Volvo is well known for its station wagons, but its first sport-utility vehicle is better overall than any wagon it has made.
Called the XC90, the 2003 sport-ute is roomy, fast and fun to drive. It's also packed with safety features, which the Swedish automaker is heavily emphasizing again to help sell more vehicles. Its cars and even wagons are a lot more stylish than they once were, with higher performance, but safety still sells many Volvos.
A World First
For one thing, the mid-size XC90 has a stability enhancing system designed to prevent what many sport-ute owners fear the most: a rollover, prompted by unusually rapid or severe body lean. Volvo calls its Roll Stability Control system a world first.
Developed by Volvo and its owner, Ford Motor, the system uses gyroscopic sensors to register the XC90's roll speed and roll angle. Using that information, the roll-over risk is instantly calculated and the vehicle's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control anti-skid system is activated. It reduces engine power and brakes one or more wheels until stability is regained. One really must be a sloppy driver to get into trouble with an XC90.
Other safety features include curtain side airbags that cover all three rows of seats, and Volvo is the only automaker offering that kind of protection for third-row occupants.
Volvo also has the safety of car occupants in mind with the XC90. Sport-utes are taller than cars and thus can cause plenty of damage to autos in collisions. But the XC90 has a lower beam up front that allows a car's protective structure to be hit at the correct height in an accident.
Styling Not Forgotten
Volvo isn't neglecting style, which is something it ignored for years with ultraboxy vehicles. But making the XC90 look distinctive wasn't easy because a sport-utility vehicle essentially is just a box on wheels. However, this new Volvo has nicely sculpted lines and such things as a prominent Volvo "egg-crate" grille, V-shaped hood and taillight forms.
The XC90 is aimed at upscale competitors, including the Lexus RX 300, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, BMW X5 and Acura MDX.
The well-equipped XC90 costs $35,100 with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 208-horsepower inline 5-cylinder engine. The upscale $39,975 T6 version has a twin-turbocharged 268-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive, besides more equipment.
The lower-horsepower version will be offered with front-drive for $33,350 in the spring.
The 5-cylinder engine gets a responsive 5-speed automatic transmission, while the smoother, more relaxed 6-cylinder is mated to a 4-speed automatic. Both transmissions are smooth shifters, but no manual gearbox is offered.
The 5-cylinder engine delivers lively acceleration, while the 6-cylinder almost puts the XC90 in the hot rod sport-utility class. However, the accelerator pedal has an unusually long throw that forces a driver to extend his leg a lot if the throttle is floored to activate passing gears.
A variety of option packages cost from $595 to $2,575 and contain everything from heated front seats, leather seats, third-row seat and a power glass moonroof. Stand-alone extras include a $400 reverse warning system and an $1,895 navigation system.
While Volvo calls the XC90 a 5-seater with two rows of seats and a 7-seater with an available third-row seat, the quiet interior only comfortably allows seating for four or six people. That's because the second-row seat is comfortable only for two adults, and the hard-to-reach third row seat is best suited to two children.
Based On Latest Car Models
The XC90 is based on the chassis of Volvo's newest sedans and station wagons, so it drives much like a car. Its engines come from Volvo autos, although they're revised because the XC90 isn't just an auto disguised as a sport-utility vehicle.
Yes, this is the real thing. The all-independent suspension delivers a supple ride, although occupants will know they're in a sport-ute on some bumpy roads. Steering is fast, and the brake pedal has a nice feel. Stopping distances are short.
It only calls for a bit of extra effort to get in and out of the tall XC90 because the floor is low and seats are especially designed for easy entry and exit. Volvo sweats the details.
The XC90 has a long 112.6-inch wheelbase, wide stance and low center of gravity to enhance handling.
Efficient All-Wheel Drive
The electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system delivers 95 percent of the power to the front wheels in regular driving on dry roads.
If road surfaces cause the front wheels to slip, power is proportionately diverted to the rear wheels. Engagement takes place after merely one-seventh of a wheel turn. The traction control system manages side-to-side wheel slip.
Still, the XC90 is mainly an on-road vehicle.
The nicely designed dashboard has easily read gauges, large climate control system controls and fairly large sound system controls—all refreshing in an era of mostly undersized controls. However, inside door handles are too small.
Occupants sit high for good visibility, and large outside mirrors help a driver keep good track of what's going on behind him. An optional power front passenger seat is offered, but that seat's manual controls work so well that a power seat really isn't needed.
Child Friendly Feature
The middle of the second-row seat can be had with an integrated child booster seat that flips out. If the XC90 is equipped with the third-row seat, the child seat can slide forward so it's positioned just behind the two front seats, improving contract between a child and front-seat occupants. Thoughtful feature.
But front power windows are annoying because it's almost impossible to stop them from zooming all the way down or up once activated. It seems as if Volvo feels that XC90 occupants always will want the front side windows to be all the way down or all the way up.
You can haul lots of stuff with the XC90; the second- and third-row seatbacks fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, which is decent with the second row seatbacks in their normal position. Also, the front passenger seatback flips forward for an especially large cargo area when the other seatbacks are folded forward.
The split tailgate is easy to use, but you need to open the short lower section of it to allow easy loading and a convenient reach into the cargo area.
Volvo is late entering the increasingly crowded sport-utility market, but it did its homework with the XC90, and that shows.