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We test Volvo's X5 rival

2004-06-01 12:44

Wilmer Muller

Photo: William McIntosh

In South Africa there are three models in the Volvo XC90 range, the 2.5T and T6 petrol models and the D5 diesel. This Swedish SUV is aimed at soft-roaders such as the BMW X5 and Mercedes M-Class.

Other rivals, which are proper 4x4 off-roaders, include the new VW Touareg, Toyota Prado and Land Rover Discovery.

But the XC90 has an advantage as well - it is available as both five and seven seater, making the latter much more attractive for bigger families. Furthermore the XC90's pricing is also very competitive, undercutting most of its rivals.

We test the Volvo XC90 D5.


The Volvo XC90 has all the attributes it needs to be identified as an SUV: It is big, bold and stylish, with macho looks combined with sweeping lines.

The XC90 is also unmistakably a Volvo and it shares its styling with siblings such as the new S40 and the S60.

There are the traditional Volvo design cues which include the eggbox-like grille and the typical striking Volvo waistline running along the side of the car. The curvaceous rear lights are also of similar design to those of the S40 and S60.

Overall the XC90 is quite a handsome vehicle yet it still manages to look robust.

The vehicle also has an upmarket image and during our test period the car made quite a few heads turn.

There is also no doubt that the XC90 is, at 4.8 metres, a big vehicle and it is longer than an X5 or an ML.


Another strong point of the Volvo XC90 is its spacious interior which has a superb and practical layout. Quality and overall fit and finish don't disappoint at all.

It also offers more room than most of its rivals and passengers can sit back in comfort and enjoy the ride. The XC90 also has the advantage of being available as a five or seven-seater - none of its German rivals has the 7-seater option.

The dashboard is clean and well-designed with a simple binnacle containing speedo and revcounter as well as fuel and temperature gauges.

The centre section is similar to that of the S60 and S80 and there is a multitude of buttons, but everything is logical and easy to operate.

Volvo uses a very clever system to stow away the rearmost seat on the 7-seater, and this gives much more load space.

The centre row of seats is also configured so each seat can move backwards or forwards to enlarge rear legroom or load space, as required. The centre seat can also be configured to cater for toddlers.

Otherwise everything except the driver's seat can be folded forward, allowing really long items to be carried in safety. Even part of the centre console can be removed to give more space.


You won't have to specify a significant number of extra comfort and safety features when your buy an XC90 because the vehicles comes packed with loads of standard equipment.

Unlike its competitors most features are standard and when you buy an XC90 it is basically "what you see is what you get". There are no nasty optional extra surprises!

Leather trim, electrically adjustable front seats, climate control (with separate controls for the rear passengers), and a 6-disc frontloading CD-changer are standard.

Other standard features include satellite controls on the steering wheel for the cruise control, sound system and the built-in phone.

There are also plug-in points for earphones so those in the back don't have to listen to the same music as the front passengers. Buyers can even order an optional DVD player which is fitted into the roof.

The XC90 is a Volvo and therefore like its siblings a synonym for safety. In terms of safety the car comes loaded with standard features to ensure a safe ride. Of course there are a number of airbags which include Volvo's Inflatable Curtain (IC).

IC helps to prevent the head from striking the car's sides and from passengers being ejected in a severe accident. In 7-seat guise IC will even protect occupants in the third row of seats.

Volvo also equips the XC90 with an active stability-enhancing system known as Roll Stability Control (RSC). This system uses a gyro-sensor to register the vehicle's roll speed and roll angle. It help reduces the car's roll-over risk.

The XC90 also comes with Volvo's Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) which is an anti-skid system.

Under the skin

The XC90, like the X5, doesn't have a separate high and low ratio gearbox - but it does have a couple of extra features, the most important of these is its intelligent electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system.

The four-wheel drive system in the XC90 operates entirely independently of driver input, with power distributed automatically between the front and rear wheels for best possible grip on all types of road surfaces.

The system is intelligent in that it monitors the vehicle's contact with the road surface and assesses the signals that the driver receives through the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator. This information then helps determine whether, and if so how, the system should respond.

In normal driving on dry roads almost all power is delivered to the front wheels.

If the road surface causes the front wheels to slip, power is proportionately diverted to the rear wheels.

With electronically activated four-wheel-drive, AWD engagement takes place quickly, after just one-seventh of a wheel turn, which eliminates wheelspin and ensures good road grip.

The D5 comes with a 2 401 cm³ transverse five-cylinder turbo-diesel engine with a power output of 120 kW at 4 000 r/min. Torque is 340 Nm at 1 750 r/min.

It comes with Volvo's 5-speed Geartronic automatic transmission as standard. With Geartronic the transmission can be left to take care of gear changing entirely automatically, or the driver can over-ride the system to change gears manually without a clutch pedal.

The automatic transmission is adaptive, which means it monitors driving style and adjusts the gear-changing pattern accordingly.

It also features a "W" setting for winter driving on slippery surfaces or in muddy conditions. Here, the car starts off in a higher gear to avoid wheelspin and loss of control.

Driving it

There is no doubt that the XC90 offers a very comfortable ride and thanks to Volvo's commitment to a safe driving experience there is little chance that it will be easily upset by nasty surprises on the road.

Therefore the car is rather competent but understeer is pretty much a reality. It also has a bit of bodyroll when cornering, but it is not too bad or too upsetting.

One is surprised by the XC90's car-like driving experience and it is a nice cruiser. It doesn't offer the same sporty ride as an X5 - but then again Volvo isn't trying to simulate a sporty drive.

Unlike some other big 4x4s the XC90, even in diesel guise, doesn't suffer from much road or engine noise and one is amazed by its overall refinement.

Although the diesel is strong and well-engineered it is a bit short of pull. This diesel unit works very well in the S60 where it is rather punchy, but it seems a bit lost in the XC90. The 120 kW struggles a bit to get the XC90, which weighs roughly about two tonnes, moving.

Of course fuel consumption for the D5 is good and Volvo claims an average of 9.1 litres for every 100km. But if you need to carry heavy loads or have to tow something I'd advise you to opt for the petrol versions, especially the T6.


The Volvo XC90 is a worthy competitor in the local SUV segment. Its overall package makes the vehicle an attractive choice for potential SUV buyers. The XC90's class-leading comprehensive list of standard comfort and safety features is also impressive.

This car features good looks and has a stylish presence. Furthermore its spacious cabin is also a big plus, complimented by excellent fit and finish. It also scores high on safety features and a refined ride.

Although the D5's performance is a bit of a disappointment it is a refined engine - but we would appreciate a more potent diesel unit for this SUV.

The XC90 feels like a vehicle that is built to last and you will be sure of a very safe ride. Its biggest attraction is its very keen pricing which undercuts its rivals.


  • Good pricing
  • Loads of standard features
  • Design
  • Interior space
  • 7-Seat option


  • Diesel disappoints

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