Matt Hubbard reviews the Volvo XC90 D5 SE Lux, the SUV warhorse at the top of the Volvo range
The Volvo XC90 in the car park at CarFest South 2013
Its size can mean parking is difficult, although the Astra's parking was abysmal
Note the air intake just above the radiator. Wading depth is about 30 inches
My son enjoying a DVD in the back of the XC90
The current Volvo XC90 was launched in 2002 and first delivered to customers in late 2002/early 2003. It has been a massive success for Volvo and will be replaced in 2014, when it'll get a host of Volvo's safety tech.
But for now the XC90 is still for sale and will be for at least another year. I wanted to find out if it is still relevant in 2013.
I drove a late 2012 model XC90 D5 Lux which costs £43,000 - but had a raft of options which brought the price up to £47,550. The options include the black paint and wheels, tinted windows, rear seat entertainment, a sunroof and heated front seats.
This XC90 has the 200bhp, 5-cylinder turbo diesel aligned to a 6-speed automatic gearbox. It's meant to do 34mpg. CO2 emissions are 215 g/km of CO2 and 0-60mph takes 9.7 seconds.
The XC90's design is pretty timeless. It first existed in CAD and clay sculpture in the late 90s but in 2013 it still looks bang up to date. I couldn't find a single aspect of the exterior that screams 'old-fashioned'. Volvo did a great job back then, which explains why the old warhorse still sells well today.
It might be familiar but it isn't unpleasant in any way. Just like old Land Rovers date well so the XC90 has too. Sit one next to a first generation S80, with which it shares a platform, and the S80 looks old, but the XC90 doesn't.
The classic Volvo touches are all there - the defined, rounded swage which runs from the front headlights to rear lights, the grille, the shape of the lights, the overall shape. It is unmistakably Volvo. It never tried to be ultra fashionable, so it hasn't fallen out of fashion.
The black-pack adds black wheels and tints, which I like but many people have said they don't. Whatever, the chunky 235/60 tyres sit on 18" wheels which suit it well and give a better ride than 20" items found on other SUVs.
It feels longer and lower than other SUVs. It's still a step-up to the drivers seat, and there's plenty of ground clearance and headroom but a Discovery is taller.
The interior is pretty classy. Leather seats all round, which are comfortable and supportive. Although they are built for rotund customers in certain markets so this not-quite-so-rotund Englishman felt a bit small in them. In practical terms you corner with gusto and slide across the seat until you meet the bolster. It would have improved matters to provide Euro-spec seats for those of us not brought up on a diet of hamburgers and milkshakes.
I drive new cars regularly. Many so-called sports seats take an absolute age to adjust properly and have myriad controls - but often I can never get totally comfortable with the seat, wheel and pedals. Not so in the XC90. The seats, despite being wide, are like an old sofa. Steering wheel in the right place, pedals just where they should be. It makes for a stress free experience.
The trim and materials are as good as in any other SUV of a similar price. I would prefer a leather dash and door trimmings and Alcantara pillars and roof but you get what you pay for, and in a XC90 you pay for decent quality plastics with some brushed aluminium strips and touches.
The dash is littered with knobs and buttons. There are 2 screens and neither is up to its job. When you turn the key a screen rises out of the dash top. This is for the useless satnav. As a piece of kit it either needs chucking in the bin or replacing with something up to the job. My main criticism of the satnav is that it can only be controlled by 3 buttons on the steering wheel, and that it doesn't do postcodes. I've since been told by Volvo that it does do postcodes - but the function is hidden away. It is telling that the man who delivered the XC90 used his own plug-in TomTom.
In the middle of the centre dash is a tiny little screen which controls analogue radio, auxiliary input and CD player. It doesn't come with digital radio.
To be honest those two screens, and their inadequacies in 2013, are the only features which age the XC90. A simple software upgrade and maybe better controls would bring the entire car up to date.
Elsewhere the front seat passengers are well accommodated. It's a fine car to spend time in. The rear seats also look after their occupants. The seats are adjustable and have plenty of little storage spaces - and cupholders, a chunky armrest and lots of leg room. And TV. We all travelled to a festival and my kid's normal squabbling was reduced to the odd giggle. The XC90 provides TVs in the back of the front seat headrests, and big headphones. They stuck a DVD on and were quiet. It might be an option but it's worthwhile if you have a family.
Go further back and you either have a voluminous boot or another row of seats. The seats are big enough for most people but do require a clamber through the back doors to reach them. With the 3rd row of seats in use the boot is as big as a Vauxhall Corsa's. With them folded away it is vast.
This is where the XC90s length comes into play. A Land Rover Discovery's boot is tall and quite short - front to back. The XC90's boot is huge. Our family kit for a 3 day camping trip at a festival was accommodated easily.
The materials used in the boot are hard wearing. The tailgate is a two piece job - a la all Range Rovers up to the current one. The only thing wrong with the boot is that the floor is quite high. The rear seats fold flat and basically disappear when not in use. But they disappear under the boot floor, which raises its height.
This is fine for humans, but is a touch too high for elderly dogs to jump up and in. Our 9 year old collie needed to be picked up to get in the XC90's boot whereas he can jump into our Discovery 2 with ease.
My wife drove the XC90 a couple of times and liked it. She complained about only two things - the automatic transmission (which she hates, full stop) and the small gap at the edge of the sun visor, through which a low sun will glare.
The materials and design of the XC90 mean it can be almost all things to all those who want such a big car. It's massive inside - you can have 5 kids and not have to look like a dork in a people carrier. The 7 seat XC90 is much more stylish. It's built for off-roading and has high ground clearance. Its only let down is in the sills.
A Land Rover has a flat floor that is gently angled towards the door. When the door is opened you notice the absence of sill. It is completely flat. Any dirt from muddy wellies or riding boots falls out of the car. The XC90's sills are like those in a car, rounded up to form a lip. Any dirt from muddy wellies will stay in the footwell until it is hoovered.
This might seem like I am making too fine a point but the Land Rover design is genuinely useful in keeping the interior half-decent. I hope Volvo give the 2014 XC90 a flat floor.
On the road
The XC90 is started with a key, not a card or electronic fob. It is one of those VW/Audi-style keys where the actual key part folds into the fob, thus preventing you having to throw your trousers away early due to holes in the pockets. The engine is relatively quiet at idle and when pushed.
I'm not a diesel fan but the engine's low chug sounds appropriate to a proper, purposeful SUV - and this is what the XC90 is. It's not a faux, hybrid, front wheel drive, stylised crossover. It's a good, old-fashioned 4x4 with decent ground clearance, practical touches galore and roof rails.
It also carries some weight. 2190kg of weight. That's similar to a Porsche Cayenne and just under a new Range Rover Sport.
The gearbox is a 6-speed automatic that Volvo calls a Geartronic. Volvo don't do flappy paddles so you are stuck with automatic or, if you want some degree of manual control, + and - on the gearstick. Keep it in auto all the time and you'll be fine.
There's no low ratio gearbox or anything like that, but the engine does have plenty of grunt to pull the car up a steep hill. There's also no ECO mode either. Just turn on the engine, stick it in drive and go. Great, I like that.
Or rather press the throttle, wait for the turbo lag and then go. This is no different to any other turbodiesel auto (the Evoque is just as bad) but it's still a faff. When turning right on to a busy road this delay needs to be anticipated. The only way around it is floor the throttle initially and then pick up the pedal once the turbo has kicked in.
The engine is damn strong. It's got 200bhp and 309 lb ft of torque. This is more than sufficient. 0-60mph takes 9.7 seconds but it feels quicker. The torque makes itself known throughout all the rev-range. It is more than capable of barreling along at a spritely speed. I even overtook some other cars.
The 2.4 litre D5 engine is the only one available on UK-spec XC90s. The 6-speed gearbox is adequate and up to the job. It's an off the shelf unit that can also be found in the Ford Mondeo, Alfa Brera, various Citroens, Peugeots and the Range Rover Evoque.
The suspension set-up is MacPherson struts up front and multi-link at the rear. The four wheel drive system is by Haldex with an electronic multi-plate clutch that sends up to 65% of power to the rear wheels when it detects slip. In reality you would never know. It just drives on almost all surfaces with little fuss or commotion.
As a result steering feel and response is very good, with decent fingertip control and no dead spot in the centre. It might weigh over 2 tonnes but the XC90 can be driven with a certain degree of abandon.
At speed on flowing roads the chassis copes well. Combine that with the decent engine and the XC90 can be hustled rather magnificently for a large SUV. Come across a series of tighter bends and the weight makes itself known - the tactic here is slow in fast out.
But it's also on tight radius corners, and roundabouts, where the gearbox's slightly lazy style can be found wanting. You need to plant the throttle, to force it to change down gears, to come out of a corner with anything like a lick of speed.
But that isn't what this car is about. The ride is supple enough on almost any road for it to provide a rather lovely drive. Hit an unmade road, or even drive across a field, and the surface of the ground sends shocks through the car. As we left the festival we drove across a field at 5mph and my family complained of being shaken around.
The XC90 cruises well. With its comfortable seats and mellow ride you could travel hundreds of miles in a day and come out the other end feeling pretty fresh, although without digital radio you'll be bored to death.
On my last full day with the car I covered 100 miles. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience, particularly once I'd discovered the iPod input in the glovebox and plugged in my iPhone5. My own playlists were a blessed relief compared to Radio 2.
The brakes on the XC90 are particularly good. They have to stop a lot of car and do their job every time with no fade. This isn't a car for hooning but loaded up with people and kit it doesn't seem to handle any different from when unladen. This is a sign of a capable car with a good chassis.
The lights are amazingly good. Daytime running lights are LEDs but I'm talking about the Bi-Xenon main and dipped beams. They are phenomenal. Use the main beam on a quiet, dark road and it's like your own personal patch of daylight ahead. The dipped beam is better than it is on most cars that run standard lights. I guess this is a product of dark Swedish winters.*
Economy and price
The quoted combined fuel consumption of the Volvo XC90 is 34mpg. I drove mainly 10-20 mile journeys over the course of a week and achieved an average 20.9mpg. I didn't drove with economy in mind, but then again I wasn't driving as I would in a hot hatch. I had the family on board for some trips and the dogs for some others.
I didn't exactly chuck the car around for at least 50% of the journeys I took it on, and it never really looked like doing much more than the low-20s mpg. The more powerful (and £4k more expensive) BMW X5 xDrive30d returns a quoted 38mpg. Add a dose of reality to that and it will probably return 5mpg more than the Volvo XC90.
The XC90 starts at £36,000. The BMW X5 starts at £45k, the VW Touareg starts at £39k and the Land Rover Discovery starts at £38k. The price lists for all but the XC90 leap up by tens of thousands of pounds as you spec higher - yet the XC90 tops out at £43k.
The Volvo XC90 is older than its competitors but is also priced accordingly. You get similar refinement, power and quality for less money. In a sector where image is as important to buyers as anything else the XC90 stands shoulder to shoulder with the rest - for those of us blessed with taste.
You don't see too many gold wrapped, big bumpered XC90s on 20 inch bling wheels. See - more tasteful.
The Volvo XC90 is still a relevant car in 2013. It is cheaper than the competition and it is inferior in some areas, but superior in others. You don't get 7 full seats in an X5 or Touareg. You don't get a classless image in any other SUV with the exception of the Discovery.
Nobody will throw rotten vegetables at a Volvo XC90. They are almost universally liked by people. Most people who saw it whilst I was running it said, "Oh yes. The big Volvo. I like them."
The basic platform of the vehicle might be old but it in no way feels old. The suspension, ride, steering, interior, power delivery, practicality, looks and presence of the XC90 are all firmly relevant in 2013.
The satnav, lack of a decent screen in the dash, lack of smartphone integration, frustrating stereo controls, and economy are out of date.
A new model XC90 is on its way. It will be the most technologically advanced car Volvo has ever created. It will get a long list of safety features. It will use Volvo's new engine architecture. It will no doubt be more powerful and be more economical. It will come with a decent satnav (the one in the V40 is great). It will be faster, more refined, safer and probably just as spacious.
Hopefully it will retain the character of the current XC90. Modern cars have become slightly amorphous. They lose their shape as they decrease their co-efficient of drag - in order to improve economy, reduce emissions and reduce tax liability.
It would be a shame for the 2014 Volvo XC90 to change just for the sake of change. The current one is a cracking car. It's become so established that I wonder if it could live alongside the current range in some markets years after it was launched - like a latterday Land Rover 90, original Mini or VW Beetle.
I heartily recommend the Volvo XC90 to you. Buy one whilst you can.