Engine and styling refresh achieves little in updating an ageing SUV that’s practical, but at the same time noisy and crude.

What is it?

Unfortunately for Volvo, it’s a perfect illustration of how fast class standards improve at the premium end of the car market: it’s the latest Volvo XC90.

This car has been given a the mildest of late-life refreshes for 2011. There’s a little bit of extra chrome on the radiator grille, some more widely colour-coded bumpers, some new watch-style instruments inside, and a new ECU for the car’s 2.4-litre five-pot diesel engine which liberates an extra 15bhp and 15lb ft of torque, as well as allowing for EURO V exhaust emissions compliance.

Otherwise, this is the same practical, slightly retiring SUV that we’re already well familiar with – which is both good and bad news.

What’s it like?

197bhp and 310lb ft is just enough to motivate this two-tonner. 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. More important, however, is that the XC90’s six-speed automatic gearbox, engine and four-wheel drive system have been reconfigured for quicker response from a standstill – so, unlike the original car, it doesn’t seem to take such an eon to pull away at a roundabout.

Volvo has done little to boost the XC90’s rolling and mechanical refinement, however. 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 Land Rover Discovery, Mercedes ML and BMW 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.

Should I buy one?

Don’t dismiss the idea completely; there are still plenty of ways in which this family 4x4 appeals. It’s well screwed together, it’s got a decent boot, its seven-up seating layout is great, as is the child seat integrated into the sliding 2nd row middle chair. And it’s well-priced.

But nine years 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 2011, in more ways than one, this car seems well past its sell-by date.

Volvo XC90 2.4 D5 Geartronic SE

Price: £38,095; Top speed: 127mph; 0-62mph: 10.3sec; Economy: 34.0mpg; Co2: 219g/km; Kerbweight: 2121kg; Engine: 5 cyls in line, 2400cc, turbodiesel; Power: 197bhp at 3900rpm; Torque: 310lb ft at 2000 – 2750rpm; Gearbox: 6-spd automatic

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

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Orangewheels 8 March 2011

Re: Volvo XC90 2.4 D5

ballyblack wrote:
Or buy the manual version (the only one of the large SUVs, I believe, that offers this)

Not any more I'm afraid, Geartronic only on the facelifted version - no one bought it and the residuals were terrible. Big 4x4's need to be diesel autos to sell in the UK.

ballyblack 8 March 2011

Re: Volvo XC90 2.4 D5

Update the auto software - done.

Or buy the manual version (the only one of the large SUVs, I believe, that offers this)

jer 8 March 2011

Re: Volvo XC90 2.4 D5

Makes me think what a mfer needs to do to keep a car up to date without spending a fortune on a new platform. In this case the design is contemporary the interior is excellent the failings are refinment and on the road. Surely an update in these areas would be enough to garner good reivews.

This is the same engine as in the V60 that was in manual form competitive, more characterful than a 4cyl. It's an iron block, reviewers are taking a dim view on refinement of these comapred to the quieter better balanced aluminium alternatives. Nevertheless double time budget on the nvh and old fashioned sound proofing. There should be plenty of scope to to tune noise paths to the cabin with a small engine in this big body. Hydraulic engine mounts, balance shafts, perhaps review the injectors and stiffness of all componements. 10% improvement makes a big difference.

Tune the chassis in the UK. Pay some bucks for Lotus to tune an adaptive chassis suitable for a large 4wd such as this. I'm no engineer but this tech seems more off the shelf now. Key is to get the right people to tune it.

Update the auto software - done.

Fit some off the shelf energy efficient alternator, promise a battery pack supported hybrid in the future.

Voila another 5 years use.