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Introduction

Can an automobile have scruples? We're not sure, but Volvo calls its XC90 "the first SUV with a conscience." That's because the company's first sport-utility addresses the three conscience-testing SUV issues. 1. It gets better gas mileage than most big SUVs, and the five-cylinder XC90 has ultra-low (ULEV) emissions. 2. It has a gyroscopic sensor that detects a possible impending rollover, activating a Roll Stability Control system to apply braking and cut throttle to correct the imbalance. There's also a high-strength steel roof structure, just in case. 3. It has a unique low front chassis crossmember, about the same height as the bumper of a sedan, designed to inflict less damage on any vehicle or its occupants that the XC90 might strike. Clearly someone at Volvo has noticed which way the political winds are blowing. A totally new vehicle last year, the Volvo XC90 looks like a cross between a Volvo Cross Country wagon and a BMW X5. Unlike the BMW, Volvo's SUV seats seven, with a roomy, versatile interior that boasts more cargo space than the Mercedes M-Class, Acura MDX and just about all the other vehicles in this class. It offers most of the bells and whistles, and in base trim it's very competitively priced. The XC90 offers a comfortable ride and handles well on streets and highways. It's powered by either turbocharged five-cylinder or twin-turbo six-cylinder engines, and we actually preferred the less expensive version. You wouldn't expect major changes in the second model year, and there are none. For 2004, the XC90 gets a remote key fob that's also the key, with a retractable metal blade. A nice wooden steering wheel, leather shift lever and real aluminum trim are now optional. More aggressive wheel designs are intended to add character. But a conscience? We'd call that line marketing. SUVs, including the XC90, are still heavier, with worse fuel mileage, than comparably sized wagons. And outside enthusiasts seem to go more for the XC70 Cross Country wagon. But if you need what a product offers, you shouldn't be made to feel guilty about it. And if you prefer an SUV, the Volvo XC90 is worth investigating. It's much less expensive than the BMW X5 and some of us prefer it to the Lexus RX330.

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