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Top Gear Magazine Awards 2016

Why the Volvo XC90 is the most Zen car on sale

There are few cities as frustrating for the driver as Naples. Unless you're in an XC90

  • This is not traffic; this is war. A conflict where there are no sides, no Geneva Convention, no rules and no mercy. It’s every car, van, scooter, lorry and pedestrian for themselves, fought on a battleground that besieges the ancient city of Naples pretty much all day, every day.

    Not a single vehicle goes without the scars of combat – with each panel on every mobile contrivance dented, scratched and abused by a traffic ‘system’ that seems modelled on basic Brownian motion: you just head for where you want to go until you bounce off something else.

    Photography: Richard Pardon

    This feature was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Top Gear Magazine.

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  • You don’t bring a car you care about into Neapolitan rush hour – or Naples in general – because the habit of push-parking (everyone leaves their handbrakes off so that people can shove other cars around when they parallel park) means that bumpers take the brunt. Mostly to the point of disintegration. And a small barge or jostle is considered a love tap. If it doesn’t a) immobilise your vehicle, or b) kill you outright, most people just brush off the odd knock without even stopping.

    Seriously, if this were London, I would have witnessed three punch-ups and two stone-cold murders within the first five minutes, and 90 per cent of the combatants would not pass even a cursory MOT test. Within half an hour I saw a man knocked flat off his motorcycle, and the driver involved simply picked him up, patted him on the back and they both carried on.

  • Hell, then. A place where stress levels reach a coronary red line within seconds of leaving the safety of your garage. Certainly not a place where you take a huge, 60-grand and conspicuously brand-new Volvo XC90 just to see if the inherently calming nature of the Swedish mobile lounge can keep you on the right side of homicidal. Unless you’re TopGear magazine, obviously.

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  • Which is why I’m faced with the stuff of commuting nightmares. Indication is, essentially, non-existent, unless as a ruse to throw someone into another lane in order to steal their spot. Ditto lane discipline, adherence to basic road sense and using mirrors. If you have mirrors, because most are either broken, or in my case, brazenly folded in by scooters wishing to squeeze the last millimetre from their previously non-existent lane.

    Ah yes, the mopeds. Lawless mobs of ring-a-ding-ding two-strokes that use pedestrian crossings as cut-throughs, pavements as extra lanes and cars as leaning posts.

  • They also have apparently no regard as to what you can and cannot carry upon a two-wheeled conveyance. Because I saw mopeds carrying, but not limited to: a 12-foot-long curtain pole, five boxes of 12 long-stemmed wine glasses, two large picture frames (and I mean four-feet square) and an industrial gas bottle mounted in a custom frame on the back. And they all find it necessary to get as close as humanly possible to the pristine paint of the XC90, and set off all the proximity alarms at once.

  • Seriously, the XC90 is filled with safety kit, and I’ve never once seen the screen flash so much red. It was like the car was being messily murdered. Naples basically set off all the alarms at once. The City Safety anti-collision auto-brake function constantly fired (a stop-start technique favoured by most of this town) and when asked to auto parallel park in what looked like a relatively large space for this part of the city, couldn’t even see the gap it was supposed to insert itself into. This is a place where looking left when approaching a roundabout – let alone slowing or, God forbid, stopping – seems to be considered a complete social no-no.

  • And yet. And yet, even though the XC90 is about as suited to driving down medieval streets with barely four inches of clearance either side as Donald Trump is to being a diplomat, I didn’t have a breakdown and go postal. I might not have had much room, but surround-view cameras help. I was besieged, but was also aware. I may have cursed the City Safety, but it saved me at least twice in the 10 hours I spent aimlessly circulating the fourth circle of hell that Neapolitans call the ‘old town’.

    I didn’t get into a fatal war with local Camorra gangsters, because the seats are so comfortable and the interior so easy on the eye. It’s like trying to get enraged inside a Swedish show house – it just doesn’t fit. All this when faced with cars driving down the wrong side of a dual carriageway with the police watching.

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  • In some of the most stressful driving conditions I’ve ever experienced, the Volvo XC90 prevented me from losing my mind and going on a spree. And I don’t mean shopping. Which means, for that and the fact that it’s the least aggressive and nicest big SUV ever to hit the market, the Volvo XC90 wins Top Gear's Zen car of the Year award. After all, if everyone drove one of these, we’d have world peace within the month.

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