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It was with considerable fanfare Volvo entered the jealously coveted SUV marketplace back in 2003. Coming on the heels of the controversy surrounding the rollover incidents plaguing Ford’s Explorer, Volvo was intent upon proving its new suv was safe even in a rollover situation.
(Ironically, the word Volvo means “I roll” in Swedish.)
This writer was part of a cadre of journalists invited to the state of the art Volvo Safety Center, where extreme crash tests and all sorts of other destructive mayhem are perpetrated upon Volvo vehicles in an effort to determine how well they stand up to adverse situations. For the XC90, the diabolical testers at Volvo had rigged a stand to make an XC90 roll over repeatedly, like an excited Bassett Hound.
The test duly conducted, yours truly walked up to the Volvo, which had miraculously rolled some three full revolutions before coming to a rest upright. Upon pulling a door handle of the stricken XC90, the door opened. Repeating the process on the other three doors had an identical result. Volvo had built an SUV that would roll over, play dead, and still allow passengers to open the door after the incident and walk away.
However, what they didn’t count on was what would happen if the XC90 wound up at the bottom of the sea. A cargo ship, loaded with 300 of the first XC90 models being shipped to the United States, collided with another cargo ship in thick fog in the North Sea. All its cargo was lost 82 feet beneath the waves. A minor setback to be sure, but a colorful start to the story of the Volvo XC90 in the United States nonetheless.
To date, there has been but one generation of the Volvo XC90 produced.
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2003 – Current (2012)
In addition to its extremely strong passenger cell, Volvo built other distinctive safety features into the XC90. SUVs are inherently taller than the cars they share the roads with. In collisions with cars, that height causes the SUVs bumper to inflict considerable damage. Volvo remedied this by designing the XC90 so a crossmember in its front end aligned with the bumper heights (and door safety beams) of cars to minimize the Volvo’s potential to wreak havoc upon the passengers in other vehicles.
Another innovative safety feature of the Volvo designed to protect others, rather than just its occupants, was the hood design. In fact this eventually became law, but Volvo was the first manufacturer to take a serious look at what happens when pedestrians are struck by its vehicles. The Volvo XC90’s front end is contoured specifically to ensure a pedestrian — if struck by the Swedish SUV — is pushed up onto the hood, rather than underneath the it.
Of course, anyone familiar with the company’s penchant for safety is non-plussed to learn of these achievements. They’re more impressed that Volvo managed to build an SUV embodying its penchant for safety — while simultaneously discarding the company’s reputation for proffering bland designs with ho-hum styling. As SUVs go, the robust appearance of the XC90 is quite handsome and its interior design is reflective of the understated luxury Sweden (and indeed Scandinavia as a whole) is justly known for.
Well-received, the 2003 Volvo XC90 was voted North American Truck Of The Year and came in two levels of trim, predicated by the displacement of the engine. Designated 2.5T and T6, both engines relied upon turbocharging to boost their power output. The 2.5T delivered 208 horsepower and 236 ft.-lbs. of torque from a 2.5-liter inline turbocharged five-cylinder powerplant. The T6 was shipped producing 268 horsepower and 280 ft.-lbs. from a 2.9-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six.
All-wheel drive was standard with the T6 and optional with the 2.5T, front-wheel drive was the default for non-AWD XC90 models. While both employed automatic transmissions, the five-cylinder used a five-speed automatic designed by the noted transmission manufacturing company Aisin. The T6 used a four-speed automatic designed by General Motors, but modified by Volvo. Tales of premature failure of that transmission are plentiful. If you’re considering one of those early T6 models, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the transmission.
Capable of transporting up to seven people (with the optional third row), the XC90’s second and third row seats folded flat to create a level load floor. Designed with families in mind, an integrated child booster seat was optional for the middle seat in the second row. When the XC90 was equipped with a third row seat, the child seat would slide forward to make it easier for the driver to interact with a child in the seat.
Roll sensors installed in the XC90 informed its Roll Stability Control feature. If the system “thinks” a rollover is imminent, the XC90’s stability control system is activated in an effort to curtail the event. If it proves unstoppable, the XC90’s inflatable curtain airbag system is deployed to defend the crania contained within.
Side curtain airbags, traction control, stability control, ABS and electronic brake force distribution were standard features; as were dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and full power accessories. Heated front seats, cruise control, an eight-speaker 160-watt audio system, an eight-way adjustable power seat for the driver, sixteen-inch wheels, and heated mirrors were standard features of the 2.5T.
The T6 added leather upholstery, a power seat electrically adjustable eight ways for the front passenger, a moonroof, a rear spoiler, a universal remote transceiver (Homelink) for garage doors and security gates, seventeen-inch wheels, and a host of 12-volt power outlets.
Navigation and third-row seating were optional for both models.
Detail changes defined the XC90’s tweaks for its second year on the market. The 2.5T got seventeen-inch wheels added to its standard offerings. The options list was broadened to contain a wood steering wheel, aluminum trim for the dash, and a leather shift knob.
A 311-horsepower V-8 was specified for the XC90 for the 2005 model year. Designed by Yamaha (who also did the engine for the very first Ford Taurus SHO) the engine made 325 ft-lbs of torque and displaced 4.4 liters.
Available solely with all-wheel drive, the XC90 V8 used a six-speed automatic transmission. Eighteen inch-wheels and a specific suspension calibration helped the newfound power get down to the ground. BTW, this marked the first time Volvo ever employed a V-8 engine.
Another addition to the XC90’s palette of offerings for the 2005 model year was the availability of a DVD-based rear-seat video entertainment system.
Model year 2006 brought about the temporary demise of a six-cylinder XC90, leaving only the 2.5T and the XC90 V8. The 2.5T rode upon seventeen-inch alloy wheels, and employed a power-actuated driver’s seat with memory, in addition to dual-zone automatic climate control and a CD player.
The leather, moonroof, power passenger seat, in-dash CD changer and auto-dimming mirror formerly reserved for the T6 was made available to 2.5T buyers as part of a Premium Package. Of course, all of that was standard equipment for the V-8 model, which also got eighteen-inch wheels, body-colored door handles, aluminum interior trim and built-in, second-row child booster seats.
The a’ la Carte options list featured a DVD-based navigation system, Xenon headlamps, parking sensors, and a DVD-based rear seat entertainment system.
The 2006 XC90 Ocean Race Edition package was available for V-8 models. You’ll know it by its blue paint, silver exterior mouldings, more plush leather upholstery, and distinctive ship-like wood interior accents.
A normally aspirated, 3.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine producing 235 horsepower and 236 ft-lbs of torque supplanted the 2.5T engine for the 2007 model year. All 2007 XC90s went with body-color for the door handles and side mouldings. Volvo’s Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) was fitted to the XC90, employing cameras in the outside rear view mirrors to monitor the Volvo’s blind spot areas. A light in the corresponding mirror illuminates when a vehicle is in one of the XC90’s blind spots.
For 2007, three versions of the XC90 were offered; XC90 3.2, V8 and V8 Sport.
XC90 3.2 used a seventeen-inch alloy wheel set, cloth for the seats, wood interior trim, an eight-way electrically adjustable power seat with memory for the driver, a dual-zone automatic climate control system, and an eight-speaker stereo audio system with a CD player and a portable audio player input jack.
The more luxurious 2007 XC90 V8 added a third-row seat to get to seven-passenger capacity. It also used a self-leveling rear suspension. Creature comforts included leather upholstery, aluminum interior trim, an eight-way adjustable power front-passenger seat, an integrated child booster seat in the second row, a separate rear air-conditioner, upgraded instrumentation, and a sunroof.
The V8 Sport model was distinguished by its exterior trim, and a more firmly tuned suspension system designed to reduce body roll and keep its 19-inch tires and wheels more squarely planted. The V8 Sport also employed a quicker steering rack; more heavily bolstered front seats, a sportier looking steering wheel, and it introduced Satellite radio to the XC90 (as an option).
Ever egalitarian, Volvo’s product planners decreed all of the standard V8's features could be added to the XC90 3.2 model via the bottom-line inflating Premium and Versatility packages. And just so XC90 V8 buyers could have something more to aspire to, its optional Touring Package boasted a wood steering wheel, a leather-wrapped gearshift knob and 18-inch wheels, which could be had either with or without a chromed finish.
The a’ la Carte menu for all models featured a navigation system, a Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound system, and a DVD-based rear-seat entertainment system with dual screens.
As the XC90 was largely unchanged for 2008, in an effort to inject some excitement into the lineup, the product folk bundled a bunch of option packages together, fitted them to the 3.2 models and dubbed the result the XC90 3.2 Special Edition.
To get there, they combined the aforementioned Premium and Versatility packages with the Climate package adding heated front seats, headlamp washers, and automatic wipers to the XC90 3.2. To round it out, they also included the blind spot system (BLIS), eighteen-inch wheels and the audible rear parking assist system.
The V8 Sport was cut, in favor of R-Design trimlines for both the 3.2 and V8 models. The XC90 3.2 R-Design got nineteen-inch wheels, specific instrumentation, and handling improvements courtesy of a sportier suspension tuning and steering rack. The 3.2 R-Design’s leather upholstery, sunroof, third-row seat, self-leveling rear suspension system, integrated child booster seat, and six-disc CD changer were inherited from the XC90 V8.
To distinguish the XC90 V8 R-Design, the Volvo product team specified twenty-inch wheels and a unique set of dual exhaust tips to supplement the features enumerated for 3.2 R-Design.
A Galateia nineteen-inch wheel package was developed for the 3.2, endowing that model with, of course, nineteens, along with speed-sensitive power steering and body colored fender enhancements.
For the V8, in an effort to move it more upmarket, the Executive Package fitted that model with ultra-soft leather upholstery and heating for all seating positions. The front seats also offered massage and ventilation. To elevate the appearance of the interior, leather door and console trim, wood inlays, and a wood-trimmed steering wheel were prescribed.
Real-time traffic update capability was incorporated into the navigation system for all models. Satellite radio was expanded into all XC90 models — but still as an option.
R-Design trim for the V8 was dropped, the third row seat became standard equipment across the board, rear park assist was decreed standard equipment, and the suspension system was recalibrated to improve handling.
Bluetooth and satellite radio got a spot on the standard equipment list, the 3.2-liter inline six was bumped up to 240 horsepower (from 235) and the R-Design’s instrumentation was incorporated into all models. A “Dynamic Package” for the 3.2 R-Design fitted twenty-inch wheels and xenon headlights.
2012 (Current Model)
The V8 is dropped, leaving only the 3.2-liter straight six powerplant, which is still available in both standard and R-Design trims. Bluetooth streaming audio joins hands-free streaming telephony for both models as standard equipment. To make up for the loss of the luxuries that went with the V8, Premier Plus and Platinum packages introduce the niceties from the V8s into the 3.2s.
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The XC90 has trooped along throughout its existence largely unchanged, although as technology evolved, the company did continually incorporate the latest features. Still though, some of the ways the XC90 accomplishes things are, shall we say, a bit less than optimal.
The navigation system for example, rising as it does from the top of the dash, was innovative when it was new, but the interface the driver employs to operate it is bewildering in its complexity. Newer, simpler designs eclipse it. But hey, we’re talking pre-owned cars here, so what they did is what you’ll get regardless.
That said, the best model year XC90 to buy is the newest one you can afford. Definitely avoid the 2003 models equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission, as those are highly prone to failure.
Additionally, problems have been reported with the early versions of the V8 (2005 and 2006 models). A crevice in the engine block where one of the counter-balance shaft’s sealed bearings is located collects water if the engine is power washed. Volvo addressed this issue by drilling a drain hole in the crevice.
But if you’re looking at an early V-8, you’ll want to make sure it was updated — which brings us to recalls in general. There have been a few for the Volvo suv, so you’ll want to research the model you’re interested in and have your trusted professional Volvo mechanic ensure the updates were effected during their pre-purchase inspection.
A vehicle history report is a good idea too. While you’ll probably never run into one of the XC90’s that went down in the North Sea, a number of other calamities may have occurred, over the lifetime of the vehicle. Anything you can do to learn the history of a used car will always be to your advantage.
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