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The Volvo XC90 is a big seven seat SUV in desperate need of modernisation, despite still having some strengths

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Volvo had long held the key in its locker to launch a serious contender in the SUV sector long before the Volvo XC90 arrived in 2003. It has always had an obsession with safety and practicality, and a fearsome reputation for building solid estate cars.

Despite Volvo’s clear potential for the sector, companies like BMW and Mercedes-Benz took the initiative with the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML ranges. Unashamedly lifestyle orientated but refined and practical, they left Volvo with slumping sales – particularly in North America – while they won huge numbers of new customers with their sexy SUVs.

The XC90 is tough and practical

As Volvo watched developments, it must have known it would have to come back hard. And hit back hard it did with the Volvo XC90, a car that, according to Volvo, combined car-like dynamics, MPV practicality, and tough off-road capability under one roof, plus the safety values that are synonymous with the brand. 

The XC90 has been around now for a long time, but its sales are still steady and its customer base is hardcore and loyal.

Recent revisions to the XC90 in 2011 included exterior styling changes, a more luxurious interior, greater interior options and new variants including a more sports-orientated R-Design model designed to keep interest in the XC90 ticking over while the long-overdue replacement model’s development continues.

Are any changes enough to keep interest in the XC90 high enough while its rivals continue to modernise and innovate?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo XC90 rear end

Volvo calls the XC90 an ‘all-roads vehicle’, not a pure off-roader. This thinking has dictated the cab-forward design, made possible by its transversely mounted engine.

The much-copied strong shoulders running the length of the XC90, along with its trademark grille, also ensure you’re in no doubt that this is a Volvo.

Euro NCAP praised the XC90's "immensely strong" body

It’s no skin-deep illusion, either, for beneath the XC90 lies the P2 platform found beneath the S80 and V70. The all-independent suspension has MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link set-up at the rear.  But the front subframe and many components are now made from steel, not aluminium (as on the S80), and the spring, damper and anti roll bar rates are stiffer. 

Volvo has opted for a permanent electronically controlled all-wheel drive system supplied by Haldex. Under normal driving, up to 95 percent of power goes to the front wheels, the drive being fed through an end-on gearbox to an integral front differential. 

When slip is detected, an electronic multi-plate clutch transfers between five and 65 per cent of torque via a tailshaft to a second diff between the rear wheels. Only a quarter turn of the wheel will trigger the transfer; it’s significantly quicker, Volvo claims, than a mechanical set-up.

Despite its all-round remit and 218mm of ground clearance, the XC90’s centre of gravity is low for a SUV. Volvo’s Roll Stability Control – whose sensors activates the brakes and cut power – works with the traction control to minimise the risk of roll.

INTERIOR

Volvo XC90 dashboard

To get your head around the seven-seat interior of the Volvo XC90, you need to think MPV, not SUV. Open the split tailgate and you’ll find a flat cargo area with 615 litres of volume up to the second row of seats, or up to 1837 litres with them folded flat. 

Two sections lift up from the boot floor; the rearmost conceals a battery and a first aid kit and individual back rests for the third-row passengers seats fold out of the front half. Once these are locked in place, you pull one of the two loops to locate each seat bottom, the whole process taking less than 20 seconds. 

The seats are really easy to fold

If passengers in the second row slide their seats right back, legroom for adult third-row passengers is minimal, but children will still be fine. Crucially, there’s still a usable 500mm of boot length left in this configuration.

The second row comprises three seats, all of which move fore and aft independently. The outer seats have Isofix mounts and the centre seat slides forward so that a child can sit almost between the front seats. 

There’s a bolster cushion and the rear centre console box can be removed. And optional roof-mounted headphone sockets are available for rear passengers. 

Up front, the dash architecture is similar to the V70’s and S80’s. All our testers found it easy to locate a good driving position, but the impressive comfort levels were let down by unsupportive seats during cornering.

One can’t escape how dated the XC90 feels nowadays. Its rivals have moved the game on in the luxury and comfort stakes, although the XC90’s hard-wearing look may still appeal to certain customers in this class looking for a 200,000-mile workhorse.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo XC90 rear quarter

Volvo offers just the one engine in the XC90: a five-cylinder, 2.4-litre turbodiesel. The old-fashioned oil-burner produces 197bhp at 3900rpm and 309lb ft from 2000-2750rpm.

Dig deep and this Volvo will move along at a reasonable enough pace, but it’s still more sedate than the latest premium diesel 4x4s. Predictably, much more modern – and powerful - six-cylinder units in the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class comprehensively outperform the XC90.

A five-cylinder engine is unusual in this class

On the motorway, the XC90 will sit around the legal limit and have sufficient power in reserve to overtake safely and maintain speed up any gradient. But accelerating beyond these speeds is always a struggle, the XC90’s bluff shape making the shift from 70-90mph a slow and laborious process. It takes roughly twice the time to get from 70-90mph as it does from 40-60mph.

The six-speed automatic gearbox suits the engine’s character well: slow and steady. It’s also been recently reconfigured so that it doesn’t feel like it takes such an eon to do a simple task such as pulling away from a roundabout or traffic lights. 

Full-throttle upshifts are slick and downchanges well judged, often relying on the engine’s torque for smoother progress. A manual mode allows each gear to be held right through to the rev limiter.

The XC90 can crack 0-60mph in 9.7sec and go on to reach a top speed of 127mph. A manual option used to be offered to counter the rather lazy performance of the automatic, but, along with the petrol engines, it is now confined to the used market. 

Braking performance is excellent, stopping power coming from disc brakes all round. 

RIDE & HANDLING

The 197bhp Volvo XC90

Let’s get this statement out of the way straight away: the Volvo XC90 never gets anywhere near the ride and handling traits displayed by rivals including the BMW X5, Mercedes ML and Land Rover Dicsovery.

That’s not to say it never has; in its day, around five to 10 years ago, the XC90 came close to achieving the road-biased driving characteristics of saloon/estate cars while maintaining faithful to the SUV brief. Its steering, at the time, felt car-like and body roll and vertical movement felt like that of an S80.

The XC90 is one of the least enjoyable cars in its class to drive

Volvo has done little to boost the XC90’s rolling and mechanical refinement, however, in recent years. Compared to younger rivals, the car’s chassis seems clunky and crude. It crashes even over relatively minor bumps, and although wind noise is minimal, the car’s engine isolation seems poor: there’s just too much thrash from that five-pot powerplant that finds its way into the cabin.

Combined that shortage of mechanical refinement with some unnecessary weight and a lack of natural feel in the car’s steering, and it makes the XC90 quite an unpleasant car to drive at times. Large 4x4s such the current Discovery, ML and X5 have become highly refined cars in the time since Volvo’s XC90 first appeared, and it would seem that Gothenburg just hasn’t done enough to keep up.

Extreme off-road work is limited by the XC’s all-independent suspension and relatively low-set floorpan, but it tackled our deeply cratered test course with disdain.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo XC90 2003-2014

Given its age, the Volvo XC90 is priced well below its rivals. A base ES model will cost around £35,000, with prices rising to more than £40,000 for the range-topping Executive model. That’s at least £3k less than an entry-level Discovery and as much as £10k less than the starting price of a BMW X5.

Economy-wise, the XC90 is also showing its age. All variants offer combined economy of 34.0mpg, while CO2 emissions come in at 219g/km. That’s a long way from the 38.2mpg and 192g/km of the X5 xDrive 30d SE, which also has significantly more power (245bhp) and torque (398lb ft) to go with its better economy and CO2.

The XC90 is cheap to buy, but not too cheap to run

Being a Volvo, safety equipment headlines the equipment list. SIPS (Side Impact Protection System and airbags), WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System) and IC (Inflatable Curtain) are all standard, along with dual-stage driver and front passenger airbags.

For a more distinctive XC90, opt for the R Design or Executive model. The R Design boasts a special sports chassis set-up, 19in alloy wheels, a body kit and some sporty interior trim. The Executive, meanwhile, provides a cosseting interior, boasting special soft leather seats with a massage function.

Depreciation on the XC90 is fairly steep, given its age, but this makes for a solid used buy. The XC90 sits in group 41 or 42 for insurance, depending on which model you choose.

VERDICT

3 star Volvo XC90

Don’t dismiss the idea completely of buying a Volvo XC90 completely; there are still plenty of ways in which this family 4x4 appeals. It’s well screwed together, it’s got a decent boot and its seven-up seating layout is great, as is the child seat integrated into the sliding second-row middle chair. And it’s well priced.

It seems the buying public is still responding, too. Even before its most recent round of exterior and interior improvements in 2011, 2010 was the XC90’s best ever year for sales in the UK, as 7000 new models found home. Whisper it: it’s probably even the best Volvo there’s ever been.

The XC90 makes more sense on the used market

Truth is, there’s just not a lot else like it out there. While a BMW X5 and Mercedes ML would appear rivals on badge, price (at least a few years ago) and engines, the XC90 is a genuine seven-seater, unlike the other two. That means the only thing out there like the XC90 is the seemingly peerless Land Rover Discovery.

But, being a seemingly niche product or not, still being sold almost a decade after launch is a long time to expect any new car to remain competitive with its rivals, let alone rivals as talented as the XC90’s. In 2012, in more ways than one, this car seems well past its sell-by date.

Mark Tisshaw

mark-tisshaw-autocar
Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

Volvo XC90 2003 - 2014 First drives