First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

Brampton, Ontario – Back in 1927, when Volvo rolled out its first car in Gothenburg, Sweden, it carried a 1.9-litre four-cylinder engine. A 3.0-litre six-cylinder followed in 1929, along with a five-cylinder introduced for 1993. These configurations set the stage for over seven decades.

But this is a time when, ironically, automakers are turning out some of their beefiest engines in the face of some of the highest fuel prices ever. Having sat back and watched for so long, Volvo has finally given in to the pressure, and for 2006, the XC90 SUV will carry the company’s very first V8.

On one hand, it’s a shame that it has to follow the herd mentality; company officials say that the new engine is the result of market share lost to buyers who don’t want an SUV unless it’s got a V8 badge on it. On the other hand, if you must have a bigger engine, this certainly is a very well-done one: powerful, cream-smooth, and perfectly mated to what is already one of the better luxury SUVs on the market.

The new configuration is expected in showrooms in July, and will take the 2.9-litre twin-turbo inline six – the “T6″ – out of the line-up, leaving the 2.5-litre turbo inline five-cylinder as the V8′s running-mate.

Right from the start, the V8 presented a problem for Volvo: finding one. There obviously wasn’t one in Volvo’s parts bin, and while they’re routine for parent company Ford, all of the available ones were too big to fit. Safety is Volvo’s overriding trademark, and no matter what engine it used, it would have to be mounted transversely, to help maintain the XC90′s front crumple zones.

The answer was Yamaha, which had partnered with Ford in the past to produce V8 engines for the Taurus SHO. The engines are built in Japan and shipped to Sweden to be mated with the chassis there.

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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The powerplant is a 4.4-litre V8 with only 60 degrees between its banks, instead of the traditional 90 degrees, to keep it compact. Such a setup is inherently imbalanced, so a counter-rotating balance shaft was added to smooth it out. The left bank is set half a cylinder off the right so the engine can slip between the structural beams; the exhaust camshafts are driven by secondary chains running off the inlet camshafts. To save even more space, peripherals such as the generator are connected directly, without brackets. (Whether that will result in frustrated mechanics trying to find the necessary space to repair them down the road remains to be seen; the grease monkeys are usually the last consideration with any manufacturer’s engineers, after all.)

The final tally is 754 mm long and 635 mm wide, which Volvo claims is the most compact on the market among engines of equivalent volume. The block and head are cast in aluminum, and the engine weighs a mere 190 kg.

Leaving no fuel or power savings untapped, the air conditioning compressor and generator are variable, for a four per cent fuel savings. The engine, which rates as the cleanest gasoline-powered V8 currently available, meets the American ULEV II (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle Stage II) requirements. The XC90 carries four catalytic converters, and comes with a couple of tricks up its sleeve: a higher initial idling speed, to warm up the engine and converters, coupled with a leaner initial air/fuel mixture, to reduce emissions at cold start.

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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The engine makes 311 hp at 5850 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm. To increase low-end torque, a valve in the inlet manifold closes under 3200 rpm to cut off airflow between the two cylinders banks, for a broader torque curve. Volvo says that at 2000 rpm, some 273 lb-ft of torque becomes available.

The official figures are zero to 100 km/h in 7.0 seconds, and while the speedo goes to 260 km/h, the electronic limiter will shut you down at 210 km/h. When questioned, a spokesperson said that the restricted top end is in line with the limitations on the vehicle’s tires. North Americans like their luxury vehicles to ride a little squishy, and so on this side of the pond, we get softer tires and suspension than the folks in Europe, who get to drive their firmer-sprung Volvos a little faster.

The all-new, compact automatic transmission is Japanese-built as well; it’s a six-speed with Geartronic manual-shift mode. The engine and transmission are coupled as a unit and managed by new software, developed by Volvo, called Complete Vehicle Control, or CVC. Sixth gear is pure overdrive, and if you can keep it up there, you should be able to get close to the estimated figures of 16.4 L/100km (17 mpg Imperial) in the city and 10.7 L/100km (26 mpg Imperial) on the highway. It’s not much more than the T6, which EnerGuide rates at 15.6 and 10.6 respectively, and even though that’s 91 octane fuel, most buyers in this price range don’t feel a couple of extra dollars at the gas pump.

The V8 features the Haldex electronic all-wheel-drive system that’s standard on all XC90s, but adds a new feature called Instant Traction. A non-return valve prevents hydraulic fluid from draining completely from the system, and a “pre-charge” of 60 lb-ft of torque is always present when starting from a standstill. Under normal conditions, the vehicle has a 95 per cent front bias, but can transfer up to 95 per cent to any one wheel when needed. The Instant Traction reduces the wheel spin necessary to activate the system into delivering power to the rear wheels.

The technical information is fine, but it all comes down to the rubber on the road, and out on the asphalt, the XC90 proves that Volvo really is capable of turning out a competitive V8 package.

The exhaust note is a headache for luxury manufacturers. Buyers want to hear that they’re getting their money’s worth, but only for so long; a 1960s muscle-car drone doesn’t sit well when you’re pulling into the country club. To that end, there’s a throaty rumble on acceleration, but it quickly dies down, and the Volvo becomes characteristically quiet when a constant speed is maintained – at least, until the optional Dolby Pro-Logic premium stereo is switched on.

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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It isn’t a rocket, but acceleration is still good for a vehicle of this size, and there’s plenty of power on tap when it’s needed. Although I didn’t get a chance to give it a full workout, a short trek north of Toronto on both paved and dirt roads showed that it’s equally at home on either one. The dirt road got a little muddy in places, but the vehicle tracked straight through the wettest spots, and when accelerating on a gravel road.

The well-engineered engine showed absolutely no hint of roughness or imbalance, whether at idle or under load, and the transmission shifts smoothly. You put your foot down, the vehicle responds immediately and without any fuss: this is how a luxury V8 should perform, and Volvo has nailed it.

Although the differences are subtle, other drivers will notice there’s a bit more happening under this hood; V8 badges appear on the grille and tailgate, there are small twin exhaust pipes, and there are colour variations in some of the trim.

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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The five-seat XC90 V8 starts at $64,995, and the seven-seat model is $67,295 and includes an integrated child booster seat in the second row. That’s not a huge jump over the 2005 T6, at $61,995, but once that engine’s gone, the only other choice will be the $49,995 five-cylinder. That is quite a difference, which explains the gap in the target audience; while other XC90s capture the 35- to 55-year-old market, the V8 is expected to appeal to those over 55, and with an annual income of over $160,000.

The target customers are expected to have children grown up and out of the house, and the take-rate on the optional seven-seat configuration is expected to be much lower than on other XC90s, where buyers usually ask for it six to one over the five-seater.

The V8 will be available globally, and Volvo expects to move 15,000 of them a year, with 75 per cent ending up in North America. Currently, about 90,000 five- and six-cylinder versions are made each year.

First Drive: 2006 Volvo XC90 V8 volvo first drives
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My driver came with an optional “Luxury Package” of cargo cover, automatic levelling system, mass movement sensor, rear parking assistance, retractable mirrors, wood steering wheel and premium stereo for $1800; $600 metallic paint and $875 freight charge for a total price of $70,570. XC90 V8 customers can also have a DVD-based Navigation System for $2,500 and a new dual-screen rear entertainment system for $2,500.

That’s a fair chunk of change, but then, for 2005, a 4.4-litre BMW X5 is $71,700, a 5.0-litre Mercedes-Benz ML500 is $68,690, and a VW Touareg is $67,200 with a 4.2-litre, so it’s around the industry average, given that those prices will probably shift slightly for 2006.

The others have their cachet, but Volvo’s got that safety thing going, and buyers approaching their 60th birthday are usually at the point where they’re doing considerable navel-gazing about their mortality. If the comfortable seats and that sweet engine isn’t enough to grab them, the crumple zones and the safety cage probably will.