Every now and again a company comes up with a product that is such a perfect fit for its customer that it makes you think 'Why didn't they do that before?'. The Volvo XC90 is just such a product. It fulfills a number of key requirements to achieve ideal Volvo-ness – being large, safe, comfortable, practical and imposing, and does each one to the maximum effect. In these respects it is the ultra-Volvo, more Volvo than any that has gone before it.
The test car we had, with black paintwork and blacked-out windows, certainly was imposing and handsome and would be particularly à la mode on the school run because this particular 4x4 will not see much off-roading, landing heavily as it does on the urban lifestyle side of the SUV market. But I don't have a young family, so it's difficult to really judge how useful and desirable it would be.
Oddly, as it happens, a member of the Fleet News sales team whose husband happens to be editor of another major car mag came wandering up as I was writing this to eulogise over the XC90 they had just had and its brilliant practicality for their young family.
Apparently the extra height makes it great for getting a baby in and out of a seat, and the size and weight adds a much-appreciated feeling of security. In my childless world, I found it has seven seats – the back two of which fold into the floor – and there is enough space for two adults in the back, although it would get a bit cramped on long journeys. The split tailgate is a good feature as well, as is the individual rear ventilation.
On the move, I found the variable assisted steering a little too light at low speed and a little too heavy at high speed, but it rides well enough, although the 163bhp D5 diesel has to be worked hard to keep it going when mated to the five-speed automatic box. It returned around its stated 31mpg during my week with it, and while the BMW X5 is a better car to drive, the XC90 will be more than capable enough for most customers.
I also got to test its emergency stopping and steering abilities, courtesy of Drive & Survive's test track at Enstone, and it performed staggeringly well. At 50mph and above, throwing all of my 15-stone frame through the brake pedal and then steering to avoid objects, the XC90 felt adjustable and exacting under extreme circumstances, helped by roll stability control, dynamic stability and traction control. I once had to do something similar in a new generation Land Rover Discovery and the violent body dive terrified me, so I was impressed with the XC90's control.
I was less enamoured with some of the electrics though. We've had plenty of Volvos on long-term test, with never a hiccup electronically, but on the XC90 the brake lights decided to stay on permanently – even when the engine was switched off – and the cruise control wouldn't work. Press the cruise control 'off' button hard enough and you could get the horn to sound. However, from previous experience with Volvos I'm reckoning its more likely to be an isolated glitch and not endemic. Feel free to get in contact if it's not.
Other than that, the XC90 was a pleasure with an awesome sound system that is up there with the best, typically snug seats and clear and clean instruments. While the V70 estate might symbolise all that is intrinsically Volvo in the past, the XC90 is certain to become the elemental Volvo for a whole new trendier generation.
Volvo XC90 D5 SE Geartronic
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £32,215
CO2 emissions (g/km): 242
BIK % of P11D in 2003/04: 35%
Graduated VED rate: £160
Insurance group: 15
Combined mpg: 31.0
CAP Monitor residual value: £15,500/49%
Depreciation (26.40 pence per mile x 60,000): £15,840
Maintenance (3.58 pence per mile x 60,000): £2,148
Fuel (12.49 pence per mile x 60,000): £7,494
Wholelife cost (42.47 pence per mile x 60,000): £25,482
Typical contract hire rate: £622 per month
Three rivals to consider
The XC90 is undoubtedly good value – to get these equivalent cars with similar specs costs more money and, in the case of the BMW, it still doesn't have electric leather seats, six-CD player and many of the other luxuries the seven-seat Discovery and XC90 have. The Disco is the most expensive, but it does have everything except for rear air conditioning and sat-nav while the Toyota only does without leather seats. The XC90 has the lot, despite having the lowest P11d price.
Land Rover £34,305
The X5 would cost £2,700 in maintenance over 60,000 miles, which is pretty steep. The cheapest, the Discovery, would cost a not insignificant £1,872 although this advantage is lost during depreciation. One of the reasons these cars cost so much to maintain is the tyres – replacing sets of huge off-road rubber is not cheap. The Toyota is surprisingly more expensive than other, more prestige marques.
Land Rover 3.12ppm
The XC90 proves to be nearly a whole penny per mile cheaper than the next best on fuel, which soon adds up over 60,000 miles – costing £426 less than a Land Rover Discovery and a whopping £1,044 less than a Toyota Land Cruiser, although the figures are skewed due to variations in engine size. The Volvo's 2.4-litre unit results in lower costs, although its lighter weight means performance is no worse than the others here, which all boast larger diesel engines.
Land Rover 14.13ppm
The ruler of residual values in this sector since its launch has been the BMW X5, and it proves its dominance yet again in this company. Pence-per-mile wise, the X5 is marginally worse than the Volvo XC90 but it is almost £2,000 more expensive at the front end, so in percentage terms loses less on its original value. The ageing Discovery, despite a recent mid-life revamp, proves the worst in depreciation terms, losing more than £18,000 after three years and 60,000-miles. Once again, the highly desirable XC90 scores very well.
Land Rover 30.55ppm
Victory here for the Volvo XC90 by a distance in wholelife cost terms. In the key areas of fuel and depreciation costs it does extremely well, with the BMW X5 in second place only because of a larger engine and therefore worse fuel economy and higher servicing costs. The premium badge carries a price. The new Toyota Land Cruiser is disappointingly off the pace of the XC90, and would cost just over £3,000 more over three-years and 60,000-miles than the Volvo.
Land Rover 47.80ppm
Emissions and BIK tax rates
No surprise here that all four of these hefty beasts are in the 35% benefit-in-kind tax band, although the XC90 only just squeaks in. Working on the theory that 40% tax-payers will be driving these cars, that makes the Land Rover Discovery the most expensive with a bill of £4,803 in 2003/2004, the BMW X5 next at £4,786, the Land Cruiser £4,523 and the Volvo the cheapest at £4,510. There's only £25 in it a month from first to last.
Land Rover 284g/km/35%
The Land Cruiser and the Discovery don't get close in this test due to high running costs, particularly in depreciation and not enough school run swankiness. Which leaves the Volvo and the BMW. Both are hugely fanciable with good residual values, but the BMW loses out because it is just not well-equipped enough: add a few grand to the P11d though and it is hard to beat. But the XC90 has it all at this price – looks, kit, safety, practicality and superb running costs. Volvo has hit gold with this car.