On the Forefront of Safety By Liz Kim "Hey, why's that XC90 pulling a U-turn ahead?" "That's not an XC90, that's a minivan. He's not in our group." "Yes, that is an XC90. But it does resemble a minivan in profile." "Oh, yeah, you're right." This was the exchange between my driving partner and me during our test drive of the newest crossover luxo-ute. Easy mistake, really, given its short, sloped snout. Volvo won't much like the fact that we mistook its newest vehicle for a minivan. The company has been emphasizing XC90's SUV-traits; it's not a crossover, they claim, because their black mask-wearing bandit XC70 fills that niche. However, considering the XC90 is built on the same car-based platform as the S60, S80, V70 and XC70 with some suspension modifications to allow for a greater ride height — and taking into account that Volvo cites as the XC90's primary competition crossovers such as the Acura MDX, Lexus RX 300 and the BMW X5 — it's not quite a stretch to call the spade a spade. But Volvo badly wants a piece of the lucrative and trendy SUV action, and the XC90 is the result of that desire. Fortunately, from the front view, it doesn't look anything at all like a minivan. With a pronounced shoulder line (like on the S60 and S80 sedans), protective cladding, a prominent grille and a bulging hood, the XC90 manages to have a beefy look without appearing as if it overdosed on testosterone, like many SUVs. Meanwhile, the XC90 provides a tall stance from which to survey the road — you gain 6.5 inches over the XC70's ride height. Plus an impressive maximum ground clearance of 9.2 inches (when equipped with 18-inch wheels) allows you to clear much of the rough stuff you might encounter on the way to your cozy yet modern cabin along the shores of Lake Tahoe. With all of these traits, the Swedish company is pulling for the consumers who may have ignored Volvos in the past in favor of something that better fit their active, outdoor-oriented lifestyles. However, conventional wisdom states Volvo doesn't need to alter its image much; it has a strong reputation for safety, comfort and reliability that will outlast any one fad its executives want to jump upon. Most SUVs are purchased for family use in metropolitan areas rather than their intended application, which is to tread unpaved territory. But, hey, America has gone loco for SUVs and we're sure someone, somewhere will even buy the upcoming Porsche Cayenne, so why not? Getting back to our dialogue at the beginning, there's a very good, useful reason the hood is so short. Volvo mounted the engine of the XC90 transversely, freeing up cabin space without adding much in the way of exterior dimensions. Appropriately, the interior is spacious, allowing for a maximum cargo capacity of 93.2 cubic feet when the rear seats are folded. (In comparison, the V70 is 3.5 inches shorter but offers 71 cubic feet of space.) That's as much, if not more than, any crossover vehicle currently on the market, save for the 109 cubic feet provided by the Buick Rendezvous. All that space can be put to good use thanks to a highly configurable interior. The new "in" thing is a third row of seats, and the XC90's got 'em as an option. Volvo will be very upfront about the passengers of said seats — they're only for the little people and only 30.1 inches of legroom is offered. Both the second and third rows will fold flat, with no extra steps required to remove headrests. Cargo capacity is further increased by the front passenger seat that can fold forward. The rear hatch opens clamshell-style with a 70/30 split, and the lower lip will prevent unseemly spills of belongings when you're parked on a hill. The second-row seat will split 40/20/40, and each seat slides on its own tracks. Ever conscious of the fact that parents want to be as close to their progeny as possible, Volvo developed a second-row middle seat which not only slides forward for better access in cleaning up cheese puff crumbs but also flips up to reveal a booster seat, an imperative for kids who've grown out of their car seats but aren't yet big enough to properly fit into a three-point seat belt. Cargo capacity and ride height are often cited as reasons people purchase SUVs as family vehicles. Another main reason is their perceived safety quotient, and this is where Volvo holds an ace that may trump its competition. A Volvo wouldn't be a Volvo if it weren't gorged with an extensive list of protective measures to cocoon you and your family from harm, and the XC90 further premieres some essential safety features not currently found in other SUVs. Most prominently, there is Roll Stability Control (RSC) system that uses a gyroscopic sensor to determine the car's roll speed and angle. Many vehicles of this class have a stability control system; the Volvo ups the ante by inserting a third dimension to its measurements. Rather than detecting only lateral movements, it factors in vertical inputs as well. Should it detect an imminent problem, it activates the DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) system, which can apply braking forces to individual wheels (reducing engine power if necessary) to get your XC90 back on course. And just in case there is a rollover, the roof of the XC90 is composed of Boron steel, which Volvo notes is four times stronger than conventional steel. As previously mentioned, third-row passengers are expected to be the kids, often the most precious cargo in a vehicle. You might be wondering why there's so little legroom back here; it's because Volvo didn't want to compromise third-row safety by mounting the seats too close to the rear window. By decreasing legroom, engineers increased the rear crumple zone. To further safeguard the little ones, the XC90 is the first vehicle with three-point belts with pretensioners for all seven positions. Furthermore, the side curtain airbags extend all the way to the rear, rather than just covering the first two rows. Buyers can choose one of two engines to motivate the XC90. The first is a 2.5-liter inline five-cylinder powerplant, supplemented by a light-pressure turbocharger and intercooler to force-feed a chilly breeze into the cylinders. It's mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with an automanual function and a winter mode selection for higher-gear starts during slippery conditions. Sourced from GM, this excellent transmission attempts to take full advantage of the engine's 208 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, numbers that may be considered lackluster compared to other luxo-ute powerplants. While around-town driving poses few problems, we found the engine tended to get out of breath while climbing grades, even though altitude doesn't affect for turbocharged motors nearly as much as naturally-aspirated ones. Considering the engine must propel up to 4,610 pounds, it may be a better bet to go with the stouter 2.9-liter T6 engine previously seen in the S80 sedan. It brews up 268 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of grunt with a broad power range from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm. Energized by twin turbochargers, it allows for a lot more pull. Unfortunately, this engine is managed by a less sophisticated four-speed automanual because Volvo couldn't fit the five-speed unit due to the larger displacement engine. So outfitted, we felt the sluggish four-speed had a harder time keeping up with driver demands while piloting the car around hilly, curvy roads. For now, you can't have your cake and eat it too, but we were pleased to find that both engines are ULEV certified and can tow up to 6,000 pounds. To continue on the theme of environmental graciousness, the radiator is coated with a thin catalytic film that converts pollution-causing ozone into oxygen. As previously mentioned, the XC90 rides on the same underpinnings as most of Volvo's sedans. Appropriately, ride quality provided by the MacPherson front and multilink independent rear suspension is familiar, with the shocks calibrated for a comfortable, cushy ride. It lacks the silky, fluid quality of the Lexus RX 300 and the sport sedanlike demeanor of a BMW X5, but like the Acura MDX, it's a nice compromise of both. Handling was predictable and stable, and as Volvo boasted a center of gravity that's just 3.5 inches higher than its V70 wagon, the XC90 never felt too tall or tippy, an instant anathema to driver confidence. A turning circle of 39 feet is more cumbersome than other car-based SUVs, but a responsive steering rack helps in piloting the vehicle through tight turns. Electronically controlled-wheel drive is an option for both engines. Normally, 95 percent of the power goes to the front wheels, but as slippage is detected, more power can be distributed to the rear wheels within a split second to regain traction. On the dirt road we traveled upon, loose gravel posed no threat, with all four wheels maintaining a surefootedness all the way to our destination. Given the XC90's carlike construction, we wouldn't suggest you take it on a challenging off-road course, however. The XC90's four-wheel ventilated disc brakes are supplemented with ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. Brake pedal feel could be improved upon, as travel is long and modulation not quite precise. The XC90 is well-stocked with standard features. Among them are dual-zone climate control, a power driver seat, steering wheel-mounted stereo controls, one-touch up and down front windows and a roof rack (cross bars are optional). The front seats proved to be immensely comfortable, with plenty of lateral, lumbar and thigh support, as we've found with most Volvos. As befitting a family vehicle, cupholders are plentiful: two up front, two for the second row and four for the rear. The center console leaves a lot to be desired, with a narrow, deep well that won't hold too many items, but keep in mind this is a removable unit (that allows you to scoot the middle seat up) as in the Chrysler minivans. We weren't too impressed with the amount of storage space around the cabin considering one of the main reasons people buy SUVs is to carry a whole lotta stuff. Further offensive is the fact you can't get a full-size spare tire, and the skinny one provided is mounted on the bottom of the vehicle which makes it difficult to access. We saw some build-quality problems, such as obvious flash lines on the sun visors and some materials around the dash that felt flimsy, but we were assured these were preproduction vehicles that lacked final finishing touches. A premium package for the T5 engine includes leather upholstery, a moonroof, memory for the side mirrors, power passenger seat, in-dash six-disc changer, Homelink and an electrochromic mirror. If you opt for the larger engine, all of the above are included; but its premium package will also get you a Dolby Pro Logic II Surround system with 12 speakers, 18-inch wheels, a wood steering wheel and power retractable side mirrors. A versatility package adds the third-row seat with a rear air conditioner with its own controls, a self-leveling rear suspension, rear headphone outlets with separate stereo controls and a center booster seat for the second row. A climate control package includes heated front seats, headlamp washers and rain sensors. Individual options include a DVD-based navigation system controlled by either a toggle on the wiper stalk or a remote control, bi-xenon headlamps, a park distance control system and a DVD entertainment system that'll be available later this year. When you're late to the game, you have to bring along some special toys in order to get noticed. Fortunately, the Volvo XC90 is chock-full of gadgets and gizmos to reinforce the Swedish company's image for safety and comfort. The Volvo is competitively priced in its lower-level trim, starting at just under $34,000 for the front-wheel-drive version with the smaller engine, but it can rise to almost $47,000 for a fully loaded version. If you're looking for a family vehicle with accommodations for up to seven, a spacious cabin and a long list of safety and comfort features — and a minivan just doesn't fit your image — the Volvo XC90 should make a compelling choice.