First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives
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by Jim Kenzie

Sonoma, California – Is the 2003 Volvo XC90 an SUV? It looks like a tall wagon. Now, Volvo is well-known for their wagons, and would be happy to sell you one. THEY say the XC90 is an SUV, NOT a wagon.

Well, fine. Call it whatever you want.

Underneath, there’s no argument – the XC90 is based on Volvo’s well-regarded, space-efficient and safe “P2” platform, which first saw light as the S80 sedan, and now underpins everything they make except the small S/V40 line.

Thus, the XC90 is clearly a car-based vehicle, with unitized construction and fully independent suspension. However, it will be classified as a light truck for safety, fuel economy and emissions purposes in the United States.

That said, the XC90 meets all passenger car standards in all three categories. The wheelbase has been lengthened and the track widened to create more interior room. But overall, it is only about 90 mm (3.4 inches) longer than Volvo’s XC70 Cross Country wagon. And that IS a wagon…

The taller body raises the seat height by a substantial 165 mm over the already-elevated XC70. Ground clearance is 220 mm on the base model, 235 mm on the up-level car, the difference being bigger tires. The XC90 isn’t intended for serious off-road work, but it should get you through some reasonably ugly terrain.

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives
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Of course, the centre of gravity is higher too, not a desirable characteristic; Volvo maintains it is still lower than most competitors. Volvo portrays the XC90 as the “unselfish” SUV – an additional structural member beneath the front bumper helps ensure that in a frontal crash, the XC90 will engage a smaller car’s crash structures, and won’t dangerously over-ride it.

Two models will be offered, with the biggest difference being in powertrain. The 2.5T uses an in-line five cylinder with a light pressure turbo, similar to that in the S60 and V70 but about 100 cc larger in displacement (this engine will work its way into those other cars in due course). It produces 208 horsepower at 5,000 r.p.m., and 236 lb.-ft. of torque, which arrives at a remarkably low 1,500 r.p.m. and stays there until 4,500 r.p.m.

It is fitted with a Japanese-made Aisin-Warner five-speed automatic with “GearTronic”, Volvo’s name for a manually-overrideable automatic.

The T6 gets the 2.9 litre twin-turbo in-line six cylinder from the S80, generating 268 horsepower at 5,100 r.p.m., and 280 lb.-ft. of torque from
1,800 to 5,000 r.p.m.

The five-speed autobox won’t fit with this longer engine, so the T6 gets by with a General Motors-supplied four-speed, again with GearTronic – although not the same GearTronic, as we shall see.

The drive train is essentially the same as the XC70 – full-time four-wheel drive with a “Haldex” electronic locking centre differential. This nominally directs a token five percent of torque to the rear wheels; should the front wheels start to slip, it can shove as much as 65 percent rearward. Under severe conditions, such as the fronts being on glare ice, all the torque is sent to the rears.

This differential starts to lock up within one-seventh of a revolution of the wheels, so the added traction arrives in time to do you some good, unlike the “Too-Late” systems of some competitors. A front-wheel drive XC90 will be offered in the United States, but not in Canada.

The S80-based MacStrut front and multi-link rear suspensions are beefed up to handle the extra weight of the XC90. Brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution (to ensure each wheel is braking at the optimum level before ABS kicks in) and Electronic Braking Assistance (which infers an intended panic stop by measuring the speed of brake pedal application, not simply the pressure, and tosses the anchors out for you).

A combined Directional Stability/Traction Control system is standard. Roll-overs and SUVs are something of a sore point for Volvo’s parent company, Ford. So the XC90 sees the world’s first application of Roll Stability Control. Essentially, this is directional stability control in the vertical plane. If sensors in the vehicle detect an impeding roll-over, the DSTC is activated to slow and brake the vehicle appropriately. You’d have to be seriously out of shape for this to happen; under most circumstances, the DSTC would have intervened already. But if the pavement drops away suddenly, or you put a wheel off the edge, this system could bail you out.

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives
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If all else fails, the XC90 has a boron-steel reinforced roof, and the world’s first inflatable side curtains designed to assist in roll-overs, as opposed to just side impacts, and which cover all three rows of seats.

What? Three rows of seats, in a car not much longer than a mid-size wagon? Yep. Which takes us to Volvo’s “Flexibility Seminar”.

No, they weren’t trying to improve the physical fitness of the world’s automotive press, although God knows, we collectively could use some. They were hoping to show us all the permutations in this clever interior. In Canada, we’ll have seven seats as standard – the third row of two chairs, intended only for children and small adults, is an option in the U.S.

With a couple of flicks of the wrist, these can be folded flat – the headrests disappear automatically. Unfortunately this cannot be done from the luggage compartment – you need to get at them from the side doors.

The middle three-seat bench is split 40/20/40; each portion can be slid forward or rearwards to divvy up the available legroom as needed.

Again, all seats fold flat, and none can or need to be removed. Even the right front seat can be folded forward should you be thinking of starting an upscale courier service.

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives
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The middle seat in the second row can be equipped with a built-in child booster seat; the seat can also be slid forward so Junior can sit nearer the middle of the vehicle – the safest place to be – and also closer to Mom and Dad.

All seven seats have three-point belts, and all have pre-tensioners to take up the slack in the event of a crash – another world first.

And there are on average 2.3 cupholders per seat.

Even with all seats up there is still a fair amount of luggage space in front of the horizontally-split hatch, the lower portion of which becomes a true tailgate to make loading heavy objects or climbing up to access the standard roof rack easier. It’s all quite ingenious.

I got about six hours of seat time combined in the 2.5T and T6 versions of this new car. I must say, it rides and drives very well indeed. In other words, not at all like an SUV. Quiet too. And as you’d expect from a Volvo, the seats are spectacular.

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives

First Drive: 2003 Volvo XC90 volvo first drives
Click image to enlarge

California drivers are quite polite when faster cars come up behind them on two-lane roads – they usually pull over and let you by. When they saw THIS car in their rear-view mirror, they really got out of the way. “Must be our ‘I’ll eat your baby’ grille,” smiled one Volvo staffer, who shall go nameless to give him a fighting chance of seeing a pension cheque some day… Whatever, the XC90 obviously appears suitably imposing.

The T6 is predictably faster, although the 2.5T is still pretty good – those flat torque curves really pay off. One factor in favour of the smaller engine is the transmission has five gears, and its GearTronic shifter is much easier to work than the T6′s four-speed. In the former, you simply slide the lever to the left to engage a push – pull (upshift – downshift) gate, then slide it back when you’re done fooling around. In the T6, you have to pull the lever back, then to the left, and reverse above procedure to get back to Drive – awkward.

The T6 also continues a long-standing flaw in Volvo’s safety story – you cannot slide the lever into Neutral without depressing the thumb button. Why does this matter? If you start to skid, you want to immediately relieve the wheels of all driving and braking forces so they can concentrate on lateral grip. A quick forward smack on the shift lever is all you should need to do. The more complex this operation, the harder it is to accomplish. With the button needing to be pushed, you also run the danger of over-shooting Neutral and catching Reverse, or, worse still, Park. Ouch. The five-speed gets this right, so Volvo knows it can be done. We have to convince them now that it should and must be done.

The long engine sitting laterally across the car aids space utilization but hinders wheel articulation; the large turning circle makes the car feel clumsy in tight parking spots.

The 2.5T will start at $54,995; the T6 at $59,995. These seem fearsomely high to me, but they are apparently right in line with typically less-well-equipped Acura MDX, Lexus RX300, Mercedes-Benz ML320 and BMW X5, which Volvo has identified as the targets.

Volvo feels they can shove about 3,500 XC90s out the door annually, and that only about 15 percent of buyers would have even considered one of Volvo’s wagons.

So, is the XC90 an SUV even I could love? I could certainly love it. I’d just argue that it really isn’t an SUV…

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