The Volvo XC90 has a very loyal following and an enviable reputation among owners who are drawn by its ruggedness, versatility, carrying capacity, and four-wheel-drive.
However, it has been about since Moses was a small boy and is, despite its decent carwow score, starting to feel its age, according to the experts. We borrowed one for a week to see if it is still a viable contender in a crowded and highly competitive marketplace.
If you think that a normal Volvo estate is a big car then prepare to be amazed; the XC90 is enormous, sitting tall, wide and long. It exudes the same indefatigable aura as a Land Rover Defender, which encourages you to think good things of it. Youd trust this car to get you and your family through any set of adverse conditions; flood, fire, or man-made disaster. Two things can survive a nuclear war: cockroaches and the Volvo XC90.
It might not be a thing of beauty but it is a handsome car and it reeks of old money, especially in a dark, discreet colour like the Caspian Blue of our test car. Few cars are as classless as a Volvo and that will be important to the sort of people for whom a conspicuous display of wealth is unattractive. It is highly unlikely that a potential owner would also consider buying an Evoque, for example.
The payoff for the XC90s size is the huge amount of space inside it. The three rows of seats accommodate seven and the boot space is still usefully large even with all the seats in use. There are also loads of places to store bits and bobs, including a very neat little pocket on the leading edge of the front seats.
The drivers seat is broad and supportive and has a wide range of adjustments including lumber support. The driving position is elevated and authoritative, which is a good thing especially in traffic allowing you to see further forward than most and plot a course that avoids at least some of the inevitable snarl-ups.
The rest of the interior is even more brilliant. The middle seats have plenty of head- and leg-room, sliding fore and aft allowing you to juggle the available space between them and the seats in the very rear of the car, which are still big enough to carry teenagers in comfort. The rear two rows also have their own air conditioning and places to hold cups and plug headphones in, giving the impression that carrying people has been designed in at an early stage rather than viewed as something to be accomplished at the lowest possible cost.
Folding the rear seats gives an enormous boot, and folding the middle ones too turns the XC90 into a van; few owners will ever need more space than this Volvo gives. Its easy to change around too, which isnt always the case with cars in this class.
The stereo synched with my phone easily and quickly and performed faultlessly thereafter which isnt something that can be said of the sat-nav, which took ten minutes to figure out how to operate. I finally discovered the almost-impossible-to-operate switches on the back of the steering wheel after consulting the owners handbook, the first time that I have had to do so in any car for a long time. The switches arent just hard to find: their location prevents the passenger from operating it at all meaning that the driver bears the sole burden of controlling it through the complicated menu. When it is working, it works well, but setting it up and changing route is far harder than it should be
The downside to all that interior space is, of course, that the XC90 doesnt handle like a sports car. There is quite a lot of bodyroll, which makes for uncertain progress initially. I got used to it very quickly though and soon discovered that the Volvo can be hustled along quite effectively and has far more grip than you first think.
The tyres have high sidewalls giving a smooth ride that smothers bumps and sleeping policemen rather well. The large diameter wheels also ride through potholes without too much crashing, making for serene progress through streets scarred by urban decay and neglect.
The four-wheel-drive gives a measure of off-road performance too, a feat helped by the raised suspension and hindered by road tyres and the lack of a super-low first gear. Still, most drivers just want to be able to keep mobile in the snow and on grassy fields and both will be despatched with aplomb in the XC90.
The elephant in the room is the automatic Geartronic gearbox that hunts around too much and has a yawning gulf between first and second gear, which means that slow speed manouvering is undertaken at very high revs. It is also reluctant to kick-down when needed. I reverted to using it as a manual after a day or so and enjoyed driving it so much more; to overtake I moved it over to the left from Drive and used the gearbox sequentially, flicking it contemptuously across to the right after Id passed the slower traffic. Driven in this way the XC90 is good fun to drive and quite sprightly.
The engine does sound a bit gruff but that adds to the preternaturally rugged feel of it; if stranded in, say, Outer Mongolia or Tescos in High Wycombe during the next fuel strike, you get the impression that you could pop any old rubbish in the tank to keep it running for the next 300,000 miles or so. It certainly does the job of moving such a big car at unexpectedly high speeds.
I averaged 30.4mpg over 400-odd miles and a variety of driving conditions. Its not going to win any environmental awards but measured on consumption-per-passenger-carried the XC90 does rather better than most. Its also close to Volvos claimed average consumption of 34mpg.
Value for Money
My test car cost just over 43,000 with only a few optional extras. This raises it into Land Rover Discovery territory, an uncomfortable place to be these days given the Disco 4s shattering competence.
Lets be very clear; the Volvo XC90 is a great car. It is easy to drive, easy to use, easy to own. It feels safe, indomitable, and reassuring. It might be expensive to buy and moderately pricey to run but the pay-off is huge versatility, impressive reliability, and decent resale values.
The biggest problem with it isnt the slow and unresponsive gearbox its the Land Rover Discovery 4, which is a similar price and a much more rounded vehicle.
Having said that, if you are in the market for a four-wheel-drive estate that seats seven people and dont want a Land Rover then the Volvo XC90 should be near the top of your wish list. Its qualities might be subtler than some of its competitors but they are all the more charming for being so.