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I am very much aware that my wife is by a long way NOT alone in being a fan of this particular car. A good couple of years after its launch Volvo still have a healthy waiting list for them. That means two things; 1) Volvo actually under-priced this car when they launched it and; 2) that of all the 4X4's on the market the XC90 makes by far the most sound financial sense, its' residual (second hand) value is second to none.
Volvo were undoubtedly surprised by the runaway success of their very first entry into the proper 4x4, or as the Americans would call it SUV, Sport Utility Vehicle, market. Sure, they had dabbled with four wheel drive versions of the V70 Estate, but this was a totally new departure for this ultra conservative Swedish firm. However with Fords financing and marketing know how, Volvo have powered from strength to strength in a remarkably short space of time.
How did they get is so right first time?
First of all they recognised the true market for a car like this. Forget your farmer or genuine land owner; they will go for a Land Rover or Range Rover respectively. Forget the genuine adventurer who crosses the Sahara occasionally, he or she will take a Toyota Land Cruiser.
Just who is it then, that all those Shoguns and X5 BMW's are selling to? The suburban new "upper-middle" class, that's who, the lucrative school run set who want something bigger and more impressive than Mondeo man's next door.
That is actually over simplistic, there is a little more to it than that, well at least in the clever XC90's case anyway. Volvo have designed a car that can be all things to all men, almost.
Trouble is I am not all men, I want a car that will do more than 30mpg, being able to clear my garage door could come in useful twice a day too!
Did I say clever back there? Oh yes, it is clever you see Volvo have truly managed to justify the MPV label with this car.
Modest Performance Vehicle perhaps? May Panic Vegans? Makes Petrol Vanish?
Yes all things to all men………..
Sorry I'm just pulling your legs there, I'm sure that you all know that an MPV is a Multi Purpose Vehicle. To me this term has always remained a total mystery, that is, until the day my wife and I took our first trip out in a Volvo XC90.
Obviously it has five wheels and some doors and is capable of travelling from A to B. It is therefore a car.
It also has four wheel drive and so is capable of driving from point Y to point Z across a slippery field at the pony club. It is therefore a "lifestyle vehicle" (Yuk!).
Oh, look, what is this? An extra row of seats in the back! My goodness it comes as standard with seven full sized seats! It is therefore a people carrier!
Joking over, as far as I know this car performs all of these rolls at the same time far more efficiently than anything else apart from the brand new Land Rover Discovery.
BUT! Have you seen the price and weight of THAT THING? If you wish to use up the world's precious resources double quick, mortgage your granny get a new Disco. Jeremy Clarkson may well go mountain climbing in it, but then there's a man with bottomless
Pictures of Volvo XC90
A handsome car from all angles
pocket's and someone else paying for the fuel! No the Volvo XC90 is in a different league, it is an altogether more sensible choice. Incidentally I read somewhere, or maybe he mentioned it on the show, that the XC90 is the car Clarkson actually drives as his day to day transport, presumably paying for his own fuel! Speaks volumes that!
For me there is one other undeniable draw towards this car. It is only my personal opinion, but of all the big 4x4's, and this Volvo is a lot bigger than its' styling actually makes it look, this car, the XC90 is the ONLY one of the entire class that actually is a good looking car.
Some have praised the looks of the new Discovery. I have actually seen one parked next to an XC90 and in comparison the new Land Rover looked like a Transit Van.
There has also always been something inside me, far too sensible, to consider ever running such an extravagant car. I am not a land owner, nor a farmer, nor come to that a Sloane Ranger. Maybe the purchase price is justifiable, especially bearing in mind that you can get very close to your money back come resale time. Other running costs however will be well above average. I will throw in a few figures here, maybe I am being presumptuous in presuming that you cannot afford "above average" or maybe you run currently a Range Rover - in which case we are talking bargain basement costs here (R.R. figs in brackets)
List price - Top Trim / Engine model: £45,665 (£61,995)
Insurance Group: 13 i.e. quite reasonable (16 getting costly there)
Servicing: Not cheap (if you have to ask you cannot afford it!)
So, even having said all of that, as you have probably already guessed, this one was more of my wife's choice really, although in terms of size and appearance it is probably the only big 4X4 that I would consider running........
......The one we are driving is the top of the range 2.9 litre T6 Executive. Under the bonnet is Volvo's most powerful engine mated to a very good Tiptronic style automatic gearbox, they actually call it "Geartronic" but anyone used to driving a VW / Audi style "Tiptronic" automatic will find it very familiar.
For those not familiar with either, probably a brief explanation of this very intuitive system is in order. Between the seats where a proper gear lever should sit, there is an automatic, "push me pull you" selector lever, which moves through a "gate". Conventionally such a lever moves vertically through a series of, often, stepped positions in order to select the direction of travel or the particular gear you wish to hold, a low gear going down hill for instance. All automatics used to be very much the same format, but lately as increasingly powerful computerised controls have been applied to transmission systems, the "gate" options so to speak have opened up.
I have driven cars with most of these various different types of automatic gearboxes at many events over the last ten years or so and can tell you that the Tiptronic (pioneered by Porsche incidentally, many years ago for their 928 model) or Geartronic (Volvo) system actually stands head and shoulders above the rest. Forget your Formula 1 style paddle changes, none seem to work properly on the cars to which they are fitted, nearly all Italian (the Italians were always useless at car electrics!) and clutchless manuals e.g. Smart, they are always slow witted and tend to be jerky if left to their own devices.
What then does, in this case, Geartronic offer that the others do not?
Well, Porsche know a thing or two about what a sports car driver wants. They have never produced a family saloon and did not really like the idea of putting a conventional automatic into one of their iconic products. However they did want to sell the big 928 Coupe in the USA and the Yanks, well they don't do "stick shift" as manual gear changing is called on the other side of the pond.
What they actually came up with was a quite satisfying, enjoyable to use even, best of both worlds solution. Plonk the lever in Drive and go. Reverse or Park - similarly self explanatory! Most of our American cousins would be terrified of using any other position on the gate and why not, the gears take care of themselves, Volvo sell lots of spare brake pads everyone's happy.
Option 2: Position selector lever in drive, click it to the right and then use it like a sequential manual, yet still without a clutch pedal to worry about. On a Tiptronic style gearbox you have a parallel gate to the conventional automatic (P.N.D.22.214.171.124) one. There are only three positions on offer, centre + up at the top / D(rive) in the middle / - down below. I'm making all this sound very complicated when all you actually have to do is touch the lever up (+) to change up or down (-) to change down a gear. They even build them to be foolproof by programming maximum and minimum revs for each gear into the system, if you as a driver get it wrong the gear changes automatically once the rev counters red line is reached anyway.
In the case of engines producing massive torque, e.g. VW's V10 diesel in the Touareg, no manual gearbox and clutch combination would be light enough for an average driver to handle, they have no choice to revert to using some form of automatic transmission of which an integral part is the torque converter, effectively a device to spin away excess torque protecting all the components in the mechanical system.
However, no XC90 is that powerful or well endowed with torque, it is fitted with a Geartronic 'box because that is what the market expects.
As far as I am concerned I would rather have a manual gearbox every time, but Volvo have their market summed up just right here again, all those school runs would be a chore having to change gear and find a spot to park on the zig zag lines.
This does feel like a big, heavy car as you drive away. It is smooth and quiet, but feels remarkably slow after the V10 Touareg, so much so that I could only imagine the D5 (five cylinder diesel) version feeling grossly underpowered. So much so that quite a while after the XC90's launch it became the only version of this car available with a manual gearbox.
As a reminder, my wife and I are driving this car at the Company Car in Action event at the Millbrook Testing Ground in Bedfordshire. It is a dreadful wet and windy summer's day in 2004. The XC90 is a Volvo Corporate Demonstrator, around a couple of months old, having covered about 3,000 miles, nicely run in then!
The drive at Millbrook consists of a very busy, tightly packed car park, close quarters city driving experience in order to get out onto the proper driving routes where the traffic spreads out far more. All driving is carried out in complete safety - partly because the whole testing ground is one huge one way system!
In 'city' you are aware that this is a spectacularly comfortable car. It avoids the over-blown (if very luxurious) plutocratic feel of the Range Rover, injecting a slightly incongruous feeling of sportyness into the 4x4 theme. The Volvo's interior is stunningly well designed, there is a uniquely Scandinavian luxury, yet utilitarian chic about this interior. Think Ikea, the smell of quality leather and the best control layout that you will find in a car and you'll start to get the idea. As far as the interior goes, this is a car that you and six of your friends are simply not going to want to get out of at the end of a long journey.
That impression partly comes about from the more laid back (than the Range Rover) but simply excellent driving position. No you do not sit quite as high as in a Range Rover but you still have that tremendous sense of the "command driving position" so beloved of the school run brigade.
Spacious? The Beatles started their career in a club smaller than this! It was called, as I am sure you all know "The Cavern!"
On the hill route the big Volvo is remarkably comfortable and at ease, due to its much more confidence inspiring handling, I preferred it to the V10 Touareg. It shook off the off-roader feel to such an extent that you had the feeling of being behind the wheel of a big executive saloon but with the added benefit of the "command" driving position.
Again on reaching the banked speed circuit the weight tells, it takes quite a while to gain the magic ton. In the back of my mind - AGAIN - was the fact that this is the most powerful version on offer, and yet it never shakes off the feeling of being just a little under-powered. Once cruising at 100mph, it is absolutely rock steady and very comfortable. It would certainly be capable of maintaining a high cruising speed for hours on end, the only problem being the amount of fuel required to do so. On this score a manual D5 would be a much more sensible proposition, but even then you are going to be making a lot of fuel stops between here and Poland!
Volvo have produced a thoroughly well engineered car in the XC90, and it is of no surprise that the waiting list remains so very long.
However the most unfortunate thing from my point of view is that it is a car so perfectly tailored for the now infamous "school run" market that I would probably not finish up ordering one even if I were in the market for a car like this.
That is a shame because with this engine and a manual gearbox it would then be just quick enough, solving my only real drivers' criticism of it, remain refined, and save a lot of fuel over the Geartonic version currently on sale.