The Volvo XC90 is big on safety, comfort and functionality. It was launched in 2003 and its appearance freshened in 2007. The sporty R-Design models joined the lineup in 2009. The 2011 Volvo XC90 benefits from a slight increase in power but carries over largely unchanged.
The Volvo XC90 seats seven passengers. Leather seating, power glass sunroof, rear park assist and third-row climate control are standard equipment. It swallows more cargo than its competitors, and it comes with features that allow quick, easy tailoring for cargo, gear or people. An integrated center booster cushion adds versatility to the second-row seat and eliminates the challenges associated with installing a separate child seat.
The all-wheel-drive works smoothly, without penalty in fuel economy, and it's truly welcome when the weather gets foul. Buyers who don't need all-wheel drive can choose an XC90 with front-wheel drive.
The XC90 is not the sportiest vehicle among luxury-class SUVs, but it handles well on city streets and highways. It rides very comfortably and it's easy to park. The XC90 3.2 is rated to tow trailers up to 3,970 pounds, which describes light boat trailers, personal watercraft, snowmobiles.
The 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine is up to all the demands of daily driving and delivers a good value, in our view.
The 2011 Volvo XC90 3.2 gets a 5-horsepower increase, to 240 hp, with 236 pound-feet of torque. The 2011 XC90 gets an EPA-estimated 16/22 City/Highway miles per gallon, an increase of 1 mpg over the 2010 model.
2011 XC90 models come standard with Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio, along with watch dial instrumentation and silver roof rails.
Technically, the 311-hp V8 is in the 2011 lineup, but alas there are no more. Sold out. The 4.4-liter V8 was developed to Volvo specifications by Yamaha, the Japanese motorcycle builder and auto engine specialist, and it was wonderful. Still is, if you can find a pre-owned one.
The Volvo XC90 looks like a Volvo, even without the badges, merged with the rugged, adventurous, substantial look of an SUV.
Its angular styling says Volvo. In side view, the XC90's 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. A high beltline enhances to the typical visual image of a tall SUV, and creates the feeling of a protective cocoon inside. The rear glass is inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline a bit and tidies the profile.
Its basic stance gives the XC90 a well-planted look and promotes handling stability. Its wheelbase is long, but the overhangs are short, so the body doesn't extend very far past the wheels. It has a wide track as well. And despite its height, the XC90 has a lower center of gravity than many SUVs.
The taillights are huge, designed to ensure visibility to other drivers. The back-up lights seem as bright as the roof lights on a Baja pickup, making it less likely to back into something at night.
All XC90s feature side mirrors with integrated LCD turn signals to warn drivers in your blind spot of your intensions. Active Bi-Xenon headlights are available that generate brighter light and swivel up to 15 degrees off center in the direction of travel to better light up the turns.
The rear hatch is split into two sections, with a larger, upper glass portion that swings up and a lower, steel gate that drops down. The split-line between is about waste high, so if you're just stowing the groceries or dry cleaning, you might not need to drop the tailgate. Larger objects require opening both halves, so this clamshell hatch has its strength and weaknesses. On the plus side, the upper glass liftgate lifts and closes easily, and because it's smaller, it's less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. Liftgates on some SUVs are hard to raise due to their weight and the angles involved, but that's not the case here. The little tailgate also keeps groceries and other cargo from rolling out when you open the hatch.
Sporty R-Design models are dressed up with bright roof rails, additional brightwork on the front skid plate, silk-matte caps on the outside mirrors, and a racy rear bumper with quad exhausts and important-looking air outlets. But you could honestly miss all of that and just find yourself wowed by the strikingly slim, five-spoke Vulcanis alloy wheels, like certain swimsuits, what most impresses about them is just how little there is to them. By comparison the optional Cratus 20-inchers are downright ordinary, despite the deliberately uneasy asymmetry of their own five spokes.
Volvo's reputation for safety engineering is well deserved because Volvo devotes impressive resources and manpower to improve occupant protection. The XC90 offers the full array of active and passive safety features, including a Roll Stability Control system, and a rollover protection system intended to shield occupants in the unlikely event of an actual rollover. There are also features like a roof structure fashioned from high-strength steel. We've seen an XC90 hurled across a parking lot at Volvo's safety center in Sweden and it held up impressively. The lower front crossmember is engineered to inflict less damage on small vehicles if an accident occurs. It may be the safest SUV on the road.
The Volvo XC90 seats seven passengers, and leather upholstery and auxiliary rear climate control are standard. The XC90 is quiet, comfortable, and above all, roomy. By mounting its engine sideways across the chassis, Volvo has created a cabin with the space and flexibility of a minivan inside a relatively compact exterior.
The materials and finish inside are very good, and functionality rates almost as high, despite some Volvo-specific quirks. The XC90 makes an excellent vehicle for families with two or more children growing into their teens. Standard interior trim is a mix of brushed aluminum around the door pulls, wood trim on the center console and dark, matte-finish plastic behind the switches in the center stack. The standard steering wheel is covered in rich, grippy leather. Volvo steering wheels have some of the chubbiest rims in the business, and they're so thick that drivers with small hands might find them a bit too hefty.
It requires a small step up to slide into the XC90's driver's seat, though well-placed grab handles make getting in easier. Those aluminum door pulls are not so effective, however. They're fairly narrow, and seem to be made for people with little hands (in contrast to the fat steering wheel rim).
The front bucket seats are comfortable, with good, adjustable lumbar support. And Volvo leather is some of the best around.
Headroom is exceptional, thanks to the high roofline, and the big windows create a feeling of space, with excellent forward visibility. Unfortunately, Volvo's emphasis on safety has drawbacks in this regard. Large, tall headrests restrict forward visibility for passengers in the second- and third-row seats. More significantly, the headrests can reduce what the driver sees in the rearview mirror. Another minor annoyance is the perpetual reflection in the windshield from the big subwoofer in the top of the dash.
The instrument panel is canted upward toward the windshield, creating a stronger cockpit effect than one finds in the typical sport-utility vehicle. The gauges are simple and easy to read. Window switches are on the doors, right near the fingertips when the driver's left arm lies on the armrest, requiring no hand or wrist contortion to operate. Other controls are concentrated in one of two spots: on easy-to-use stalks flanking the steering wheel, or in the stack rising from the center console. Here you'll find some of those Volvo quirks, which are neither good nor bad. They're just a bit different than the convention in most cars.
The switches that direct airflow for the climate controls are fashioned with an icon that looks like a seated person set over the top. Push the person's feet and all air flows through the floor vents, push the head, and air flows toward the windshield. The audio controls are even more unusual, with a twisting knob that cycles through menus and a keypad that looks like telephone buttons. They all work quite well, once a user gains some familiarity, and nearly all are large and easy to locate, even at night.
Seating and cargo arrangements inside the XC90 are enormously versatile. Six of the seven seats fold flat, including the front passenger seat, handy for hauling long items, like ladders. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, fold, change and vanish.
The second-row bench seat is split 40/20/40, and each section slides forward independently, adjusting the amount of legroom for the second and third rows. Headrests don't have to be removed when the seats are folded flat. The console between the front seats can be easily removed, allowing the center section of the second row to slide way forward between and just behind the front buckets. With the integrated booster cushion for that seat, tending to a toddler has never been easier.
The third-row bench seat seats two. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in many SUVs, because sliding and flipping the second-row seats is a breeze. Of course, with the second row positioned for adult-sized legs, there's only enough leg room in the third row for kids.
Still, for 10-year-olds the third row is a cozy and convenient little world all its own, with a storage console, cup holders, and separate climate controls and registers. Kids 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.
Storage for smaller items, particularly in front, is lacking, as it often is with Volvos. The door pockets are narrow and the small center console compartment is slim and difficult to access. If you slide a few CDs in the slots, there's no more room at all.
Cargo capacity is another story, because the XC90 can carry more stuff than most of its competitors. Making the third seat standard has reduced maximum cargo volume somewhat, but with all passenger seats folded down, the XC90 still offers 85.1 cubic feet of cargo space, or more than what's available in the Mercedes M-Class (72.4 cubic feet), BMW X5 (75.2), Acura MDX (83.5), Cadillac SRX (61.2) and Infiniti FX (62.0). 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.
Moreover, the XC90 accommodates long objects easily. Lowering the center portion of the second-row seat opens 9.5 feet of unobstructed space between the instrument panel and the rear liftgate, and this applies with the third-row seat in place, thanks to passage space between the seatbacks. As a result, the XC90 can take four surfers and two long boards to the beach. It's a good vehicle for trout fishing because it will accommodate rigged nine-foot fly rods, allowing the angler to move to a new spot without having to break them down.
The Volvo XC90 is pleasant to drive. It isn't particularly bulky or even hard to park, nor mundane in a people-mover, family wagon fashion. Many of the driving characteristics common to Volvos, including a hefty, solid demeanor, deliberate steering and a soft brake pedal, seem to go better in this sport-utility than in a sports sedan.
The 3.2-liter inline-6 lacks the immediate rush of acceleration generated by some higher-performing power plants, but it has plenty of power and flexibility. The torque flows evenly, meaning there is more even acceleration at any engine speed, and typically for an inline-6 it feels smooth nearly in all circumstances, from idle to full-throttle acceleration.
Forward momentum is aided by the responsive 6-speed automatic transmission that comes standard on all XC90s. It includes a Geartronic manual shift feature that lets the driver shuttle up and down through the gears if he or she is feeling racy, plus it's sometimes useful to reduce shifting in hilly terrain.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 16/22 mpg City/Highway for all XC90 3.2 models. We averaged 20 miles per gallon in a mix of city and freeway driving.
All-wheel drive is a good option for owners in the Snow Belt as well as in climates where it rains a lot. 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 those wheels lose traction, a multi-plate clutch begins routing power to the rear, to a maximum split of 65 percent to the back tires.
The XC90's silky smooth feeling at 80 mph impressed us. Its chassis closely follows the design of Volvo's Cross Country wagon, though it's wider and the components are beefier. The XC90 handles bumpy roads with dips and gullies well, without crashing loudly or bottoming when driven hard. It doesn't offer the sporty handling of a BMW X5 or Infiniti FX35, but some of us prefer it. The Volvo's power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not particularly quick in sharp curves yet the XC90 doesn't wallow or sway excessively under hard cornering. The electronic stability system, called DSTC, stepped in a few times when we were thrashing down a particularly ornery road, and applied the brakes at one wheel without cutting engine power. It worked as intended, and helped keep the XC90 going where we intended while driving at rate few owners will care to undertake.
Ride quality in the standard XC90 is very good, and stiff at the wheels but not in the cabin. It doesn't exactly absorb the ridges and bumps, because you feel the suspension working over them, but it doesn't transfer any harshness to the arms or seat of the pants, either. Speed bumps in particular are interesting: It's as if the suspension challenges them and hammers back, protecting us from jouncing even when we hit them at 15 mph.
The R-Design model comes with stiffer shocks, springs, and sway bars, which we would expect a sharper response to steering inputs and tighter control of body motions, at the expense of some ride quality relative to the standard 3.2. We recommend driving one with the 20-inch wheels before ordering them because they likely will increase ride harshness due to the short 45-profile sidewalls.
The brake pedal in the XC90 can feel a little soft until the driver gets familiar. But once that occurs, that driver can stop the XC90 smoothly and progressively, and very quickly if necessary, with no drama. All XC90s stop with substantial 13.2-inch discs up front and 12.1-inch discs in back.
The Volvo XC90 packs a lot of space into a good-looking, manageably sized vehicle. It's better than most competitors for hauling children around, with superior cargo and seating flexibility, and it's loaded with Volvo's trademark safety technology. It's available with the mechanical simplicity of front-wheel drive if a buyer doesn't need all-wheel-drive capability. The superior handling of the mid-range R-Design model is fun, but the base XC90 3.2 six-cylinder is better than adequate for nearly all purposes, and it represents a better value.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses reported from the Columbia River Gorge, with Larry Edsall in Gothenburg, Sweden, Mitch McCullough in Los Angeles, and J.P. Vettraino in Detroit.