2005 Volvo XC90 Review

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Eric Peters Eric Peters Editor
November 25, 2004



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Volvo built its reputation on safety and frugal performance (remember the unofficial university staff cars like the 240D wagon?). But to cash in on the ever-growing and ever profitable SUV market, you’ve got to have eight other things, too — namely a brawny V-8 engine. Most every large SUV either comes with one standard or offers it as an option. Three hundred horsepower is now almost the mandatory minimum, just to be respectable.

Volvo’s XC90 sport-ute initially came only with the relatively puny 2.5 liter in-line five and 2.9 liter in-line six-cylinder engines in the 208-268 hp range — plenty to propel the vehicle with competence, but not enough to arm-wrestle road stompers like the 315-hp BMW X5 4.4, the 288-hp Mercedes ML500, or the 310-hp VW Touareg V-8.

And so, two years after its launch, Volvo has shoehorned (literally) a suitably big and brawny 4.4-liter DOHC V-8 into its medium-sized SUV, making things more than even-Steven in the underhood cojones department.

Fitting to a vee

Just getting this new engine to fit into the XC90, wherein the original design never envisaged such a meaty engine, was quite the challenge. Working with Japanese motorcycle manufacturer Yamaha, which specializes in high-powered compact designs, a narrow-angle layout of 60 degrees (instead of the usual 90 degree vee) was chosen. Then the left cylinder bank was offset slightly from the right and all engine accessories, such as the alternator and AC compressor bolted directly to the block. All this scrunching made it possible to mount the new engine transversely (side to side), just like the XC90’s original in-line fives and sixes — rather than longitudinally (front to rear), as is traditional with V-8s. The transverse layout was important not only for packaging reasons, but to maintain the XC90’s crumple zones and to prevent any compromises in terms of crashworthiness and specifically, resistance to drivetrain impact intrusion into the passenger cabin. Much as we all like hairy V-8s, no one wants one sitting in his lap after a front-ender.

Beyond its impressively compact design and 311-hp rating (higher than all but one of its intended targets, the 315-hp BMW X5 4.4 — which now has only a negligible 4-hp advantage anyhow), the XC90’s new eight is also the only V-8 available for sale in an SUV that meets the federal government’s stringent ULEV II (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) standards. That means it can shoot you from 0-60 in 6.9 seconds (substantially quicker than the 288-hp ML500) without also punching a ragged hole in the ozone layer. Four close-coupled catalytic converters (two of them snuggled up in the exhaust manifolds themselves, right next to the block) and a lean cold-start circuit that keeps a lid on harmful pollutants during the critical 15-20 seconds of initial operation before exhaust heat “lights off” the cats enable the engine to make the ULEV II cut — and keep your conscience as well as the planet reasonably clean.

The new engine is teamed with an also-new compact six speed automatic transaxle with “Geartronic” semi-manual up and downshift capability that’s unique to the V-8 XC90. (Base models without the V-8 will still use a five-speed automatic). This transmission was designed to work specifically with the V-8 and has a deep overdrive in sixth gear (.69) to drop the revs at cruise speed and somewhat slake the large engine’s inherently higher thirst for fuel. In fact, it does more than okay for such a powerful engine — about 16-17 mpg in city driving, 20-21 on the road (for 18 mpg combined city/highway, says Volvo). This is actually not much of a drop from the fuel consumption of the XC90’s original (and much smaller) five and six-cylinder engines — which are rated at 18/24 (2.5T) and 15/20 (T6), respectively.

Besides the eight…

Volvo did make some worth-mentioning improvements to the XC90’s standard full-time all-wheel-drive system, which now features a quicker transfer of engine power from the front to rear wheels, enhancing traction on slippery surfaces. A pre-charged hydraulic valve stands ready to send 59 lb-ft of torque almost immediately to the rear wheels if the fronts begin to lose grip. In addition, the maximum amount of engine torque that the system will allow to flow to the rear wheels has been increased by 50 percent compared to the ’04 XC90.

Ground clearance remains the same at 8.9 inches, enough to keep you above the fray for the most part — although there is no height adjustable suspension, which the Touareg and ML500 both have. Still, if you’ll be sticking to the on-road jungle, getting stuck will only be a problem if you end up behind some guy in a ’77 Malibu with bald tires.

Max towing capability of the XC90 V-8 is 5000 lb, unchanged from last year. However, max payload (what you can stuff in the cargo area) has increased slightly with the new V-8 to 1286 lb, from 1241 lb in the five-cylinder XC90.

If I could change one thing about the XC90 V-8, it would be to make the otherwise excellent V-8’s presence a bit more obvious — it’s too quiet, even when you floor it — and differentiate the V-8 equipped models from the base models with more than just a different grille and uprated 18-inch wheels. As important as horsepower is in this top-tier segment, passion and presence are even more so. Here BMW still has an edge — as does VW, to be perfectly frank. But all it would take is a bit more aggressiveness in visual cues and a dual exhaust perhaps, with quad pipes and some off-idle bark to fix this. But overall, for a first effort at a V-8 muscle car, Volvo still gets a solid A-minus.

Business acumen

It’s just kind of weird, when you stop to think about it, that Volvo (Volvo!) is letting loose a 311-hp V-8 SUV that runs to 60 mph like a ’60s-era muscle car — and drinks gas like one, too. But from a business point of view, there’s really no getting around it. Volvo reps explained that their research uncovered the fact that many potential buyers who would otherwise have been interested in a new XC90 ended up with an X5 or ML500 instead because those SUVs could be ordered with V-8s, while the XC90 couldn’t be. These buyers demand the power and prestige of a V-8 SUV and nothing less will do. It was either give up that slice of the market, or stand and deliver what the market wants.

If you can’t beat ’em — join ’em. You can also undercut ’em. Volvo's PR team gleefully noted that with a base price of $45,395, the new XC90 V-8 is thousands less expensive than the $52,800 BMW X5 4.4i, its chief rival. It’s also about a grand less than the $46,400 ML500 and just slightly more expensive than the V-8 equipped VW Touareg 4.2 ($44,260). Volvo also notes that the XC90 comes standard with third row seating and seven-passenger capacity, which is either unavailable in target competitors like the X5 and ML500 or an extra-cost option. There are also some trick new options for ‘05 to sweeten the pot, including separately programmable flat screen TV/video monitors built into the seatbacks. One passenger can play Nintendo while the other watches a movie. Volvo claims no other SUV offers this feature as factory-installed equipment.

And finally, there is a financial angle. Volvo claims the residual value of the XC90 — and the projected residual value of the V-8 XC90 — is generally superior to its rivals. What this means is that the XC90 holds its value better than, say, the ML500, which means it’s worth more at trade-in time. How much more? On average, says Volvo, the XC90 V-8 will have retained a $1000 or so more value than its biggest rivals three years down the road. So while Volvo may not yet have the “bling factor” of a Benz or BMW, it may be the better investment.


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2005 Volvo XC90 V-8
Base price: $45,395; as tested, $47,155
Engine: DOHC 4.4 liter V-8, 311 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 188.9 x 74.7 x 68.7 in
Wheelbase: 112.6 in
Curb weight: 4610 lb
EPA fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16-17/20-21 mpg (preliminary)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side impact and curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control
Major standard features: Climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, 18-inch wheels, specific V-8 trim including grille and body side accents
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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