THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Bank-vault construction, safety features galore, induces suburban envy
- What’s Worst: Plodding gas-guzzler, cramped rear seats, reliability blues
- Typical used prices: 2008 – $11,000; 2013- $31,000
It’s commonly believed that Swedes lead long and healthy lives, thanks in part to their pristine environment and cradle-to-grave collective society. An abundance of clean water and cod-liver oil—and an appalling lack of stress—adds years to a Swede’s longevity, currently ranked ninth in the world at 82.4 years (Canadians are close behind at 82.2).
Volvo has likely added months to average life expectancy in Sweden. The automaker has long been synonymous with automobile safety, its name striking fear in crash-test dummies everywhere.
It’s hard to fathom that vehicular safety was a tough sell back in the 1950s and ‘60s — even while 50,000 people were dying on American roads annually. Detroit argued that promoting seatbelts and laminated windshields would frighten the buying public and keep them out of showrooms.
Volvo and Saab bucked the prevailing wisdom by advancing safety technology. The world’s first standard three-point seatbelt debuted in Volvo’s PV544 in 1959. The belt came to North America in 1963 but it was largely ignored – until Ralph Nader challenged Americans’ indifference to auto safety with his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
By contrast, when Volvo rolled out its tank-like XC90 sport utility four decades later, safety-conscious consumers quickly made it the brand’s best-selling model. And talk about longevity: the first-generation XC90 remained in production largely unaltered for 12 years.
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Volvo’s first sport-ute was based on the stout P2 unibody platform shared with the S80 luxury sedan. The 2003 XC90 was a five-door wagon on stilts, offering unusually generous ground clearance for a car-based SUV.
Building on its safety reputation, Volvo reinforced the XC90’s safety cage with boron steel, a resilient metal that’s especially resistant to crushing forces.
True to the corporate mandate, the XC90 came loaded with safety gear, including side-curtain airbags stretching back to the optional third-row seats, as well as a host of electronic driver interventions, including traction and rollover stability controls.
The cabin is fitted with sumptuous leather and is fairly roomy, although buyers noted that when optional third-row seating was ordered, the second-row chairs were mounted closer to the front, compromising legroom.
“Third row is a great concept, but very difficult to get into. Don’t even ask about third-row legroom,” posted one owner. It’s a kids’ zone exclusively back there.
The middle seating position in the second row offered a clever built-in child seat that could be shifted forward to within reach of the front passenger.
The 2.5T base model made use of a 2.5 L turbocharged inline five cylinder engine, good for 208 hp and 238 lb-ft of torque. It drove the front wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission supplied by Aisin; an all-wheel-drive system was optional.
The upscale T6 featured Volvo’s 2.9 L twin-turbo inline six cylinder shoehorned in sideways, making 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of grunt. Engineers specified a GM-sourced four-speed automatic to deal with the ample torque. All-wheel drive was standard.
The Haldex AWD system lacked low-range gearing and wasn’t designed for severe off-road use. All models included antilock four-wheel disc brakes.
As its competitors introduced more muscular SUVs, Volvo got the lead out in 2005 with an optional V8 built by Yamaha in Japan. In fact, it was a 4.4-L version of the V8 that powered the Ford Taurus SHO in the mid-1990s, fortified to churn out 311 hp and 325 lb-ft, and mated to an Aisin six-speed autobox.
The XC90 benefited from yet another new engine in 2007, along with some cosmetic tweaks and a new optional blind-spot monitoring system. The base version was powered by a naturally aspired 235-hp 3.2 L inline six, which replaced the anemic T5 and T6.
The 2010 models received chassis improvements to yield better ride and handling characteristics, while third-row seating finally became standard along with rear parking assist. The 3.2 L six gained five horses for a total of 240 hp in 2011, which coincidentally was the last year for the V8 option.
The big wagon got a mild styling refresh for 2013 with a monotone paint scheme and LED running/taillights. Cabin updates included newly available redwood trim. The XC90 remained unchanged for its final production run in 2014.
ON THE ROAD
Even twin turbos couldn’t energize early versions of the XC90 very well thanks to its portly 2.2-metric-tonne mass, taking 8.5 seconds to reach 97 km/h from a standstill – one of the poorer performances by a luxury SUV.
“It has the worst turbo lag that I have ever driven,” griped one owner. Unfortunately, the new 3.2 L six cylinder was even slower than the T6, taking 9.1 seconds to reach highway velocity.
However, it was nothing a V8 couldn’t rectify. The optional Yamaha engine was considerably smoother and quicker, taking 7.0 seconds to attain 97 km/h.
In a published comparison test, the XC90’s performance was mid-pack at best, with no outstanding numbers to elevate it in its segment beyond being exceptionally quiet. Handling is responsive and secure, though the ride is a little stiff at low speeds.
The XC90 really disappointed in terms of its thirst for premium fuel. Owners saw city consumption in excess of 20 litres/100 km—and a small tank that needed filling frequently. One driver called its fuel consumption “heinous,” not a term ascribed often to a Volvo.
Drivers cherished the XC90’s great seats, all-weather capability, comprehensive safety gear, and composed and quiet ride. What they disliked were the unwelcome repair bills.
“The transmission has gone out three times in less than 110,000 kms. They didn’t even give me a new transmission…they stripped one from a car on the lot!” reported the owner of a ’05 T6.
The frequent failure of the GM-sourced automatic transmission in the T6 model is disconcerting. It’s best to avoid this model, and it was dropped after 2005 anyway. All other XC90s use transmissions from Aisin, a Toyota subsidiary.
Owners most commonly reported fast-wearing brakes and tires that can scarcely last 40,000 km (blame the vehicle’s elephantine mass). Other faults found in early models include short-lived wheel bearings, suspension components, fuel pumps, turbos, batteries and air conditioners, as well as wonky electrics.
Later models (2007 and newer) abandoned the high-maintenance turbo engines, but other problems persisted. Lots of owners complained about faulty ignition switches that wouldn’t release the key.
Drivetrain vibrations could be traced to a prematurely worn front right driveshaft, while other owners had to replace the engine mounts. Overheated engines were sometimes caused by a failed radiator cooling fan. The rear back up camera and GPS system may fail intermittently; even the radio can conk out.
With pricey parts sourced from Europe, maintaining the XC90 requires deep pockets and steely resolve. Don’t confuse Volvo’s reputed longevity with reliability you can count on.
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