The Volvo XC90 offers classic Volvo attributes in a midsize SUV. It's strong on safety, comfortable, and practical.
Its roomy interior seats seven, and there's more cargo space here than in other vehicles in its class. The cabin is luxurious, with nice firm seats and most of the bells and whistles most of us want. People who opt for a BMW X5 over one of these read magazines that use stopwatches and accelerometers for yardsticks. The XC90 handles well on streets and highways, but it also offers a comfortable ride. All-wheel drive with Volvo's new Instant Traction system makes the XC90 an excellent choice for nasty weather. Buyers choose between a 4.4-liter V8 and a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Each gets better gas mileage than most comparable seven-passenger SUVs.
Volvo's reputation for safety is not just marketing talk. Volvo puts an incredible amount of time, money and effort into research and engineering designed to protect driver and passengers. We've seen XC90s hurled across parking lots by giant mechanical hands, followed by handfuls of engineers taking detailed measurements and notes. Volvo engineers are known to rush out to accident scenes immediately after they occur to assess the damage to their vehicles. In base trim, the XC90 is competitively priced, but Volvos tend to cost more than they might due to the safety engineering that goes into them.
Safety features that come on all XC90 models include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist, and traction control. A gyroscopic sensor can detect an impending rollover and correct the imbalance by applying just the right amount of braking force to specific, individual wheels. Structural safety features include a roof structure built of high-strength steel and a low front cross member designed to inflict less damage to occupants of compact vehicles.
The character of the Volvo XC90 is greatly affected by whether you choose the standard five-cylinder model or the V8.
The best deal is the base five-cylinder engine with the five-speed automatic. It delivers ample acceleration for all situations, good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions. 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 engine speeds below 2000 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. We recommend adding the optional all-wheel drive for driving in foul weather conditions.
The V8 engine was developed 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 and peaks at 325 pound-feet at 3900 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, and incorporated a fast-reacting Instant Traction system to minimize wheelspin. We spent several hours in the V8 and found it well-suited to the sort of driving done by many American SUV owners. We enjoyed its 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 Cross Country wagon, but is wider and the components are beefier. It handles bumpy roads with dips and gullies well without bottoming when driven hard. It doesn't offer the sporty handling of a BMW X5 or INFINITI FX35, however. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not as quick in the really tight stuff. But, in general, the XC90 feels reasonably tight, with decent feedback to let you know how the front tires are gripping. There's minimal body sway under hard cornering. The electronic stability control, called DSTC, 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 all-wheel-drive system operates seamlessly, and the driver will almost never know when it's working. In normal, good-traction conditions, 95 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels. If the front wheels lose traction, a multi-plate clutch begins routing power to the rear, to a maximum split of 65 percent to the back tires. This frontward bias leaves the XC90 with a default understeer condition, or a sliding at the front tires near the limits of hand
The Volvo XC90 is packed with safety and utility features. It's as good or better than its competitors at hauling children around and offers superior cargo flexibility. The XC90 2.5T uses a quiet, proven engine with good power and a smooth five-speed automatic. The V8 is significantly more expensive, but faster, with more torque.
New Car Test Drive correspondents Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with Larry Edsall in Goteborg, Sweden, and Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.