It's long overdue for replacement but for medium-duty towing duties, this family-sized luxury SUV remains a decent option

If you’re hankering for the latest and greatest mid-sized SUV to park in your driveway -- or tow your latest toy -- the Volvo XC90 probably isn’t the best option. The now Chinese-owned Volvo is still a couple of years away from replacing its ageing, XC90 seven-seat SUV range-topper, with an all-new version not expected until at least 2014.

But the fact the current version is almost 10 years old, and faces increasingly fierce competition from fresher Euro rivals including BMW X5, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, doesn’t seem to be deterring buyers. A total of 1348 XC90s were sold in Australia in 2011, and it currently holds an 8.3 per cent share of the 13-strong, luxury SUV market.

One reason for this is the XC90’s distinctive, boldly-styled exterior hasn’t dated that much. The big Volvo also offers seven seats, which some of its rivals don’t, while regular updates and competitive pricing has also kept the big Volvo in the race.

Before hitching up something suitably heavy to test the XC90’s towing ability, we spent a few days driving the family-sized SUV, mostly one-up around town, which is the natural environment for this ‘soft roader’.
Stepping up into the plush cabin, the stylish interior hasn’t aged too badly either, but more importantly remains comfortable, practical and spacious to boot.

Trimmed in dark leather with white R-Design highlights, the front seats are contoured, cushioned and reasonably supportive, while the second row seats split and slide to cater for various passenger requirements. Like most seven seaters, fold-down, third row seating is pretty squashy, with headroom particularly tight, and best suited to primary age kids.

There’s decent room behind the third row seats for the weekly shopping however, which isn’t something all seven-seater SUVs can boast. While further contributing to the cabin’s practicality is plenty of usable storage spaces, lighting and climate-control vents in all three rows, and three 12V sockets.

The R-Design package adds some contemporary, sporty touches including metallic inlays along the dash and centre console, special floor mats, leather steering wheel and gearknob, as well as a dual exhaust.

Otherwise, the XC90 comes with decent level of kit including a premium 12-speaker sound system, Bluetooth audio streaming, rear parking sensors and reverse camera, active headlights, front/rear auto up/down windows, and electric seats. Considering the $70K-plus pricetag, it would have been nice to see items found on cheaper cars, such as auto headlights, cooler compartment and heated/ventilated seats, fitted as standard. The only option fitted was an electric sunroof ($2650).

Other gripes include a display screen for the sat nav and reversing camera that takes a few seconds to pop up from inside the dash, leaving you twiddling your thumbs in traffic. A touchscreen function would also be more user-friendly than the awkwardly located buttons behind the steering wheel. There was also a disconcerting ‘clunk’ every time we released the foot-operated park brake on our test vehicle.

Powered by a 136kW/400Nm 2.4-litre, five-cylinder turbo diesel (there’s also a 179kW/320Nm petrol six-cylinder engine available), the XC90 D5 delivers strong if unexciting performance. With an official 0-100km/h time of 10.3 seconds, the Volvo won’t win too many traffic-light races, though it gets up to speed with little fuss thanks to maximum torque available from just 1900rpm and a responsive and generally smooth-shifting six-speed auto. The unusual five-cylinder arrangement also delivers a pleasant thrum into the otherwise quiet cabin, rising to a V8-like burble at higher revs.

The R-Design package also includes a sportier suspension tune, which makes the ride a tad firmer. It’s still comfortable over smoother bitumen roads, but can get a bit choppy over coarser dirt roads. So despite an impressive 218mm road clearance, the XC90 isn’t the best choice if you plan to head off-road on a regular basis.

The all-wheel drive combined with grippy (and pricey) Pirelli P-Zero tyres mounted on 19-inch alloy wheels help deliver a surefooted feel in the wet and through curves. However, it’s not as nimble around corners as some of its rivals, and the 2125kg bulk is felt when pushing hard. The steering offers decent weight and feel, but the large turning circle makes tight, inner-city manoeuvring a chore.

The XC-90 was a safety leader when introduced and remains a bank vault on wheels, thanks to a full complement of electronic driver aids plus driver front, side and passenger curtain airbags. The Blind Spot Information System, which detects vehicles alongside via side cameras, is a ($1275) option.

For our tow test, we hooked up a 6.5m MasterCraft X14V boat and trailer weighing approximately 1900kg; just shy of the 2250kg maximum towing capacity (max. tow ball mass is 180kg). Before setting off from the Victorian New World Honda Marine dealer though, we noticed one of the trailer tyres looked a bit baggy.

Rather than head for a servo, we plugged in the portable compressor from the emergency puncture repair kit in the boot, to the boat’s 12V system. After a couple of minutes the tyre was fully inflated and we were on our way. While handy in situations like this, the tyre repair kit including ‘goo’ in lieu of a spare tyre, further limits the XC90 off-road.

Driving solo around town, the XC90 consumed fuel at 10.5L/100km, increasing to around 14.5L/100km when towing over a route that included mostly flat roads and freeways. Once out on the open road it cruised in a relaxed manner at 90km/h and 1800rpm in top gear.

While it did struggle a bit to get up to speed, the XC90 proved a stable towing platform once on the move, with little evidence of pitching or swaying. There was no noticeable sag in the rear suspension either, although Volvo does offer optional ‘automatic levelling’ which adjusts the rear shock absorbers to prevent the tow vehicle from ‘dipping’. 

It’s also worth noting that Volvo provides the following warning in the XC90’s owner’s manual: "Some models require an oil cooler for the automatic gearbox when driving with a trailer. Check with your dealer..."

While it has the looks of an all-terrain warrior the XC90 is really an urban runabout with some rough-road ability. There’s no denying it’s a bit long in the tooth in regards to automotive life cycles, but still presents as a practical, comfortable and reasonably well-equipped seven-seat SUV, that’s been left behind by more fancied rivals in only a couple of areas.

Just as long as you’re not in too much of a hurry, it also shapes up as a decent platform for medium-duty towing duties.

Engine: 2.4-litre, five-cylinder turbo-diesel
Max. power: 147kW at 3900rpm
Max. torque: 420Nm at 1900-2800rpm
Transmission: six-speed auto
Length: 4807mm
Width: 2112mm
Height: 1784mm
Wheelbase: 2857mm
Ground clearance: 218mm
Kerb mass: 2125kg
Fuel: 68 litres
Towing cap. unbraked/braked: 750kg/2250kg
Tow ball mass maximum: 180kg
Fuel economy (claimed): 8.8L/100km
Price: $73,490 (MRRP) As tested: $76,140

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Published : Friday, 23 November 2012

Prices and specifications supplied are for the market in Australia only and were correct at time of first publication. makes no warranty as to the accuracy of specifications or prices. Please check with manufacturer or local dealer for current pricing and specifications.