BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Although it may not have revolutionised the luxury 4x4 genre quite so radically as the BMW X5 did, the Volvo XC90 moved the state of the art on in a way few thought possible. In many ways it was perhaps better than even Volvo realised, the Swedish company continually raising the new price of the XC90 in an attempt to find a point where demand slackened off. So far that point has yet to be found. So far the plaudits for the XC90 have just kept coming. Used examples are now starting to appear but don't expect any bargains. You may have to beat a queue of prospective purchasers to the punch.
Better late than never is the motto best applied to Volvo's XC90. The Swedish company's core brand values of safety, family and quality are nowhere better exemplified than in a big Sports Utility Vehicle. Okay, so the other Volvo brand value, environment, had to play a slightly withdrawn role, but it's a wonder the XC90 hadn't appeared earlier.
The company attributes this lateness to a desire to defend its traditional estate car markets, and a niggling factory capacity problem - issues now resolved. Yes, we've had Volvo's V70 Cross Country, a car which carved an enviable niche for itself in the large estate crossover market, but the Swedes have missed much of the big money game. With sales of SUVs spiralling and vehicles like the Mercedes M-Class and the BMW X5 coining it, Volvo appeared to be sitting on its hands. Some speculated that as part of Ford's Premier Auto Group, the big Ford family 4x4 was going to wear the badge of partner company Jaguar in a bid to spike the guns of Porsche's Cayenne, but they were way off beam. Others felt that PAG would be unwilling for Volvo to poach sales from established brand Land Rover. Wrong again.
The XC90's shape was penned by Doug Frasher, an ex-NASA wind tunnel engineer who is now employed in Volvo's California design studio. His design was selected in a rather unconventional beauty contest held in the 40-degree heat of the Arizona desert. Volvo's hot weather proving facility outside Scottsdale was the venue and three full-size mock-ups were presented to Volvo's top design gurus from no fewer than thirteen different countries. In such sweltering conditions it would have been tempting to green light anything and retire for a cool beer, but after much consideration Frasher's design was voted favourite and has subsequently appealed to UK buyers. Enormously.
Rarely had Volvo ever had such a hot cake on their books. When it was first launched in June 2002, the entry-level D5 S model retailed at £28,400. In the following period Volvo consistently nudged prices higher, justified in some part by minor trim revisions in 2003 and has introduced an Executive model to sit above the S and SE variants. With the asking price for the entry level car comfortably over £31,000 by 2005 and the waiting lists as big as ever, Volvo are perhaps still undercharging for the XC90.
Admittedly, a shake-up of the range in 2005 resulting from modifications to the D5 diesel engine does distort the picture a little. From that point on, the 2.5T engine became the entry-level option with the erstwhile entry-level model, the old 163bhp 2.4 D5, offered only as an automatic and renamed 2.4D. The revised D5 delivered 184bhp and compliance with the Euro IV emissions regulations.
Major changes were on the cards in the spring of 2006. The XC90 received a facelift with revised tail lights more body-colouring to the external fittings and a touch more chrome. The engine range from this point on was 184bhp D5 diesel, 3.2-litre straight six petrol and 4.4-litre V8. Specifications were also upgraded with a new SE Lux trim level being introduced between the existing SE and Executive strands. A little later, the more dynamically-focused SE Sport derivatives were introduced.
What You Get
Unlike most of its rivals, the XC90 seats seven as standard with a set of rear seats that adults can occasionally use. Despite this, the car's footprint is no bigger than a Land Rover Discovery. Part of the reason for this apparent miracle of packaging is the compact transverse engine. Despite needing US sales to make the venture commercially viable, no monster V8 power unit is available, Volvo instead comfortable with either the D5 five-cylinder diesel engine or the familiar T6 turbocharged six-cylinder petrol powerplant.
Volvo realised that the majority of big 4x4s are bought by women who cite the sense of security as a key buying criterion and set up a women's reference group to run the rule over crucial aspects of the car's design. Unbeknown to many, Volvo has in fact tried to enter this market four times in the past, but failed to get their proposals off the ground for a number of internal reasons. The fifth attempt draws upon much of that experience and explains why the XC90 has an uncanny right-first-time look to it. Despite a front end that makes Beachy Head look apologetic, the overall feel isn't overly macho, with steeply raked front and rear screens reducing the overall perception of bulk.
What to Look For
The Volvo XC90 has yet to report any significant faults although as with any 4x4, check the rear load bay for signs of damage. The engines are both relatively unstressed units with the diesel being particularly bombproof. With the more powerful T6 models, check the tyres carefully as the shoulders can rapidly wave the white flag if the car has been driven in a 'spirited manner'. The interior trim is hardy and the fittings are well made, so the interiors tend to bear up pretty well. Check for correct wheel alignment and inspect the suspension and exhaust if you suspect it may have been subjected to something more arduous than a grassy car park.
(approx based on a 2002 XC90 2.4D SE) If you're willing to shell out for an XC90 you'll need to be able to budget for parts and they're not conspicuously cheap. Expect to pay £282 for an exchange starter motor and a hefty £56.65 for an exchange alternator (160 watt). The cost of front brake pads depend on how big your alloy wheels are - if you're running 16-inch rims you'll pay £68 for a pair and if you ticked the box for 17-inch wheels you'll need to stump up £71. A nearside headlamp unit of the non-xenon variety retails at £208 while a windscreen with rain sensor but without heat reflecting glass will come in at £303.
On the Road
Parent company Ford will, after the Explorer/Firestone debacle, be glad to hear that the XC90's innovative Roll Stability Control (RSC) system received the World Traffic Safety Symposium Manufacturers Award. Volvo have approached this thorny issue with a three-pronged attack. In order to prevent the XC90 going dirty side up in the first instance, sophisticated gyroscopically controlled stability software steadies even the most radical lane changing behaviour. Should you hit a kerb or ditch and roll the XC90, it features a boron-reinforced roof to prevent the upper body deforming. Finally, the XC90 also features curtain airbags that stay inflated ten times longer than normal bags in order to ensure passengers are kept away from flying glass and insulated from doorframes during a roll. A demonstration outside Gothenburg where an XC90 was filled with crash test dummies and then walloped in the side by an iron sled proved how effective the system was. Despite being thrown into four-barrel rolls by this 30-tonne impact, the dummies were all safely restrained in their seats. So, the XC90's passengers are safe. What about other road users? Volvo claim the XC90 is the first unselfish SUV by fitting a low-level impact absorbing cross member behind the front spoiler to prevent the high, wide and handsome XC90 riding up and over more vertically challenged vehicles.
Other road users may have little problem spotting the XC90 coming, but the Volvo driver gets an innovation that gives almost superhuman visionary powers. Infrared technology allows the driver to see up to five times further at night than is usually the case with conventional dipped beam. Although only offered as an option, it transforms night driving, and means you won't feel the need to constantly dazzle oncoming traffic with the XC90's ridiculously powerful main beam. The XC90 uses an electronically controlled permanent 4x4 system with a Haldex differential calculating how much drive should be directed to the rear wheels, typically anything from 5 to 65 per cent.
The original 2.4-litre D5 model boasts an engine that's good for a healthy 163bhp, a little down on German rivals, but it certainly won't break the bank to run, returning an average fuel figure of nearly 31mpg and CO2 figures of just 244g/km, especially good for such a large vehicle. The 60mph increment passes in 12 seconds and a top speed of 112mph is perfectly acceptable for all but the most merciless autobahn stormer. Later, this unit was upgraded to 184bhp and these cars will hit 60mph in 10.3s while returning 26.4mpg.
If you need more in the way of acceleration the T6 model may appeal. Performance from the 272bhp turbocharged motor is strong, the T6 hitting 60mph in 9.3 seconds and it will keep on accelerating to 130mph. The fuel consumption figure of 21.9mpg is laudable indeed for such a sizeable hunk of Scandinavian real estate, although the CO2 emission of 305g/km may niggle at your environmental conscience. The 3.2-litre unit is a straight six with 236bhp while the range topping V8 that was also introduced in 2006 can manage a healthy 311bhp.
If you're after a quality luxury 4x4 that's not brash in the way many German models are, the Volvo XC90 is the perfect solution. Well built, beautifully appointed and supremely capable it's the complete package. A used bargain, however, it most clearly is not.