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Click to view road test review picture gallery“If you assumed that
  the people who bought
  Volvo’s SUV, the XC90,
  were long-time Volvo
  customers — then
  you’d be very wrong.
  More than a third of
  them previously drove
  a Mercedes, Land
  Rover, BMW or Audi.
  That good, is it?”

VERY CLEVER PEOPLE, THE SWEDES. Take Volvo, for example. You have to admire their approach to the SUV market. Having watched from the sidelines the massive growth in the SUV market, they finally decided they were ready to build one of their own. But not being the first to dip their toes in the water, so to speak, was actually a blessing in disguise. Because rather than slavishly bringing their own 'BBB' (as in Big, Brawny and Bullish) 4x4 to the feast, they made a carefully considered decision to produce not just another lookalike 4x4/SUV but a Volvo SUV — The XC90.

So were they right? A resounding success from the very first day it went on sale in 2003 — backed up by the fact that last year (2006)
it sold 85,064 — confirms that Volvo got it very right indeed.

The current XC90 range starts with an entry-level D5 at 32,845 OTR. The D5 SE Sport tested here costs 37,270 and the range-topping diesel, the D5 Exec, has a list price of 46,330. If you prefer the fuel
in your tank to be petrol, prices run from 36,328 to 53,965 for
the top-of-the-line 4.4 V8 Exec. All models are well specified — with even the entry-level 'S' getting rear parking sensors, electronic climate control and Volvo's Air Quality System with a pollen filter (it shuts down the air input if air outside is too dirty), driver's information centre, high-performance audio system with CD/Radio and an auxiliary input for MP3/iPod, Rear Park Assist, alloy wheels and load compensating suspension.

Move up two grades to the SE Sport and you gain a power driver's seat with memory (and door mirror memory), 19-inch alloy wheels, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, height and reach adjustable steering column, automatic rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rear-
view mirror, double chromed exhaust pipes, extended body-coloured wheel arches, satin silver (rather than standard chrome) exterior trim, stainless steel sill mouldings, sports seats and leather upholstery
with contrast piping. Naturally, items such as cruise control, electric windows and electrically-adjustable and heated door mirrors with power-fold are also standard. Finally, to further accentuate the car's sporty appearance, the SE Sport loses its roof rails — although they
do remain a no cost option.

While its bodystyle says it's undeniably a Sports Utility, the XC90 manages to be one without all the macho baggage that has been turning people off in-your-face 4x4s these past few years. Its charac-ter, too, is definitely more 'gentle giant' than bully-boy. With its cockpit-forward design, pronounced broad shoulders, rounded corners front and rear and sporty tailgate treatment, it looks refreshingly individual. And while it will accommodate seven people in comfort, it doesn't look that big from the outside.

The XC90 may be longer, taller and wider than Volvo's other long-time best-seller — the V70 estate — but it takes up much less road space than many of its notably less accommodating rivals. Useful, of course, but then the secret of the XC90's success lies not in its length but very much in the clever packaging contained within it.

Climb abroad and you'll discover why UK buyers have been smitten:
the XC90 not only comes with good looks but also a generous dose
of practicality and versatility — and seven individual seats in a space where most of its competitors can only manage five. The XC90 was also designed from the outset to be extremely 'car-like'. In fact, the cabin is a brilliant place to relax — even if the XC90 is not going any-where. Despite the privacy glass south of the front windows, the large glasshouse allows in plenty of light and enhancing the feeling of space.

The facia is elegantly designed and logically laid out, the chronograph-style dials have shimmering blue lustre faces and the switchgear features satin chrome inlays. Uninterrupted by a handbrake, the ergo-nomic centre stack flows seamlessly down into the centre console separating the front seats. A left foot-activated parking brake is located in the footwell, with a pull release lever to the right of the steering wheel. Build quality is first rate, as you would expect of
a vehicle already finding strong favour with buyers in the premium SUV segment. The two-tone soft leather front seats — 'chairs' would be a more accurate description — are excellent. Supportive, figure-hugging and well-shaped with good lateral bolstering — one passenger even declared that they 'topped her king-size bed for comfort'. You get the picture.

Fire up the five-pot diesel engine and pull away and you'll find the XC90's ride quality to be very smooth and compliant: it soaks up the UK's lumpy, poorly-repaired tarmac impressively well. And this was rolling on 19-inch rims shod with substantial 255/50 Pirelli P Zero Rosso rubber and the firmer suspension set-up. The commanding driving position makes this particular Volvo easy to place on the road. Going backwards is easy too, not just because of the rear parking sensors but because the driver has a pretty good view out of the rear screen as well.

Sitting high, hands around a 'meaty' sports steering wheel wrapped in perforated leather, the XC90 driver also enjoy excellent visibility
along with a serene feeling of safety. Not impunity, as is sometimes unfortunately the case with drivers of brasher SUVs, but reassuring safety and 'being in control' — the single quality that SUV buyers generally prize most highly. Cabin space up front is genuinely first class. Passengers occupying the almost palatial rear seats will feel equally cocooned from the harsh outside world.

Clearly, somebody at Volvo sure spent a lot of time working out what would make the best seating set-up. Each of the six passenger seats can be independently folded flat offering a mind-boggling 64 seating/ luggage configurations! No, we didn't count them, but if Volvo says so, then that's fine by us. The middle seat in the centre row, for example, has an integrated child booster cushion and also slides forward independently so it can be positioned directly between the two front seats for improved contact between a child and the front seat occupants — handy if there's just the three of you travelling that day. What's more, the armrest between the front seats is removable to create more legroom for the passenger in this centre seat.

The third row features two separate seats, offering full comfort for children or for two adults, to which access is unhindered. To their credit, Volvo qualify this to 'adults of modest build' and when not required these two rearmost seats fold away individually out of sight into the boot floor. Very slick.

For added convenience, the tailgate is split so that the lower section, which expands to twice its closed depth (from 7 to 15 inches) when opened, can be used as a seat for two adults or even an impromptu table. Closed, with just the top tailgate open, it is still low enough for easy loading. Even with all seven seats in use, the boot still holds
249 litres. With the second and third rows of seats folded down, you have an unbelievably long and entirely flat luggage bay approximately 3.6 feet wide, with a volume of 1,837 litres. In addition, the front passenger seat also folds forward to accommodate extra-long loads. Another useful facility was the lid of the 'hidden' compartment below the boot floor — it can be raised and secured in a vertical position, forming a 'barrier' to prevent shopping sliding about.

Although much praised at its launch, the XC90 has since received
some valuable upgrades, along with a recent major exterior and interior design refresh. One of the most important of these is the more mus-cular diesel engine. Weighing-in at a sturdy 2,069kg, the XC90 is no featherweight so the brawnier 2.4-litre powerplant is more than welcome.

The transversely-mounted, all-aluminium in-line five-cylinder unit now sports a new variable blade turbocharger. Consequently, power is up — to 182bhp — and so too is torque, which has increased to 295lb ft at 2,000-2,750rpm. Zero to 62mph takes 11.5 seconds and the top speed is 118mph. On the road, the turboed diesel unit revs willingly, serving up plenty of power for overtaking. Work it hard and, Yes, you'll hear it, but the D5 is not so much noisy as audible, it's efforts accompanied by a characteristic yet agreeable five-cylinder growl. At high speed it's a stable, quiet and refined cruiser.

Ensuring XC90 drivers make the most of this improved power, Volvo now offers the D5 with a new automatic gearbox — the optional (1,350) six-speed Geartronic transmission. It works well, providing smooth shifts when you feel like cruising and responding keenly to kickdown requests when you don't. Alternatively, you have the added option of using the Geartronic's push/pull 'manual' sequential shift
mode that makes the D5 Sport feels even more game.

More power hasn't damaged the XC90's CO2 emissions — they're still 239g/km and fuel consumption, officially, is 23.7, 31.4 and 38.2mpg respectively for the city, combined and touring cycles. Our week-long test saw an average overall figure of 26.9mpg — not so much different from what you would expect of a regular 5-seat estate car. The XC90's fuel tank holds 15 gallons which, working on our real-world combined figure, means a safe 325 miles between fill-ups running around. Given the potential for over 35mpg, long haul motorway runs should prove much more affordable.

Another key improvement is to the four-wheel drive set-up. This
incorporates a new Haldex 4WD system to automatically balance power between the front and rear wheels for the best possible grip in all conditions. Most customers probably won't notice, because the XC90 still drives and handles predominantly as they like and expect: comfortably.

The SE Sport we drove — introduced for the 2007 model year —
comes with unique Sports styling along with a set of smart 19-inch five-spoke alloy wheels. Less obvious is the Sports chassis with stiffer anti-roll bars and firmer shock absorbers tuned to offer a high level
of stability when cornering. The chassis settings on the SE Sport, along with the XC90's self-levelling system have, incidentally, been specifically developed on UK roads. The SE Sport's sharper, speed-dependent steering feels positive when pressing on and pleasantly
light at parking speeds.

While it's no Porsche Cayenne, the recent suspension upgrades do endow the XC90 with a fair degree of 'chuck-ability'. Given it's a sub-stantial (and heavy) vehicle, its balance is surprisingly good. So, Yes, the XC90 will do bends very nicely, thank you. A final word on the steering: the turning circle could be tighter (equipped with 19-inch alloys, the SE Sport has a turning circle of 13.1 metres which can mean some extra 'twirling' in car parks. It's not a problem; you don't notice it out on the open road and you quickly make allowances when parking. Brakes are discs all round, ventilated at the front, and serve up fuss-free stops via a well-regulated pedal.

Volvo cars have a well-earned reputation for safety. While nobody wants to have an accident, there can be few safer cars in which to be if one unfortunately happens — the XC90 has a maximum five-star Euro-NCAP score backed up by a two star result for pedestrians.
It also protects its occupants with dual-stage front, side and curtain airbags, whiplash protection (front seats), a Roll-Over Protection System, traction and stability control programmes, ABS, Electronic Brake Distribution and Emergency Brake Assist. All seven individual forward-facing seats are fitted with head restraints, three-point belts and seat-belt pre-tensioners. Another practical safety feature is water-repellent front side glass.

Our test car was fitted with the optional (1,000) Active Bi-Xenon headlights, which move 15 degrees either way to give the driver
a better view of the road ahead at night. They worked fine, providing extra clarity during the hours of darkness when turning into dim side turnings and unlit corners along country roads. Also at night, a press on the remote activates the approach lighting, illuminating the car and the surrounding area. Similarly, a tweak on the headlight stalk switches on the headlamps for up to 90 seconds after the occupants have left the vehicle. Deserving a special mention is the facility of being able,
at the press of a button, to reset the Active headlights for driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. Ideal if you holiday in France.

Even though it wasn't designed to be a serious off-roader, the XC — the letters stand for 'Cross Country' — does have 218mm of ground clearance and AWD capability. Meaning it will 'crossover' from tarmac to dirt. It will also tow 2,250kg.

Interestingly, an impressive number of Volvo XC90 customers were previously driving other premium brands: Mercedes (13 per cent), Land Rover (9 per cent), BMW (8 per cent) and Audi (6 per cent). And the top three reasons for buying were: number of seats (48 per cent), style (34 per cent) and safety features (34 per cent).

And it's not just Volvo and their customers who think the XC90 is the bee's knees. BBC Top Gear magazine named it 'Best 4x4' as did What Car? in its Car of the Year Awards. According to Volvo, 53 per cent
of XC90 customers are aged 35-44, while 74 per cent have a family, with an average gross household income of around 80,000.

But you don't have to conform to any of the foregoing to know a good thing when you drive it. And on that basis alone (it really is a pleasure to drive and travel in), the XC90 should be on your list or, better still, on your driveway.

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Volvo XC90 D5 SE Sport | 37,270
Maximum speed: 118mph | 0-62mph: 11.5 seconds
Overall test MPG: 26.9mpg | Power: 182bhp | Torque: 295lb ft

CO2 239g/km | VED Band G 300 | Insurance group 15E
Visit Volvo's website Click to go there now

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