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2003 Volvo XC90 - 2003 Volvo XC90 - First Look

A New, Dynamic And Stylish Urban Sport Utility Defines A New Class

Lynne Cox
Dec 1, 2002
Photographer: Courtesy of Volvo NA
Epcp_0212_02_z+2003_volvo_xc90+front_bumper_view Photo 1/1   |   2003 Volvo XC90 - 2003 Volvo XC90 - First Look

They say that repeating an idea or action over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. But if one refines that idea, improves upon that action with every attempt and creates something new, the result is an act of genius. That's what Volvo's done with the new XC90. Hans Wikman, project director for this newest Volvo, said the initial XC90 concept was presented in 1990. It took five more attempts to refine the proposal and win the approval of upper management before his team was given the green light. Then it took three and a half more years to get the XC90 into production.

Is the new XC90 worth the wait? Volvo contends it's a new direction in the SUV segment, dubbing it the world's first "urban" sport utility vehicle. european car asked me to find out what that meant by attending the worldwide launch of the new XC90 in San Francisco this past July. I drove both the five- and six-cylinder versions over public roads and through a "moose test," and found the XC90 to be an appealing vehicle, even for those of us who aren't inclined to buy a "truck."

During the program I met with Vic Doolan, the newly appointed president of Volvo North America. He smiled as he gazed at the XC90 I'd just driven. Doolan boasts a deep background in the industry and has been praised for building successful teams. And like any great coach, Doolan has a nose for talent. This extra sense tells him the XC90 is going to do well. An XC90 with the 208-bhp turbocharged powerplant begins at $35,725, while the 268-bhp twin-turbocharged version starts at $40,600. Both five- and seven-passenger (unique in the XC90's segment) interiors are available, and both models come standard with all-wheel drive. Early next year a front-drive XC90 will go on sale for $33,975. This competitive pricing no doubt adds to Doolan's confidence. "I think it's going to do very well," he said with an even broader smile.

I have no reason to doubt him. The XC90 is a very attractive sport-ute. I've never been a fan of the breed, but on a test drive that started on the streets of San Francisco, where the roads tower like 300-ft-high waves, I became an avid user.

Cresting the asphalt swells was effortless with the XC90's inline, intercooled twin-turbocharged six. The 2.9-liter is based on the engine in the S80 T6 but has been enlarged from 2.8 liters, now offers continuously variable valve timing (CVVT) on both the inlet and exhaust sides, and its 280 lb-ft of torque ranges from 1800 to 5000 rpm (the S80's torque peak begins at 2000 rpm). Topped by double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, the all-aluminum engine is very responsive.

Still, the XC90 is big and at first felt to me more like a big-wave longboard than the boogie board of a Miata I generally use for pavement surfing. The Volvo weighs 4,610 lb, but the twin-turbo always kept it in the "curl." The other powerplant, a 2.5-liter five-cylinder with light-pressure turbo, is essentially the S60 engine but with 11 more hp and an 18% increase in torque. Volvo's preliminary performance claims for the XC90 claim the 2.9-liter version will take the it from rest to 60 mph in 8.7 sec.; the 2.5-liter takes 9.3 sec. Top speed for both models is quoted as 128 mph.

Assisting the XC90's powerful ascents and controlled descents of The City's undulating contours was a four-speed version of the adaptive automatic transmission Volvo calls Geartronic, electronically controlled and with a winter mode. On the dry pavement of San Francisco, it made the power flow smoothly from gear to gear. The base five-cylinder engine also is mated to a Geartronic box but with five forward speeds.

At the top of one steep crest, I paused and looked across the sparkling, deep blue waters of San Francisco Bay, and then I felt the XC90's weight shift to the forward tires. Rolling down the face of the ground swell, I felt the sudden exhilaration of speed, like the rush of body surfing across the face of a towering wave. Suddenly a pedestrian entered a crosswalk halfway down the hill. I hit the brakes, four-wheel ventilated discs measuring 12.0 in. up front and 12.1 in. at the rear. Augmented by four-channel ABS and Emergency Brake Assistance, which senses how quickly the brake pedal is pushed and boosts pressure if it detects a "panic" situation, they quickly and confidently halted the Volvo's progress.

Leif Noren, project manager for the chassis and powertrain, explained that many of the technological advances in the XC90 were adapted from other Volvo family members. "The experience and system knowledge from the XC70 is taken over to the XC90 regarding the active chassis systems and transmission. The DSTC [dynamic stability traction control] with all its functionality is basically the same. The RSC [roll stability control] is the only function added to the XC90. The electronically controlled awd from Haldex was introduced in the S60 last year and is now on the XC70 and XC90. Together with the four-wheel traction-control system known as TRACS, the power is distributed automatically to the left or right side and to the front or rear axle to optimize the best grip and to provide a stable and predictable driving behavior."

In normal driving, most of the engine's power is directed to the front wheels. When detecting front tire slip, the system begins to flow power to the rear wheels in as little as one-seventh of a wheel revolution. In extreme cases, such as on slick ice, all engine power can be diverted to the rear wheels. It's quick, transparent and, as I soon would learn, is not at all detrimental to the XC90's sporty nimbleness.

The modern, sedan-like independent suspension-MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear-combines with a relatively long wheelbase of 112.6 in. to lend the XC90 high degrees of stability and agile handling. I felt in total control because of its firm and responsive chassis, strong and efficient driveline and well-tuned brakes. In fact, I felt entirely comfortable in this new, for me, kind of vehicle.

Noren later joined me for the famous "moose test." To demonstrate the XC90's new stability systems, a coned course was set up and we were instructed to drive through the sequence at 35, 40 and 45 mph. Having never attempted this, my speed was conservative, but when I took the XC90 through the cones at 30 mph, it was incredibly stable. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system was direct and responsive, helping me navigate through the cones without taking any out. Wanting to see Volvo's new roll stability control (the only active stability-enhancement system on the market) work during extreme situations, I asked Noren for assistance.

The serious Swedish engineer started the XC90 and stepped on the accelerator. He ran it at 35, 40 and even 50 mph, powering through the slalom with complete control. It was fun, and enlightening, to watch how the vehicle stuck to the road incredibly well, without a nanosecond of instability, even after the Pirelli Scorpions became overheated.

The main reason for this show of stability, Noren explained, has to do with the vehicle's overall dimensions. Although the XC90 T6 has a ground clearance of 9.2 in., its center of gravity is only 26.14 in. high, only 3.5 in. more than the XC70's cg. And the wide tracks (64.3 in. front, 63.9 in. rear) give a stability factor of 1.22, "a very good figure for an SUV," said Noren.

The innovative Roll Stability Control can be seen as the eyes and ears of the DSTC and was designed to minimize the risk of rollover due to abrupt directional changes. RSC is in operation from 6 mph up to top speed in all situations-cornering, evasive actions, acceleration and braking. Using gyroscopic sensors to measure roll angle (the only system now on the market to do this) and roll rate, it informs DSTC, which in turn intercedes to reduce lateral forces and the risk of rollover.

DSTC itself collects data from a steering wheel angle sensor, lateral force sensor, yaw rate sensor and speed sensors, and then by comparing the information calculates if the car is moving in the intended direction or not. DSTC interacts by braking one or more wheels and/or reducing engine torque to keep the car on track by transforming the impending oversteer into understeer.

Many of these developments came out of crash tests. Richard Nilsson, safety attribute manager, said he and his team crashed at least 40 XC90s, using them over again to simulate other crashes. The XC90's safety systems include Volvo's IC or Inflatable Curtain, which runs the length of the passenger compartment, offering protection for all three rows of seats, the only vehicle to do so. Also, it inflates for up to 6 sec. to help keep occupants in the vehicle as well as protect them during side impacts.

Richard Nilsson explained, "We use a method called FEM (fine element method) to simulate crashes in the computer. All parts of the vehicle (body, chassis, engine, etc.) are divided into small elements. The size of the elements varies from 10x10mm to 20x20mm, and the whole car consists of approximately 450,000 elements. A typical analysis of a 'computer crash' would start with looking at the behavior of the entire car on the screen. Then we start to study how each component deforms or moves.

"A big advantage compared with real crash tests is the possibility to 'uncover' any component and study its behavior. Then, when the visual observation is done, we look into forces, displacements and other physical parameters. When the analysis is finished, we decide on how to redesign components that are not working as intended. Possibly this could be done during a normal working day, and a new crash simulation could be started before we leave the office. A crash simulation takes about 15 hours in the computer, so the new results would be ready the next morning."

Once out of the city, the road twisted and turned like a drunken moray eel, and I handed the XC90 over to my co-driver. Climbing into the middle row of seats was easy, even for a shorty like me. You don't feel like you're climbing into a dive boat with full tanks. There's more than ample room in back, but what Volvo does so well is consider all the occupants in the XC90. The "stadium" seating lets the passengers see over the seats and heads of those in front, and the vast greenhouse gives everyone of good view of what's happening outside.

In the five-passenger configuration, the center seat can be equipped with an integral child booster seat, and in the seven-seater vehicle the child seat can slide forward so it's positioned just behind the front passenger seat. It's unofficially known as the "Don't make me come back there!" seat. The middle row of seats have folding backrests for more luggage capacity, and even with the seven-passenger layout there's still adequate luggage space behind the third row.

A new Dolby Pro Logic II Surround Sound system is especially tailored for the interior environment. The standard system features AM/FM with in-dash CD player, 160W and eight speakers; audiophiles can also order an in-dash six-disc charger and 13 loudspeakers, one of which is an 8-in. 140-watt active subwoofer for great bass quality.

Climbing back into the front seat, I studied the clean and uncluttered dashboard. The displays are easy to read, the radio easy to reach and adjust. The power-assisted seats are very comfortable and provide good lumbar support.

After the test drive, I stood back to admire the XC90. Peter Horbury, now design chief at Ford's Premier Automotive Group, agreed: "I'm very, very pleased with it," he beamed. Geza Loczi, design director at Volvo's Monitoring and Concept Center in California, elaborated: "It's compact in design with a lot of utility and functions. It has a fast-profile windshield, and in combination with the raised rear part of the vehicle gives it a lot of forward direction as well as functional utility. Of course, this vehicle can go off road. But the emphasis is to play up and empower the urban aspect."

Doug Frasher, the strategic design chief at VMCC, drew the concept that would become the XC90. He wanted to create "a truly different, truly sport vehicle that was aesthetic, agile, powerful and athletic. I wanted it to be credible as a Volvo, to have all the safety advantages, to be exciting, to have those visceral properties that tug on you. Some people look at the XC90 and feel they can have fun, some feel more secure, some feel more testosterone. It's an emotional product with everyday utility."

One of the main goals at Volvo was to make the XC90 fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. As of this writing, no mileage average had been set, but the goal is to reach 22 or 23 mpg. Aerodynamics was crucial to achieving this goal. A team led by Ichiro Sugioka worked with the design and engineering team at the VMCC to create a more aerodynamic XC90. When the XC90 was originally designed, it was called the P28. Sugioka said that after the basic engineering and safety parameters were completed, the vehicle's design proceeded very rapidly, beginning with three design proposals. The first proposal, he said, "adopted a long sloping roof with an upright rear window, which we developed aerodynamically for the V70 and XC70. The second design visually shortened the long vehicle length by sloping the rear window, thus shortening a relatively flat roof. The third design had proportions that aerodynamically fell roughly halfway between the other two."

He continued, "Due to the X90's size, bad aerodynamics would have magnified the effect on fuel consumption and handling. Thus, it became important in the early phase to see if aerodynamic qualities alone would decide which design proposal would be selected. Since the three proposals differed most in roof lengths and the rear-window slope, it was decided to compare designs aerodynamically only above the beltline, since features below the beltline could be 'fixed' later in the project. This was done by wind tunnel testing a scale model with interchangeable greenhouses. Since two of the designers were in California, I designed the wind tunnel model on the computer and the data was used to 'mill' the model out from plastic blocks in Sweden, where it was tested in Volvo's wind tunnel by Johan Janson and Mark Bannister. They showed that the two greenhouses which differed the most only differed 0.5% in air resistance."

The reason why the second design, which became the XC90, did almost as well as those with a longer sloped roof is explained partly by the computed streamlines from work done by Lydia Darrieutort in Sweden. The sloped D-pillars create a loose vortex that draws the streamlines in the middle of the car downward. And once the XC90 design direction was selected, aerodynamic development began in earnest with full-size models on real chassis, including a functional radiator behind the grille. Mark Bannister, Johan Janson and others spent countless hours in Sweden to refine critical areas such as engine cooling and rainwater run-off from the windscreen as well as air resistance and downforce.

There are two unique aerodynamic aspects of the XC90. The corners of the front bumpers are features that Doug Frasher originally developed for a concept car called the "Eye-car." They not only offer protection in low-speed impacts, they also help direct the air around those parts of the vehicle. And the rear-roof extensions, not devices for directing the air to blow dirt off the rear window as in many other SUVs, are instead carefully designed wings to reduce drag and provide some downforce. This is why it has the unique "duck-tailed" shape. The end result is a Cd of 0.36.

With all the safety technologies, high standard of quality materials and excellent powertrains, the XC90 has what it takes to compete in the world's most competitive automotive segment. And it's just what Volvo needs to significantly expand its footprint in the U.S. market. The almost 135,000 Volvos sold in North America in 2001 marked the third consecutive record-breaking year for the firm's sales team, and the introduction of the XC90 should go a long way toward fulfilling the goal of 200,000 Volvos sold here by 2005. With such competition as the Mercedes-Benz ML, Lexus RX300, BMW X5 and Acura MDX, it's going to be a tough challenge for the XC90. However, this segment of the market is expected to surpass annual North American sales of 250,000 by 2005, so there seems to be plenty of elbow room for this newest, coolest Volvo.

By Lynne Cox
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