Full Test: 2003 Volvo XC90

Discussion in 'OT Driven' started by TriShield, Apr 9, 2003.

  1. TriShield

    TriShield International Moderator Super Moderator

    Jul 6, 2001
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    More Than Just Airbags


    By Ed Hellwig
    Date posted: 04-08-2003

    Safety is so ingrained into Volvo's image that it could offer a detachable sidecar made of cardboard for its vehicles and most customers probably wouldn't think twice about hopping in. This unassailable reputation for passenger protection is just one of the many reasons Volvo is confident that its new XC90 sport-utility can conquer the fiercely contested realm of the premium midsize SUV.

    For the uninitiated, this upscale class includes some of the best-selling sport-utilities on the market, namely the Lexus RX 300 (now RX 330 for 2004), Acura's MDX and BMW's X5. These luxuriously appointed utility vehicles achieved their immense popularity in part because they're built on car-based platforms in place of more rudimentary truck-based hardware. The obvious result is more carlike ride and handling without giving up the elevated driving position and rugged image buyers are after.

    Like its competition, the XC90 is a car-based SUV designed to offer all the comforts of a luxury sedan in a package that's versatile enough to accommodate an active family. There's seating for up to seven, loads of cargo room and a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system designed to keep the XC headed in the right direction no matter how deep the snowdrifts get. We didn't get caught up in any freak California snowstorms, but a week of experiencing just about everything else in Volvo's new SUV proved it to be a top-notch luxury sport-ute with few shortcomings.

    Decked out in top-of-the-line T6 AWD trim, our test vehicle came in at just over $44,000. A steep entry fee for sure, but one that outfitted our tester with nearly all the option sheet had to offer. This included the Versatility package that adds third-row seating, along with the Premium package that includes sharp-looking 18-inch wheels and tires, wood trim and a Dolby sound system fit for a movie theater. For those on a stricter budget, the base front-wheel-drive model starts in the low $30,000s.

    Other than the standard all-wheel drive, the T6's other major upgrade over the standard model comes in the way of a more powerful 2.9-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder engine. Since the engine is rated at a healthy 268 horsepower, we expected the XC90 to have above average pickup, but slow off-the-line acceleration was one of the vehicle's few disappointments. A measured 0-to-60 time of 9.5 seconds confirmed our seat-of-the-pants observations. To put that in perspective, the last Acura MDX we tested turned in a time of just 7.9 seconds from zero to 60 despite the fact that its V6 engine was rated at only 240 horsepower.

    Part of the problem rests in the fact that the T6 comes standard with a four-speed automatic transmission, while the lesser powered base model is equipped with a five-speed unit. More gears allow for a wider range of ratios that can be tailored to better exploit the engine's power band. Another factor is the XC's weight. At 4,610 pounds, the seven-passenger version is over 200 pounds heavier than the similarly sized MDX. Couple these factors with the natural lag present in nearly all turbocharged engines at low rpm, and you have yourself a real softy off the line.

    Thankfully, higher-speed acceleration is suitably quick, with a good strong pull at higher rpm combined with sharply executed downshifts from the automatic. The transmission also features a manual mode that allows the driver to control the shifts by merely bumping the shifter forward or backward in a parallel gate. Engine noise is hushed at all speeds, as is most road noise, making the XC a sublime cruiser whether you're in town or out on the highway.


    Should you encounter slick roads, the XC's all-wheel-drive system stands ready to engage in an instant. In normal conditions, nearly all of the power is routed to the front wheels, but should one of the front wheels begin to slip, power is automatically redirected to the rear wheels. The system works in conjunction with Volvo's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) system to give the XC90 exceptional all-weather capabilities, but like most sport-utes in this class, it's designed for light-duty off-road adventures only.

    While the engine is a bit of a disappointment, the XC90 makes up for it with its nearly perfect suspension setup that blends tight body control with just enough isolation to keep the ride comfortable. "Carlike" was how it was most often described; a compliment most likely derived from its lightweight steering that manages to provide excellent feedback while offering fingertip control. The powerful brakes act in much the same way, requiring only modest pressure to exact their powerful bite. Its 60-to-0 stopping distance of just 123 feet is equivalent to that of many high-end sport sedans. The overall feeling is of an SUV that drives much smaller than it is.

    The XC's easy-to-drive character stems from more than just its over-the-road handling, however. Getting in the vehicle is painless thanks to a low step-in height and lightweight doors that still close with a solid thunk. Like most Volvos, its power-adjustable bucket seats provide excellent support all around, but a few editors noticed that the seats didn't coddle as much as those in the S60 or S80 sedans. We were also a bit shocked to discover that seat heaters are not part of the standard features list of this Swedish sport-ute.

    Forward visibility is excellent thanks to the elevated ride height but rearward sight lines are partially blocked by the third-row headrests. An optional reverse sensing system partially offset this drawback in our test vehicle, but there's no substitute for being able to see things for yourself.


    Interior materials are first-rate throughout, with high-quality leather upholstery and good-looking dashboard plastics. Optional wood accents made our test vehicle seem that much more luxurious, but even without the added trim, there are enough brushed aluminum accents to make the interior look sharp.

    Excellent ergonomics further complement the interior's attractive design. The gauge cluster is uncluttered and easy to read from nearly any angle, while the dual-zone climate control system features Volvo's classic pictograph ventilation controls that can be deciphered at first glance. Well-placed satellite steering wheel controls provide fingertip adjustment for the stereo and cruise control system, while the wheel itself has a comfortably thick rim.

    Our only complaints concern the dashboard stereo controls that take some time to master and the lack of immediately accessible storage space. The fact that our test vehicle was optioned out with the top-of-the-line audio system may have resulted in a slightly more complex control system, but we've driven plenty of sport-utes with high-end audio systems that were considerably easier to manipulate than this one. As far as the lack of front and center storage space is concerned, the XC's console-mounted shift lever is the main culprit — a trait that it shares with many of its competitors unfortunately.

    Second-row seating is split 40/20/40 to permit varying levels of cargo as well as easy access to the third row. The middle section can also slide forward individually to allow parents to attend to a child in a car seat. Overall passenger room in the second row is a bit cramped when you include the third-row seat option, with the class-leading Acura MDX offering as much as an inch or two more head-, leg- and shoulder room in its second row.

    The third row is expectedly tight for any normal-size adults but the 50/50-split seats can accommodate two children without much fuss. Third-row passengers also get their own air conditioning vents, reading lights and cupholders. Should you not need the extra passenger capacity, the seats fold completely flat into the floor to open up a sizable cargo area. Combined with the second-row seats that also fold flat, the XC90 features 85.1 cubic feet of cargo space — three cubic feet more than the MDX.

    Regardless of how many passengers you're apt to carry on a regular basis, the XC90 has their safety covered on all fronts. While that won't come as much of a surprise to most, the XC90's level of advanced safety equipment is truly a step above anything Volvo has ever offered before.

    To address the often cited problem of SUV rollovers, the XC90 features the world's first Roll Stability Control (RSC) system in a production vehicle. This system can sense an imminent rollover and actively reduce the engine's throttle or activate individual brakes to restore control. Should the vehicle roll over anyway, all seven passenger positions are protected by seatbelt pre-tensioners that automatically cinch tight in an accident and a full-length Inflatable Curtain (IC) head airbag. The IC not only protects all three rows of passengers, but it stays inflated in a rollover to provide additional protection for those who may not have been belted in.

    The DSTC system, which works in conjunction with the RSC, also keeps the vehicle headed in the right direction even if you're not about to roll over. It uses throttle reduction and selective braking to restore control in a manner that goes largely unnoticed to the driver. Other advanced safety aids in the XC90 include whiplash-reducing front seats as well as side-impact airbags for the driver and front passenger.

    There's no doubt that the XC90 is one of, if not, the safest SUVs available anywhere, but you probably already figured on that. Our brief experience revealed that it's also one of the easiest to drive and sharply dressed midsize sport-utes. Easy to get in, easy to maneuver, smooth on the highway or about town — the XC is hard not to like. While we were a bit disappointed with its less than overwhelming power and somewhat tight second-row accommodations, only the most discerning buyers are likely to be let down by these deficiencies.


    Ups: Safe as a bank vault, plush ride, feels smaller than it is, high-quality interior, ample cargo room.

    Downs: Turbocharged engine not well suited to SUV duty, third-row seating takes up too much second-row space.

    The Bottom Line: Volvo's first foray into the SUV arena has everything it needs to compete in this highly competitive category.

    MSRP of Test Vehicle: $44,460

  2. lostraven

    lostraven Guest

    thanks for the report!!! I WANT ONE!!!!!

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