Living as we do in California, our long-term Volvo didn't get a chance to experience snow or much rain. But several trips to Death Valley gave the XC90's all-wheel-drive system a workout negotiating sandy trails. The vehicle operates in front-drive mode unless slippage is detected, whereupon power is progressively fed to all four wheels. The XC90's stability and traction-control system brakes any wheel that attempts to break traction and spin. And on the highway, stability control takes on an added function to prevent rollovers of tall vehicles. If the system senses a roll angle outside normal parameters, it cuts engine power and brakes individual wheels to restore control.
The XC90's logbook contained many comments about the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. Volvo tuned the turbocharged powerplant to develop maximum torque at a just-above-idle 1500 rpm. While this was great for around-town responsiveness, the engine's 208 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque were horizontally challenged on the open road. This meant most drivers had to stay heavy on the throttle and keep the turbo at full boil negotiating hills and upgrades. The extra cog of the five-speed automatic transmission that comes standard with the five-cylinder engine helps somewhat, giving a wider choice of ratios for the gearbox to mix and match with the engine's limited oomph. And despite the leadfoot syndrome among our editors, the XC90 2.5T delivered a respectable 17.8 mpg over 22,000 enthusiastically driven miles--far better than most SUVs we've experienced. Drivers interested in more power should look at the optional 2.9-liter, 268-horse twin-turbo six or, new for 2005, the decidedly less-stoic 4.4-liter, 311-horse V-8.
From the Logbook
"The XC90 solves nearly every SUV riddle with few compromises."
"At five feet, two inches, I'm a bit short for this family vehicle and actually have to climb in and out. Otherwise, the XC90 feels solid and handles well. It's firm without being tanklike and comfortable without seeming wallowy."
"Utility and a super-solid feel are the XC90's sterling attributes. Even with the five-cylinder motor, it has power to haul a full load of seven passengers and day-trip gear at freeway cruising speeds. But ask no more of it. Fully loaded, the five-cylinder has nothing in the way of passing ability."
"Here's an SUV a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker won't look out of place on. All those years of wagon building paid off in this thoughtful, practical, and beautifully designed machine."
"The XC90 is handsome, roomy, nicely built, well appointed, comfortable, with particular attention paid to design and interior quality. The rear seat is better than most third rows, though still best for kids. The split rear tailgate makes for easy loading and unloading from the cargo area. Volvo's audio-system controls can drive you batty until you get used to them. The base five-cylinder proved this unit's biggest bane: It groans and throbs, and, for this large a rig, power is just adequate. No such problem with the optional turbo-six, as it's velvet smooth and packs more punch. Still, the XC90 isn't Volvo's best-selling model for nothing. I found it a great family-travel partner and luxury ride. It earned its stripes as a Sport/Utility of the Year winner, and after a year in the saddle, I'm still happy with that pick."
"With all-wheel drive, there's a noticeable stiffness to the steering during tight turns and when making U-turns. Also, the curb-to-curb turning diameter in tight spaces is less than spectacular."