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2004 VOLVO XC90 Review - Base Price $34,790

Volvo values in an SUV.


2004 volvo xc90 Review

Can an automobile have scruples? We're not sure, but Volvo calls its XC90 "the first SUV with a conscience." That's because the company's first sport-utility addresses the three conscience-testing SUV issues. 1. It gets better gas mileage than most big SUVs, and the five-cylinder XC90 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. There's also 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. Clearly someone at Volvo has noticed which way the political winds are blowing.

A totally new vehicle last year, the Volvo XC90 looks like a cross between a Volvo Cross Country wagon and a BMW X5. Unlike the BMW, Volvo's SUV seats seven, with a roomy, versatile interior that boasts more cargo space than the Mercedes M-Class, Acura MDX and just about all the other vehicles in this class. It offers most of the bells and whistles, and in base trim it's very competitively priced. The XC90 offers a comfortable ride and handles well on streets and highways. It's powered by either turbocharged five-cylinder or twin-turbo six-cylinder engines, and we actually preferred the less expensive version.

You wouldn't expect major changes in the second model year, and there are none. For 2004, the XC90 gets a remote key fob that's also the key, with a retractable metal blade. A nice wooden steering wheel, leather shift lever and real aluminum trim are now optional. More aggressive wheel designs are intended to add character.

But a conscience? We'd call that line marketing. SUVs, including the XC90, are still heavier, with worse fuel mileage, than comparably sized wagons. And outside enthusiasts seem to go more for the XC70 Cross Country wagon. But if you need what a product offers, you shouldn't be made to feel guilty about it. And if you prefer an SUV, the Volvo XC90 is worth investigating. It's much less expensive than the BMW X5 and some of us prefer it to the Lexus RX330.


The Volvo XC90 is comfortable and can carry a lot of stuff. With a maximum 92.3 cubic feet of cargo space (with all six passenger seats folded down), the XC90 offers more volume than any of its main competitors: the Mercedes M-Class (81.2), BMW X5 (54.5), Acura MDX (81.5), Lexus RX 330 (84.7), Cadillac SRX (69.5), and Infiniti FX (64.5).

Volvo has created a roomy cabin inside a relatively compact exterior because of the transverse (sideways) mounting of the engines. 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 is 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 passage space between the seatbacks). Four surfers and two long boards could be squeezed inside. Or you could lay nine-foot fly rods in there without breaking them down, making this a good fishing car for moving from spot to spot. Even with all three rows of seats in place there's room for two or three stacked duffel bags behind the third row.

Seating and cargo arrangements in the seven-seater are enormously versatile, allowing 64 different configurations, including six of the seven seats folded flat. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, 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.

There's only enough leg room in the third row for two kids or two very short adults. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in many SUVs, however, due to the ease of sliding and flipping the second-row seats. There are entry grab handles to aid getting inside, 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 three fingers.

That third row is a cozy and convenient little world of its own; kids might actually want to sit way in the back back. Third-row seatbelts have pretensioners, which are designed to reduce injury caused by 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 features a center console with big cupholders, and there are also long deep pockets at the windowsills, power outlets (three in all), and climate controls with individual vents. Headphone plugs are also provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD while the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers.

The interior trim in the standard model is a mix of dark wood, brushed aluminum and faux aluminum plastic. More real aluminum trim is an option and a great improvement over the plastic trim, which seems cheap by comparison.

There's very little storage space for the front seats, with narrow door pockets and a slim console compartment that's both small and difficult to access. 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 dash panel, about big enough for a cell phone.

The gauges are simple (only a speedo, tach, fuel and coolant temp) and the instrument panel is canted upward toward the high seating position. The wood-and-leather steering wheel on the T6 was more comfortable than the standard steering wheel because it was round; the standard wheel has edges and angles that defy understanding.

The front bucket seats are good, especially with adjustable lumbar support, and Volvo leather is some of the best around, though more side bolstering wouldn't hurt. The seats feature Volvo's Whiplash Protection System, which moves them back and downward if the vehicle is hit from behind, reducing neck snap. There are both front and side-impact airbags in front. Headroom is exceptional, thanks to the roofline, and the big windows offer excellent visibility and a feeling of roominess. Unfortunately, the price for the safety of high headrests is restricted forward visibility for passengers in the second and third seats, and more significantly, restricted rearview visibility for the driver. Also, there was a perpetual reflection in the windshield, from the busy dashboard shelf that includes a big audio speaker, defroster vent and a red light for the four-way flasher.

Speaking of the price for safety, company officials believe Volvo builds some of the safest cars in the world. Those safety systems and features cost a lot of money to develop and produce. But those costs are sometimes reflected in the price of the vehicles, or having to shave costs in other less-critical areas to remain competitive.


The XC90's profile resembles that of a BMW X5, to the point where it almost looks like Volvo was copying. Yet some unique lines are apparent when you look closely. The XC90 roofline is almost dramatic, raking upward from the windshield to its high horizontal plane, then tracing 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 them 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 hood shape as the Ram. It's elevated by four or five inches over the protruding fender contours, and slightly V-shaped to be consistent with Volvo design.

There's very little overhang at the rear, creating a nice long wheelbase relative to the overall length of 189 inches, which is only 3.4 inches longer than Volvo's V70 wagon. The XC90 has a wide track, and despite its height, it has a lower center of gravity than the V70. This wide stance and low center of gravity promote handling stability.

Like the V70, the back end of the XC90 features expansive 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 standard wheels measure 17 inches in diameter, but the hottest look comes with the optional 18-inch wheels.

The XC90's rear hatch has two sections, with a 70/30 top/bottom split. The lower edge of the liftgate is waist level, leaving a small tailgate. 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 that the tiny tailgate lifts and closes easily, and the short liftgate is less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. It's also inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline and makes the XC90 look shorter.

There are a lot of flat black and matt black composite pieces: 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, and some buyers may appreciate this. But we think it detracts from the style and potential elegance of the vehicle.

The fit of body panels and trim is decent. The XC90's big doors close with a light touch and a nice solid sound when they latch. The rear window wiper is sturdy, protected by flat black plastic.


The standard Volvo XC90 and the T6 model have surprisingly different character. Our highest praise is reserved for the model with the base five-cylinder engine.

Volvo's 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine produces 208 horsepower and 236 foot-pounds of torque at 4500 rpm. We found the five-cylinder's 208 horsepower to be plenty for the real world, and the 24 mpg EPA Highway rating is excellent for that much power in a vehicle as heavy as the XC90.

But engines only produce power. Transmissions transmit the power to drive wheels, and the transmission in the five-cylinder XC90 is very sweet. It's a Geartronic five-speed automatic with a manual mode. We used manual shifting to test the engine's torque, which seems a little lacking at low rpm. However, it generates good acceleration when you floor it in automatic mode. We floored the gas at 1500 rpm in fifth gear and, in manual mode the XC90 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 transmission 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.

The T6 model also uses a Geartronic transmission, but it's only a four-speed. The T6 transmission must handle a lot more torque, and beefing up the five-speed to that level would leave no room in the engine compartment to fit it. As it is, the heavier four-speed transmission shifts more slowly and less smoothly than the 2.5's five-speed.

Nor is the six-cylinder engine is as smooth or quiet as the five-cylinder. 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. With the four-speed, the engine sometimes feels like it's working hard, and the T6's lower mileage rating means about 60 fewer miles per tank.

Regardless, we were impressed with how silky smooth the XC90 felt at 80 mph. Its chassis closely follows the design of the V70 wagon, but it's wider and the components are beefier. Our route included one long and remote leg of rough, narrow and twisty pavement, and, with two passengers, we fairly thrashed the five-cylinder XC90, and it eagerly ate up the road.

Here, we used the big ventilated disc brakes hard, and manual mode in the transmission a lot, upshifting and downshifting as if it were a regular five-speed. A few times we flew into gullies that might have bottomed the nose of other SUVs, but the XC90 took that too. The XC90 didn't quite handle at the near sports-car level of a BMW X5 or Infiniti FX35. Its power rack-and-pinion steering is on the heavy side, and not as quick in the really tight stuff, but it feels reasonably tight in general, with decent feedback to let you know how the front tires are gripping. There's minimal body sway under hard cornering. We activated the DSTC electronic stability control a few times, and the system applied the brakes at one wheel without cutting the throttle, although we aren't sure if it was the gyroscopic roll sensor or traction sensors that triggered its operation.

The XC90's ride is very good, maybe even unique: stiff at the wheels, but not in the cabin. It didn't exactly absorb the ridges and bumps, because you could feel the suspension working over them; but it didn't transfer any harshness to the arms or seat of the pants at all. Speed bumps in particular were interesting; it was as if the suspension challenged them and hammered back, protecting us from jouncing even when we hit them at 15 mph.

The XC90's all-wheel-drive system is effective, too. It operates seamlessly, and the driver will almost never know when it's working. In normal, good-traction conditions, 95 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels. If the front wheels lose traction, a multi-plate clutch begins routing power to the rear, to a maximum split of 65 percent to the back tires. This frontward bias leaves the XC90 with a default understeer condition, or a sliding at the front tires near the limits of handling. This push is much easier to handle than a skittish rear end, because a driver's natural instinct is to slow down, and that basically solves the problem.

The T6 has stiffer front springs than the five-cylinder XC90, and speed-sensitive steering. These are supposed to give it more of a true high-performance feel. To some extent they do, but mostly they detract from the XC90's overall balance and introduce some mildly annoying handling characteristics. Unless you need bragging rights about ultimate horsepower, we highly recommend the XC90 with the standard five-cylinder engine.


The 2004 Volvo XC90 offers a number of safety and utility features unavailable in most other luxury SUVs.

The base XC90 2.5T uses a quiet, proven engine with good power and a smooth five-speed automatic. It delivers ample acceleration for all situations, good gas mileage and ultra-low emissions. The T6 is quicker, but more expensive and less fuel-efficient and comes with a four-speed automatic.

Far more important, the XC90 is as good or better than its competitors in an area many people consider most important in the new generation of non-truck SUVs: hauling children around. The XC90 can make at least some claim to off-road (or at least dirt road) capability, and provides superior passenger/cargo flexibility with a ton of space at a luxury-class competitive price. Most SUV buyers should find that useful indeed.

Find more reviews at New Car Test Drive. The wolrd's leading provider of Automotive Reviews.

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