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2003 Volvo XC90 Photo
Reviewed by Marc K. Stengel
Editor, The Car Connection
BASE INVOICE
$31,349
BASE MSRP
$33,350
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We’ve finally reached the point where no self-respecting car company can call itself a full-line automaker without a sport-utility vehicle in the stable. Among the last holdouts, Volvo is finally introducing its much anticipated XC90 to the world’s auto writers this month. As if to justify a rather conspicuous delay, Volvo is touting numerous exclusive features meant, it seems, to imply that certain rivals may have been a bit too quick off the mark.

Timing, of course, is everything; and in the XC90’s case, its tardy arrival now looks positively prescient. That’s because growing safety concerns now loom as the SUV category’s chief public relations challenge. Leave it to Volvo, then, arguably a world leader in automotive safety engineering, to design a vehicle that addresses the general public’s scariest SUV safety concerns with a number of exclusive technologies.

Chief among the XC90’s bragging points is its Roll Safety Control (RSC) system that employs gyroscopic sensing and computer automation to counteract incipient rollover. With their relatively high centers of gravity — and in this, the XC90 is no exception — SUVs are more prone than passenger cars to tip over sideways if a driver swerves too sharply, say, during an evasive maneuver. Volvo’s RSC constantly monitors the XC90’s tilt-angle, and if the rollover threshold is approached, a computerized Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DTSC) system manipulates engine and braking power to tuck the vehicle back into shape. During simulated accident avoidance tests in San Francisco, it was reassuringly anticlimactic to experience RSC/DTSC in action: Sharp, emergency-style veers at 40-plus miles-an-hour induced computer-activated braking at the outside wheels, which in turn restored the XC90 to a stable, straight trajectory.

Three more technologies address rollover risk, albeit in more harshly candid terms. Should the laws of physics indeed overwhelm even RSC’s complex ministrations, the XC90 features a high-strength boron-steel-reinforced roof to protect the integrity of the cabin. At this point, the world’s first inflatable side curtain airbags for three rows of seating deploy, and pyrotechnic seat belt tensioners for a potential total of seven passengers--another exclusive--cinch occupants firmly in place so the front and side airbags can cushion them properly.

Granted, these are the features that manufacturers hate to highlight and that consumers dread to contemplate. Volvo is proud of them just the same, and the XC90 is a more conscionable SUV as a result.

Safe and fun?

This is not to say that safety can’t be fun, or at least stimulating, to drive. Volvo debuts the XC90 with two different powertrains that will surely satisfy the demands of many aficionados. A 2.5-liter turbocharged in-line five cylinder is designated T5 and mates to an automatic five-speed transmission with Geartronic clutchless manual shifting. Power is rated 208 hp at 5000 rpm and 236 ft-lb of torque from 1500 rpm to 4500 rpm. Volvo caters to hi-po enthusiasts with a 2.9-liter turbocharged T6 in-line-six, making 268 hp at 5100 rpm and a hearty 280 ft-lb from 1800 rpm to 5000. A tight squeeze in the engine bay dictates an automatic four-speed for the T6, also with Geartronic. Both motors boast variable valve timing. The six-cylinder is all-wheel-drive only; the five-cylinder will eventually power either all-wheel-drive or front-wheel-drive versions, although the FWD configuration will be the last to appear in early 2003.

California’s Napa Valley turned out to be an ideal proving ground for taking a first drive in the XC90. Volvo hardly touts the XC90’s off-road capabilities, although the Haldex all-wheel-drive system (similar to that employed in the XC70 wagon and S60 sedan) is certainly capable of managing the occasional rough trail or pasture crossing. Nevertheless, it’s presumed that 95 percent of the time, XC90s will remain on pavement that’s either dry or wet or icy; so the vehicle’s ride and handling are particularly tuned to touring sensibilities.

I drove AWD versions of both powertrains, and I found each to be pleasantly responsive on Northern California’s sweeping wine-country highways. The T6 has the undeniable horsepower edge--it’s rated 8.7 seconds from zero to 60 mp, versus 9.3 seconds for the T5. Both vehicles’ ride qualities are relatively soft--they’re biased, in other words, for comfort. As a result, this means body roll is noticeable during hard cornering with abrupt transitions from one direction to another. Since I don’t see much point in high-performance SUVs, I tended to prefer the lesser-priced T5 (starting at $35,100 for AWD and $33,350 for FWD; destination is $625 on any XC90). Power was ample enough; moreover, steering feel was crisper and more direct. Only the T6 wears speed-sensitive steering, I was told; and there are still a few feel tweaks left to make on it before the XC90’s showroom debut in November. The price of the T6 starts at $39,975 for AWD.

Interior buzz

2003 Volvo XC90

2003 Volvo XC90

Enlarge Photo
Inside the XC90 await the features that are sure to generate the most buzz among soccer moms and hobby dads. Seven-seat capacity comes with a $1,675 Versatility Package option, and the design of the third row is particularly clever. Seat bottoms slide under the floor so that seat backs can fold completely flush with the floor. Moreover, it’s a one-hand operation. Row Two folds similarly flush, and even the front passenger seat folds flush, thereby providing 64 configurations of mix-matchable seating and cargo space. A removable front-row floor console makes room for sliding the integrated child booster seat in the center of the second row partially into the space between the two front buckets. So much the easier to manage toddlers’ sippy cups, I suppose.

Another XC90 exclusive is the optional Dolby ProLogic II surround sound audio system, with independently controllable mode and volume headphone-controls for teenage headbangers in the back.

Volvo’s challenge at this late stage, of course, is to elbow its way onto shopping lists already inscribed with the impressive Acura MDX, BMW X5, Mercedes-Benz M-Class and Lexus RX300 luxury SUVs. Safety, space and performance seem to be the chief criteria in this class — even before considerations of price. The way Volvo sees it, the XC90 isn’t the last one to the party at all. It’s the first one to get everything right.

2003 Volvo XC90
Base price: $33,975 (front-drive); $35,725 (AWD); $40,600 (T6 AWD)
Engine: turbocharged 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder, 208 hp/236 lb-ft; turbocharged 2.9-liter in-line six, 268 hp/280 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Five-speed automatic (five-cylinder models) or four-speed automatic (T6), front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 188.9 x 74.7 x 70.2 in
Wheelbase: 112.6 in
Curb weight: 4450-4610 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 21/25 mpg (five-cylinder)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front and three-row side curtain airbags, four-wheel anti-lock braking, stability control, Rolls Stability Control
Major standard equipment: Dual-zone HVAC, remote keyless entry, power windows/doors/mirrors, AM/FM/in-dash CD
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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