Volvo introduced the XC90 in 2002 for the 2003 model year. It is Volvo's first foray into the SUV market, and it is also the most powerful vehicle they've ever produced. The XC90 offers classic Volvo attributes in a midsize SUV. It's comfortable, strong on safety, and practical.
See also the main fact sheets for the Volvo XC90.
- Emphasis on comfort
- Base options are impressive
- Powerful engine (in the V8)
- Safety emphasized
- Third row seat may be uncomfortable for adults
- Poor fuel economy
- Not the best figures in accelerating and braking
Performance and Handling
The best deal is the base five-cylinder engine with the five-speed automatic. It delivers ample acceleration for all situations, good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions. Volvo's 2.5L five-cylinder produces 208hp and 236 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. We found it delivered plenty of power for the real world, and the 24-mpg EPA Highway rating is excellent for that much power in a vehicle as heavy as the XC90. But what makes the five-cylinder engine especially sweet is the five-speed automatic that comes with it. It's a responsive transmission. The five-cylinder engine doesn't seem to have a lot of torque at engine speeds below 2000 rpm but the responsiveness and flexibility of the five-speed transmission makes good use of the engine's power. The transmission includes a manual-shift feature called Geartronic, and the optional all wheel drive is also recommended for driving in foul weather conditions.
Volvo also made some changes in its all wheel drive system to send more power to the rear wheels for better take off from a standing start, and incorporated a fast-reacting Instant Traction system to minimize wheelspin. Several hours in the V8 and you'll find it well-suited to the sort of driving done by many American SUV owners, with its quick acceleration and sure-footed passing maneuvers.
Regardless of engine, the XC90 feels silky smooth at 80 mph. It handles bumpy roads with dips and gullies well without bottoming when driven hard. It doesn't offer the sporty handling of a BMW X5 or Infiniti FX35, however. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not as quick in the really tight stuff. But, in general, the XC90 feels reasonably tight, with decent feedback to let you know how the front tires are gripping. There's minimal body sway under hard cornering. The electronic stability control, called DSTC, will step in while thrashing down a particularly ornery road, and the system will apply the brakes at one wheel without cutting the throttle.
The ride quality in the XC90 is very good, stiff at the wheels, but not in the cabin. It doesn't exactly absorb the ridges and bumps, because you can feel the suspension working over them; but it doesn't transfer any harshness to the arms or seat of the pants at all either. The end result is a fairly pleasant ride.
According to the NHTSA, the XC90 performed very well in safety tests. It received 5-star ratings for all side-impact tests and for driver's side front-impact tests. On the other hand, the passenger side front-impact test earned it a 4-star rating, and tests for rollover yielded a 3-star rating.
Reliability and Maintenance
The XC90 only debuted in 2003, but reliability information indicates that the 2003 model is holding up well. Automotive Information Systems has rated it Green in every category, including engine, transmission, and accessories.
Interior and Comforts
The cabin of the XC90 is roomy and comfortable, seating up to seven passengers. By mounting the engine across the chassis, Volvo has created a roomy cabin inside a relatively compact exterior. This allows the instrument panel and front seats to be positioned more forward, opening up space and legroom for back-seat passengers.
With all six passenger seats folded down, the XC90 boasts 92.3 cubic feet of cargo space. This is more than many of its competitors, including the Acura MDX, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, Lexus RX, and BMW X5. Even with all three rows of seats in place there's room in the Volvo for two or three stacked duffel bags behind the third row. In addition, seating and cargo arrangements are enormously versatile, allowing 64 different configurations, including six of the seven seats folded flat. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, fold, change and vanish.
As is the case with many SUVs, however, the third row is somewhat small and problematic. There's only enough leg room back there for two kids or two very short adults. Getting into the third row is, in fact, easier than it is in many SUVs, due to the ease of sliding and flipping the second-row seats. There are entry grab handles to aid getting inside, but the front-door grab handle is a bit narrow. The doors close with aluminum handles, but they too are narrow, with room for only two or three fingers.
The third row is a cozy and convenient little world of its own, however, with its center console, cup holders, deep window pockets, and separate climate controls and outlets. Kids might actually want to sit way back in the wayback. Headphone plugs are provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD while the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers.
The Volvo XC90 is an attractive SUV and recognizable as a Volvo. The roofline rakes upward dramatically from the windshield to a high horizontal plane, with the arc of the top echoed by the curve of the roof rails. Coming toward you on the freeway, the XC90 almost looks like an old convertible with its top puffing up. A high beltline adds to the typical visual image of a tall SUV.
The overall angularity clearly says Volvo. Head-on, you might think it's the result of the mating of a Honda CR-V and a Dodge Ram. The hood shape is similar to the Ram's, but the grille is Honda-like, except for the diagonal band that labels it a Volvo. The grille is elevated four or five inches over the protruding fender contours, and slightly V-shaped to be consistent with Volvo design.
The back end of the XC90 features huge taillights. Think safety. If it bothers you that the back of your SUV looks like Las Vegas, it might comfort you to think that you're a whole lot less likely to get creamed from behind by some half-asleep driver. You're also less likely to back into something at night, thanks to backup lights that look like they came from a rally car.
The XC90's rear hatch has two sections, with a 70/30 top/bottom split. The lower edge of the liftgate is waist level, leaving a small tailgate. If you're just stowing the groceries or dry cleaning, you might not need to drop the tailgate, but the rest of the time you'll need to open both gates. Two gates is more work than one. The good news is that the tiny tailgate lifts and closes easily, and the short liftgate is less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. It's also inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline and makes the XC90 look shorter. The liftgates on some SUVs are hard to lift due to their weight and the angles involved. That's not the case here.
In terms of exterior options, the isn't any difference between the 3.2 and the V8 AWD. Features such as body-colored moldings and bumpers, rear step bumpers, rocker panel extensions, dual power heated mirrors, and a chrome grille are all standard.
Styles and Options
The XC90 3.2 is powered by, as the name implies, a 3.2L inline-6 with 235hp and a 6-speed Geartronic front wheel drive automatic transmission, although all wheel drive is an option. It sports 17" silver alloy wheels, a rear lip spoiler, body-colored bumpers and moldings, and black fender flares. Inside you'll find conveniences like 8-way power front bucket seats with cloth/leatherette seating, automatic air conditioning, an 8-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system with and amp and MP3 capability, HomeLink wireless control system, and power windows, locks, and heated outside mirrors.
Choose the XC90 V8 AWD and you'll get a powerful 4.4L V8 engine pumping out 311hp. This model is also moved by a 6-speed Geartronic automatic transmission, but it's also equipped with full-time Instant Traction all wheel drive. In addition, you'll automatically get a third row of bucket seats, a rear child seat, leather interior, an express sunroof, separate rear climate controls, and an in-dash 6-CD changer.
Options for both trims include a navigation system, rear park distance control, a DVD entertainment setup, and heated front seats. But if you can do without these items, the XC90 still packs quite a luxurious wallop.
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