Launched in 2003, the Volvo XC90 crossover utility vehicle has remained largely unchanged in its nearly ten-year run. Although there are variations in engines and option packaging, the 2003-2011 XC90 body, interior and mechanicals remain fairly constant. While some might view this as evidence that the XC90 is long overdue for a replacement, we see it quite differently. We think the fact that the XC90 has survived and thrived over such a long product cycle speaks volumes about the excellence of the original design, not to mention Volvo's insight into the certain demise of the huge, fuel thirsty SUV. With seating for seven, an available advanced all-wheel drive system and a choice of turbocharged five and six-cylinder engines, as well as a potent (but not very fuel efficient) V8, there seems to be an XC90 to fit just about every need. And, thanks to its long production run, there is a plentiful supply of used XC90s covering a wide price spectrum.

 

Why You Want It

While there are plenty of used CUVs and SUVs that can carry seven people, few if any can boost the kind of safety features and technology built into the XC90. Long before the government was mandating more stringent roof strength standards, Volvo was already engineering the XC90 to survive all manner of rollover accidents. Safety firsts such as standard side curtain airbags covering the length of the passenger compartment date back to the first models, as do electronic traction and stability controls. Innovative ideas, such as a second-row sliding middle seat that allows for a child sitting in a safety seat to be more easily reached by the front seat passengers, abound in the XC90.

Of course, the 2003-2011 Volvo XC90 is a premium luxury brand, so you can look forward to an array of comfort and convenience features. But, unlike other luxury crossovers, the XC90's eight-inches of ground clearance, available auto-leveling suspension and Haldex all-wheel drive system allow it venture into some pretty rugged areas, places where one usually only sees old Jeeps and thick-legged hikers. While there is plenty to admire and desire with the XC90, the big Volvo does have some negatives. The optional third-row seat is not very adult friendly, and when in place, eats up all the available interior cargo space. The XC90's repair history is only average and repairs, especially to the T6 model's transmission, can be prohibitively expensive.

 

Notable Features & Options

Because the 2003-2011 Volvo XC90's long model run, there are number of different standard and optional equipment packages that vary over the years. The base 2.5T front wheel-drive model first came equipped with a 208-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine, but in 2007 switched up to a normally aspirated (non-turbo) 235-horsepower, 3.2-liter V6. Standard equipment on most base models includes full airbag coverage including front, front side-impact and side curtain airbags, traction and stability control, and anti-lock brakes. Standard luxury features include dual-zone automatic climate control, dual heated power mirrors, an eight-way power driver's seat, steering wheel touch controls for the cruise and audio systems, and 17-inch alloy wheels.

From 2003-2006, the T6 trim offered a 268-horsepower, 2.9-liter twin-turbocharged engine, all-wheel drive, leather seating and a power moonroof. The V8 model includes all-wheel drive, rear air conditioning, a power glass moonroof and automatic level control. Among the XC90's more desirable options are the sliding second-row center section seat, the small but still useful third-row seat and rear audio controls. Volvo's Premium audio upgrade includes Dynaudio Pro-Logic II surround sound and a six-disc CD changer (later models are equipped with a auxiliary audio input jack), while the available navigation system, Active bi-xenon headlamps (they swivel in the direction you are turning) and BLIS (Blind Spot Information System) aid the driver. The kids can enjoy a rear DVD entertainment system and rear seat audio controls. Other options include all-wheel drive (base models), full leather seating, heated front seats, 19-inch alloy wheels, self-leveling rear suspension, rear seat climate controls, power folding side mirrors, and a powered rear subwoofer.

 

Model Milestones

2004: Changes are mostly cosmetic and include new 17-inch wheel designs, a new remote key fob, leather and wood steering wheel and a leather gearshift knob.

2005: Volvo's first ever V8 engine is added to the XC90's option list. Displacing 4.4-liters, the new engine generates 311 horsepower and 325 pounds-feet of torque. The V8 comes standard with all-wheel drive, but its fuel economy ratings of 13-city/19-highway don't impress.

2006: The twin-turbocharged T6 is dropped from the line up, while a new all-wheel drive system is now available on the 2.5T.

2007: The 2.5T is replaced by the 3.2, which bring a new 235-horsepower, 3.2-liter V6 engine teamed with a new six-speed automatic transmission. A tire pressure monitoring system is made standard, as is an auxiliary audio input jack. The V8-powered Sport trim is also introduced.

2008: All models are equipped with an auto-dimming rearview mirror, while minor exterior enhancements are made across the line. The 3.2 model gets new wheels, while the V8 gains 18-inch alloys (up from 17-inches). The Sport now rides on 19-inch wheels and a new sport suspension.

2009: Volvo's new R-Design trim package is made available on base and V8 models. The R-Design package adds unique exterior moldings, wheels, grille and suspension settings, as well as interior upgrades including R-Design embossed logos on the seats. The Sport trim is discontinued.

2010: The XC90 gains a hefty helping of new standard equipment including rear backup sensors, leather seating, third-row seat, integrated second-row child booster seat, a power passenger seat and a power moonroof. V8 models can be equipped with a new Executive Package that includes heated and cooling massaging front seats and a heated rear seat. The V8 R-Design is discontinued.

2011: The 3.2-liter engine gets a slight increase in horsepower, up to 240. New standard equipment includes Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and SiriusXM satellite radio.

 

Engines and Performance

The early XC90 2.5T models were a bit underpowered, but they were not sluggish or unlivable by any means. The 3.2-liter V6 is a much better choice for the base cars and should provide all the power one would need in a vehicle of this type. The twin-turbocharged T6 offers better performance, but the long term maintenance required for this model can be expensive, especially if you're looking at a vehicle with more than 100,000 miles on it. The 4.4-liter V8 is a wonderful engine; it is powerful, smooth and has loads of low end torque. The 4.4-liter V8's only drawbacks are its higher purchase price and poor fuel economy.

As for the XC90's driving performance, we'd have to say we're fairly impressed. For such a large vehicle riding so high off the ground, the XC90 drives amazingly like a big station wagon. Of course, its sedan underpinnings help greatly with the driving dynamic and ride quality, but it's the XC90's ability to tackle corners and remain remarkably composed in gusty wind conditions that pleases us. A combination of the wide body and an advanced electronic Roll Stability Control system help keep the XC90 on track during emergency maneuvers, while its Haldex all-wheel drive system ensures mountain goat-like traction in all driving conditions. On dry pavement, the Haldex system routes 95 percent of the engine's torque to the XC90's front wheels. Once wheel slippage is detected, however, power is distributed evenly to all four wheels until traction is regained.

 

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 2003-2011 Volvo XC90.

2003-2005: A recall was issued for a possible defective fuel pump flange that could develop cracks after prolonged exposure to extreme temperature fluctuations. Vehicles sold in the following states are affected by the recall: AL, AZ, AK, CA, FL, GA, HI, KY, LA, MS, NV, NM, NC, OK, SC, TN, TX, UT and VA.

2003-2006: Recalls were issued for possible improperly fitted rear seat belts, possible improper nut fitting on windshield wiper arms that could allow the wiper arm to slip and not operate when ice is present under the blade, and a possible defective outer tie rod ball joint that may deform under high load making it difficult to operate the vehicle.           

2004: Recall issued for possible defective front wheel-speed sensor, which can affect electronic systems controlling brakes, engine, transmission and torque distribution.

2005: A recall was issued for a possible assembly error that places the B+ battery terminal in conflict with the starter motor solenoid, possibly leading to a short circuit. Another recall was issued for poorly written instructions that can allow the tire jack's handle to become lodged under the battery if improperly put away.

2007-2008: A recall was issued for a possible defect in the climate control module that can shut down the climate system including the defroster. The dealer can upgrade the ECM software to correct the problem.

2008: A recall was issued for XC90s equipped with the 4.4-liter V8 engine. Some vehicles left the factory with improper engine mount bolts which could cause the aluminum engine mounting bracket to fail.

2010: A recall was issued for a possible defect in the fuel line that could allow a leak between the line and one of its connectors.

2010-11: A recall was issued for a possible defect that allows power steering fluid to leak at the connection to the steering gear valve housing.

Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.

As for safety, the 2003-2011 Volvo XC90 performs admirably. The government gives the XC90 five out of five stars in its front and side-impact crash tests, and four out of five stars in its rollover test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the XC90 its highest raking of "Good" in the offset front-end crash test, side impact crash test and roof strength crash test. In addition, the 2011 Volvo XC90 has earned the IIHS Top Safety Pick award.

From 2003-2009, the Volvo XC90 carried a 4-year/50,000 mile warranty covering basic items as well as the engine and drivetrain. In 2010, basic coverage moved to 5-years/50,000 miles while the powertrain warranty remained unchanged. Some late model XC90s will qualify for Volvo's Certified Pre-Owned Program (CPO) which includes a 6-year/100,000 mile warranty from the date the car entered service. You can also purchase additional coverage up to 8-years/100,000 miles.

 

Word on the Web

Surfing around consumer sites such as ConsumerReports.com and CarComplaints.com, we found that the early model XC90 (2003-2006) with the 2.5 and 2.9-liter turbos seem to have the most problems. Neither model gets much better than an average grade, with a number of complaints centering around the cooling system and transmission, or to be more specific, the T6's GM-built and Volvo modified four-speed automatic transmission. There are many reports of these transmissions failing at 50,000 miles, having to be replaced again and again. The problems are well known, but Volvo never issued a recall, leaving owners to foot a very expensive replacement bill. The five-cylinder 2.5T uses a different five-speed automatic that doesn't seem to be as problematic. Things seem to get appreciably better for the 2008-2011 models, especially the 3.2 model with the six-speed automatic.

On Volvoforums.com, we found quite a few comments relating to recurring dead battery problems. This one seems to be driving even certified Volvo techs crazy. Some of the problems were solved when it was discovered the rear seat DVD entertainment system was automatically activating its self in the middle of the night, lowering the screen and draining the battery. Problematic units where replaced under warranty, but now the parts are no longer available, meaning if you come across this problem, you'll probably have to remove or disconnect the factory DVD player.

 

Competitive Set

There are a number of worthy competitors to the Volvo XC90, all of them having their pluses and minus. The Mercedes-Benz ML offers the same premium cache, but it costs a fair bit more than the XC90 and it doesn't offer a third-row seat. The Acura MDX would make an excellent alternative, offering three-row seating, an equally good safety record and a much more reliable service history. You could also look at a Lexus GX 470 which offers superior resale and reliability ratings, but whose truck like chassis make it ride and handle like a big SUV. If you're looking at late model vehicles, the Buick Enclave offers an impressive array of luxury features, gets better fuel economy than the XC90, and has a larger interior with an adult-size third-row seat and plenty of cargo space.

 

AutoTrader Recommendation

Due to their likely high mileage and less than stellar service history, we'd advise steering clear of the early 2003-2006 turbocharged 2.5T and T6 models. If you do find a good, low mileage model, be sure to have it thoroughly checked out by a Volvo tech. We feel more comfortable recommending the 2007 and newer 3.2 trim with the optional all-wheel drive. This model gets respectable fuel economy, offers year-round versatility and should be priced at the lower end of the XC90 price range. If money and future fuel costs are of no concern, the V8-powered Sport trim is an excellent second choice; it's powerful, sporty and most left the showroom loaded to the nin es.

We can't emphasis enough that this is a premium brand that, even used, is going to cost you a lot of money. The last thing you want are a bunch of huge repair bills spoiling your love affair with the XC90. Try and find one that is either still under warranty or has a Volvo CPO warranty covering at least the next two to three years.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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