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Volvo XC90 D5 R-Design (2011) Review & Road Test

Sat, 05 Nov 2011

The Volvo XC90. Still looks contemporary with the R-Design options

Volvo has been threatening to replace the XC90 for quite some time. After all, it’s now pushing on a decade old and is still pretty much the same AWD Volvo SUV that launched way back in 2002.

Back then we could think of the XC90 as an SUV, although in many ways it was the forerunner of the more recent rash of lifestyle SUVs and crossovers that now proliferate on the carscape.

But despite Volvo’s desire to bring an all new XC90 to the market, the traumas under Ford’s ownership mitigated against that plan. So the old warhorse has soldiered on and still finds a ready market amongst the chattering classes looking for transport for their brood.

That ready market is probably because the XC90 is still very appealing. Not because Volvo has changed it massively in the last decade but because, in many ways, the market has caught up with what the XC90 offered from the start.

In 2002 the XC90 launched and could probably be considered, at first glance, as a less aggressive offering than a BMW X5, a more subtle one than a Mercedes M Class and a more affordable one than a Range Rover.

And the XC90 was all of those things, but it was also much cleverer than that. What it was, and still is, is a very practical and understated cross between a luxury SUV, an MPV and a Crossover. Not that we really saw it as such when it launched.

But can a car, any car, survive so long in the modern car market when what it has to offer is basically unchanged for a decade?

There are tell-tale signs on the XC90 of its vintage. The SatNav, for example, has been bolted in to a flap that rises from a cut-out atop the dash – a clear sign the XC90 was never designed to have it integrated – and the old D5 engine makes itself known when you push it hard.

Despite those minor niggles, the Volvo XC90 has survived the intervening years very well, and with the extra R-Design bits bolted on – which are thankfully Swedish understated and not blingy by any stretch – it conspires to look remarkably contemporary.

In fact the XC90 really does look more like a Crossover than a full blown SUV. It sits lower than cars like Land Rover’s discovery, and its car-like raked screen makes it look more like a more butch version of the XC70.

So instead of the XC90 making the hairs stand up on the back of the necks of passing eco-mentalists, its low-key, almost fluffy image makes the XC90 the acceptable face of big SUVs.

Even the added bling of the R-Design pack on the XC90 doesn’t make it a paid up member of the pimped SUV club. In fact, the R-Design stuff just makes the XC90 look more appealing. Inside too.

The interior of the XC90 R-Design may be showing its age a little with the pop up SatNav, but in almost every other way it is still a model of understatement and clever practicality.

The seven seats in the XC90 are completely usable, and getting in and out of the back row is as easy as it ever gets in a car like this. And the seats are comfortable and supportive and covered in good-looking leather with cream piping.

At first look the dash looks more low-rent than, say, the Land Rover Discovery. But after a while you realise that it’s more understated than low-rent; the plastics are decent quality and the ergonomics are not at all bad for a ten year old car.

The Volvo XC90 R-Design still has an appealing interior

Even though SUVs have strived to address the problems of defying gravity by making something tall and heavy handle like a nimble compact, you still jump in to any big SUV with the expectation that there’ll be more rock and roll than a re-run of Jailhouse Rock.

That expectation is enhanced whenever you jump in to a big SUV that’s been around for a while. So the realisation that you can actually chuck the XC90 around just as you would a decently sorted estate car is something of a surprise.

Don’t run away the idea that the XC90 handles like an X5 or a Cayenne, because it doesn’t. But it does handle very well for a lifestyle SUV that has decade-old underpinnings.

The ride is soft and fairly compliant and you can chuck the XC90 round bends without it falling over. It’s not going to frighten a hot hatch round the back roads, but you can make decent progress without making your passengers feel ill.

The 197bhp and 310lb/ft of torque the D5 diesel offers the XC90 is perfectly decent, even if the five-pot is starting to show its age. We’re not sure whether it’s the engine or the auto ‘box at fault, but the XC90 doesn’t exactly jump to attention when your right foot demands a bit of help.

That said, once the XC90 decides it’s ready to play, the torque makes it brisk away and the adequate levels of power mean it doesn’t run out of breath too soon, even if it all gets a bit too vocal.

Unfortunately, the D5 engine and gearbox can’t hold a candle to more modern offerings, such as the six-pot diesel and eight-speed gearbox in the Discovery.

And nor can the XC90 take on the Discovery when it comes to off-road ability. It has none of the really clever stuff Terrain Response offers, but it does have a clever enough AWD setup to move power around the wheels as needed.

We tried a muddy (if flat) field, which the XC90 managed with a reasonable degree of alacrity, so we have no doubt it will do boot sale car parks and school runs in the snow with aplomb.

It would be easy to dismiss the Volvo XC90 as too old to be relevant. But it would be wrong to do so.

The addition of the R-Design bits does make the XC90 seem much younger than its years, and it still offer an enticing package for buyers.

Buyers who want all the practicalities of an SUV wrapped up with the ability to transport a brood and their friends. Buyers who like the idea of big, reassuring, high-riding transport, but who can’t live with the disapprobation big SUVs command.

For buyers like that, the XC90 still makes a lot of sense. Without stereotyping too much, the XC90 is the perfect second car for better-off families. Families who want others to perceive them as caring and aware, but who want the practicalities the XC90 offers.

And the Xc90 is still appealing and relevant. Yes, it could do with a more convincing lump under the bonnet and the ergonomics could probably be improved. But it’s still decent to drive, decent to look at and remarkably well packaged for an old warhorse.

If your needs fit, the Volvo XC90, especially with the R-Design bits, is still a good buy.

(46 photos – click any thumbnail for full gallery)

By Cars UK