Whatever Volvo has learned from long winters spent in contemplation, it might be a hesitancy to rush into things. That may partly explain why, a dozen years after the Ford Explorer triggered a buyer stampede into sport/utility vehicles, Volvo is just now introducing its first SUV.
Few companies other than Volvo have such a clearly defined brand character, a result of decades of honing its skills bringing sensible, practical, and safe personal transport to market.
The contemplation is about to pay off, for Volvo and you, with the all-new XC90. It's the latest fruit of Volvo's large-car platform that previously bore the S80 luxury sedan, which means a transverse-engine, front-drive unit-body platform, in this case adaptable to all-wheel drive. This car/minivan-based configuration has worked well for the Acura MDX and Lexus RX 300. And it's a natural progression for Volvo, a marque that has virtually owned the Euro wagon market for decades.
The XC90 is more than just a wagon version of the S80. It casts a larger shadow (it's longer, wider, and loftier than the Mercedes-Benz M-Class or BMW X5), and it offers command-of-the-road seating for up to seven passengers. How high? The front seats have 6.5 in. in elevation over those of the Volvo XC70 wagon. Ground clearance and approach and departure angles, long the measures of a serious off-road SUV, nearly match those of the Ford Explorer. Converted from people- to cargo-carrying duty, the XC90 will swallow up to 93.2 cu ft of stuff, more than Toyota's Land Cruiser and nearly as much as the full-size Chevy Tahoe. Because it's a Volvo, the XC90 is packed with every safety feature, dynamic as well as passive, currently on company shelves. This includes the industry's first active rollover-protection system.
Never a slave to fashion, Volvo has been well served by its conservative bent. Still, a gentle transformation has been occurring under the direction of Peter Horbury, vice president and Volvo Cars chief designer. Volvo shapes have evolved from shipping-crate boxy and straightedge angular to somewhat organic and downright muscular, with a pronounced V-shaped frontal design. The new XC90 continues that trend. Clearly, this one comes from the car side of the ledger, though it boasts a decidedly in-your-face face. Volvo knows what a truck is, and you can see plenty of its big-rig 18-wheelers hauling hogs and hay over the interstates.
When the XC90 hits North American dealerships in November 2002, it will be offered in two basic versions: the five-cylinder light-turbo 2.5T and six-cylinder twin-turbo T6. The 208-hp 2.5T all-wheel-drive model is well equipped with such niceties as dual-zone climate control, security system, wood inlay interior trim, and power driver's seat with lumbar support and memory for around $37K. Step up to the T6 model, and for around $44,500, upgrades include a 268-hp twin-turbo DOHC inline-six, leather seating, power glass moonroof, eight-way power front seats, Homelink, auto-dimming and memory rearview mirrors, six-disc in-dash CD player, and more aggressive 235/65R17 tires with alloy wheels. Both models are available in a choice of five- or seven-passenger configurations. Early in 2003, Volvo will introduce a price-leader front-drive version of the 2.5T in the mid-$30,000 range.
As a people mover, the XC90 seats two up front in oversized "business class" buckets, three in the 40/20/40-split second-row bench, and two more small adults or children in the third row (if so equipped) on another split bench. For cargo toting, both the second and third row can be folded down to form a flat load floor. The front passenger seat folds flat as well, affording load space for long objects such as extension ladders and surfboards. On seven-passenger XC90s, an optional child booster cushion can be fitted to the middle portion of the second-row seat. This bit slides forward independently of the outboard portions of the seat for impromptu parent-child conferences. Access to the cargo area is through a liftgate that's split 70/30 to form a small tailgate when open for loading items.
We recently sampled both AWD versions under urban, rural, and mixed highway driving conditions. In short, the driving experience was in keeping with what we've come to expect from Volvo--just upsized to SUV proportions. The XC90 structure is rock solid, with nary a squeak, rattle, or groan over the most checkered road surfaces. Huge one-foot-diameter vented disc brakes were a breeze to modulate and gave tremendous confidence in kamikaze commuter traffic and blind, off-camber mountain corners. And the oversized front seats managed to be La-Z-Boy-enveloping, yet orthopedically friendly during several hundred miles of drive time. Volvo core values remain intact.
The name Volvo may mean "I roll" in Latin, but Volvo has taken measures to tame one of the more nasty traits sometimes attributed to high center-of-gravity vehicles such as SUVs. One bit of new technology we tried out during a "moose" emergency-avoidance test was the XC90's Roll Stability Control. This is a logical expansion of Volvo's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) system, with gyroscopic sensors that report the car's roll angle and roll speed. If there's a risk of rollover, the DSTC will activate before the vehicle strays too far from shiny side up. The system will apply individual brakes or reduce throttle as needed to induce understeer and drop the vehicle below the roll threshold.
Should it cross the roll threshold, that's where the XC90's Boron-steel reinforced roof comes in--said to be 400-500 percent stronger than conventional mild steel. So confident is Volvo of the integrity of the passenger cell, it conducted a test where it snap-rolled an XC90 at 35 mph in a demonstration for the press. Upon completion of the automotive equivalent of a quadruple lutz, all four doors on the big Volvo still could be opened and closed and the family of crash-test dummies remained belted inside the passenger compartment.
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.