury SUVs abandoned its Land Rover Discovery/Range Rover origins and went mainstream. Land Rovers were for farmers, Range Rovers were for aristocrats, Jeeps were for Americans – and Volvo were the masters of the estate car. While I will listen to arguments espousing the marvelousness of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class estate and its S124 and S123 predecessors, back in my childhood Europe’s middle-aged, middle-class parents drove Volvos. My parents had a lightly used 740.
Decline of the 'estate'
The posh folks went for the newer 940 with its six-cylinder motor. They were all vast and wallowy old things that drank fuel, but, look, it was the early 1990s – we were more worried about salmonella in eggs, the ozone layer, and Freddie Mercury.
Anyway, outside of Europe, where they are still popular, the estate car is in a decline. In SA the number of nameplates available with a big boot is dwindling. The Honda Accord, the BMW 3-Series, the BMW 5-Series, the Audi A6 (except in full nutter-head-banger RS6 guise), the Volkswagen Golf, the Hyundai Accent, various Toyotas and who remembers the Jaguar X-Type estate? Well, whatever – these and many more are all gone, replaced with SUVs and crossovers that mount kerbs and brush off traffic calming measures.
So, now, imagine my excitement when Volvo very quietly released an estate car in SA. Now, to be sure, they’ve only given us the Cross Country model, with its hoiked-up ride height and slightly ruff-n-tuff demeanour, but the V90cc is an estate from Volvo, and that means it needs to be very good indeed.
Built on the excellent XC90’s scalable platform, the V90cc is very familiar inside to anyone who’s been the XC90 or the S90. Compared with the S90 sedan it is pretty much impossible to tell the difference. The same excellent touchscreen computer, the same high-class rubbers, plastics and leathers. The same wonderful seats. It’s a truly excellent place to sit – certainly giving the interiors of some entry-level German competitors something to think about at the price.
And, ye Gods, just look at it. It is a seriously, seriously handsome piece of kit, a real statement of class and refinement.
Just a S90 with a vast boot?
Now, given our proclivity for SUVs in SA, we’re not going to the straight V90 here, but let me tell you that adding a vast boot to the S90 hasn’t made it a worse car. All it’s done is made it better-looking and more useful. And, heavens, but it’s huge. I need to check that I have all the children when I get home in case one of them is hiding in a part of the boot that’s beyond the horizon.
To drive, it is much like the S90. The ride is firm and the enormous rims look simply epic but struggle to remain composed over washboard, sharp imperfections - something that would become irritating over time. I’d opt for the smallest rim available and eschew some perfect-blacktop precision. In any case, it might not have quite the poise as the standard car, but on the Cape’s sopping wet roads this winter the four-wheel-drive was surefooted and confidence-inspiring on inclines and exiting corners under power.
What you lose in overall polish you recoup in all-round usability. It loves a dirt road and will handle the backroads of family adventures. The D5 two-litre turbo diesel model I drove has a good 400Nm of shunt so you can bring a trailer comfortably and it’ll happily tow a pony off a paddock or a boat up a slipway with its 4x4.
Of course, these are the reasons people buy SUVs, and that might be a cause for concern. There’s an awful lot of activity out there at the moment. A new version of the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Land Rover Discovery are all imminent, and history tells us that these will probably sell like hot cakes. But Volvos have always been bought by a different sort of person, the kind of person for whom bling isn’t necessarily a thing, and I just hope there’s enough of them to buy a few of these things, because it does all the 4x4ing your average family will ever need and does the family thing just perfectly.
Every time I get into a Volvo these days I’m impressed. And if Volvo, of all people, can’t persuade us to buy estate cars I genuinely fear that they may vanish from the local landscape altogether. Given that the most 4x4ing the average South African urbanite does is park in a puddle outside the local Woolworths, this strikes me as a sad state of affairs.