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Volvo XC90 V8 Sport Road Test

Sunday Times. 7 January 2007. By Jeremy Clarkson

The three twentysomething Californians were fairly intelligent so although they’d never been to Europe before, they could take most things in their stride: the smallness of the portions, the warmness of the beer, the lowness of the ceilings, the absence of pick-up trucks and the gunlessness of the policemen.

But then I took them for dinner at a small Italian restaurant in Notting Hill where, shortly after sitting down, all three were struck dumb. “What,” stammered the first, staring at the ashtray, “is that?” If you’d asked them to list all the things they’d least expect to find on a table, in a restaurant, in a country that’s a member of Nato, an ashtray would line up alongside a child’s potty full of sick. They would have been less surprised if they’d been confronted with one of Saddam Hussein’s ears.

For all their adult life, these guys have lived in Los Angeles where you can no more smoke in a public place than stick your private parts in a cooked quail and run around shouting “I am the god of hell fire”.

Now, of course, in America, it’s very easy to enforce laws like the smoking ban because this is a nation where people make friends in lifts. So if you light a cigarette on a beach, for instance, you will be shamed into putting it out by a combination of dirty looks and threatening gestures from those in nose shot.

Here, though, we don’t like to make a fuss or cause a scene so the job of enforcing our smoking ban will fall to someone in a high visibility jacket.

We saw much the same thing on Boxing Day when 16m people climbed onto their horses and spent the day pretending not to chase foxes up hill and down dale. They were forced into the charade because each one was being monitored by someone in a high visibility jacket with a video camera.

Try selling a pound of sausages at a market stall in Britain these days. You’d last a week before the kilogram police descend on you like a ton of bricks. Or should that be a tonne? Since his Toniness was appointed supreme ruler, his government has imposed the equivalent of one new law a day. And with each new law, he’s had to employ an army to enforce it. That’s why the civil service now employs more people than live in the city of Sheffield.

Strangely, however, the American system of using dirty looks seems to be working already with the large off-road car.

It’s not banned, but a constant government-led attack on this type of vehicle, backed by a dollop of fury from the nation’s communists and cyclists, seems to be shaming everyone into buying something else. Fiona Bruce, the agonisingly gorgeous newsreader, wants to replace her Volvo with something less enormous. Davina McCall got pangs of guilt over her Range Rover.

The arguments for and against off-road cars are both fairly silly. On the one hand, you have some nitwit from Richmond council appearing on television’s Fifth Gear, saying that he doesn’t like the new Honda CR-V because it’s too tall; as though that has anything to do with it.

And on the other, you have Honda arguing that its new CR-V will cause no more damage to the planet than a toaster or a cow. Blah blah blah.

The facts of the matter, however, are irrelevant because if you drive a large SUV round a city centre these days you are almost melted by the hate. You’d get less reaction if you were caught videoing a school playground while wearing a Kiddie Fiddler T-shirt.

Even I’ve caught the bug. I look at people in Range Rover Sports, which have the same level of oikishness as Shane Warne’s hairdo, and I think: “My God, you must have a thick skin.”

I’ve always wanted a proper Range Rover, but today I’m not sure I could actually buy one. It’d become wearisome, I’m sure, tuning in to the BBC news every single night and being told I was personally responsible for every single one of the world’s ills. It seems 4x4s kill polar bears, drown Indonesians, bankrupt ski resorts, vote Tory and don’t slow down for badgers.

This means the second-hand value is weak. Trying to sell a year-old Land Cruiser is like trying to sell a year-old piece of cheese.

That’s why we read recently that sales of off-road cars have fallen by 5.5% in the first 10 months of 2006. Without a single piece of legislation, the bubble has been pricked.

Strangely, however, the car makers don’t seem to have noticed this. I mean, take Volvo as an example. Instead of launching a new small hybrid to quench the thirst of those who miss the Soviet Union, it has just announced the arrival in Britain of a Volvo XC90 . . . V8 Sport.

Not since Shane MacGowan last picked up a microphone have we heard anything quite so out of tune with the way of the world. But like Shane MacGowan, this thing does have a place.

Like half the school-run families in Britain today, I have an XC90 and it’s brilliant. Unlike various other alternatives, it really does seat seven, and even with a full load on board, the boot is still big enough for a couple of dogs.

Apart from all this, it’s reliable, good looking, quite well priced and it’s served on a big bed of honest to goodness common sense. The buttons, for instance, are designed so that you can operate them while wearing gloves.

The only drawback has been the choice of engines. The V6 was asthmatic and underpowered so I went for the diesel, which is noisy, as powerful as a cap gun and not all that economical either.

The V8 changes everything. I assumed that because Volvo is owned by Ford, which also owns Land Rover and Jaguar, it’d be the Jag V8, or perhaps the pig iron V8 from a Mustang. But no. It’s an all new 4.4 litre unit, designed in conjunction with Yamaha, and it’s really rather good.

It makes a nice noise, and because it develops 311bhp your big old Volvo bus will get from 0-62mph in 6.9sec and reach 130mph. You really can think of it in the same breath as the BMW X5.

Perhaps because the engine is mounted sideways, the handling is very good. The ride, too, is unchanged from the diesel and, best of all, you should get more than 20mpg. Not bad for any off-roader, leave alone a V8.

The only drawback is that the turning circle is now rubbish. You’ll make people angry by driving such a thing in the first place, but their anger will turn to a murderous blind rage when every mini roundabout requires a five-point turn.

But let’s not worry about what other people think. Let’s worry only about you and what car best suits the needs of your family.

The only seven-seat cars that are truly comparable to the V8 XC90 are the Audi Q7, which is a woeful thing with no boot and no go, and the Land Rover Discovery, which is a big and spectacularly heavy automotive V sign that chews fuel and breaks your fingernails every time you want to load a child into the back.

The Volvo, as a piece of design, has always been the best school-run car. And now, with that V8 under the bonnet, you can enjoy the run home as well. And if you are glowered at for bumbling round a city in something so seemingly vast and wasteful, simply take a leaf from the book of that great automotive thinker and motoring philosopher, Jack Dee.

Jack says he’s particularly fed up with abuse from van drivers who trundle around London in huge Mercedes Sprinters with nothing in the back but a hammer, while his Volvo XC90 is loaded to the rafters with six children. “By running a big 4x4, I’m keeping three other cars off the school run,” he argues, reasonably.

Vital Statistics

Model  Volvo XC90 V8 Sport
Engine  4414cc, eight cylinders
Power  311bhp @ 5850rpm
Torque  325 lb ft @ 3900rpm
Transmission  six-speed Geartronic
Fuel  20.9mpg (combined cycle)
CO2  322g/km
Acceleration  0-62mph: 6.9sec
Top speed  130mph
Price  £45,950
Rating  4/5
Verdict:  A fine car, brilliant on the school run

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