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First Oz drive: Volvo XC90 worth waiting for

Safety-minded: XC90 features five world firsts for an SUV, including seatbelt pre-tensioners on all seven seats.

Volvo has big Australian plans for its important new SUV, the XC90 soft-roader

17 Jul 2003

VOLVO has joined the off-roader boom with the XC90, a soft-road wagon which has already proved popular overseas and is seen as a key to turning the company's local fortunes around.

On sale this week in two automatic-only variants - the $69,950 2.5T and $82,950 T6 - XC90 heralds the Swedish company's entry into the burgeoning luxury cross-over market established by the Mercedes-Benz M-class in 1998.

Since then Benz has been joined by marques like Audi (Allroad), BMW (X5), Lexus (RX330), Honda (MDX) and even Porsche (Cayenne).

Sure, the XC90's smaller relation, the XC70 (formerly known as the Cross-Country), was one of Australia's crossover pioneers and is also sold as a "luxury SUV". But rather than being simply a high-rise Volvo wagon, XC90 is a larger, more purpose-built proposition.

Volvo Cars Australia says XC90 will complement XC70, but with a price just $1000 less than the entry level XC90, the smaller car is likely to face stiff sibling rivalry.

In fact, such has been the global demand for Volvo's new full-size SUV that the company has expanded XC90 production from 50,000 to 80,000 units per annum.

XC90 is integral to Volvo Car Australia's plans to sell 4000 cars per annum by 2005, reversing a slide that has resisted such recent additions to the brand here as the V70 and S60. Year-on-year sales slid a further 27 per cent in the first six months of 2003.

Encouragingly, VCA held about 400 pre-orders for XC90 to June, with 700 examples expected to be sold this year and 1200 sales expected in 2004 - about half X5 sales.

Volvo believes XC90 will attract five buyer groups, including people who have never considered buying a Volvo four-wheel drive owners trading up to a premium SUV those who previously rejected an SUV on a safety and/or image basis those after an SUV with seven forward facing seats and Volvo customers wanting an SUV.

XC90 claims to incorporate five world firsts for an SUV including Roll Stability Control seat pretensioners for all seven seats a child booster cushion side curtain airbags for all three rows and PremAir, which converts low level ozone into oxygen.

Volvo is also boasting about the XC90's five-star Euro NCAP result.

Based on a stretched XC70 platform - versions of which also underpin the S60, V70 and S80 - XC90 is just 90mm longer than the donor car at 4798mm.

Highly specified in standard form, the entry level five-speed Geartronic 2.5T features a lightly turbocharged 2.521-litre 20-valve five-cylinder transverse engine that employs variable exhaust valve technology to produce 154kW at 5000rpm and 320Nm of torque from just 1500rpm.

Top speed for the 1982kg 2.5T is quoted at 210km/h, with a claimed 0-100km/h time of 9.9 seconds and fuel economy at 16.1L/100km highway and 9.3L/100km city.

Standard external 2.5T features include rear mudflaps, roof rails, roof spoiler and 17 x 7.0-inch alloys

Disappointingly, the four-speed Geartronic 2.9 T6 misses out on the five-speed auto of its less expensive 2.5T, but adds a twin-turbocharged 2.922-litre 24-valve inline transverse six-cylinder with variable exhaust valve timing to produce 200kW at 5200rpm and 380Nm of torque at 1800rpm.

Claimed 0-100km/h acceleration for the 2037kg T6 is 9.3 seconds, with fuel consumption quoted at 18.5L/100km highway, 9.6L/100km city.

Both cars have an identical 210km/h claimed top speed.

There's plenty more in common. Both employ power-assisted speed-sensitive rack and pinion steering with only 2.7 turns lock to lock and a wide 12.5-metre turning circle, plus independent MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension systems with anti-roll bars.

Ventilated discs are standard all round, as is ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Emergency Brake Assist, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, and Roll Stability Control.

Both vehicles have 218mm of ground clearance, a 28-degree approach angle, 20-degree break-over angle, 25-degree departure angle, 2250kg (braked) towing capacity and 72-litre fuel capacity.

Standard external 2.5T features include rear mudflaps, roof rails, roof spoiler and 17 x 7.0-inch alloys.

Inside there's textile/vinyl trim, fully adjustable and multi-function leather steering wheel, climate control with B-pillar ventilation, lumbar adjustment, power driver's seat with memory, integrated second-row child booster seat,40/20/40-split rear seat, front armrest, cupholders, cruise control, trip computer, power windows and (heated) mirrors, eight-speaker CD audio and PremAir.

Standard 2.5T security features include remote central locking, electric child-proof rear door locks, approach lighting, cargo cover, full interior illumination including footwell lighting, front and rear foglights and headlight levelling.

On the safety front, there are head restraints and three-point seatbelts with pretensioners and antisubmarining for all seating positions, dual-stage front airbags, side curtain airbags, Volvo's Side Impact Protection System and Whiplash Protection System and Park Assist.

XC90 T6 adds full leather upholstery, 18 x 8.0-inch alloys, woodgrain trim, leather gearknob, power front passenger seat, front seat heating, telephone, 12-speaker six-CD audio, rear headset socket, auto-dimming rear vision mirror and headlight washers.

Both XC90 models are also available with optional metallic paint ($1350), sunroof ($2650), third row seats ($5100), B-Xenon headlights, rain sensor, grocery bag holder and a sump guard, while 2.5T can also specify leather trim for either five seats ($2850) or seven ($3250).

At $69,950, the 2.5T matches the more powerful RX330 and (seven-seat) MDX, and narrowly undercuts the poorly equipped ML350 and ML270CDI ($72,900). The $82,950 T6 is similarly undercut by BMW's less powerful six-cylinder X5s.


ON first acquaintances, there’s no escaping the fact XC90 is one big SUV. At a Commodore-rivalling 4.8-odd metres long, it matches the exterior dimensions of Honda’s MDX, which also offers seven seats, and delivers considerably more metal than the five-seater M-class and X5.

But while Volvo might be late to the large SUV party, it’s the first European brand to offer a full-size, seven-seat cabin. And it will be a couple of years before either BMW or Mercedes-Benz can offer anything to match it.

Despite boasting the longest body and tallest ground clearance in its class (excluding Porsche’s air-sprung Cayenne), XC90 is remarkably similar to X5 in profile, but adds a number of Volvo styling cues such as the upright, cross-hatched grille, V-shaped bonnet and a high, pronounced shoulder line that makes its unmistakably Swedish.

Roof rails, wheel arch mouldings, proper door handles and a metal front bumper chin give it a purposeful stance that looks far more cohesive in the metal than in pictures.

A typically well thought-out cabin continues the functional design theme, with large controls that are logical and easy to operate – although the integrated telephone’s (standard only on T6) steering wheel controls are easy to inadvertently push.

Furthering the feeling of quality is a level of solidity – from the way the doors thud closed to the distinctly European type of overall body stiffness. That surprised us, as did the whisper-quiet cabin that must rate alongside X5 and RX330 in terms of wind, engine and road noise suppression. Mind you, the double-glazed side windows found in most cars on the launch is optional.

XC90 is also the best riding and steering Volvo we’ve ever driven. The nicely weighted tiller is more immune to kickback and torque steer than any Scandinavian we can think of. But it’s not as communicative as the X5, and there’s still a trace of both nasty traits during hard acceleration and in bumpy corners.

Generally, however, given XC90’s high ground clearance, tall seating position and 2000kg-odd kerb weight, the level of roadholding and lack of bodyroll – even during spirited cornering – is quite impressive.

Drivers expreience less head-shake than in the poor-riding ML too, but with a front-biased all-wheel drive system that ultimately rewards enthusiastic driving with understeer, XC90 never feels as dynamically capable as the sportier X5.

The cheapest XC90 may all but match the likes of MDX, RX330 and ML350/270 on price, but the five-cylinder 2.5T - which comprises just 20 per cent of XC90 sales so far – can’t match its six-cylinder rivals for performance.

Though the five-speed semi-manual Geartronic auto does a sterling effort of keeping the lightly turbocharged engine on the boil – and the torque peak comes in at that commendably low 1500rpm – there’s simply not enough urge to make the 2.5T ever feel urgent. And its 10-second 0-100km/h acceleration claim is testament to the fact two tonnes is a lot of weight for 154kW to power.

Certainly, the more popular and expensive T6 feels more muscular in comparison, offering a slightly broader and brawnier torque spread and feeling a little happier to rev. It’s only marginally quicker to 100km/h, but of course the trade-off for the turbo six’s extra urge and less stressful overtaking ability will be found at the bowser.

While this is expected, the unavailability in the T6 of the 2.5T’s five-speed auto is not. Apparently the T6’s four-speed Geartronic auto – lifted straight from S80 luxury sedan – is all that will fit in the XC90 engine bay with the I6. As such, tall overall gearing and a big gap between ratios – especially first to second – show up the four-speed’s lack of ratios.

Off-road, the Haldex clutch-operated all-wheel drive system does direct torque rearward when required, but doesn’t do it as efficiently as other systems. Power oversteer is difficult to induce even on slippery surfaces and the big Volvo always prefers to push its front-end, but this is kept well in check by the clever and unobtrusive stability, traction and roll speed control systems. Unfortunatley, however, these systems cannot be fully deactivated if uou so desire.

A reasonably greasy off-road section of the drive route and a contrived off-road activity in Victoria’s Yarra Valley showed XC90 probably matches the wheel articulation of the M-class, which it also betters for ride quality and ground clearance.

But of course the Volvo offers no low-range gearing and at least a couple of XC90s would have been in trouble after striking punctures and having to fit space-saver spare wheels which are unsuited to off-road use. XC90’s road tyres also proved out of their element on wet clay, and the ABS is not well calibrated for loose surfaces.

So while Volvo’s biggest off-roader is more capable than many SUVs off-road, there’s no question it’s more at home in the ‘burbs, where its high seating position, highly ergonomic cockpit and easy-to-live nature become real assets.

XC90’s optional third row of seats is a boon, coming with C-pillar ventilation in addition to the second row’s B-pillar venting. Folding flat into the floor, the two rear-most seats are far more commodious than the MDX’s, and the second row seats slide independently of each other, allowing the centre position to be staggered for large occupants and raised towards the front seats for infants.

Pre-tensioners all round and the ability to remove the centre armrest console entirely are other noteworthy touches.

Included in XC90’s impressive standard equipment list is a booming eight-speaker audio system (12 speakers and a CD stacker in the T6) that provides unmatched sound quality in its class.

XC90 isn't up there with a LandCruiser off-road or an X5 on-road – nor does it rival the Cayenne’s wide spread of abilities in both environments. But with a distinctive new body big enough to accommodate seven in comfort – plus outstanding safety and equipment levels - Volvo’s new SUV delivers enough of both world’s to represent real value.

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