2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Pricey XC90 is a luxury wagon for all seasons

Though a bit late to the party, Volvo has joined the ranks of other luxury automakers such as BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus, in offering a luxury sport-utility vehicle: the new XC90. It competes with vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz ML, BMW X5, Infiniti FX45, Acura MDX, Nissan Murano, Lexus RX330 and other upscale SUVs.

There are two things you should know about the XC90 right off the top: it’s not a truck, and it’s not cheap. Built on the same P2 unit body car platform as most other Volvos, it’s wider, longer, and taller, and offers a fully independent suspension and a full-time four-wheel-drive system. Though Volvo refers to as an SUV, it drives like a Volvo station wagon with a higher ground clearance, a bit more weight, seven seats, and better visibility – but definately not like a truck.

The XC90 is now Volvo’s most expensive vehicle – ranging in price from about $55,000 to almost $70,000 when fully loaded. Gee, I remember when Volvo’s used to be the inexpensive alternative to BMW’s and Benz’s. The XC90 is now on par, or is even more expensive than some of its import competitors, and is way more expensive than its Japanese or North American competitors. So though the XC90 – with all its passenger and cargo room, safety features and poor weather capability – makes an excellent family vehicle, we’re not talking Wal Mart families here.

The basics

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

Size-wise, the XC90 is about 66 mm (2.6 inches) longer than a Volvo XC70 wagon, and about 203 mm (8 inches) taller, and 38 mm (1.5 inches) wider. It’s bigger than the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML320, about the same size as a Nissan Murano, but not quite as big as an Acura MDX.
Two models are offered: the XC90 2.5T ($54,995) with a turbocharged 208 horsepower inline five cylinder engine and five-speed automatic ‘Geartronic’ transmission; and the XC90 T6 ($59,995) which has a twin-turbocharged inline 2.9 litre six cylinder engine mated to a four-speed automatic with Geartronic.

Both come well-equipped with features like leather upholstery, dual zone climate control and premium stereo, but the T6 model adds speed-sensitive steering instead of regular power-assist, standard 17 inch instead of 16 inch tires and wheels, wood trim, 6-disc in-dash CD changer, power driver’s seat, auto dimming rearview mirror, and a Homelink garage door opener.

My test vehicle was a 2.5T model with the optional 17 inch tires and wheels ($750) and the Premium Package ($1,400) which included wood trim, power passenger seat, auto dimming mirror and Homelink garage door opener. With Freight, my vehicle came to $57,845.

Driving impressions

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

Considering the XC90’s high ground clearance, the step-in height to the driver’s seat is quite low: 21 inches. There is a small lip you have to step over, but it’s reasonable. The driver’s visibility is great – you sit taller than in a car, and the XC90 has windows all around and no large pillars, although the right-rear head restraint partly blocks the view when lane-changing.

Around town, the XC90 is responsive from a standing start and emits a mechanical whine which disappears when you back off the throttle. Under acceleration, the engine is not quite as smooth or as quiet as some of its competitors six cylinder engines, but under 3000 rpm, the engine is very quiet and smooth. Power is not a problem, even in this ‘base’ version. Although 208 horsepower is not a lot of power for a 2046 kilogram (4510 lb.) vehicle, the XC90’s ‘light’ turbocharged engine develops 236 lb-ft of torque at just 1500 rpm. That means the engine’s maximum torque is available at or below its typical running speed – so you’ll almost always find satisfying response when you put your foot down.

The 5-speed automatic transmission performs like a willing dance partner with this torquey engine, shifting often but not noticeably. You can shift gears yourself by engaging the Geartronic manual mode – the shift lever is moved into a gate, and then pushed forwards to shift into a higher gear, or pulled back to shift into a lower gear. It shifts fairly quickly but isn’t much fun unless your out on a lonely highway where you can make use of the engine’s upper rev ranges. The transmission also has a manually-selectable Winter mode that improves snow traction by starting off in a higher gear.

On the freeway, the XC90 is as comfortable and quiet as a typical wagon. It doesn’t wander at high speeds and steering is firm and responsive. At 100 km/h, the engine does just 2000 rpm; at 120 km/h it’s 2500 rpm.

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

Handling is remarkable for a tall wagon/SUV/crossover/whatever vehicle. It leans slightly in typical 90 degree city street corners, but it doesn’t feel ‘tippy’ or unsteady. All four wheels are suspended independently (front MacPherson strut/rear multi-link with a cast aluminum subframe) and the vehicle has a near 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. For the size of vehicle that it is, it feels remarkably nimble.

The XC90 comes with standard Continental Contact 4X4 225/70R-16 inch tires, but my test vehicle was equipped with the optional Pirelli Scorpion 235/65R-17 inch M+S tires on six-spoke alloys. Despite their aggressive tread, these tires don’t make much noise on the highway, and offer substantial grip in the dry as well as wet and snow-covered roads.

The XC90’s all-wheel-drive system is sophisticated and completely automatic. In normal driving, most of the engine’s power goes to the front wheels, but when the AWD system detects loss of traction, between five and 65 per cent of the power can be sent to the rear wheels. As well, the traction control system can vary power between the right and left sides of the vehicle by applying the brakes to a wheel that is spinning. This means that even one wheel with traction can function if necessary. I found this system almost seamless in slippery conditions, and combined with the grippy tires, provided excellent traction and control. The XC90 has the traction and the ground clearance to tackle gravel backroads to the cottage or snow-covered roads up to the ski slopes. However, there is no Low Range gear or computer-controlled engine braking system, so serious mountain-climbing is not recommended.

The AWD system is controlled during parking to prevent the front and rear axles from ‘competing’ for power at steering angles up to full lock, ensuring easier parking. Under braking, the system is deactivated so that the brake and ABS systems can function effectively, for high stability and short braking distances. The AWD system is also deactivated by the Dynamic Stability and Traction Control system (DSTC) when using braking intervention to counteract a skid.

The XC90’s brakes are beefy: four wheel discs with four channel ABS and electronic brake distribution and emergency Brake Assistance. Steering on the 2.5T is a power assisted, rack and pinion setup with reasonably easy steering effort around town and a turning circle of 11.9 metres (39 feet).

2003 Volvo XC90
Click image to enlarge

The XC90 is equipped with an exclusive new type of anti-roll-over system called Roll Stability Control (RSC). The system uses gyroscopic sensors to measure the vehicle’s roll speed and roll angle. If there is an obvious risk of rolling over, the DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) anti-skid system responds by reducing the engine’s power and by braking one or more wheels until the vehicle under-steers and stability is regained. Though I didn’t try to roll the XC90 over, I found it hard to get this vehicle out of shape on slippery roads because it will react before the situation becomes serious.

As well, for passenger safety, the XC90 is equipped with Volvo’s Inflatable Curtain which protects all three rows of passengers heads from hitting the sides or roof panels. If the XC90 should roll over, Volvo has reinforced the roof structure using Boron steel, which is four- to five-times stronger than normal steel.

As well, the XC90 is crash-compatible with cars. The XC90’s front suspension sub-frame has a lower cross-member positioned at the height of the bumper in a conventional car. This reduces the risk of injuries in frontal collisions as well as in rear-end impacts and side impacts.

Interior impressions

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge

With three rows of seats, the interior is roomy enough for five adults and two children – The XC90 is roomier than the BMW X5 (which carries only five passengers) and the Mercedes-Benz ML320.

The driver slides into a substantial leather-clad seat with big bolsters and canted head restraints, and seat heaters with two temperature settings. Still, those leather seats are cold when you first get in to the car (I’m still waiting for the remote seat heater starter..) The XC90’s meaty steering wheel can be tilted up and down and telescoped in and out to suit your liking. Buttons for the radio and cruise control can be found within reach on the steering wheel spokes.

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

Volvo’s straightfoward round gauges look great and are easy to read. A green digital display in the instrument cluster includes outside temperature, clock, gear selector indicator, kilometres-til-empty indicator, and odometer.

The quality of the interior dashboard materials is excellent – textured plastic on the upper dash and smooth plastic around the console, medium dark wood trim on the dash and console, and aluminum trim on the console, gear lever and door handles.

Volvo’s familiar centre console controls consist of large buttons and dials with large white lettering – the dual zone climate control in particular has Volvo’s familiar, easy to use pictograph for ventilation functions. Wiper controls include variable intermittent front wipers, and most importantly, a variable rear wiper. The rear window gets dirty very easily, summer or winter, and a rear wiper with an intermittent setting is nothing less than an important safety item.

Between the front seats is a storage console box which holds about 10 CDs – uniquely, it can be removed if required.

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

There’s lots of legroom and headroom in the second row seat, and there are two pull-out cupholders and a powerpoint for kid’s video games. The second row seats are split 40/20/40 which means that any of the three seatbacks can be folded down in a number of different configurations for cargo-carrying flexibility. The seatbacks fold flat, flush with the cargo floor, and are carpeted on the back.

A bonus for parents is that the centre seat in the second row has a built-in flip-up booster seat for children aged 4 to 8. As well, for baby seats, the centre rear seat will slide forwards closer to the parents.

While the two third row seats don’t have enough legroom for adults, they can serve as temporary accomodation for short trips. They include three point seatbelts and head restraints, and rear passengers have their own cupholders and storage bins. When not in use the seat cushions slide underneath the cargo area and the backrests fold down to form a flush surface with the cargo area – quite an ingenious design.

At the rear there’s a split tailgate, with a hatch that lifts up and a small tailgate that folds down. The cargo area is roomy, but the liftover height is fairly high: 84 cm (33 inches). The rear opening is tall and wide (42 inches wide by 32 inches high), and when both third and second row seatbacks are folded down, there is about 85 cubic feet of cargo space – enough for a large dresser or even a refrigerator – the area measures about 82 inches long by 44 inches between the wheelhousings. A 12 volt powerpoint is included in the cargo area.

2003 Volvo XC90

2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

With the second row rear seats up, there’s about 43 cubic feet of cargo space, with a load floor length of about 46 inches. A folding privacy cover can be installed behind the second row seats.

With the folding third row seats in the up position, there’s enough room for a few grocery bags, but with a floor length of 19 inches, you can’t load luggage for seven people, or even five people.

An option for rear-seat passengers are rear radio controls – the kids can listen to the radio, while the rear seat occupants can listen to the CD, or vica-versa – a great idea for families. Another family-friendly option is a roof-mounted DVD player with an 18 cm wide, retractable colour monitor. It comes with wireless headphones and will play CDs as well.

The XC90 is also available with an optional navigation system ($2,500) with a DVD-based system and a pop-up colour monitor.


2003 Volvo XC90
Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

Though it’s only been on the market a few months, the XC90 has won many awards, including Best New Sport Utility Vehicle over $45,000 from the members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC); Best Buy, Sport Utility Vehicle ($35,000-$60,000) and Sport Utility of the Year by le Guide de l’Auto 2003; Motor Trend Magazine’s 2003 Sport/Utility of the Year Award; and North American Truck of the Year by a group of 49 automotive journalists from the United States and Canada. Too bad it’s not really a truck or an SUV..


A super luxury wagon for all seasons, the Volvo XC90 is the ultimate family-friendly vehicle, but its price is steep and I found the turbocharged five cylinder engine was not as smooth or as quiet as some of its competitor’s six cylinder engines.

Technical Data: 2003 Volvo XC90 2.5T AWD

Base price $54,995
Freight $700
Options Premium package ($1,400); 17 inch tires and wheels ($750)
Price as tested $57,845
Type 4-door, 7-passenger mid-sized utility wagon
Layout transverse front engine/all-wheel-drive (electronically controlled Haldex limited slip coupling)
Engine 2.5 litre inline 5 cylinder, “light pressure” turbocharger
Horsepower 208 @ 5,000 rpm
Torque 236 ft. lbs @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission 5-speed auto
Tires P235/65HR-17 Pirelli Scorpion Zero
Curb weight 2,046 kg (4510 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,857 mm (112.5 in.)
Length 4,798 mm (188.9 in.)
Width 1,898 mm (74.7 in.)
Height (with roof rails)1,784 mm (70.2 in.)
Ground clearance 218 mm (8.6 in.)
Cargo capacity (Seats Up) 1,225 litres (43.3 cu. ft.)
  (Seats Down) 2,410 litres (85.1 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City 13.3 l/100 km (21 mpg)
  Hwy 9.1 l/100 km (31 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/48,000 km

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