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Volvo XC90 D5 S Road Test

April 2003

Rather a narrow squeak here, as prices for the Volvo XC90 range increased between our test drive and the pounding-away-at-the-keyboard session. The diesels now cost £750 more than in the March price list, and there's been a £1000 hike for the T6 petrol models.

When so many other manufacturers are going for powerful luxury 4x4s, which either handle like high-set off-roaders, or have masses of complex electronics to try to stop them handling like high-set off-roaders, there does seem to be a lot of sense in going the elevated estate car route. The Volvo has enough ground clearance and 4WD traction to deal with the kind of terrain it's likely to be faced with in a worst-case real-life situation, without the exaggerated body lean during cornering most 4x4s provoke.

The XC90 is an imposing and very well thought-out machine, and it's easy to see why so many people - more than 2000 in the UK and 15,000 world-wide - put in their orders even before the showroom launch. In fact, Volvo sold out the intended full-year UK allocation by the end of February, and has had to arrange to bring in 900 more.

This is a handsome and well-proportioned car, obviously higher off the ground than the V70 AWD, and yet not too butch in appearance. It suffers a little from the foreshortening effect in three-quarter front photographs, but in the metal it definitely looks the business, and it just oozes "solid Swedish build".

It's promoted as a seven-seater, and that's fine, especially as the old Volvo habit of having two rear-facing seats right at the back, with their junior occupants peering out through the tailgate window, has been abandoned. There are seven full-sized seats, all facing the direction of travel.

Very Clever Seating

And this is where the ingenuity of the design really begins to tell. The third-row seats - which, let's face it, are hardly ever going to be occupied - fold down to make a completely flat-floored load space of very generous proportions. Despite all the seven-seat hoopla, many people will buy the XC90 as an all-weather five-seater estate with massive load-carrying capacity. This is all pretty impressive, bearing in mind that the body is less than 90mm longer than the V70.

The three middle-row seats fold down more conventionally, in other words creating a flattish rather than flat floor. But there's another very neat tweak here, because with a simple movement the middle one can be transformed into a child's seat with a higher cushion, and it can be shifted forward so that Junior sits much closer to the adults in front.

Won't Junior have rather restricted legroom, though, with the front-cabin centre armrest in the way? Well, no, because the armrest can be removed.

One thing Volvo appreciates is that there's not much point in having a spacious interior if it doesn't offer enough foot room for the people sitting immediately behind the front seats. So it's provided that, as well as separate rear-cabin ventilation. I thought the middle-row seats were at least as comfortable as those in front, because I found the driver's seat rather hard in the middle of the back.

The front cabin is generally well presented, with a logical control layout. That little plastic clip on the offside A-pillar fairly took me back. You see them in all kinds of cars now, but I think it was Volvo which introduced them, to the mystification of myself and other journalists, at a long-ago new model launch.

We didn't figure out for ourselves, and had to be told, that the clip was there to hold a car park ticket against the inside of the windscreen. The fastidious Swedes didn't like the idea of sticking a ticket directly onto the glass, with the possibility of leaving a tiny mark on the screen when peeled off. On the other hand, I regard the XC90's American-style foot parking brake and fascia release with the contempt I always feel for these crude devices.

Well Matched Engine And Transmission

The D5 turbo diesel engine certainly pulls well, and it has no problem coping with the extra weight of the XC90. Something like 250lb/ft of torque plays its part. All diesel XC90s on sale at the moment have the tip-function Geartronic automatic transmission, which is a lot less clumsy than its name. The ratios seem well spaced, and the manual changes go through very smoothly. Volvo's order bank suggests that around 90% of buyers may go for Geartronic, with the full manual gearbox not available till the end of the year. There's no doubt that, on the open road, the XC90 handles better than most of its 4x4 rivals, and beats most of them for ride quality.

The Haldex coupling adjusts the amount of drive to the front and rear wheels unobtrusively enough to let you forget it's there. Volvo knows about tuning suspension to cope with less than perfect surfaces, and although you're aware of being higher off the road than in, say, the S80 which shares the same basic platform, the car never feels like a tight-rope walker in a sudden breeze. One of the extra-cost items on the test car (add £225 to the price quoted below) was speed-sensitive power steering, and that seemed like a good investment.

A vehicle like this will probably spend some weekends at events like race meetings, point-to-points or whatever, and that's been taken into account in the rear-end body design. The open tailgate would provide overhead cover, and the let-down part is able to take people either standing on it to watch the action, or sitting on it during a picnic. Detailed personal testing of the latter facility made it clear that anybody using it for that purpose had better have considerable personal padding, or a cushion to sit on.

Safety features? Well, this is a Volvo; so it's a matter of you name it, the car has it. There's the usual very sturdy central structure, side impact protection system, lavish airbag provision, and so on. But Volvo is obviously concerned that the higher centre of gravity may affect attempts at over-enthusiastic cornering. So it has built in a roll stability control system to check-brake one or more wheels if the body lean gets too obvious, and there's a particularly strong Boron steel roof - just in case. And it's ready for customers wanting lifestyle add-ons, with a massive accessory catalogue.

Price: £30,400
Capacity: 2401cc
Power: 161bhp
0-62mph: 12.3 seconds
Maximum speed: 115mph
Economy: 37.7mpg extra urban, 31.0mpg combined
CO2 emissions: 242g/km
Insurance: Group 15
Volvo figures

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