While some car companies were pinning their badges and grilles over someone else's machinery, Volvo was putting SUV sales, design trends, and customer preferences in its crosshairs. And it waited. And waited some more, keeping a steady hand on the new-product trigger.

For 2003, Volvo introduced its first-ever sport/utility vehicle, the XC90. Predictably, it blended Volvo's longstanding legacy of pragmatic station wagons and solid-as-Grant's tomb safety engineering with all-wheel drive, seven-passenger versatility, and a command-driving position. Surprisingly, however, Volvo crafted a package that exhibited a high degree of finesse and polish, challenging established luxury SUVs from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Acura, and Lexus. The XC90 so impressed Motor Trend that we named it Sport/Utility of the Year in 2003. A long-term test was in order.

The first long-term XC90 T6 destined for the MT offices met a watery demise along with several hundred other Volvos, BMWs, and Saabs in a ferry sinking en route to America. So this time we waited. And waited some more. After an unfortunate delay of nine months, a second XC90 arrived at Motor Trend's Los Angeles offices, but it had morphed into a base 2.5T five-cylinder model. We took it, anyway, even though the Volvo garnered SUV honors in 2003 largely on our enthusiasm for the twin-turbo six-cylinder version. The good news was this long-term tester was a 2004 model benefiting from a host of improvements and running production changes made throughout the 2003 model year.

Our dry-behind-the-ears 2.5T came with a base sticker of just $35,125, including destination. A hefty option load included Crystal Green Metallic (more silver than green) paint ($450), all-wheel drive ($1750), the Versatility Package consisting of self-leveling rear suspension, third-row seats, and air conditioning and audio controls for said third row ($1675), the Climate Package including heated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and more ($595), and the Premium Package consisting of a power moonroof, leather seats, six-CD in-dash changer, and other amenities ($2575) for a grand total of $42,170. It was everything we'd hoped for, short of a navigation system and the 268-horse, 2.9-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder engine.

When word got out that the Volvo had landed, it didn't take long to fill the signup sheet. One staffer drafted the XC90 to drag gear for Car of the Year testing and was amazed at the amount of space left over. Weeks later, another editor grabbed the Volvo keys to take friends to Las Vegas. The flip-down lower portion of the liftgate proved perfect for an impromptu tailgate party.

Aside from cargo-hauling duties, the XC90's third-row seats got a workout, too. Adults can slide back there in a pinch, although the rearmost seats seem best suited to children. Luckily, the second-row seats can be slid forward to give the third-row occupants more legroom. Rear-seat air-conditioning controls also minimize griping. One editor noted that some sixth-grade kids he was chauffeuring around had difficulty figuring out the sequence of handles and tabs that need to be pulled and lifted to fold and flip forward the second-row seats to gain access to the back row.

The XC90 seemed at its best when used as a roomy luxury vehicle with extra storage capacity. The logbook filled up with praise for the vehicle's capable suspension (despite the Volvo's size and 4550-pound weight), luxury-car ride, and effective brakes.

The XC90 shares a number of its underpinnings and major components with Volvo's top-of-the-line S80 flagship sedan. Motor Trend tests showed that the XC90's 127-foot stopping distance from 60 mph was among the best in the SUV category. Volvo routinely uses soft brake-pad material to enhance stopping performance at the expense of wear; our XC90's front pads had to be replaced at just 15,815 miles, although more conservative drivers may see longer pad life.

The rest of our long-term XC90's service proved uneventful. Volvo rolls free routine maintenance into the price of the XC90, and although an overzealous service manager charged us $169.50 for the scheduled inspection, oil and filter change, and tire rotation at the 7500-mile service, that sum was later credited to cover the cost of replacing the front brake pads at the 15,000-mile service. Along the way, Volvo performed free updates to the vehicle to improve the functions of transmission-shift quality, headlamp washer pump, keyless-entry keyfob, infotainment system, tailgate cable, third-row seat catches, air-conditioning, and seatbelt guides.

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."
--Chris Walton

"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."
--Brandy Schaffels

"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."
--Thomas Voehringer

"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."
--Ron Sessions

"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."
--Matt Stone

"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."
--Mark Williams

Our Take
What's Hot
Handsome design, inside and out
Interior package flexibility
Good fuel economy

What's Not
Steering vagueness
Just-average power (five-cylinder)
Large turning circle
Don't Miss
Slide-forward middle section in second-row seat
Bottom Line
Wagonlike versatility meets luxo-car thoughtfulness
What's New, Changed, Different
Though the basics of Volvo's one and only SUV have remained the same since its 2003 introduction, the big news for 2005 is the availability of a V-8. Designed and built by Yamaha, the all-aluminum 4.4-liter sparkles with 311 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque while achieving ultraclean ULEV II emissions status. It's backed by a six-speed Aisin-Warner automatic transmission and reinforced Haldex all-wheel drive. The normally aspirated V-8 joins the existing five- and six-cylinder turbocharged engines in the lineup. All 2005 XC90s now include tire-pressure monitoring, rain-sensing wipers, a Homelink universal garage-door opener, rearview-mirror memory, and a front-passenger weight sensor (for the airbag) as standard equipment. Front seats are of a new design. The optional Premium package adds a cargo security cover and power childproof locks in 2005. Also, 2005 six-cylinder models get a standard leather shift knob.


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