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2006 Volvo XC90 Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2006 Volvo XC90

New Car Test Drive
© 2006

The Volvo XC90 offers classic Volvo attributes in a midsize SUV. It's strong on safety, comfortable, and practical.

Its roomy interior seats seven, and there's more cargo space here than in other vehicles in its class. The cabin is luxurious, with nice firm seats and most of the bells and whistles most of us want. People who opt for a BMW X5 over one of these read magazines that use stopwatches and accelerometers for yardsticks. The XC90 handles well on streets and highways, but it also offers a comfortable ride. All-wheel drive with Volvo's new Instant Traction system makes the XC90 an excellent choice for nasty weather. Buyers choose between a 4.4-liter V8 and a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine. Each gets better gas mileage than most comparable seven-passenger SUVs.

Volvo's reputation for safety is not just marketing talk. Volvo puts an incredible amount of time, money and effort into research and engineering designed to protect driver and passengers. We've seen XC90s hurled across parking lots by giant mechanical hands, followed by handfuls of engineers taking detailed measurements and notes. Volvo engineers are known to rush out to accident scenes immediately after they occur to assess the damage to their vehicles. In base trim, the XC90 is competitively priced, but Volvos tend to cost more than they might due to the safety engineering that goes into them.

Safety features that come on all XC90 models include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist, and traction control. A gyroscopic sensor can detect an impending rollover and correct the imbalance by applying just the right amount of braking force to specific, individual wheels. Structural safety features include a roof structure built of high-strength steel and a low front cross member designed to inflict less damage to occupants of compact vehicles.

Model Lineup

Volvo XC90 2.5T ($35,640); XC90 V8 ($45,840)

Walk Around

The Volvo XC90 is an attractive SUV and recognizable as a Volvo. The roofline rakes upward dramatically from the windshield to a high horizontal plane, with the arc of the top echoed by the curve of the roof rails. Coming toward you on the freeway, the XC90 almost looks like an old convertible with its top puffing up. A high beltline adds to the typical visual image of a tall SUV.

The overall angularity clearly says Volvo. Head-on, you might think it's the result of the mating of a Honda CRV and a Dodge Ram. The hood shape is similar to the Ram's, but the grille is Honda-like, except for the diagonal band that labels it a Volvo. The grille is elevated four or five inches over the protruding fender contours, and slightly V-shaped to be consistent with Volvo design.

The XC90's long wheelbase, wide stance and low center of gravity promote handling stability. The overall length is not much longer than the wheelbase. As a result, overhangs are short; the body doesn't extend very far past the wheels, in other words. The XC90 has a wide track as well. And despite its height, it has a lower center of gravity than the XC70 Cross Country wagon.

Like the XC70, the back end of the XC90 features huge taillights. Think safety. If it bothers you that the back of your SUV looks like Las Vegas, it might comfort you to think that you're a whole lot less likely to get creamed from behind by some half-asleep driver. You're also less likely to back into something at night, thanks to backup lights that look like they came from a rally car.

The standard wheels measure 17 inches in diameter, but the hottest look comes with the optional 18-inch wheels available in alloy or chrome finish and fitted with lower profile tires.

The XC90's rear hatch has two sections, with a 70/30 top/bottom split. The lower edge of the liftgate is waist level, leaving a small tailgate. If you're just stowing the groceries or dry cleaning, you might not need to drop the tailgate, but the rest of the time you'll need to open both gates. Two gates is more work than one. The good news is that the tiny tailgate lifts and closes easily, and the short liftgate is less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. It's also inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline and makes the XC90 look shorter. The liftgates on some SUVs are hard to lift due to their weight and the angles involved. That's not the case here.

The fit of body panels and trim is decent. The XC90's big doors close with a light touch and a nice solid sound when they latch. The rear window wiper is sturdy, protected by a flat black plastic sleeve.


We found the cabin of the Volvo XC90 roomy and comfortable. It seats up to seven passengers. By mounting the engine across the chassis, Volvo has created a roomy cabin inside a relatively compact exterior. This allows the instrument panel and front seats to be positioned more forward, opening up space and legroom for back-seat passengers.

The Volvo can carry more stuff than most of its competitors. With all six passenger seats folded down, the XC90 offers 92.3 cubic feet of cargo space, more than what's found in competing SUVs: 2006 Mercedes M-Class (72.4 cubic feet), BMW X5 (54.5), Acura MDX (81.5), Lexus RX 330 (84.7), Cadillac SRX (69.5), Infiniti FX (64.5). Even with all three rows of seats in place there's room in the Volvo for two or three stacked duffel bags behind the third row.

The XC90 carries long objects well. Lowering a small center portion of the second-row seat reveals 9.5 feet of unobstructed space between the instrument panel and the rear liftgate. That can be done even with the third-row seats in place because they have a passage space between the seatbacks. As a result, four surfers and two long boards will easily fit into an XC90, an impressive feat. The XC90 is also good for trout fishing because you can set your rigged 9-foot fly rods in there without having to break them down, useful when moving from spot to spot.

Seating and cargo arrangements are enormously versatile, allowing 64 different configurations, including six of the seven seats folded flat. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, fold, change and vanish.

Second-row seats are split 40/20/40 and slide forward independently. Headrests don't have to be removed when the seats are folded flat. Up front, the console between the front seats can be easily removed, allowing the center second-row seat to slide way forward between and just behind the front buckets. With the optional integrated booster cushion for that seat, tending to a young child has never been easier.

There's only enough leg room in the third row for two kids or two very short adults. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in many SUVs, however, due to the ease of sliding and flipping the second-row seats. There are entry grab handles to aid getting inside, but the front-door grab handle is a bit narrow. The doors close with aluminum handles, but they too are narrow, with room for only two or three fingers.

The third row is a cozy and convenient little world of its own, however, with its center console, cup holders, deep window pockets, and separate climate controls and outlets. Kids might actually want to sit way back in the wayback. Headphone plugs are provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD while the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers.

The standard interior trim is a mix of brushed aluminum and faux aluminum plastic. Real wood inlay trim is an option on the V8 and a big improvement over the plastic.

There's little storage space for the front seats. The door pockets are narrow and the small center console compartment is slim and difficult to access; if you store a few CDs in the slots, there's no more room at all. The only open bin for tossing small items is on the dash panel, about big enough for a cell phone.

The gauges are simple and the instrument panel is canted upward toward the high seating position. The wood-and-leather steering wheel that comes with the Touring package was more comfortable than the standard steering wheel because it's round; the standard wheel has edges and angles that defy understanding.

The front bucket seats are good, especially with adjustable lumbar support, and Volvo leather is some of the best around. More side bolstering wouldn't hurt, though.

Headroom is exceptional, thanks to the roofline, and the big windows offer excellent visibility and a feeling of roominess. Unfortunately, the price for the

Driving Impressions

The character of the Volvo XC90 is greatly affected by whether you choose the standard five-cylinder model or the V8.

The best deal is the base five-cylinder engine with the five-speed automatic. It delivers ample acceleration for all situations, good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions. Volvo's 2.5-liter five-cylinder produces 208 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. We found it delivered plenty of power for the real world, and the 24-mpg EPA Highway rating is excellent for that much power in a vehicle as heavy as the XC90. But what makes the five-cylinder engine especially sweet is the five-speed automatic that comes with it. It's a responsive transmission. Stand on the gas while cruising along on the highway and it quickly downshifts from fifth to third gear and XC90 eagerly zooms away. The five-cylinder engine doesn't seem to have a lot of torque at engine speeds below 2000 rpm but the responsiveness and flexibility of the five-speed transmission makes good use of the engine's power. The transmission includes a manual-shift feature called Geartronic. We recommend adding the optional all-wheel drive for driving in foul weather conditions.

The V8 engine was developed for the U.S. where 30 percent of all SUVs are sold with V8 engines. Because Volvo has no history with V8s, it turned to Yamaha, which has a good relationship with Volvo's parent company, Ford, to develop a new engine compact enough to fit in the XC90's engine bay. Volvo linked the V8 to a six-speed automatic to make the best use of the engine's torque curve, which reaches 271 pound-feet of pulling power at just 2000 rpm and peaks at 325 pound-feet at 3900 rpm.

Volvo also made some changes in its all-wheel-drive system to send more power to the rear wheels for better take off from a standing start, and incorporated a fast-reacting Instant Traction system to minimize wheelspin. We spent several hours in the V8 and found it well-suited to the sort of driving done by many American SUV owners. We enjoyed its quick acceleration and sure-footed passing maneuvers.

Regardless of engine, we were impressed with how silky smooth the XC90 feels at 80 mph. Its chassis closely follows the design of the Cross Country wagon, but is wider and the components are beefier. It handles bumpy roads with dips and gullies well without bottoming when driven hard. It doesn't offer the sporty handling of a BMW X5 or Infiniti FX35, however. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not as quick in the really tight stuff. But, in general, the XC90 feels reasonably tight, with decent feedback to let you know how the front tires are gripping. There's minimal body sway under hard cornering. The electronic stability control, called DSTC, stepped in a few times when we were thrashing down a particularly ornery road, and the system applied the brakes at one wheel without cutting the throttle, although we aren't sure if it was the gyroscopic roll sensor or traction sensors that triggered its operation.

The ride quality in the XC90 is very good, stiff at the wheels, but not in the cabin. It didn't exactly absorb the ridges and bumps, because you could feel the suspension working over them; but it didn't transfer any harshness to the arms or seat of the pants at all. Speed bumps in particular were interesting; it was as if the suspension challenged them and hammered back, protecting us from jouncing even when we hit them at 15 mph.

The all-wheel-drive system operates seamlessly, and the driver will almost never know when it's working. In normal, good-traction conditions, 95 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels. If the front wheels lose traction, a multi-plate clutch begins routing power to the rear, to a maximum split of 65 percent to the back tires. This frontward bias leaves the XC90 with a default understeer condition, or a sliding at the front tires near the limits of hand

The Volvo XC90 is packed with safety and utility features. It's as good or better than its competitors at hauling children around and offers superior cargo flexibility. The XC90 2.5T uses a quiet, proven engine with good power and a smooth five-speed automatic. The V8 is significantly more expensive, but faster, with more torque.

New Car Test Drive correspondents Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with Larry Edsall in Goteborg, Sweden, and Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles.

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