- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Seriously including “Volvo” and “performance” in the same sentence simply wasn’t done a decade or so ago. Automotive blasphemy; it would have been something akin to lumping “Japanese sedan” and “luxury” into the same thought 10 years earlier or “Porsche” and “SUV” five years ago.

Inconceivable.

But times change, manufacturers refocus and the inconceivable becomes business as usual. Performance is now solidly a part of the Volvo lexicon. Simply transporting passengers safely from Point A to Point B isn’t enough for Volvo any more. Providing a bit of excitement in the driving experience has become a priority. It is in this vein that a V-8 was introduced in 2005 as the XC90 engine upgrade, replacing the 268-horsepower 2.9-liter turbo- charged inline six.

Retaining the 208-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged inline five as the base engine, the XC90 is not inexpensive in either of its iterations. Loaded up with such standard features as seating for seven, eight-speaker audio system with CD player, dual-zone automatic climate control and trip computer, the 2.5T retails for $36,335. Stepping up to the V-8 adds $10,200 to the bottom line, but also includes power moon roof, leather seating, upgraded audio system with six-disc in-dash CD changer and speed-sensitive power steering. A six-speed automatic transmission replaces the T5’s five-speed.

Armed with the V-8, the XC90 goes to the head of the class. Its 311 horsepower out-stats much of the competition. The 265 horsepower produced by the V-6 in Acura’s MDX and the 230 horsepower found in the Lexus RX 330 pale in comparison. It requires the BMW X5 and Infiniti FX45 to surpass XC90’s V-8 output and then it’s only by a couple of ponies. Acceleration is tremendously satisfying in the V-8 XC90. This is also helped by the six-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission. V-8 and six-speed work smoothly in tandem to deliver spirited performance.

The big tradeoff for the V-8 is fuel economy. There is a 3-to-4-mile-per-gallon dropoff from the 2.5T to the V-8. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the V-8 at 15 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway. Only the FX45 posts weaker numbers.

Although equipped with skid plates to protect some key components below the floor line, the XC90 isn’t engineered for aggressive off-roading. Its transparent all-wheel-drive system doesn’t have a low gear for rock crawling. Designed primarily for foul weather, it can do light duty off-pavement chores, but that’s restricted mostly to unpaved roads.

Built on the S80 sedan platform, the XC90 has much in common with its Volvo sedan siblings. It feels very much like a sedan from the driver’s seat. Despite its height, it corners without a lot of drama and the ride quality is very good. Quiet and solid, it delivers a very Volvo-like passenger experience.

Although legroom in the third seat is cramped at best, the XC90 does seat seven. Overall the cabin is airy, providing plenty of elbow room. The seats are comfortable and offer sufficient side bolstering. The bottom cushions are wide and accommodating. Straightforward and businesslike, the arrangement of the gauges and controls is standard Volvo. This is not a highly stylized design, but very functional. While complicated in appearance, the center stack’s myriad of knobs and buttons is really quite simple to use. The audio controls are high up on the center stack where they should be.

The set-it-and-forget-it climate control couldn’t be easier to operate. Family needs are always addressed in the layout of Volvo cabins, so there is no shortage of storage cubbies and cup holders sprinkled around. A dual-screen DVD entertainment system is a $1,996 option.

With the third-row seat in place, there is only 8.8 cubic feet of cargo space. This is about equal to the cargo room in the Dodge Viper. With all the seats folded out of the way, however, cargo-hauling room swells to 93.2 cubic feet.

In a segment crammed with overachieving competitors, having a hook is critical to sales. Among uplevel, midsize SUVs, the Volvo XC90 isn’t lost in the shuffle thanks to Volvo’s iron-clad reputation for safety. Cutting no corners, the XC90 is festooned with safety features ranging from side-curtain air bags that stretch to include all three rows of seats to a system that helps prevent rollovers. Of course four-wheel antilock disc brakes and anti-whiplash system are also Volvo standards. Even the roof has been reinforced with boron steel to minimize the trauma of a rollover in case it does happen.

With a bigger story to tell than simply one of safety, the XC90 V-8 delivers substantial people- and cargo-hauling capacity enhanced with a fun-to-drive attitude and upscale amenities. You don’t have to be a Volvo drumbeater to appreciate it, but Volvo loyalists would be doing themselves a disservice if they began shopping SUVs without the XC90 on their list. The Volvo stamp is clear on this SUV.

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