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Volvo XC90 Car Review | August 7, 2002

Driven August 2002

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The days of Volvo as an angular Scandinavian quirk are long gone. It's now this thing called a global brand; America is its biggest market and America is to be stormed with this, the XC90. Like a Range Rover, it has permanent four-wheel drive, it rides high and offers that 'command driving position' thing; but there's no low-range gearbox or any of that off-roading nonsense. A committee of car designers and marketing executives would very likely call it an urban/suburban grass'n'gravel sports utility vehicle.

In essence, this is an American car, conceived in part in Volvo's Californian studios. It's a handsome brute, skilfully shaped to disguise a vastness that'll become more apparent when it's mixing it with hatchbacks on UK roads. Based around the E2 platform that gives us the S80 saloon, it looks rather like a V70 estate in a hall of mirrors. A pleasing detail, to take just one, is the subtle crease running up the rear pillar. It invites an inquisitive finger or a bit of crouching at the kerbside to make the light play on it. Very nice but, as a fetching dimple isn't a reason for marrying anyone, it's not a good excuse for buying a Volvo.

The interior might be. Apart from the usual dour logic of its layout, an abundance of safety features and the unmistakable Volvo smell, there are two extra third-row seats that fold with a flick of one lever to disappear beneath what becomes an extended and flat loadbay. They are just about tolerable for adults and perfect for eight-year olds. The middle of the normal back seat also features Volvo's flip-up booster cushion, so the XC90, like my school blazer, is something kids can grow into. The seats themselves are good, the equipment spec is high (especially in SE trim) and there are enough cupholders to drive you to drink.

Britain will not be taking the five-cylinder petrol model and the five-cylinder diesel was not available at the Californian launch. This left me with the top twin-turbo six-pot petrol with standard Geartronic auto transmission with manual override. It's a gutsy engine and a convincing gearbox, but the XC90 felt somehow tardy. I then discovered that it weighs a whopping 2,046kg, which is nearly as much as my Sixties-designed Bentley. Our fuel is nearly three times the price of the Yank stuff and, on a winding country road, the trip computer revealed a figure of 10.8 miles to the US gallon. My calculator tell me that is, using proper units, 12 miles, 1,709 yards, two feet, 8 5/8th inches to the imperial gallon. Call it 12.97141mpg. Again, the 6.75-litre Sixties Bentley invites comparison.

It is in driving that the XC90 seems most distanced from the European ideal. The ride isn't bad and mechanical refinement is good, but the steering, though accurate, is spoiled by the lightness required by one-fingered and slothful America. The most common contributor to US road casualty numbers is a roll-over accident in a sports-ute, so to avoid swelling the stats, the XC90 is fitted with Roll Stability Control and Dynamic Stability & Traction Control. In a simulated 'elk test' it performed admirably; it was just as effective in a genuine and far more realistic 'cat test' performed on a fast backroad through Napa Valley. Yet the XC90 is hardly wieldy.

The chunky sports-ute styling has other downsides. Accessibility is not as good as it is in the Citroen C8 I drive on page 31, the cabin is less airy and the almighty pillars cause significant blindspots. At one point, and despite checking my mirrors and looking over my shoulder like a good cyclist, I nearly punted a local off the Golden Gate bridge because he was completely obscured by bodywork. And he wasn't driving a small Honda, he was in another sports-ute.

In the end, I wasn't entirely sure about the XC90. I can imagine it doing very well in the market for which it has been designed. It's relatively stylish, mechanically sophisticated and nicely spannered together, even in pre-production form. In California, it exudes subtle European class, as did the BMW X5 I saw.

But here, in the old world, it seems a bit brash and overdone, er, rather like the X5 does to my eyes. Somehow, a seven-seat estate or a well-sorted MPV seems a more elegant (I can't believe I'm going to say this) lifestyle solution.

James May

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