Volvo XC90

Test venue: Cheltenham area

Volvo's late entry into the fashionable SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) market with the new XC90 range has pitched it against the likes of BMW's X5 and the Mercedes ML. The car is now on sale in the UK, although massive advanced orders mean that you may wait up to 12 months to take charge of either the diesel or petrol-engined versions now available. Volvo's John Lefley expects 60% of sales to be made up from diesel models.

Volvo's press department claims that 2200 advanced orders have been processed and a further 900 cars have been ordered to satisfy initial demand. The entry level diesel-engined XC90 DS S will be priced at 28,400, although the manual six-speed version will not be available until November 2003. The SUV market grew by 19% last year.

The DS SE is priced at 30,400, rising to 33,865 for the standard petrol-engined T6 SE. Options such as a communications, winter and cross-country pack can add up to 3,125 to the on-the-road price.

Already voted SUV of the Year by the Sun newspaper and Best 4x4 2003 by both Top Gear and What Car? magazines, Texans actually awarded the XC90 a 'Truck of the Year' distinction. But Volvo's first SUV's on-the-road handling characteristics are far from being truck-like in any circumstances.

The XC90 is a mere 87 mm longer than the conventional Volvo V70, although it is a seven-seater in its own right. Drop the split rear tailgate and you have the option of using the XC as either a conventional estate car with ample boot room or as a station wagon with storage space for the bulkiest of domestic accessories. Park distance sensors are invaluable in reversing and parking situations.

UK models feature either the five-cylinder, 2.4-litre common rail turbo diesel engine, which delivers 163 bhp and a massive 340 Nm of torque, or the 272 bhp, 2.9-litre petrol engine. Fuel consumption rises to around 29 mpg for the T6 petrol engine and 37 mpg for the diesel. A third engine option will be available in some markets, such as Sweden.

The XC's interior features all the usual luxuries associated with a vehicle in its sector. The second row centre seat has an integrated child booster cushion and slides forward simply to fit between the two front seats. Removing the front arm rests creates more leg room for the passenger in the centre seat. The third row features two seats which can be folded away completely for additional storage space.

Speed sensitive steering is standard on the T6. Couple with EBA (Emergency Brake Assistance) DSTC (stability and traction control), and Volvo's electronically-controlled AWD system, the XC90's ride inspires confidence, although on a scenic route through the Gloucestershire countryside it was necessary to keep a very careful eye on the speedometer. The refined and comfortable ride belies the performance and progress of the XC90's powerplant.

The XC also features the technologically-advanced RSC (Roll Stability Control) system, which detects when the vehicle is about to corner with excessive force using a gyro sensor and automatically applies the brakes and DSTC system. Statistics show that 11,500 people were killed in roll-over accidents in the USA last year alone. The XC has also been designed to be compatible with other vehicles in the event of head-on collisions.

One minor niggle from the driving position was the ease at which it is possible to accidentally change the radio channel using the steering wheel-mounted radio control system. Annoying to say the least.

Rear seat passengers have access to their very own RSE (Rear Seat Entertainment) control unit for the audio system located on the door post. It is possible in the XC for rear seat passengers to listen to one of three audio sources, hence alleviating those all-to-common family arguments on long journeys.

But who will buy the new XC90? Volvo claim that the target customer will be largely male in the 25-45 age and high-income brackets. Initial sales and a bulging order book suggest that maybe Volvo's late entry into the SUV market was a timely one.

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