2003 Volvo XC90
    MSRP
    $33,350 - $39,975
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    2003 Volvo XC90 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    A new level of safety comes to sport-utilities.

    Introduction

    Volvo says its new XC90 is 'the first SUV with a conscience.' It gets straight to the heart of the matter by directly addressing the three big SUV issues. 1. It gets good gas mileage and the five-cylinder version has ultra-low (ULEV) emissions. 2. It has a gyroscopic sensor that detects a possible impending rollover, activating a Roll Stability Control system to apply braking and cut throttle to correct the imbalance; also, there's a high-strength steel roof structure, just in case. 3. It has a unique low front chassis crossmember, about the same height as the bumper of a sedan, designed to inflict less damage on any vehicle or its occupants that the XC90 might strike. 

    A totally new vehicle, the 2003 Volvo XC90 looks like a cross between a Volvo Cross Country wagon and a BMW X5. Unlike the BMW, the new Volvo is roomy, with a versatile interior that boasts more cargo space than the Mercedes M-Class, Acura MDX, and other vehicles in this class. The XC90 offers a comfortable ride quality and handles well. It's powered by turbocharged five-cylinder and six-cylinder engines and we actually preferred the 2.5T five-cylinder version. 

    Volvo XC90 was named 2003 North American Truck of the Year by a jury of 49 independent automotive journalists. 

    Lineup

    Volvo XC90 is available as two models, the 2.5T and T6. 

    2.5T uses Volvo's proven inline five-cylinder turbocharged engine, here displacing 2.5 liters and delivering 208 horsepower with 236 foot-pounds of torque, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. 

    T6 uses the S80 sedan's inline six-cylinder with twin turbos, pumped up to 2.9 liters with 268 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds, and mated to an automatic four-speed. For the XC90, both engines have been slightly increased in displacement from previous versions, and tuned to deliver more horsepower and torque. 

    Volvo has kept the base price of the front-wheel-drive 2.5T down to a very reasonable $33,500 (MSRP) by limiting standard equipment, thus making the vehicle with its root strengths more affordable. However standard equipment does include the Roll Stability Control, full-length side curtain airbags (another first), AM/FM/CD player, fog lights, power driver's seat with memory, dual zone climate control, cargo cover, tinted windows and a trip computer. Major options include electronic all-wheel drive ($1750), the Premium Package with leather power seats, a moonroof and 6-disc changer ($2575), the Versatility Package with the third row of seats and its accessories ($1,675, requiring the Premium Package), and navigation system with DVD map ($1895). Stand-alone optional goodies which may be important include Xenon headlamps ($300), a vertical cargo net ($300) which keeps gear in the back (a 60-pound dog flying forward at 30 mph weighs 2700 pounds, points out Volvo), reverse warning beeper ($400), 17-inch alloy wheels ($500), rear audio controls and headphones ($100), integrated child booster cushion for the second-row middle seat ($150), and Dolby 12-speaker sound system ($750). There are also dealer accessories such as a drop-down DVD entertainment system. 

    The T6 comes standard with all-wheel drive and most of the equipment from the 2.5T's Premium Package. Base price of an AWD T6 is $39,975. 

    Walkaround

    The profile of the XC90 is not unlike that of a BMW X5, but some unique lines are apparent when you pay attention. The roofline is almost dramatic, raking upward from the windshield to its high horizontal plane, where it virtually continues with the arcing shape of the roof rails, which have no crossbars and can't carry much of anything until you buy the optional bars to make it a roof rack. The XC90 almost looks like an old convertible coming toward you on the freeway, with its top puffing up. A high beltline adds to the correct visual image of one tall SUV. 

    The overall angularity clearly says Volvo. Head-on, you might think it's the result of the mating of a Honda CRV (the grille) and a Dodge Ram truck. The XC90 has the same general shape of hood as the Ram, elevated by four or five inches over the protruding fender contours, slightly V-shaped to be consistent with Volvo design. 

    There's very little overhang at the rear, meaning there's a nice long wheelbase relative to the overall length of 189 inches, which is only 3.4 inches longer than the V70 wagon. And it has a wide track, for handling stability. Despite the XC90's height, it has a lower center of gravity than the V70 wagon, again for stability. 

    Like the V70, the back end of the XC90 appears to be made mostly of red plastic. That would be the taillights. Think safety. If it bothers you that the back of your SUV looks like Las Vegas, it might comfort you to think that you're a whole lot less likely to get creamed from behind by some half-asleep driver. You're also less likely to back into something at night, thanks to backup lights that look like spotlights. 

    The six-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels that are optional on the 2.5T, standard on the T6 aren't particularly distinctive. However we have seen the optional 18-inch wheels for the T6, and they are hot. 

    The back entry is in two sections with a 70/30 top/bottom split. The lower edge of the liftgate is waist level, leaving a tailgate that's a mere flap, so maybe this isn't the vehicle for football fans who host big tailgate parties. If you're loading something light into the back of the XC90 you might not need to drop the tailgate, but the rest of the time you'll need to open both gates. The good news is the tiny tailgate closes easily, and the short liftgate is less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise it. It's also inclined forward, which shortens the roofline and makes the whole vehicle look shorter. 

    There are a lot of flat black and matt black composite pieces that detract from the style and potential elegance of the vehicle: bumpers, fender flares, cladding and assorted trim all the way up to the roof. It's a design element meant to emphasize the vehicle's higher ground clearance and SUV-ness; which it does, but when a luxury vehicle goes out of its way to look like a cobbly truck, we wonder if maybe something has been lost in the translation. 

    Also, the fit of some of the pieces was poor. We have to allow some tolerance because the XC90s we drove were pre-production vehicles, cobbled together before the assembly line was up and running producing real cars. Latches on the gloveboxes and consoles were loose and sticky, and some of the exterior trim pieces could be wiggled like loose teeth. We expect the showroom models to be tighter. 

    On the upside, suggesting that the above sloppiness may indeed be accountable to pre-production, the doors closed with a light touch, and had a nice solid sound when they latched. And the rear window wiper is sturdy, protected by flat black plastic, conspicuously stronger than that on the Infiniti QX4 we drove to the airport on the way. 

    Interior

    We realized just how good the new Volvo XC90's cargo compartment was when we got home and stepped into a Mercedes ML500. The ML500 will leave the XC90 T6 (twin turbos notwithstanding) in its dust in a road race, but the XC90 will carry a lot more stuff, especially comfortable people. The XC90 offers more cargo space than its main competitors: the Mercedes M-Class, BMW X5, Acura MDX, Lexus RX300 (and, of course, the Jeep Grand Cherokee mostly because they sell so many of them). 

    Volvo has been able to create a roomy cabin inside a relatively compact exterior because of the transverse mounting of the inline engine. This allows the instrument panel and front seats to be positioned more forward, opening up space (and legroom) behind them. With the center second-row seat lowered, there are nine-and-a-half unobstructed feet between the instrument panel and the rear gate, even with the third-row seats in use because there's a space between the seatbacks. Six surfers and two longboards could be squeezed inside. Or you could lay a nine-foot fly rod in there without having to break it down, making this a good fishing car for moving from spot to spot. 

    Seating and cargo arrangements in the seven-seater are enormously versatile, allowing many configurations, including six of the seven seats folded flat. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide and fold, change and vanish. Some highlights:

    Second-row seats are split 40/20/40 and slide forward independently. Headrests don't have to be removed when the seats are folded flat. 

    Up front, the console between the front seats can be easily removed, allowing the center second-row seat to slide way forward between and just behind the front buckets. With the optional integrated booster cushion for that seat, tending to a young child has never been easier. 

    Third-row seats have a console between them and room for two or three stacked duffel bags behind them. There's only enough leg room in the third row for two kids or two very short people. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in most SUVs, however, due to how neatly the second-row seats slide and flip. There are entry grab handles over the three passenger doors, but the front-door handle is a bit narrow. The doors close with aluminum handles, but they too are narrow, with room for only two or maybe three fingers. 

    That third row is a cozy and convenient little world of its own; kids might actually want to sit way back back there. Third-row seatbelts have pretensioners (yet another safety first), which are designed to reduce injury from the belts in a crash. Volvo also designed a crumple zone at the rear, for added safety in a rear-end collision. The third-row console has big cupholders, and there are also long deep pockets at the windowsills, power outlets, climate controls with individual vents. Headphone plugs are also provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD, while letting the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers. Last but not least, there's the optional drop-down DVD player, for both second- and third-row passengers. 

    In the front, the trim is a mix of dark wood, brushed aluminum and faux aluminum plastic that unfortunately feels cheap. There's very little storage space for the front seats, with narrow door pockets and a slim console compartment that's also difficult to access; and if you store a few CDs in the slots, there's no more room at all. The only open bin for tossing small items is on the panel, about big enough for a cellphone. 

    Volvo boasts that the XC90 instrument panel is 'one of the car world's clearest and most ergonomically designed,' but it didn't stand out as such to us. The gauges were simple (only a speedo, tach, fuel and temp), but we couldn't find a comfortable steering wheel position; the panel, apparently including the steering column, is canted upward toward the high seating position. The wood-and-leather steer. 

    Driving Impression

    We're inclined to begin this section by saying the five-cylinder 2.5T rides better, handles better, has a much smoother transmission and better tuned brakes than the T6. Based on our time in both models at the press launch, that much is decidedly true. But that pre-production issue rears its problematic head here; there were preparation discrepancies in the T6 models (ABS braking system, shock absorbers, speed-sensitive power steering) that justify withholding judgement, so we won't compare these areas. We'll simply praise the 2.5T, and say the two models felt very different at the launch. 

    Volvo's trusty five-cylinder engine has been stroked from 2.4 to 2.5 liters, increasing the horsepower from 197 to 208. A smaller turbocharger helps raise torque from 194 foot-pounds to 236 foot-pounds at 4500 rpm, with most of that oomph available at 1500 rpm, claims Volvo, in order to achieve a 5000-pound towing capacity. We found those 208 horsepower to be plenty for the real world, and its 24 mpg combined gas mileage is excellent for that much power. 

    But engines only produce power, while transmissions...well, they transmit it. And the transmission in the 2.5T is very sweet. It's a Geartronic five-speed automatic, with a manual mode. We used it to test the engine's torque, and we doubt Volvo's claim that the torque is all there at 1500 rpm, but it may not matter because acceleration is, at least when you floor it. 

    That's what we did, at 1500 rpm in fifth gear and in manual mode, and it stayed in fifth gear and accelerated ever so slowly. Then we tried automatic mode, and when we floored it at 1500 rpm the transmission downshifted all the way to third, the tach jumped, and XC90 eagerly zoomed away. Obviously, the electronic transmission sensor didn't believe there was enough torque at 1500 rpm. Moral to the story: avoid manual mode for full acceleration, and trust the tranny to shift itself. And if you just want pulling power without full throttle, you can use the manual mode to downshift, if you need to. 

    One computer chip that you can't trust, though, is the rev limiter. It intervenes too subtly and too late, evidently by slowly stealing power. The charts say the power peaks at 5000 rpm, but the engine keeps pulling slowly to 5700, and then it struggles and strains, all the way up to 6500 before the rev limiter puts a complete halt to things. To get the most out of the engine, using it without abusing it, you simply have to upshift around 5200 or 5400, while ignoring the redline at 6100. 

    The T6 also uses a new Geartronic transmission, but it's only a four-speed because there wasn't room in the engine compartment to fit the five-speed. The heavier four-speed transmission shifts more slowly and less smoothly than the 2.5T's five-speed. 

    The six-cylinder engine is neither as smooth nor as quiet as the five-cylinder engine. There was a distinct engine vibration between 45 and 50 mph in third gear, at about 2000 rpm. And although 268 horsepower and twin turbos sounds hot, we weren't impressed; the engine sometimes felt like it was working hard, with that four-speed. However, we were impressed with how silky smooth the XC90 felt at 80 mph, overall, and its 21 mpg combined gas mileage is good. 

    We won't address the T6 ride and handling. There's a good chance that what ends up in the showroom will be tidier than what we experienced. Volvo says it should feel like the 2.5T, but the T6 uses stiffer front springs and speed-sensitive power steering, so it's bound to feel different, and those were the two areas we had issues. 

    It should be kept in mind that in any road test, ride and handling are affected by equipment, including tires and wheel diameters. For example, the two-wheel-drive XC90 might not ride or handle like our all-wheel-drive test model, nor might a five-seat AWD, because seven-seat models have self-leveling rear shocks. 

    The chassis of the XC90 closely follows the design of the V70 wagon, but it's wider a. 

    Summary

    The all-new 2003 Volvo XC90 offers a number of safety and utility features unavailable in any other luxury SUV. The 2.5T uses a quiet, proven engine with good power, a smooth new transmission, and delivers good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions, all at a very competitive price. It seems appropriate to give the final word to Vic Doolan, Volvo's CEO, who confidently announced at the press launch, 'Volvo's moment of glory is at hand.'. 

    Model Lineup

    XC90 2.5T ($33,350); XC90 AWD 2.5T ($35,100); XC90 AWD T6 ($39,975). 

    Assembled In

    Sweden. 

    Options As Tested

    AWD, leather interior, moonroof, power seats, Dolby sound system with in-dash 6 CD changer, third-row seating with audio and climate controls, second-row booster cushion, metallic paint, 17-in. alloy wheels, cargo net, Xenon headlamps, reverse warning system. 

    Model Tested

    Volvo XC90 2.5T ($33,500). 

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