The bevy of standard, onboard safety gear includes head-curtain airbags for all three rows of seating (two rows on five-passenger) and a supplemental front crossmember designed to be compatible with the bumper height of regular passenger cars.

All this massive structure and product content adds weight. At 4610 lb, the XC90 is a half-ton or so heavier than the XC70 wagon and the full-size S80 sedan. Drivers who value spirited road performance should move right past the 208-hp 2.5T in favor of the 268-hp T6. On the road, the T6 has legs; a lighter throttle foot handles grades with ease, and there's less time spent overtaking slower vehicles. This is partly due to the more generous horsepower and torque the T6 produces, but it's also attributable to max torque occurring later in the rpm range. The light-turbo five-cylinder, on the other hand, works just dandy in soccer-mom suburbia, but has to huff and puff to make entertaining performance on the highway. According to Volvo tests, there's just a half-second difference in the 0-60-mph time between the five-cylinder and T6, but the T6 feels much more responsive and capable than the 2.5T at higher speeds. Both powerplants meet stringent Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standards. And Volvo promises fuel-economy levels above the SUV norm.

Hooking up to either powerplant is an automatic transmission. The five-cylinder gets an Aisin-Warner five-speed unit, while the twin-turbo six uses a GM four-speed autobox. Both feature Geartronic control, allowing the driver to upshift or downshift manually with a flick of the shifter. This would be more of a plus on steep mountain downgrades if the XC90's brakes weren't so darn wonderful.

Likewise the XC90's electronic AWD system is completely automatic. Developed in conjunction with 4WD expert Haldex, the system delivers 95 percent of the drive torque to the front wheels under most conditions. But if traction deteriorates, within one-seventh of a wheel turn, the system adjusts to send more drive torque to the rear wheels, up to 100 percent if necessary. Side-to-side management of the AWD system falls to the TRACS traction-control system, which will brake a spinning wheel to increase the drive torque to the side with the most traction. The driver never has to lift a finger.

Which brings us to steering. Both the 2.5T and T6 feature power rack-and-pinion steering, but the two feel very different. The 2.5T's steering is pinky-light, almost overboosted in operation, geared more to suburban comfort than open-field running. But the T6 adds speed-sensitive power assist for a nicely weighted, firm but responsive feel on the road. Otherwise the XC90 exhibits a great balance of superb ride quality with outstanding wheel control. The long-travel MacPherson-strut front/multilink rear suspension is well-tuned with effective damping, even over poorly maintained roads.

Volvo may be late to the SUV party, but it's bringing something new--an SUV with a conscience. That thinking has jived with Volvo wagon buyers over the years, and there's every reason to believe it'll work with SUV buyers as well. We'd say that's a safe bet.

Volvo may be late to the SUV party, but it's bringing something new--an SUV with a conscience.