More than any other vehicle in the running this year, the Volvo XC90 moves the standard in its market segment. This innovative machine drives comfortably like a sedan, tows like a pickup, off-roads like sport/ute, and moves bulky cargo or as many as seven people like a minivan.
And it does it all with the mechanical polish, premium exterior style, and attention to interior detail associated with top-drawer luxury vehicles. In addition, this Volvo addresses the safety, emissions, and, to a lesser degree, fuel-use issues associated with SUVs.
The XC90 is a critical model for Volvo, with stretch-goal sales targets. First, it has to stem the tide of customers leaving the Volvo family for Mercedes-Benz MLs, Lexus RX 300s, and Acura MDXs. Second, it has to convert new buyers in serious numbers. For the first full year of XC90 production, Volvo hopes to sell 35,000-40,000 units. Considering that in 2001, Volvo sold a total of 134,937 vehicles in North America, this additional XC90 volume is an ambitious leap of more than 25 percent.
The XC is a clever piece of engineering that offers two gutsy powertrain choices. The first is a light-pressure turbocharged inline-five-cylinder making 208 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. This efficient five bolts to a slick five-speed automatic. The bigger motor is a twin-turbo inline-six mated to a four-speed automatic (there isn't room to package it with the new five-speed). While both engines are aided by continuously variable valve timing, the six generates 268 hp and provides a V-8-like 280 lb-ft of torque. Peak output is on tap from just 1800 rpm. Both engines also manage 0-60 runs in 9.0-sec territory (9.8 for the I-5, 8.9 for the I-6).
The transverse inline-engine arrangement and efficient unibody construction make for a compact exterior, a roomy interior, and friendly driving manners. Volvo also claims the engine packaging allows short and direct plumbing between the exhaust manifold and the under-floor catalysts, meaning quicker light-off and lower emissions. Indeed, both engines meet the ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) standard. The chassis and steering responses are remarkably carlike on the road. We do, however, have some reservations about the perceived accuracy of the 2.5T's steering, which lacks the T6's ZF speed-sensitive-assist system, but there's no complaining about the generous wheel travel, balanced shock damping, and good cornering precision.
Although well served by its former boxy-but-safe look, Volvo's fresh portfolio wears an exciting new visual signature. The XC has a brawny stance with its extra-wide track and a long wheelbase with short overhangs front and rear. This layout provides excellent stability on- and off-road and substantive yet sporting appearance despite the XC's extra height. It's a daring, modern design that has strong personality without any penalty from awkward proportions.
The XC has an interior-packaging hat trick with fold-down third-row seating, impressive in a vehicle only 3.5 in. longer than a V70 wagon. Our drivers also like the XC's lofty seating position, which is useful when picking lanes in dense city traffic or carefully placing wheels on rocky trails. The icing is the cabin's minimalist Scandinavian flavor, with excellent fits, soft leathers, bright gauges, and rich nickel trim.
This new unibody chassis is based on the same architecture and mechanicals as used in the flagship S80, the sporty S60 sedan, and the robust V70 wagon. It delivers the precise feel of a fine road machine along with sufficient toughness for backroad forays, while 60-plus-mph cuts through our 600-ft slalom put the XC in the front row of best-handling SUVs. And such agility doesn't come at the expense of a sweet ride.
"A wonderful synthesis of Volvo luxury, wagon tradition, and sport/utility toughness" is how Senior Editor Ron Sessions sums it up.
Baked deep into this new Volvo is an extensive array of safety measures that go beyond two-stage front-impact airbags, side-impact airbags, and special head restraints. Notably, Volvo employs several strategies to tackle the rollover gremlin associated with high-center-of-gravity sport/utility vehicles. The first defense is an electronic system that senses roll speed and angle. If these exceed predetermined limits, engine power is reduced and braking one or more wheels is initiated to stay ahead of the roll and regain stability. The second level of defense is special high-strength boron steel in the crush-resistant roof. A third strategy is seatbelt pretensioners to keep passengers securely in place. Finally, an inflatable curtain prevents passenger heads from striking the side glass.
The XC90 is a workhorse that seats as many as seven or can carry more than 90 cu ft of cargo. That adds considerable mass to what is already a pretty stout vehicle. So at all four corners are vented disc brakes at least 12 in. in diameter backed up by a four-wheel anti-lock system. In addition, Emergency Brake Assistance senses a panic stop and automatically applies full braking pressure for a shorter stop.
Even after this rollover test, which we witnessed, all five access doors opened easily. In
Volvo acknowledges that the XC is not intended for extreme off-roading. For that, something like GM's H2 Hummer is a better answer. We were impressed, however, with the XC's off-road moves. The electronically controlled all-wheel drive, developed with Sweden's four-wheeling experts at Haldex, and the 8.6 (2.5T) to 9.2 (T6) in. of ground clearance provide sure-footedness without the belly scrape and clatter of pretend SUVs on moon-crater roads. In normal driving, about 95 percent of the power flows through the front wheels. But if the fronts begin to slip, in as little as one-seventh of a rotation, power can be diverted to the rear contact patches.
Passive safety was a prime XC90 design goal. Its passenger cell is designed to maintain it
The AWD is made up of three main parts: a hydraulic pump actuated by differences in speed between the front and rear axles, a wet multidisc clutch, and a control valve with feedback electronics. When both front and rear axles are rotating at the same speed, no pumping takes place. But if a speed differential occurs, the axles are progressively locked together, smoothly reducing the difference. This all-wheeling setup also interacts with the vehicle's electronic traction and stability control systems to maximize thrust, control, and safety by braking a wheel that tries to spin.
The XC90 delivers sporting muscle, tasteful design, luxury features, wonderful interior execution, and awesome load-carrying and passenger utility for a really good price. The 2.5T variant, particularly, nukes the value mark relative to other premium midsize sport/utility vehicles. (Later in 2003, Volvo promises a price-leader front-drive version of the 2.5T that should nestle in the mid-$30,000 range.) Even the more luxurious and pricey T6 model, fully equipped for about $45,000, is a strong value relative to like-equipped competition.
"A tremendously well-thought-out vehicle," wrote John Matthius, Motor Trend feature editor and television producer/ host, "and as much SUV as most buyers need."
Competition was fierce again this year. And no model, including the XC, dominated any area of our review. But in this strong and diverse field, the XC ran at the top of the pack throughout the weeks of evaluation, miles of asphalt, and stretches of roadless sand and rock.
Having arrived late to the SUV party, Volvo obviously has studied its competitors closely and now offers a winning combination of sporty fun, high style, practical space, and seating flexibility. And for that it deserves to be named Motor Trend's Sport/Utility of the Year.
|2003 Volvo XC90||2.5T AWD||T6 AWD|
|Drivetrain layout||Front engine, awd||Front engine, awd|
|Engine type||Turbocharged I-5, alum block & head, ULEV II||Twin-turbocharged I-6, alum block & head, ULEV II|
|Valve gear||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|Displacement, ci/cc||153.9 / 2521||178.3 / 2922|
|Bore x stroke, in/mm||3.26x3.66 / 83.0x93.0||3.26x3.54 / 83.0x90.0|
|Max horsepower @ rpm||208 @ 5000||268 @ 5100|
|Max torque @ rpm||236 @ 1500||280 @ 1800|
|Transmission||5-speed automatic||4-speed automatic|
|Axle / final-drive ratios||2.86:1 / 2.91:1||3.69:1 / 2.92:1|
|Suspension, front; rear||MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs anti-roll bar|
|Brakes, front; rear||12.0-in vented disc; 12.1-in vented disc, ABS, EBD, EBA|
|Wheels||7.0x17-in cast-aluminum alloy||7.0x17-in cast-aluminum alloy|
|Tires||235/65HR17 Pirelli Scorpion||235/65HR17 Pirelli Scorpion|
|Track, f/r, in||64.3/63.9||64.3/63.9|
|Ground clearance, in||8.6||9.2|
|Curb weight, lb||4450 (5-pass)||4610|
|Seating capacity||5 (or 7)||7|
|Weight dist, f/r, %||53/47||52/48|
|Max payload, lb||1430||1470|
|Max towing cap, lb||5000||5000|
|Cargo capacity, cu ft||92.0 (5 pass)||93.2|
|Fuel capacity, gal||19.0||19.0|
| 0-30 mph||3.02||3.11|
| 0-40 mph||4.87||4.43|
| 0-50 mph||6.98||6.45|
| 0-60 mph||9.76||8.88|
| 0-70 mph||13.08||11.47|
| 0-80 mph||16.79||14.50|
| 0-90 mph||22.25||18.93|
|1/4 mile, sec @ mph||16.99 @ 82.0||16.42 @ 86.8|
|Braking, 60-0 mph, ft||127||129|
|600-ft slalom, mph||60.3||60.2|
|200-ft skidpad, g||0.75||0.74|
|Top-gear rpm @ 60 mph||2250||1800|
|Turning circle, ft||40.0||40.0|
|On sale in U.S.||Currently||Currently|
|Price, as tested||$39,895||$45,240|
|Airbags||Dual front, front-seat side, side curtain for all rows|
|EPA mpg, city/hwy||18/25 (est)||15/20 (est)|
|Range, miles, city/hwy||342/475||285/380|
|Basic warranty||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Powertrain warranty||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Roadside assistance||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|Recommended fuel||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|WHAT'S HOT||* Smooth, quiet powertrain||* Super cargo and load flexibility|
|* Gorgeous interior trim||* Handsome exterior lines|
|* Good fuel economy||* Carlike handling and ride|
|WHAT'S NOT||* Touchy (overly active) stability control||* Lackluster fuel economy|
|* Steering vagueness on some roads||* Four-speed auto only|
|* Just-average power levels||* Less-obvious value|