Back in the automotive equivalent of the dinosaur age, Volvos built boxy and staid sedans and wagons whose plain-Jane exteriors belied their handling prowess. This secret yet satisfying ability to quickly negotiate a twisty road, along with an enviable reputation for crash-worthiness and safety, brought a following of loyal and faithful owners who knew what they were getting when they bought a Volvo.
In many ways, Volvo's XC90 is the spiritual successor to the Volvo wagons of old. It is spacious and roomy inside, will carry all of your friends in three rows of seating and promises to protect you from whatever dangers lie in your path. In fact, between seat belts, head restraints, whiplash protection systems, dual-stage airbags, side airbags and an Inflatable Curtain Head Protection System, the XC90's occupant protection in a collision far surpasses the old Volvo wagon. Add in all-wheel drive and a host of automated electronic driver aids like dynamic stability traction control and roll-stability control and it would seem that Volvo drivers have never had it so good.
The XC90 was introduced in 2002 with five- and six-cylinder engine options. For most of the world, that was fine, but in the U.S. market, about 30% of SUVs sold in the premium market have a V8 engine and Volvo needed one to be considered a player. Because the XC90's other engines were mounted transversely to allow seating for seven and to manage energy in a frontal crash, the new V8 had to mount the same way. The V8 needed to be exceptionally compact to sit sideways under the hood. A 60-degree V-angle resulted in a 4.4-liter, all-aluminum engine that is just 29.7 inches long and 25 inches wide and that weighs a mere 419 pounds. The engine produces 311 bhp at 5850 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm. It is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that can also be shifted manually. A Haldex-developed electronic all-wheel-drive system distributes torque to all four wheels.
Modern premium SUVs like the Volvo XC90 are designed primarily for on-highway use and that's where I put the V8 model to the test. I drove the Volvo over a variety of freeways and suburban secondary roads, and even threw in a few canyon runs. The engine is strong, giving zero-to-60-mph acceleration in 7.0 seconds. The electronic controls shuts off the engine between shifts of the six-speed automatic, making for audible pauses in the engine's growl as the vehicle rushes to speed. In manual mode, the transmission is responsive to the driver's commands and can be put to good use. The V8 exhaust note sounds great when the XC90 is pushed hard, but has an unpleasant droning in the 65 to 75 mph range when traveling along the freeway.
The freeway also pointed out a lack of damping from the strut-front and multi-link rear suspension system. The XC90 V8 felt bouncy over freeway bumps, and even small imperfections encountered at the tires find their way through to the cabin. The controls feel vague and disconnected, however, from the real world. The steering, although quick in ratio, feels numb, while the brakes provide little feedback. The throttle has a slight lag before it responds, which can be quite annoying. Ironically, with all of the electronic controls and interactions present in a modern car, these sensations don't happen by accident. Some engineer somewhere must have decided that this was the way an XC90 should feel. Sadly, the connections to the handling gurus of the old Volvo company appear to have been lost. It isn't that the XC90 V8 is bad; it's a fine vehicle with a great engine, a technological tour de force. It's just that Volvo's SUV has taken one step back from the kind dynamic response we expect from a vehicle that wears the Volvo nameplate so proudly. If we accept this small step in the wrong direction, will we accept the next and then the next? It's a slippery slope to mediocrity; let's hope Volvo isn't on it.
2006 Volvo XC90 V8
Price as Tested: $51,475
Transverse front engine, all-wheel drive
4.4-liter V8, dohc, four valves per cylinder
Peak Power: 311 bhp @ 5850 rpm
Peak Torque: 325 lb-ft @ 3900 rpm
0-60 mph: 7.0 sec.
Top speed: 130 mph
Fuel economy: 15 city/21 hwy