- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2006

Volvo looks to safety, its core strength, in trying to set apart the XC90 midsize SUV from the competition.

While the cabin is carefully finished with many of the usual luxury appointments such as dual-zone climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and wood accents, it isn’t the most opulent interior in its class.

Both its engine choices deliver acceptable performance; but here again, they aren’t the most powerful in the segment. It can be configured with a third-row seat to accommodate seven, but this is becoming commonplace among midsize SUVs.

No, where the XC90 gains some serious marketing traction is occupant safety. Its collection of active and passive safety features is at least as, if not more, comprehensive than anything else in its class. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Volvo and the XC90 maintains the tradition.

Whether spending $36,830 for the six-cylinder version or $47,120 for the V-8, the cache of safety equipment is the same. Heading the list of features are four-wheel antilock disc brakes with stability and traction control, as well as Electronic Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Distribution. Backing up the Roll Stability Control is a rollover protection system that includes a roof structure reinforced with boron steel.

Six air bags including front side-impact and three-row head curtain air bags line the cabin. A Whiplash Protection System for the front-seat head restraints is engineered to reduce neck injuries in rear-end collisions. All five seating positions have padded head restraints and seat belt pretensioners.

A few other features such as a tailgate auto wiper system, tire pressure monitor, and turn signal indicators on the outboard mirrors round out the safety gear.

When equipped with a third-row seat, it is positioned directly over the rear axle to keep it well forward of the rear crumple zone. Also available is the $595 Blind Spot Information System that recognizes when a vehicle is in the XC90’s blind spot on either of its rear quarters and notifies the driver via red warning lights positioned near the outboard mirrors.

The two XC90 trim levels are engine specific. Powering the XC90 3.2 is a 235-horsepower 3.2-liter inline six. Replacing last year’s less enthusiastic 208-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder as the entry-level powerplant, the 3.2L delivers the same 236 foot-pounds of peak torque as the 2.5T.

For nearly $10,000 more you can step up to the XC90 V-8 with its 311-horsepower 4.4-liter V-8. Both engines funnel output through a six-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Even when equipped with the inline six, the XC90 has sufficient grunt to keep up with traffic. Of course the V-8 provides more spirited acceleration. The 3.2L has a slight advantage in fuel economy with an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway. The V-8 is rated at 15 mpg and 20 mpg respectively.

A bigger engine is only part of what you get for the V-8’s price tag.

Also included is all-wheel drive, a third-row seat, a built-in child booster seat in the second row, self-leveling rear suspension, a separate third-row air conditioner, leather seating, in-dash six-disk CD changer, sunroof and power passenger seat. All of these features are available as options on the 3.2 for about $7,100.

The very carlike ride of the XC90 can be attributed to its liberal borrowing of mechanicals from Volvo sedans such as the S80. A fully independent suspension delivers excellent ride quality, but a somewhat diminished handling firmness. It rolls a bit in the corners under speed; however, under normal, everyday driving, most drivers should be very satisfied with the overall driving experience.

Both versions of the XC90 come with 17-inch alloy wheels. Buyers of the V-8 can switch up to 18-inch wheels and rubber for $1,695 with the Touring Package that also includes a wood-grained steering wheel and a leather-wrapped shift knob.

Efficient and neatly styled, the cabin offers decent passenger space.

The seats are supportive and comfortable. Unlike the third-row seat in certain competitors, this one can actually accommodate a couple of moderate-size adults in a pinch. Even when in use, there is a fair amount of cargo room behind it. When not in use, it can be folded flat into the floor, as can the second-row and front passenger seats. The controls are straightforward and kept to a minimum. The cup holders outnumber the passenger positions by nearly two to one.

With so many entries vying for attention in the midsize SUV segment, it’s not easy to stand out from the pack. However, buyers searching for a safe, competent SUV can’t overlook the XC90. Its combination of decent performance, passenger comfort, unique styling and versatility provide the characteristics typically shopped for in this class. Add to that the excellent standard safety features and seating for seven, and you have the family angle covered, too.

A practical, no-excuses SUV, the XC90 can almost make you forget the lackluster fuel economy so typical within this segment.

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