Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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Review and photos by Russell Purcell

The Volvo XC90 had to be good right out of the gate as it represented the Swedish company’s first foray into the SUV marketplace – a segment brimming with competent choices from all its direct competitors. Introduced in 2003, the Volvo XC90 is available with either a light-pressure turbo-charged, 2.5-litre, inline 5-cylinder engine (XC90 2.5T) or a 2.9-litre inline 6-cylinder engine fitted with twin turbos (designated the XC90 T6), both aided by continuously variable valve timing.

Familiar Styling

Upon seeing the XC90 there is no doubt that it is a Volvo product, as the tall taillights, station-wagon-like shape and sculpted waistline all hint at its familial origins.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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The XC has a muscular stance due to its wide track, tall cabin and long wheelbase. The designers chose to keep the body as compact as they could to preserve the car-like drivability and handling of the vehicle as well as city-friendly dimensions, so the XC90′s wheels seem to occupy the corners, leaving rather short overhangs front and rear. The end result is an attractive design that sets itself apart from most of its rivals (which tend to look more like minivans) while retaining unique Volvo styling elements.


At the Wheel

As the S80 sedan provides the foundation upon which the XC90 is built, the car offers an outstanding ride for a vehicle of this type. The long wheelbase smoothes out the bumps while an excellent suspension (MacPherson Struts up front, multi-link independent in back) isolates passengers from road turbulence.

Although the XC90 sits high and rides on all-season, all-terrain rubber, the vehicle handled cornering duties with aplomb. While not able to corner flat like more sport-minded SUVs like the Porsche Cayenne or even the BMW X5, the XC90 exhibited only minor body roll during high-speed cornering, and I am sure a move to more street-worthy tires would put it closer to the BMW in regards to road-holding.

The inline 2.5-litre, 5-cylinder engine fitted to my test unit is the standard choice for the model, which is unfortunate, as even with the light-pressure turbo it was unable to propel the XC90′s considerable mass (2,046 kgs.) up long climbs or into the passing lane without inciting drama. You become accustomed to what a vehicle can do over time and as such, your comfort level hinges on the car’s capabilities. All is fine when the XC90 is performing everyday duties as a people and light cargo hauler around town, but load the vehicle with a full contingent of passengers and their chattel and the XC90 becomes quite sluggish. Punch the gas pedal to execute a pass and you will feel your heart rate increase and nervous perspiration begin to irrigate your forehead, as internal concerns about completing the manoeuver (before meeting oncoming traffic) will have you wishing that you had ponied up the extra $12,000 (+ taxes) to get the XC90 T6 and its 268-horsepower and 280-lb.-ft. of torque.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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Long, steep climbs are the XC90′s nemesis, as its tachometer starts its climb as the turbo spools and whines but you wait nervously for the 236-lb.-ft. of torque to take charge and pull the car up the grade.

This is the same engine found in the S80 sedan line-up, a car (S80 AWD) I recently took on a hilly trip to the Okanagon valley in central B.C. I came away from my weekend adventure more-than-impressed by the smooth power and delivery and refinement of this power plant. However, you can’t compare apples and oranges, and these two vehicles are very different animals. The extra weight of the XC90 just was too much for the engine to overcome when expediency or periods of extreme engine load came into play.

I have yet to get behind the wheel of the more potent XC90 T6, but from its specs can assume that it may have just what the doctor ordered – enough power.

The XC90 2.5T comes standard with a slick 5-speed automatic, whereas the T6 is mated to a 4-speed automatic (due to space limitations associate with the larger motor). Gear-tronic is the name of Volvo’s manu-matic transmission. I found the 5-speed to work very efficiently, making gear selection choices designed to maximize power delivery to the ground. The unit itself is well-suited for highway commutes and general city travel, but it should be noted that it lacks the low-range gearing required to give it the punch needed to accommodate heavier trailers and off-road obstacles. Its operation is smooth and the gear lever falls readily to hand, but don’t expect to win any stoplight drag races with this set-up.


All-wheel-drive

The electronically controlled Haldex system is similar to that used in Volvo’s other all-wheel-drive equipped automobiles, so it is a proven entity when it comes to durability and low-maintenance. The XC90 is all-wheel-drive all-the-time, but power delivery is adaptive, meaning the system monitors driver inputs such as gear selection, accelerator position as well as traction at all four wheels to direct power to where it is most needed to keep the vehicle in control. Under normal conditions the bulk of power is directed to the front wheels, but when the vehicle is asked to perform towing duties or carry heavier loads, the reverse is true, reducing the chances of rear wheel spin.


Room to Spare


Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives

Volvo is one of the few auto manufacturers to embrace the station wagon design, as the company has offered them almost since day one while most of their competitors, both foreign and domestic, only produce them sporadically. This trend began in the 1980s and is largely due to the emergence of the more-roomy minivan and trendy sport-utility vehicles. With several station wagon models already in the fleet it made sense for the new XC90 to borrow many of their styling cues and innovations.

The XC90 comes standard with three rows of seats giving it the ability to transport seven passengers in a pinch, five very comfortably. Designers set each row of seats a little higher than the next, ensuring that all occupants will enjoy great visibility. The seats themselves feature a comprehensive system of ergonomic support and comfort, in all seating positions, something some rivals tend to overlook.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives

It is a simple operation to fold the backs of the second row, tri-split bench as well as to hide away the twin, third-row buckets, creating a near flat cargo area with full carpeting and a number of tie-down options. The front passenger seat also possesses the ability to fold forward, allowing the driver to carry longer items safely within the vehicle.

The luggage compartment can accommodate fairly large loads and with its unique tailgate/hatch combination, makes access to the area a breeze. The short tailgate acts as a barrier when up, preventing loose items from rolling out of the compartment whilst opening the large hatch. When deployed it also acts as an excellent shelf or even a seat, and with a weight capacity of 330-pounds it should also suffice as a step to access roof-mounted items such as cargo boxes or sports gear.


Safety First

Volvo has long been associated with advancing safety and was one of the first automakers to install airbags and ABS brakes. One of the company’s latest developments is the innovative Whiplash Protection Seating System (W.H.I.P.S), which acts to absorb and dissipate energy in the event of a rear-end crash by tipping the front seats backwards in an attempt to prevent whiplash, back and soft tissue injuries for front seat passengers.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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A new innovation is what Volvo engineers deem the world’s first Roll Stability Control system (RSC). A gyroscopic sensor continuously monitors roll angle and rate, assessing the risk of rollover. If necessary, the system activates Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) to automatically stabilize the vehicle, reducing the likelihood of a rollover. DTSC will reduce power and apply sufficient braking where needed, helping the driver maintain control.

If a rollover does occur, the Rollover Protection System (ROPS) activates a split second before the rollover actually occurs, greatly reducing the chance of serious injury. ROPS consists of a safety cage, a reinforced roof, inflatable safety curtains (for all three rows of seats) and seat belt pretensioners. Hopefully other manufacturers will adopt this technology as well.

The Volvo XC90 is currently the only SUV on the market that offers inflatable safety curtains for all three rows of seats. In the event of a side impact or rollover, the curtains extend the entire length of the interior, protecting all occupants from flying glass and debris, as well as giving excellent head protection.

One of the major knocks against the proliferation of SUVs on our roads is the sad fact that when they are involved in an accident with smaller cars, they tend to ride up on them as their elevated ride heights have lead to bumper placement that does not jive well with that of compact passenger cars, or their door beams as well. As a result, many SUV verses car impacts are far more serious than should be. Volvo engineers have outfitted the XC90 with a lower cross-member than found on similar vehicles specifically designed to better protect the occupants in the OTHER vehicle by triggering the safety systems of smaller cars as early in an impact as possible.

Another unique innovation finds its way into the XC90 – the sliding child booster seat. By attaching this optional feature to the middle seat of the second row, you can situate your child closer to the front seats when needed, allowing you to keep a better eye on them as well as tend to their needs.

The XC90 is not a small vehicle, so engineers chose to fit big, vented disc brakes at all four corners. These seemed to resist fade quite well over the course of my test period, and with the help of an advanced, multi-channel four-wheel anti-lock system brought the XC90 down from speed with relative ease. In the event of a panic stop situation Volvo’s Emergency Brake Assistance steps in, automatically applying full braking pressure promoting a shorter stop.

If safety is your number one concern when it comes to buying a vehicle, then any one of Volvo’s ever-expanding fleet of models should warrant a test drive.

Cabin appointments

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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Much of the interior is derived from the flagship S80 sedan (most prominently the gauge cluster, HVAC controls and window switches) and everything falls readily to hand and eye. All the luxury goodies one expects in a car of this level are present, including power windows and mirrors, remote locks, dual-zone climate control and a power moon roof.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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The design of the ultra-supportive leather seats in my test model were up to Volvo’s usual, excellent standards, and were both supportive and comfortable at the same time. Driver and front passenger units were power adjustable (the latter an option on the 2.5T), while rear seats offered better comfort than those in most competitors and were constructed with the same attention to detail as the front ones.

Second row passengers benefit from plentiful legroom and the vehicle’s tall roofline gives the XC90 an airy feel. Windows go all the way down for those hot days, but separate A/C controls and loads of well-placed vents in the rear seating areas will keep temperature in check. The third row features individual buckets that fold flat for when hauling cargo rather than people is on the schedule. When deployed, they offer the user true 7-passenger seating.

Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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They can be accessed from either side by sliding the rear seats forward and lifting the third-row seat backs into place. A nylon loop becomes visible immediately under the front face of the seatback which when pulled, slides the seat cushion into place via support rails. This is a very clever design to say the least.

While exploring the rearmost seating area I was surprised to find a pair of clever control pads mounted on the centre pillar. This neat device allows rear passengers to select their own choice of radio and CD programs and provides jacks for as many as four sets of headphones. The control unit itself allows users to select their own radio station or CD track as well as adjust their individual volume. Considering that the XC90 is also the first vehicle to offer a Dolby Pro-Logic II Audio System with surround sound (built-in 6-CDchanger, 12 speakers and a 305W amplifier), I am sure this unique set-up should make long road trips a little more tolerable for flighty teens, rambunctious kids and adults alike. If the standard system better suits your budget, it still offers eight matched speakers, a 160-watt amplifier and the rear controls, as well as secondary steering-wheel-mounted controls.

Popular Options

The XC90, much like the other models in the company’s catalogue, comes very well equipped. However, individual options such as a DVD-based navigation system, the aforementioned sliding child seat, Bi-Xenon headlights and a host of racks and cargo carriers are available.

For buyers planning to use the XC for long trips, you may want to consider ordering the optional air-conditioner for occupants of the third row seating area. It comes with its own speed and temperature controls.

Security features such as laminated windows, deep-tint rear glass, rear park assist, and Home-link can also be ordered.


Conclusions


Test Drive: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T volvo car test drives
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The 2004 Volvo XC90 possesses all the polish, style, and goodies one expects in a luxury vehicle while offering safety and emissions standards superior to those of almost any other SUV on the road. Add to this a tasteful design, wonderful interior layout, and genuine load-carrying versatility and the XC90 begins to look like a value. The only question you will have to ask yourself is whether opting for the more powerful T6 model is better suited for your family’s needs, albeit at the cost of increased fuel consumption and a larger monthly payment.


Technical Data: 2004 Volvo XC90 2.5T

Base price $49,995
Options $ 4,600 (($1,750 Touring Package- ‘Atlantis’ 18-inch wheels, premium sound and wood steering wheel; $1,400 Premium Package- wood effect inlays, power adjustable passenger seat with memory, auto-dimming mirror and Homelink; $850 Convenience Package- Rear Parking Assist, rain sensing wipers and retractable side mirrors; $600 Security Package- Laminated side glass, inclination sensor and mass movement sensor.
Freight $895
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $55,950
Type 4-door, 7-passenger, mid-size SUV
Layout transverse front engine, all-wheel-drive
Engine 2.5 litre inline 5 cylinder, turbocharged, DOHC, 20-valve, with aluminum block and head, ULEV II
Horsepower 208 @ 5000 rpm
Torque 236 lb.-ft @ 1500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Tires 225/70R16H Continental 4 x 4 Contact
Curb weight 2,046 kgs. (4,450 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2,859mm (112.6″)
Length 4,799 mm (188.9″)
Width 1,890 mm (74.7″)
Height 1,740 mm (70.2″)
Towing load 2,250 kgs. (4,960 lbs.)
Cargo capacity (seats folded): 2,404 L (85 cu ft)
Fuel consumption City: 13.3 l/100 km
  Hwy: 9.1 L/100 km
Warranty 4-year/80,000 km