High roller

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2008, 12:00am


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Launched in 2002, Volvo's XC90 quickly made its mark in an already crowded sports utility vehicle sector, receiving more than 50 international awards for its safety, design and environmental care.

A genuine seven-seater, the XC90 is a full-sized four-wheel drive that combines clean, elemental Scandinavian design with ample sophistication and performance to rank it against the likes of BMW's X5, and Audi's Q7.

Volvo's latest XC90 model has received a mild facelift that belies some hefty updates underneath the bonnet - and to the chassis in particular - that helps make this urban 4x4 a lot sharper to drive than its predecessor.

Two new engine choices for the Hong Kong market are the most noticeable features of the new XC90 - the 24-valve, 3.2-litre V6 turbo unit, and the 320bhp, 2.5-litre T2 turbo injection engine tested here.

Much like the T5 engine in the C70 coupe, the T2 unit is a refined affair that manages to remain composed despite having to propel the XC90's hefty 2 tonne weight. Progress is swifter than before with tighter gear ratios and a lower-down power band (most of the torque kicks in between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm) helping to get things moving.

The five-speed adaptive shift transmission pulls the SUV quickly up to pace with traffic and doesn't toil as much as you'd expect with steep inclines, and there's an unexpectedly immediate response when you floor the accelerator on the highway.

The V8-engine XC90 is the world's first ultra-low emission vehicle II (Ulev II) compliant, eight-cylinder vehicle. The 3.2-litre six-cylinder version in Hong Kong turns in a slightly faster pace (0-100km/h in 9.5 seconds) with similar fuel efficiency to the 2.5-litre model - but the T5 is all you'd ever need realistically in performance at least.

Some notable improvements have been to the XC90's handling. There's additional rigidity from the chassis and the new models feel a lot more composed when cornering, with body roll minimised as far as can be expected from this heavy, high-sided vehicle.

Volvo's roll stability control system helps with this enormously. A gyroscopic sensor registers the vehicle's leaning angle and calculates the risk of rolling over.

If required, the RSC will cut engine power or brake one or more of the wheels just enough to reduce the centrifugal force and help regain balance.

Built on the chassis of the V70 passenger car, the overall sensation in the high-riding SUV is one of supreme stability combined with enthusiastic performance. Speed-sensitive power steering adds

to the feeling of control and manoeuvrability and the T2 engine's ultra-compact dimensions also mean that there's increased space for deformation zones - an integral part of the marque's collision

safety precautions.

Safety always figures highly on a Volvo buyer's list of must-haves and the XC90 delivers this in spades. Aside from conventional safety features such as ABS/EBD/EBA braking systems and dynamic stability and traction control, there are a few other Volvo-derived systems that bring added safety and security to your drive.

Whiplash protection and side impact protection systems have long been on Volvo's roster of active safety features but additional side inflatable curtains and a blind spot information system bring more peace of mind to the road.

The BLIS system is particularly reassuring in congested traffic. Employing rear-facing digital cameras installed in the door mirrors, it monitors the traffic on either side of the car, and alerts the driver when a vehicle enters your blind spot. The system kicks in at speeds over 10km/h.

The XC90's spacious cabin has no shortage of comfort either. An elevated view - courtesy of cinema-style seating - and swathes of cowhide all lend to the quality feel to the cabin.

Electronic climate control keeps the temperature constant, while separate settings can be made for each side of the cabin. The interior air quality system monitors the air coming into the cabin for unhealthy gases and will close the external air vents in extreme cases. A charcoal filter removes unpleasant odours and fumes.

In creature comforts, the luxury soft-roader is as well appointed as you'd expect, with an eight-speaker, six-CD changer system and two rear-seat entertainment screens that passengers can watch a film or play a game on, while wireless headphones help maintain calm in the cabin. Keeping with the children's theme, there's an integrated bolster cushion in the rear middle seat that helps to position a child at the correct position for the safety belt or bring them nearer to the adults up front. The rearmost seats are only suitable for people under 1.6 metres.

All three tiers of seating offer competitive conveniences and thoughtful details, ranging from retractable cup holders to handy storage spaces and adjustable seats.

The centre armrest between the front two rows of seats is particularly handy, with an upper section that folds back to reveal a handy storage space for small objects such as CDs or sunglasses while doubling up as a small table for passengers in the centre. Double cup holders in the front of the armrest ensure that refreshments are within reach.

Volvo says there are 64 different seating configurations - enough for most everyday eventualities. Each passenger seat can be folded flush with the floor and the second row of seats slide forward individually to create space for luggage or awkward loads.

There's also a split tailgate for quick loading - or both sections can be opened for heavy duty hauling.

Sensors in the front and rear bumpers alert you to objects close by, while the parking camera even shows you what's going on behind your SUV when reversing.

A pleasing package, the new XC90 plays to Volvo's strengths by offering a useful blend of style, performance and versatility.