Although Volvo claimed class-leading safety for its new large sport utility vehicle (SUV), aimed at stealing sales from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and others, nothing on our picturesque test route allowed us to validate these claims.
A tame 'elk test' staged in a car park near Geneva airport, swerving at 37mph, was the greatest demand placed on the XC90's chassis and safety systems – I hope any car would be able to swerve into the next lane at 37mph to avoid typical road hazards. Volvo must have taken heed of some of these criticisms, because five months later I have driven the XC90 for a second time.
This time the location was not a car park but Luleå, in northern Sweden, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle where January temperatures are typically about 22 degrees below zero. The test route included main roads, frozen roads, off road and on the frozen Baltic Sea.
The XC90 has been a major success for Volvo, with enormous demand in the US restricting the number of cars available to other markets, and orders in the UK exceeding expectations.
It was originally thought that by the end of 2002 the UK order bank would be running at about 50 new vehicles per week – that level was reached by September and after the British International Motor Show in October more than 100 XC90s were being requested every week.
By the end of December, 2,200 orders had been placed, with the result that anyone ordering now will probably have to wait until November before they receive their car. With a simple choice of D5 diesel or T6 petrol engines in the UK, the XC90 is aimed squarely at the lower end BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML-class cars.
The XC90 with the 163bhp D5 engine is aiming to be class leading for fuel economy when compared to the X5 3.0 diesel and Mercedes ML270 CDI. Meanwhile, Volvo wants the 272bhp T6 to have class-leading performance when compared to cars such as the X5 3.0-litre and Lexus RX300.
Volvo thinks that one-third of XC90 buyers will be buying an SUV for the first time, while a quarter will be switching from a rival SUV.
Its standard seven-seat layout, with the rear row of seats disappearing under the load floor, is also expected to appeal to MPV buyers.
A six-speed manual version of the D5 will become available towards the end of this year, taking the entry price for an XC90 D5 S down to £28,400 on-the-road, offering improved fuel consumption and emissions over the D5 Geartronic auto. However, there is not expected to be a significant take-up of the manual transmission version. In a full year, Volvo hopes to sell 6,000 units in the UK, which is close to what BMW and Mercedes-Benz are each currently achieving for X5 and ML-class.
Volvo has also been keen to ensure class-leading safety. We all know that permanent four-wheel drive can provide better traction in difficult conditions, but dynamic stability and traction control (DSTC) is also fitted as standard. Up to 65% of the vehicle's torque can be sent to the rear wheels when the front wheels begin to slip and there are also some unique features to protect passengers and perhaps those in other vehicles involved in collisions.
Roll stability control (RSC) reduces the risk of the XC90 rolling over in harsh cornering by braking one or more of the outside wheels. It even acts if the DSTC is switched off.
Meanwhile, the high bumper is supplemented with a lower cross-member positioned at the height of a bumper in a conventional car, concealed behind the front spoiler. It is aimed at reducing the risk of injuries for occupants of conventional vehicles involved in head-on crashes – not something large SUVs have been good at in the past.
The engine is also mounted low in the engine bay, allowing more deformation space (80mm) for absorbing impacts should pedestrians or cyclists be hit. While Volvo expects to offer higher levels of standard equipment than its rivals, there will also be a number of options packs offered. The winter pack will be £275, the communications pack £3,125, the premium pack £1,100 and the cross country pack £950.
Behind the wheel
In Luleå we drove the XC90 in an extreme environment and on the frozen Baltic, testing the car's safety systems in relative security.
Our test cars were fitted with winter tyres, as are all cars in parts of the world where the temperatures get so low that salting the roads has no effect. When it turns wintry, the snow ploughs come out, people put snow tyres on their vehicles and just get on with it, unlike most of Britain at the end of January.
Our first foray behind the wheel was on clear main roads, but it wasn't long before we arrived in areas where several months of snow and limited traffic had left a thick layer of white over the asphalt.
It is only in this kind of environment that you realise how much difference winter tyres make to a vehicle's grip on low friction surfaces. The XC90 was able to press on at speeds more akin to normal road surfaces and braking distances were much shorter than when the white stuff causes disruption in the UK.
The Baltic Sea has a low salt content (about 3 to 4%) and from November to April, much of it freezes. When the ice reaches 30cm thick, local authorities mark out roads to allow access by car to off-shore communities.
Volvo had marked out three circuits on a deserted section of the Baltic, where the XC90 could be put through its paces with or without the DSTC switched on. The scenes of journalists blithely sliding around on the frozen sea in £30,000 SUVs each weighing more than two tonnes might look more at home on MTV's Jackass programme, but this was a benign environment in which to find the limits of the XC90 and then exceed them.
The obvious effect of leaving the DSTC switched on was when the car was struggling for grip, torque was reduced by the electronics (sometimes to the point of reaching a near standstill) before the nose turned in, the line was corrected and power was gradually fed back in.
When DSTC was switched off, the effect of the roll stability control (RSC) became more pronounced. Although the car went into longer, less controllable slides, the RSC ensured the XC90 was soon pointing in the right direction and with the freedom of no DSTC nannying the driver, added to some extra pressure on the throttle, enough momentum could be built up to haul the car forward again, avoiding side-on contact with a five-foot snow bank.
We also sampled the XC90 on an off-road course, which was covered in snow rather than mud, but still offered its fair share of steep uphill and downhill gradients. Although there is no low ratio gearbox in the XC90, as there would be in a proper off-roader, the XC90 has sufficient ground clearance and grunt to cope with most obstacles.
Volvo believes that when compared to the latest generation of large SUVs such as the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML-class, it would have the measure of both on an off-road track.
WE won't have a true picture of how the XC90 behaves on or off the road until it is tried back-to-back with its main rivals. However, from driving the car in some of the harshest conditions on Earth we have no reason to doubt Volvo's claim that the XC90 will be the safest SUV in its class.
|Volvo XC90 fact file|
|T6 auto||D5 auto|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||272/5,100||163/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||280/1,800||251/1,750|
|Top speed (mph):||130||115|
|Comb economy (Mpg):||21.9||31.0|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||309||242|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||72/15.8|
|Transmission: 5-sp man,||5-sp auto (D5)||, 4-sp auto (T6),||D5 6-sp manual late 2003|
|Service intervals (miles): 12,000|
|Max towing weight (kg): 2,250|
|Prices (OTR): £28,400 - £33,865|