NSW South Coast
What we liked
>> Excellent three-engine line-up
>> Smooth six-speed auto D5 and V8
>> Seven seats standard
Not so much
>> Lumpy rough-road ride quality
>> Squeaks and rattles
>> Space saver spare
With the addition of some solid muscle and welcome suspension refinements, Volvo’s XC90 moves up more than one rung in its driving capabilities and class-competitiveness. Responsible for the XC90’s newly found slight swagger of confidence are a lusty 2.4-litre 5-cylinder turbodiesel and a unique 4.4-litre V8 petrol, both delivering the goods via six-speed automatic transmissions.
Of the original XC90’s petrol engines, only the 2.5-litre low-blow (light pressure) turbocharged ‘five’ remains, still with a five-speed autobox.
Although the V8 is expected to capture just 10 per cent of XC90 sales, it lends a whole lot more than 10 per cent authority to the XC90’s image, and, indeed, to Volvo’s.
Manufactured by Yamaha to Volvo’s design, this is the company’s first V8 for passenger models. Unusually, instead of the 90-degree V angle almost universal among production V8s, the Volvo has 60-degree angle. This comparatively shallow angle requires a counter-rotating balance shaft (in the valley of the cylinder block) to smooth the engine’s otherwise knobbly impulses, but has the advantage of substantially narrowing the engine’s overall width. That translates to less front overhang in this transversely-mounted situation, keeping the mass closer to the front axle while maintaining the XC90’s crash-safety performance within the existing engine compartment.
The engine is also compacted by having one bank of cylinders a half-cylinder width ‘forward’ of its neighbour, and by attaching the alternator and other ancillaries on the engine sides.
Incidentally, although this is Volvo’s first link with Yamaha, there is some prior family history because Volvo is part of Ford, and Ford USA had Yamaha produce high-performance engines for Taurus SHO series. A potent five-speed manual 3.0-litre V6 was introduced to the front-drive Taurus in 1989, followed by an auto-only 3.4-litre V8 in 1999.
The earlier iteration of Volvo’s own five-cylinder turbodiesel didn’t reach Australia because it hadn’t been designed for critically hot climes. But that’s not an issue for the latest version which is so comprehensively re-designed that the displacement is almost the only thing unchanged.
Although the XC90’s voice just broke, into one sort of growl or another, with the spirited V8 engine and torquey D5 turbodiesel, the model has come of age in other ways too.
There are now three distinct trim levels.
Priced from $69,950, the LE version with its 154kW/320Nm five-cylinder petrol turbo drivetrain represents an amply equipped journeyman prestige SUV. Besides seven seats, the LE has 17-inch wheels, leather upholstery, dual zone climate control with Volvo’s renowned air filtration system and third-row air-con, electrically adjustable driver’s seat (with memory), Volvo’s second-row sliding child booster seat, multi-function steering wheel, rear headphone ports, heated mirrors with puddle lights, rear park assist and a trip computer. Plus an extensive range of optional items, of course.
The 136kW/400Nm D5 turbodiesel opens at $72,950 and parallels the LE’s comprehensive equipment list, apart from boasting a six-speed automatic to the petrol version’s five.
For power and prestige, the V8 is very definitely at the top of XC90’s tree, with 232kW/440Nm and a $84,950 price tag. The V8’s position is also reflected in its expanded array of features which brings 18-inch wheels, power front passenger’s seat, heated front seats, premium sound system (including in-dash six-CD stacker), rain sensing wipers, laminated side windows and speed-sensitive power steering.
The new V8 and D5 engines may be the upgrade’s glamour items, but other mechanical aspects also contribute to the overall improvements. The brake discs, for example, have grown by 31mm to 336mm diameter, gaining swept area and better braking performance in the process.
Less than glowing reports about the original XC90’s patchy ride and handling have led to spring and damper rates and other detail changes to the suspension which includes automatic self-levelling as standard.
The respective wheel/tyre combinations also influence the moderate but tangible differences between the D5 and V8 in ride comfort and handling feel. The 235/60R18s (standard on V8, optional for the others) contribute something to the noticeably firmer ride, whereas the 235/65R17s standard on the D5 (and LE) have a bit more give over small irregularities. Significantly perhaps, the 17s are a no-cost option for the V8, enabling it to share the advantages of slightly superior ride quality and wider availability of replacement tyres.
The XC90’s drivetrain is upgraded with what Volvo calls Instant Traction, with which the electronically controlled system (from Haldex) promises quicker and more assured take-offs on slippery stuff.
Although still biased primarily towards the front wheels, the system reacts to adverse tractive conditions by quickening engagement of rear-drive (with about one-seventh of a turn of wheelspin sufficient to trigger the AWD connection), and in extremely poor conditions may temporarily divert up to 50 per cent of the drive rearward.
Comfort could be the XC90’s middle name. For starters, the cabin is amply roomy and has invitingly airy atmosphere. Moreover, the interior design is both sensibly functional and attractively fashionable with tones and textures that please the eye and the touch.
Unlike some European SUV makers, Volvo doesn’t stint on stowage places for drinks and oddments. Nor does it try being too clever with the instruments and controls. On the contrary, the instruments and information displays are clearly legible, even when you’re wearing sunnies, and the task-specific knobs and buttons are models of clarity.
Oh, and the seats are pretty good too -- all seven of them. Easily raised from beneath the floor and quite conveniently accessed via the sliding/folding centre row, the rearmost pair of pews offer reasonable roominess and hospitable short-term comfort for average adults, let alone kids.
Safety is one of Volvo’s core values, and the XC90 is among the SUV field’s very best exponents of the craft. For example, the great structural integrity of XC90’s body is obvious from video of the multi-roll-over test, from which it emerges bruised but remarkably unbowed. That helps explain why (in conjunction with very effective interior design, airbags, seat belts and the rest), the XC90 is a five-star star in the range of NCAP impact tests. No prestige SUV performs better in that respect.
And although the XC90 manages only a one-star result for pedestrian safety, no existing SUV beats it there, either.
Each XC90 also has a full complement of electronic driver aids from anti-lock brakes with EBD brakeforce distribution and EBA emergency brake assist, to traction control, dynamic stability control and roll stability control.
Another first for the XC90 is the optional ($1200) BLIS blind spot information system, where cameras beneath each exterior mirror scan the hidden areas down the side to the rear 25 times per second. Should a vehicle enter the monitored zones, BLIS activates a yellow warning light in the respective mirror to catch the driver’s attention.
Among things the XC90s isn’t short of is almost a glut of rivals.
One of the most crowded and intensely competitive classes of any in the entire passenger-model market, the prestige SUV sector includes entrants from Audi (Allroad and new Q7), Mercedes Benz (M-Class), BMW (X5 and X3), Lexus (RX), Volkswagen (Touareg), Honda (MDX) and Jeep (Grand Cherokee).
Most are pigeon-holed as soft-roaders rather than hardcore cross-country 4WDs but are very capable all-weather all-roaders regardless. With prices ranging from about mid-$60K to over $100,000, especially with typical upmarket options added, the many prestige models are in every sense a tough bunch to meet head-on.
The revitalised XC90s answer the challenge with undeniably keen pricing, high level specifications, a sound mix of features and very persuasive packaging.
ON THE ROAD
These are not your granny’s Volvos, that’s for sure. The new D5 and V8 (and the yet un-driven LE also, you’d have to assume) drive with confidence and authority not previously associated with the XC90.
Said to be the cleanest-burning V8 in production, the 4.4-litre Volvo is the first petrol V8 to achieve the USA’s tough ULEV II status (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, stage II). However, that doesn’t prevent it being a spirited performer and a reasonably economical one also.
Judging by the preview drive, there’s no reason to think Volvo’s claim of 7.3sec for 0-100km/h is at all optimistic. Given suitable encouragement, the V8 digs in and delivers urgently strong response as it powers through the gears.
Doing a long-legged 55km/h per 1000rpm in sixth gear, or just 2000rpm at the highway speed limit, the V8 disposes of distance with unflustered nonchalance. In such conditions, the consumption hovers around the 11lt/100km mark, rising to 16 or so when pushed through the hills. The official indicator is 13.5lt/100km overall.
Although Volvo quotes the diesel at 11.5sec for 0-100km/h, the D5 is certainly no slug and makes full use of the six-speed automatic to ensure noticeably lusty throttle response.
It also does over 50km/h per 1000rpm in top gear. The pay-off is in regularly seeing 5lt/100km or less when cruising, and knowing that the overall figure is a relatively thrifty 9.0lt/100km.
Apart from performance, the most obvious differences between driving the V8 and D5 are in ride quality and steering feel. The V8 has the noticeably firmer ride at all speeds, on all roads, partly due to its slightly tauter suspension and partly to its larger wheels with lower-profile tyres.
The difference in steering feel is owed to the D5 (and LE) having regular power assistance where the V8’s assistance varies from maximum at parking to minimum at speed. While the standard steering does an alright job, the more sophisticated design arguably does it even better, and so lists as an aspirational $750 option for the D5 and LE.
But the net result is that, with or without speed-sensitive steering, the reborn XC90s at last have what it takes to compete squarely among the front-running prestige SUVs.