Fleet News

Volvo XC90



THE new XC90 is Volvo's attempt at making the sport utility vehicle sector dominated by BMW's X5 and Mercedes-Benz's M-class seem less aggressive.

Anyone who has been cut up by a driver in a BMW X5 with dark tinted windows, or tailgated by a Mercedes-Benz M-class with optional styling accessories, has good reason to loathe the increasing popularity of the sport utility vehicle (SUV).

The smaller variety, exemplified by the Land Rover Freelander and Toyota RAV4, has become a favourite with user-choosers, while the larger variety, such as the M-class and X5, has prompted a switch from luxury saloons.

However, with their tall bodies, poor aerodynamics, higher centre of gravity and four-wheel drive hardware they were hardly going to win the hearts of more environmentally-conscious drivers.

This, combined with aggressive styling and that lofty driving position, makes it easy for drivers of other cars to feel intimidated and live in fear of what might happen if one of these leviathans were to make contact with their small hatchbacks.

Well, the perception of such vehicles could be about to change as Volvo launches the XC90 - an SUV with a conscience. Spurred on by an enormous market for SUVs in America, the XC90 will come to the UK in November with Volvo promising class-leading fuel economy and emissions, class-leading safety for occupants, pedestrians and other road users and a versatile seven-seat package.

With about 11,000 units to be sold worldwide in the remainder of this year, Volvo expects to sell 50,000 in 2003. The US will take about 65% of sales with 25% sold within Europe and the remaining 10% in the rest of the world.

In the UK, Volvo is expecting to sell about 4,000 units - half of which will be powered by the 163bhp D5 common rail diesel, with the rest sold in high-performance T6 guise. Other markets will have a 210bhp 2.5-litre light-pressure turbo petrol model.

The XC90 has already been shown to wholelife cost experts and representatives of the main leasing companies have also driven the car, with the expectation that it would match the residual values of the BMW X5, in turn leading to competitive leasing rates.

Volvo has received 700 firm orders and another 700 conditional on the buyer driving the car first. It means that anyone ordering an XC90 now would be unlikely to drive it before next spring and possibly next summer.

Fleet managers will get a chance to drive the car for the first time next month before its UK debut at the British International Motor Show in Birmingham.

Product manager Dean Shaw said: 'We believe the XC90 is the most practical SUV on the market. We think we also have an interesting car that will also appeal to the used car buyer two or three years down the line.

'We think it will be a key car in the corporate sector with changes to company car taxation, with lower emissions than rivals, and with the diesel we will have best-in-class economy combined with best-in-class mid-range performance from the petrol car.'

Shaw added that soon after the XC90's launch in the UK it would benefit from options which help turn it into a mobile office.

He said: 'From spring 2003, there will be a feature which will allow the driver to have a web-enabled browser, e-mail and a voice recorder.'

Volvo believes the XC90 and the high-performance S60 and V70 R models due at the end of the year will have a halo effect on the brand.

Higher volume models, such as the replacement for the S40 and V40 - which will share components with the next Ford Focus and Mazda3 - due in 2004 will help boost its worldwide sales.

Behind the wheel

IF Volvo wanted to create a vehicle with huge road presence, it has succeeded. The XC90 is tall and looks robust, while the elongated rear light clusters are a striking feature.

D5 and T6 models come with 17-inch or 18-inch wheels respectively, depending on standard S or upgraded SE specification, and with a steeply sloping windscreen the passenger compartment appears usefully long.

The XC90 can carry up to seven people and the third row of seats cunningly disappears when you don't need it.

Pull a lever and the cushions slide back into a compartment under the luggage area, and the seat backs come forward to form a flat load bay. All UK cars will have seven seats as standard.

The dashboard area seems to be a more modern version of current large Volvos, with a smarter centre console and room for an MP3 player as well as CDs. The satellite navigation screen rises from the top of the dashboard, angled slightly downwards so as to hide it from the glare of the sun, but it doesn't necessarily make it any easier to see.

The D5 version comes with a five-speed automatic gearbox (a six-speed manual - presumably offering better fuel consumption and lower emissions - will be available next spring but Volvo does not expect significant take-up) which keeps the energetic motor on its toes.

This isn't to say that it spends most of its time hunting for gears when heading into the hills, but it does like to make sure ample torque is on offer.

As ever, the D5 motor is quiet and refined - without a doubt the best premium diesel engine currently available in the UK - and Volvo is expecting to deliver class-leading fuel consumption in the region of 31mpg on the combined cycle.

The T6 twinned with a four-speed automatic gearbox offers improved straight-line speed, and is just as relaxed as the D5 on the motorway. With slightly more torque on offer than the D5, the T6 shows a surprising turn of speed when the box is forced to kickdown, accompanied by a distant six-cylinder howl and a whoosh from the stereo turbochargers.

T6 test models were fitted with speed-sensitive power steering (which will be an option on UK D5 and T6 models), which the Volvo boffins were still experimenting with.

At the launch event the D5 models with standard steering seemed easy enough, and not too light - a vice of the V70, S60 and S80. Volvo's technicians assured us that the T6 cars on the launch were not representative of final production and they believe they have found the ideal set-up.

But there is no escaping the Volvo's height and the XC90 handles as you might expect, with significant body roll when pushed hard. However, Volvo believes its safety system reduces the risk of rolling the XC90 to a smaller degree than that of rival SUVs.

During the event we tried the so-called 'elk test', swerving on a trailing throttle without touching the brakes, and at our maximum speed of 37mph the car brought things back under control with barely a squeal from the tyres.

Like most large Volvos, the ride quality is generally smooth and comfortable, but can be upset by drain covers and deeper potholes.

Driving verdict

VOLVO'S first attempt at an SUV is a fine effort and the versatility of the seven-seat arrangement will give it extra appeal for those who need it. The car might not be as composed as a BMW X5 over more demanding roads, but will represent fine value for money when it goes on sale at the end of the year.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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