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Hello LUV! Review 2003 Volvo XC90 - All New

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SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide

by Marc J. Rauch, Exec. Vice President & Co-Publisher

It was just a matter of time before Scandinavia's number one auto maker jumped into the sport utility vehicle market. Although it took them a while to make the decision, once they did, they did it big-time, hitting the ground solidly on all four tires. Moreover, in doing so they again raised the bar on a new standard in automotive safety.

Volvo calls their XC90 the "next generation SUV." But it's more than that, it's the epitome of an entirely new category: I call it a LUV, a Luxury Utility Vehicle. Although credit has to be given to Mercedes (and probably Range Rover) for bringing the first real luxury SUV to market, the XC90 goes several steps further. Firstly, unlike Mercedes, who felt that they had to pay some homage to the Sport Ute market in 1998 by justifying the ML 320's off-road capabilities, Volvo was able to rely upon usage research which show that just a tiny percentage of SUV owners ever engage in any off-pavement driving. In fact, one study I read stated that overall only 1% of all SUVs are used in what might be considered real off-road activities. Therefore, armed with that kind of information, Volvo set out to build a popularly-priced "utility vehicle" that their potential customers would want and need; one with all the comfort and luxury of something like an S80 sedan.

That's not to say that the XC90 is incapable of performing sports related tasks such as towing a boat or camper or climbing hills and driving in snow, it's "way able" to do those things. It is a Volvo after all, and Volvo engineers have long proven themselves eminently capable of building vehicles for those jobs. But the XC90 doesn't have to pretend to be competing for an assignment in the next desert war. It merely has to meet the real application requirements of the average consumer.

On the outside, the XC90 is beautiful, borrowing heavily from the stylish curvy design of all Volvo vehicles since the C70 coupe. For my taste this is the best looking Ute on the market, and that includes anything labeled as a Sport Utility Vehicle or a Sport Activity Vehicle. I thought, and still think that the ML is a good looking vehicle, but like many I had a problem with the rear door/hatch. From behind, the ML looks like a mini-van. The X5 is also attractive in the rugged powerful way that a BMW should look. The Japanese luxury SUVs have a bit too much of a feminine appearance. And Range Rover has an elegant, but unattainable image (the price tag is also a bit unattainable). On the other side of the spectrum there's the Grand Cherokee, which personally I've always thought was a very good looking automobile. The problem is that it's a product of Chrysler: thereby being reliable only in its unreliability. In some respects, the Volvo XC90 shares a similar silhouette to the Grand Cherokee, but in full light it is far better looking. It has the best appearance attributes of all the aforementioned competitors. I’m confident that men and women alike will find its muscular yet refined visage very appealing.

Inside, the XC90 is equally attractive, again sharing many esthetic elements and the clean Scandinavian lines of other recent Volvo vehicles. XC90 is several inches longer than its BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Infiniti competition. The increased size provides additional legroom for all three seating rows (yes, there is an optional third seating row, for those that need it), and added cargo space. In a five-seat configuration the Volvo offers 41.0 inches of legroom in the front row and 36.4 inches for the second row. Comparatively, the X5, M-Class, RX 300, and QX4 provide 39.3/35.4, 40.3/38.0, 39.5/36.4, and 41.7/31.8, respectively.

From a driving comfort perspective, the XC90 feels a lot like their V70 XC Wagon, but with the road visibility of a utility vehicle’s higher “command position.” For those that haven’t had the opportunity to drive a V70 XC, think of it as driving an S80 with a longer wheelbase. Now if you haven’t had the chance to drive an S80, and don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, I mean to say that it’s great. The reason I didn’t just come right out and say that it’s great is because I think it’s important to emphasize that Volvo has engineered their LUV to drive and handle almost as well as their top of the line passenger car. In addition, it’s both ergonomically and humanly comfortable (sometimes ergonomics are like vegetables; it’s good for you but you still don’t like ‘em). With the XC90, you’re getting vegetables that taste great. The five cylinder, five-speed version has adequate, but not overwhelming power. The six cylinder, four-speed engine adds a lot of extra “oomph”, but under normal conditions the former is…adequate. Both engines are inline transverse mounted, and turbocharged. The five cylinder has 208 bhp; the six cylinder has 268 bhp.

However, as to be expected the XC90 really shines with its safety innovations. Time and time again we hear from the general media about the propensity of sport utility vehicles to roll-over. Television news magazine shows and Consumer Reports make it seem like they flip at will, like Mexican jumping beans. Reality has shown that it’s driver inexperience that’s at fault: many people erroneously think that driving an SUV excuses them from the laws of physics, as well as state highway laws. In any event, Volvo has addressed this problem with their Roll-over Protection System (ROPS). The system starts with a low center of gravity; just slightly higher than their V70 XC wagon. It then employs active gyroscopic sensors to register the vehicle’s roll speed and roll angle. If the calculated angle indicates that there is the danger of a roll-over, the XC90’s Dynamic Stability and Traction Control anti-skid system kicks in, which reduces the engine’s power and brakes one or more wheels until the vehicle understeers and regains stability.

To further minimize injury to passengers, Volvo then reinforced parts of the roof structure with Boron steel, which is supposed to be about five times stronger than normal steel. All seats, including the third seating row have seat belt pretensioners to help keep the passengers in place. For additional head protection, the XC90 has an inflatable air curtain that extends to all three rows (or just the two rows if the vehicle is only equipped with two seating rows).

The XC90 was also designed to be considerate of other vehicles on the road, particularly lower, smaller passenger cars. The typical SUV has high positioned bumpers, which might cause greater damage to a passenger car and its occupants in the event of a collision (the car may slip below the front of an SUV without activating its own safety features). The XC90’s front suspension subframe is supplemented with a lower cross-member and positioned at the height of the beam in a conventional car. The lower cross-member will make contact with an oncoming car’s protective structure, instead of avoiding it. And, of course, the XC90 has all the other safety features that are commonly included in Volvo’s other models: the Whiplash Protection System, the Side Impact Protection System, and the ISOFIX child-seat attachment system.

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What’s more, in the three-row, seven seat configuration, XC90 offers a flexible child-seat with booster cushion in the middle of the second seating row. The child seat can slide forward to be positioned just behind the two front seats. Volvo promotes this feature as “improving contact between the child and front seat occupants.” I think it safely shortens the distance between your hand and your kid’s mouth, which I know is a very politically incorrect thing to say. Either way, it should reduce valuable distraction time should a child need attention from the driver.

The XC90 is available as front-wheel drive only or as an automatically controlled all-wheel drive vehicle. Volvo expects that consumers in states without snow, like Florida and Texas, will opt for the front-wheel version. Both transmissions have the “manual” Geartronic shifting feature, and ABS braking is standard in all configurations. The third seating row can be ordered for either the front-wheel or all-wheel versions. An all-new Dolby Pro Logic II is the heart of the vehicle’s sound and entertainment system, which can be ordered with up to 13 speakers. A one-CD navigation system is optional, that permits continuous, uninterrupted use of the sound system. Other options include an exterior styling kit with running boards, color-coded wheel-arch covers, a rear skid plate, mud flaps, and 18” six-spoke aluminum wheels.

The pièce de résistance is the XC90’s price, or perhaps I should call it, “The price of little resistance.” The base price for the five-cylinder, front-wheel drive XC90 is $33,350. The AWD option is an additional $1,750. The base for the six-cylinder, all-wheel drive model is $39,975. A “Versatility Package”, which includes the third seating row adds $1,675 to either base price.

Once they’re ramped up for full production, Volvo is projecting U.S. sales to be around 39,000 units per year beginning in 2003. Production and sales estimates for the remaining few months of 2002 is 6,000 units. Given the high-quality and inherent value of this LUV I can’t imagine Volvo falling short of a sell-out every year for the foreseeable future.