2003 Volvo XC90

Full Front Grill View

There's no need to puzzle over brand values here. You can tell at a glance that this is really a Volvo wagon, an icon of automotive design. With the XC90, the Volvo wagon might have morphed into a seven-passenger sport-utility vehicle, yet the underlying message is the same. This is a car, not a truck, and it's made for driving with passengers. The spirit of "boxy but good" lives on.

Once you're standing next to the XC90, you'll notice that the roofline is almost nine inches higher than that of the XC70 (Cross Country) wagon. This is far from the massive mechanical monster you might expect, though. It's just 2.6 inches longer than the XC70 and 5.2 inches longer than the BMW X5. From the sculpted hood to the taillight configuration, the XC90 is clearly a modern Volvo, yet it's also moved the Volvo look farther along. The XC90 is simply great looking, restrained and yet rich with style.

Driver Side Interior View

The XC90 is also rich with utility. The wide doors give way to a low floor and easily accessible seats, with limousine-like legroom for the rear-seat passengers. You can banish people as tall as five-foot-five to the optional wayback seat without guilt. There's plenty of sightseeing opportunity for all, thanks to the combination of big windows, a low beltline, and stadium-style elevation for the second- and third-row seats. A unique second-row child seat slides forward to keep little kids within comforting distance of parents in the front seat. Folding the rear seats flat provides 85.1 cubic feet of cargo volume. The split tailgate opens easily, and there's a small shelf for the kids to sit on when you clean them up after practice.

The people package gets its mobility from a scaled-up version of the S80, with a wider, 64.3-inch front track and a longer, 112.6-inch wheelbase. The XC90 offers two powerplants: a straight five and a straight six. The familiar in-line five-cylinder has fractionally more displacement than in other applications, thanks to a slightly longer stroke, and it's been fitted with a slightly smaller turbocharger. This light-pressure turbo combination spools up to 236 pound-feet of torque at just 1500 rpm, and output has grown to 208 horsepower. Volvo has fractionally increased its in-line six-cylinder's displacement for the XC90, and variable valve timing further helps broaden the powerband. The six delivers peak torque of 280 pound-feet at 1800 rpm. In either combination, the throttle response always feels a little soft underfoot, but a five-speed transmission helps the five-cylinder get away with authority, while the six-cylinder with its four-speed is better suited for pulling power at highway speeds.

When Volvo first undertook the XC90 program in late 1998, it put together a unique focus group of two dozen women in Southern California, none of whom was a Volvo owner. Some owned sport-utes; some hated SUVs. Volvo set about learning the sport-utility market from these people instead of simply imposing its own assumptions, and the XC90 reflects this interesting partnership.

First, the vehicle's all-wheel-drive system is tuned to all-weather driving, and this Haldex design uses electronic control to divert power to the rear wheels if it detects a slip of just one-seventh of a rotation in a front tire, an astonishingly quick response. Second, safety is the watchword of the passenger package. Every seatbelt has a pretensioner, a curtain-type air bag stays inflated long enough to guard against head injuries in rollover accidents, and passengers are further protected by a high-strength alloy-steel safety cage. Most important is that the XC90 takes active safety seriously as well. The standard stability control is supplemented by Roll Stability Control, which brakes the outside front wheel to induce understeer whenever sensors detect the kind of sudden attitude change that could lead the vehicle to trip on its outside front tire.

Passenger Side Rear View

All this, and yet there are no surprises to driving the XC90. It drives just like a car, and every time you climb out, you're surprised that it is as big as it is, because you rarely feel the 4610 pounds when you're behind the wheel. The engagement threshold for the ABS and skid control systems is pretty low for maximum safety, as with all Volvos, yet the XC90 follows a darting and diving mountain road without a hint of sloppiness. Stability is the key on the highway, yet the vehicle is still maneuverable in town.

There are three XC90 models: the front-wheel-drive XC90 FWD with the turbo five-cylinder; the all-wheel-drive XC90 AWD with the turbo five-cylinder; and the all-wheel-drive XC90 AWD T6 with turbo six-cylinder. Prices are expected to range from $33,000 to $43,000. The XC90 is a premium piece just like the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-class, yet the Volvo also has a dimension of utility and a spirit of user-friendliness that its competition can't match at any price. It all comes from the plain-spoken honesty that produced those boxy but good Volvo wagons of the past.

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