Saturday, May 31, 2003

Volvo's first SUV a class act

Roomy like a truck, rides like a sedan

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer Contributor

Volvo XC90

Volvo's first-ever sport utility vehicle, the XC90, features the brand's distinctive egg-crate grill.


Wheels rating:
The ultimate all-weather, all-activity vehicle; a Volvo wagon updated for Americans.

Vital statistics

What I drove: 2003 Volvo XC90, five-passenger, all-wheel-drive, 2.5T engine with Geartronic 5-speed automatic transmission

Base price range: $35,125 - $41,250

Price as tested: $38,885 (includes destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: Metallic paint, premium package (power glass moonroof, leather seats, power passenger seat, auto-dimming mirror, In-dash 6-CD changer, memory for rearview mirrors, Homelink), rear headphone outlets

Engine: 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder w/ light-pressure turbo (208 hp, 236 lb-ft torque); 2.9-liter, 6-cylinder w/ twin turbocharger (268 hp, 280 lb-ft torque)

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with Geartronic manual shifter (avail. only w/ 2.5T); 4-speed automatic with Geartronic manual shifter (T6).

Drivetrain: front- or all-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 112.6 inches

Length: 188.9 inches

Width: 74.7 inches

Height: 70.2 inches

Weight: 4,450-4,610 pounds

EPA mpg, city/hwy: 18/24 (2.5T), 15/20 (T6)

Warranty: 4 yrs/50,000 miles

Safety stuff: All standard: anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, dual front and side airbags, head-protection curtain airbags for all three rows, seatbelt pretensioners and head restraints in all seating positions, whiplash protection head restraints in front seats.

Cool stuff: Fold-flat third-row seat, slide-forward 2nd-row infant seat, 70/30-split tailgate, water-bottle holders in doors.

More info go to...

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Car Talk
"Mom, this car is so quiet I can hear you chewing your gum," said my 8-year-old from the back seat of a Volvo XC90.

This minor insult to me was a major compliment to Volvo's first-ever SUV. We don't expect this level of refinement in a sport-utility vehicle, especially one that's hurtling down the freeway at 75 mph.

When Page called the XC90 a "car" she was spot-on. This sport-ute doesn't feel like a truck - it feels like a European luxury sedan. That's because the XC90 rides on the chassis of the Volvo S80, S60 and V70, cars with excellent road manners.

The XC90 joins the ranks of the Lexus RX330, BMW X5 and Acura MDX in the "medium premium" SUV segment. These luxo-crossovers combine the roominess, upright seating positions and sporty looks of an SUV with the ride and handling of a car. Like others in its class, the XC90 is available with all-wheel drive for slippery-road surface capability and moderate off-road use.

Responsive and tight

My family and I never left the pavement during our weeklong test drive, but we did cover 1,000 miles of macadam between San Jose, Calif., and San Diego. Along the way, we found plenty to like about the XC90.

I liked how effortless it was to drive. It's responsive and tight, and I always felt connected to the road. The XC90 was actually fun to drive, in an SUV sort of way.

We all liked the XC90's leather seats, which are nicely sculpted and supportive, and the ease with which we could slide in and out at rest stops (no ladder necessary).

Speaking of rest stops, we didn't get much rest when we stopped. We were too busy answering people's questions about Volvo's new SUV. By far the most popular question was, "Does it come with a third-row seat?" The answer is yes. You can order a seven-passenger XC90 with a forward-facing third-row seat (raised stadium-style), or a five-passenger model with just a second-row seat.

For parents with young kids, Volvo offers a trick integrated booster seat in the second row that can slide forward to put a toddler within easy reach of Mom or Dad. If you've got a lot of stuff to carry and not a lot of people, you can fold the second and third seats flat and create 93.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Cargo loading is assisted by the 70/30-split tailgate, which provides a perfect platform for sliding in heavy objects or hosting tailgate parties.

Impressive passing power

Back on the road, when I deigned to let my husband drive, he switched the Geartronic automatic transmission into manual-shift mode, saying it gave him more passing power. Sure enough, we flew by trucks like they were grazing cows, even while climbing the steep grade leading over the mountains into Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Page plugged her headphones into the rear-seat audio outlet and listened to her Beatles CD. I fiddled with my side of the dual AC controls until my hair was blowing back, and then studied the XC90's cabin.

The warm leather interior, clean lines and uncluttered dashboard send a stronger message of luxury than most SUVs. The fit-and-finish is first rate; everything feels solid, built to last. Large windows all around let in lots of light, provide great visibility and lend the cabin an airy and spacious feeling.

From the outside, the XC90 is unmistakably Volvo. The front end features the distinctive egg-crate grill with the Volvo diagonal and (curious) "male" symbol in the middle. The XC90 looks like the V70 wagon's brawnier brother, the one whose swim workouts led to broader, more pronounced shoulders, and a more defined V-shaped hood. The XC90 looks smart and strong, not dumb and intimidating.

Two engine options

But enough about the body. Let's talk about the engine compartment, where two power-plant choices are offered. The larger engine is the T6, a 2.9-liter, 6-cylinder twin-turbo that produces 268 hp. I must say, though, that our all-wheel-drive tester had the smaller 2.5T - a 2.5-liter, 5-cylinder light-pressure turbo (208-hp) - and we never wanted for power.

As you might expect from the company that invented the three-point safety belt, Volvo loaded the XC90 with segment-busting safety stuff. Engineers paid special attention to protecting passengers in rollover accidents, which is where most fatalities in SUVs occur. The XC90 is equipped with a Roll Stability Control system, which uses sensors to detect an impending rollover and other techno-wizardry to prevent it from toppling.

If the XC90 does roll over, occupants are protected by a boron steel-reinforced safety cage, seatbelt pretensioners in all seats, and head-protection curtain airbags for all three rows. In an effort to protect the "other guy," the XC90 features car-to-car compatible bumpers and a gently sloping hood to minimize injury to pedestrians.

Base prices for the XC90 start at $35,125 (front-wheel-drive 2.5T), but with 60 percent of buyers opting for the all-wheel-drive T6 loaded with options (rear-seat DVD player, third seat, etc.), the average transaction price is $43,800.

No, the XC90 isn't cheap, but it's a great value, especially when compared with other SUVs in the $35,000-$50,000 price range. Buyers in this segment - typically suburban soccer parents - want interior spaciousness, all-weather mobility, loads of safety stuff and styling that says, "I'm going somewhere, and it ain't the soccer field." The XC90 delivers all four - and raises the bar in its class.

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