The Volvo XC90 seats seven, with a roomy, versatile interior that boasts more cargo space than other vehicles in this class. The XC90 offers a comfortable ride and handles well on streets and highways. It offers most of the bells and whistles, and in base trim it's competitively priced.
For 2005, the Volvo XC90 is available with a V8 engine, in addition to the five-cylinder and six-cylinder models.
The XC90 is safe and fuel efficient. Its advanced safety features include a gyroscopic sensor that can detect an impending rollover and correct the imbalance; a roof structure built of high-strength steel; a low front cross member designed to inflict less damage to occupants of compact vehicles. The various models get better gas mileage than most comparable seven-passenger SUVs.
For 2005, the Volvo XC90 is available in three variations: the base XC90 2.5T, the XC90 T6 AWD and the new XC90 V8.
The XC90 2.5T ($34,840) uses Volvo's proven inline five-cylinder turbocharged engine, here displacing 2.5 liters and delivering 208 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with front-wheel drive.
The T6 AWD ($41,015) is powered by the S80 luxury sedan's inline six-cylinder with twin turbos, pumped up to 2.9 liters for 268 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, and mated to a beefier but less efficient four-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
The V8 ($45,395) draws its energy from a 4.4-liter V8 developed to Volvo specifications by Yamaha, the Japanese motorcycle builder and auto engine specialist that several years ago built the powerplant for the Ford Taurus S.H.O. sports sedan. The new V8 generates 315 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel drive system with a winter mode to enhance traction in snow.
All XC90s come with Roll Stability Control, an active safety system designed to reduce the possibility of a rollover by applying brakes and modulating engine power. All XC90s also have electronic stability control to help keep the car on the driver's intended line as well as full-length, curtain-style head-protection airbags that cover every row of seats.
Leather seating is standard. So are 17-inch wheels, 12 beverage holders, three power outlets, a CD changer, trip computer, power windows, doors, locks and mirrors, and an eight-way power driver's seat with memory.
In addition to its different engine, transmission and all-wheel drive, the T6 comes with speed-sensitive power steering, eight-way power for the front passenger's seat, a six-CD changer, auto-dimming interior rear-view mirror and memory function for the exterior mirrors.
The V8 adds ventilated disc brakes instead of the solid rotors on the other models, self-leveling rear suspension, a third-row seat with air conditioning, rear audio system with head phones and color-coordinated body trim.
Stand-alone options include bi-xenon headlamps ($700), various metallic paint colors ($450), electronically controlled all-wheel drive for the base model ($1,775), Volvo's new blind-spot information system ($700), rear parking assist ($400), a navigation system ($2,120), 18-inch wheels ($750), a premium sound system ($775), subwoofer ($300), and rear-seat entertainment system with two headrest-mounted seven-inch color screens ($1,995).
Available on the 2.5T is a popular Premium Package ($2,995) that includes leather seating, a power front passenger seat, memory mirrors, a power moonroof and upgraded audio with a six CD changer. The T6 offers a Touring Package ($1,595) with 18-inch wheels, power folding exterior mirrors, premium sound system and cargo cover. The Versatility Package ($2,100) for the 2.5T and T6 includes the third row of seats and its accessories, starting with separate controls for the rear air conditioning unit and audio systems, as well as a built-in second-row child booster seat.
The XC90 roofline is almost dramatic, raking upward from the windshield to its high horizontal plane, then tracing the arcing shape of the roof rails. The XC90 almost looks like an old convertible coming toward you on the freeway with its top puffing up. A high beltline adds to the correct visual image of a tall SUV.
The overall angularity clearly says Volvo. Head-on, you might think it's the result of the mating of a Honda CRV (the grille) and a Dodge Ram truck. The XC90 has the same general hood shape as the Ram. It's elevated by four or five inches over the protruding fender contours, and slightly V-shaped to be consistent with Volvo design.
There's very little overhang at the rear, creating a nice long wheelbase relative to the overall length of 189 inches, which is only 3.4 inches longer than Volvo's XC70 Cross Country wagon. The XC90 has a wide track, and despite its height, it has a lower center of gravity than the XC70. This wide stance and low center of gravity promote handling stability.
Like the XC70, the back end of the XC90 features expansive taillights. Think safety. If it bothers you that the back of your SUV looks like Las Vegas, it might comfort you to think that you're a whole lot less likely to get creamed from behind by some half-asleep driver. You're also less likely to back into something at night, thanks to backup lights that look like spotlights.
The standard wheels measure 17 inches in diameter, but the hottest look comes with the optional 18-inch wheels.
The XC90's rear hatch has two sections, with a 70/30 top/bottom split. The lower edge of the liftgate is waist level, leaving a small tailgate. If you're loading something light into the back of the XC90 you might not need to drop the tailgate, but the rest of the time you'll need to open both gates. The good news is that the tiny tailgate lifts and closes easily, and the short liftgate is less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. It's also inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline and makes the XC90 look shorter.
The fit of body panels and trim is decent. The XC90's big doors close with a light touch and a nice solid sound when they latch. The rear window wiper is sturdy, protected by flat black plastic.
The Volvo XC90 is comfortable and can carry a lot of stuff. With all six passenger seats folded down, the XC90 offers 92.3 cubic feet of cargo space, more than its main competitors: the Mercedes M-Class (81.2), BMW X5 (54.5), Acura MDX (81.5), Lexus RX 330 (84.7), Cadillac SRX (69.5), and INFINITI FX (64.5).
Volvo has created a roomy cabin inside a relatively compact exterior because of the transverse (sideways) mounting of the engine, even the compact V8. This allows the instrument panel and front seats to be positioned more forward, opening up space and legroom behind them.
With the center second-row seat lowered, there is 9 1/2 feet of unobstructed space between the instrument panel and the rear gate (even with the third-row seats in use, because there's a passage space between the seatbacks). Four surfers and two long boards could be squeezed inside. Or you could lay rigged 9-foot fly rods in there without having to break them down, making this a good fishing car for moving from spot to spot. Even with all three rows of seats in place there's room for two or three stacked duffel bags behind the third row.
Seating and cargo arrangements in the seven-seater are enormously versatile, allowing 64 different configurations, including six of the seven seats folded flat. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, fold, change and vanish.
Second-row seats are split 40/20/40 and slide forward independently. Headrests don't have to be removed when the seats are folded flat. Up front, the console between the front seats can be easily removed, allowing the center second-row seat to slide way forward between and just behind the front buckets. With the optional integrated booster cushion for that seat, tending to a young child has never been easier.
There's only enough leg room in the third row for two kids or two very short adults. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in many SUVs, however, due to the ease of sliding and flipping the second-row seats. There are entry grab handles to aid getting inside, but the front-door handle is a bit narrow. The doors close with aluminum handles, but they too are narrow, with room for only two or three fingers.
That third row is a cozy and convenient little world of its own; kids might actually want to sit way in the way back. Third-row seatbelts have pretensioners, which are designed to reduce injury caused by the belts in a crash. Volvo also designed a crumple zone at the rear, for added safety in a rear-end collision. The third-row features a center console with big cupholders, and there are also long deep pockets at the windowsills, power outlets (three in all), and climate controls with individual vents. Headphone plugs are also provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD while the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers.
The interior trim in the standard model is a mix of dark wood, brushed aluminum and faux aluminum plastic. More real aluminum trim is an option and a great improvement over the plastic trim.
There's very little storage space for the front seats, with narrow door pockets and a slim console compartment that's both small and difficult to access. If you store a few CDs in the slots, there's no more room at all. The only open bin for tossing small items is on the dash panel, about big enough for a cell phone.
The gauges are simple and the instrument panel is canted upward toward the high seating position. The wood-and-leather steering wheel on the T6 was more comfortable than the standard steering wheel because it was round; the standard wheel has edges and angles that defy understanding.
The front bucket seats are good, especially with adjustable lumbar support, and Volvo leather is some of the best around. More side bolstering wouldn't hurt, though. The seats feature Volvo's Whiplash Protection System, which moves them back and downward
The standard Volvo XC90, the T6 model and the new V8 are surprisingly dissimilar in character with their different engines and transmissions.
The best deal is the base five-cylinder engine with the five-speed automatic. Volvo's 2.5-liter five-cylinder produces 208 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. We found it delivered plenty of power for the real world, and the 24-mpg EPA Highway rating is excellent for that much power in a vehicle as heavy as the XC90. But what makes the five-cylinder engine especially sweet is the five-speed automatic that comes with it. It's a responsive transmission. Stand on the gas while cruising along on the highway and it quickly downshifts from fifth to third gear and XC90 eagerly zooms away. The five-cylinder engine doesn't seem to have a lot of torque at low engine speeds (1500 rpm), but the responsiveness and flexibility of the five-speed transmission makes good use of the engine's power. The transmission includes a manual-shift feature called Geartronic.
The T6 model comes with a more powerful six-cylinder engine, but its transmission is only a four-speed. The T6 transmission must handle a lot more torque, and a beefed up five-speed automatic wouldn't fit in the engine compartment with the bigger engine. The heavier four-speed automatic shifts more slowly and less smoothly than the 2.5's five-speed. Nor is the six-cylinder engine as smooth or as quiet as the five-cylinder. There was a distinct engine vibration between 45 and 50 mph in third gear, at about 2000 rpm. And although 268 horsepower and twin turbos sounds hot, we weren't impressed. With the four-speed, the engine sometimes feels like it's working hard, and the T6's lower mileage rating means about 60 fewer miles per tank.
Volvo developed the V8 for the U.S. where 30 percent of all SUVs are sold with V8 engines. Because Volvo has no history with V8s, it turned to Yamaha, which has a good relationship with Volvo's parent company, Ford, to develop a new engine compact enough to fit in the XC90's engine bay. Volvo linked the V8 to a six-speed automatic to make the best use of the engine's torque curve, which reaches 271 pound-feet of pulling power at just 2000 rpm. Volvo also made some changes in its all-wheel-drive system to send more power to the rear wheels for better take off from a standing start. We spent several hours in the V8 and found it well suited to the sort of driving done by many American SUV owners. We stayed on pavement, enjoyed quick acceleration and sure-footed passing maneuvers.
Regardless of engine, we were impressed with how silky smooth the XC90 feels at 80 mph. Its chassis closely follows the design of the V70 wagon, but is wider and the components are beefier. It handles bumpy roads with dips and gullies well without bottoming when driven hard. The XC90 doesn't offer the sporty handling of a BMW X5 or INFINITI FX35. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not as quick in the really tight stuff. But it feels reasonably tight in general, with decent feedback to let you know how the front tires are gripping. There's minimal body sway under hard cornering. The DSTC electronic stability control stepped in a few times when we were thrashing down a particularly ornery road, and the system applied the brakes at one wheel without cutting the throttle, although we aren't sure if it was the gyroscopic roll sensor or traction sensors that triggered its operation.
The ride quality in the XC90 is very good, stiff at the wheels, but not in the cabin. It didn't exactly absorb the ridges and bumps, because you could feel the suspension working over them; but it didn't transfer any harshness to the arms or seat of the pants at all. Speed bumps in particular were interesting; it was as if the suspension challenged them and hammered back, protecting us from jouncing even when we hit them at 15 mph.
The Volvo XC90 is packed with safety and utility features, including some that are unavailable in most other luxury SUVs. The XC90 is as good or better than its competitors at hauling children around. It offers superior passenger/cargo flexibility with a ton of space at a luxury-class competitive price.
The base XC90 2.5T uses a quiet, proven engine with good power and a smooth five-speed automatic. It delivers ample acceleration for all situations, good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions. The T6 is quicker, but more expensive and less fuel-efficient and comes with a four-speed automatic. The V8 is fast, still more expensive, and likely will put the XC90 on some shopping lists for the first time. The XC90 offers all-wheel drive for winter driving and light off-highway capability.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge, with Larry Edsall in Goteborg, Sweden, and Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.