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Car reviews - Volvo - XC90 - 2.5T 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Interior spaciousness, third row safety features, driver ergonomics
Room for improvement
Mediocre dirt-road performance, large turning circle, high fuel consumption

21 Oct 2003

VOLVO would have us believe that the XC90 is something rather different from other ruling-class recreational four-wheel drives. That despite its large dimensions, imposing stature, 2.0-tonne kerb weight and so on, this vehicle is safer, smarter, cleaner, less selfish and more responsible than all those which have gone before it.

Could it be true?

It is, after all, one of few four-wheel drives to earn a five-star crash test result from Euro NCAP. Its front-end is designed to hit an average car in the crumple zone rather than aim at the human head. The impact-absorbing bonnet creates a soft landing for pedestrians thrown onto it. The roof is reinforced with ultra-tough boron steel.

The third row, when fitted, now faces forward (an admission, of sorts, that previous designs were flawed) and features seatbelt pretensioners, head restraints and a protective inflatable curtain. Row two includes an integrated child booster seat, which with the aid of a removable centre console box can slide close to parents/guardians up front.

Among the various electronic handling aids in the vehicle is an anti-rollover program that uses a gyro-sensor to monitor roll speed and roll angle.

And as usual with the Swede, the engines meet strict low-emission, or ultra-low emission, standards, the interior textiles are claimed to be non-allergenic, the leather (where used) is tanned using plant substances and the radiator has the PremAir ozone-eating coating.

But there are problems.

That crash test result included a deficient two stars (out of four) for pedestrian protection, the testers noting that the bumper and bonnet leading edge were unforgiving and concluding that Volvo needs to work harder in this area. (Other manufacturers do, too. For example, BMW's X5, Land Rover's Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz's M-Class all achieved one star in this area.)

The XC90’s brown-road performance is unsound, with large potholes sending shockwaves through the cabin, the steering kickback apparent on bitumen becoming even more pronounced on rough-hew roads and the anti-lock brakes not being well calibrated for loose surfaces.

It uses a space-saving spare wheel. The turning circle is 12.5 metres. The Haldex-developed "on-demand" 4WD system, which splits torque 95/5 front/rear in normal conditions but can transfer up to 65 per cent to the rear axle, is not as efficient as others. The positioning of the foot-operated park brake is awful.

And when following in the blue haze of an old Ford Escort, the various crook-air counter-measures (particle trap, active carbon filter, auto-recirculation, etc) still allowed fumes into the cabin. Honest.

Rather than being a new breed of four-wheel drive, the XC90 feels like others of its ilk – comfortable, companionable and accommodating but with some serious setbacks for its occupants and other road users.

Performance is nowhere near as good as the raw data suggests, for even with torque peaking at a low 1500rpm the baseline 154kW 2.5-litre turbo T5 – mated to a five-speed Geartronic auto – struggles under the sheer weight of it all.

The engine never feels strong and consumes a great deal more petrol than an average passenger car (we averaged 15.8L/100km), while the transmission, shifting with smoothness and timeliness in most situations, is prone to flaring on occasion.

The sequential manual mode is to be commended for allowing the driver to control the change, and it all works with consummate ease – something not evident with the four-speed automatic tied to the 200kW 2.9-litre bi-turbo T6 version.

Here, the driver has to take care not to engage the manual-shift mode, and here tall gearing hinders the extra performance. Fuel consumption is also no better.

Consigned to the bitumen, the XC90 isolates its occupants well from the outside world, rides great across most irregularities, hangs onto the road well for such a large vehicle and maintains good composure during directional changes.

It lacks the driver involvement one can find in some rival vehicles, the nose will start to run when blown too hard into tight corners, the seats need more bolstering for the ribcage and the steering is closer aligned to a butter knife than a roast carver.

Take to some challenging bush trails and the absence of low range gearing, extensive undercarriage reinforcement, a full-size spare wheel and so on also come to the fore, in particular when the 218mm ground clearance, reasonable wheel articulation and workmanlike 4WD intelligentsia create the impression that this thing could go far. The fuel tank holds 72 litres.

Back on more common ground, mums on the school run and dads rolling up to kinder nights won’t be disappointed.

In either variant, the driver is provided with a comfortable and throne-like seating position, anti-whiplash head restraints, electric seat movement, the means to finetune steering height and reach, clear instrumentation, simple access to centre dashboard controls, outstanding audio performance and various storage facilities. Two cup-holders are provided up front. Fit and finish is outstanding.

And with all that, one wonders how Volvo got it so wrong with the park brake.

All-round interior space is excellent for this class, access to the second row is made easy with large-opening rear doors and outboard passenger comfort across the 40/20/40-split bench seat is good (at the expense of the narrow centre seat).

Child seat anchorage points are located behind each seat – though require an extension strap for at least two common Australian restraints – and each portion folds down flat and clicks in place to further extend the generous load space provided when rear seats are either not installed or folded down.

Access to the third row is a simple one-lever tilt/slide manoeuvre that provides enough space for kids to clamber through. These two rearmost seats and their surrounds are too small for average-sized adults or adolescents, however, children will find fan and stereo controls within reach, pillar-mounted vents, cup holders and a storage box. Middle-row seat portions can also move forward when the third row is fitted.

A well-engineered horizontal-split tailgate provides access to the cargo area, the latter being unremarkable in size (495mm floor depth, 450mm height from floor to windows) whenever third row seats are upright and impressive when the rear seats are either not included or folded down flat from inside the cabin using a pull-push action that takes a few minutes to master.

Tie-down hooks, a third 12-volt power outlet and a load cover are standard issues and two small underfloor compartments are created when the rear seats are in use. A shopping bag holder, cargo net and other useful amenities are optional.

Standard features run to climate-control air-conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer, eight-speaker stereo, auto-levelling headlights, rear parking sensors, traction and stability control, the much-vaunted roll control, ABS with EBD, dual-stage front airbags, side airbags and front and rear curtain airbags. The T6 gets the bigger engine, 18-inch wheels, leather, wood, phone, heat to the seats and an ever better stereo.

A few years ago, this particular writer was eulogising Volvo for having the courage not to produce a large, overbearing four-wheel drive wagon and was supporting long-suffering BVDs (Blinkin’ Volvo Drivers) stuck inside the more practical and economical traditional station wagon environment.

Nothing changes with the latter, but Volvo is having us all on in describing the XC90 as an unprecedented four-wheel drive. It is not.

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