Volvo's timing might have been better. Stuffing a big, thirsty V8 into its franchise-making XC90 sport-ute just as gas prices are going ballistic seems somehow wrong-footed and impolitic. But, of course, the V8 engine program was begun long before the recent crunch at the pump. Rising gas prices? Who could have possibly predicted that?
Introduced in 2003, the XC90 - the ultimate Pilates Mom-mobile - has always been a handsome and stout piece of hardware, loaded to the scuppers with Volvo's signature safety hardware: lots of smart air bags, headrests and high-tech seat belts; passenger-cell reinforcement to ward off crushing blows from side impacts and rollovers; and, to limit possibilities of the latter, the vehicle's gyroscopic roll sensor integrated into its traction- and stability-control systems.
All of which has made this modest-sized vehicle a wee bit of a porker. The base model with the turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder weighs 4,450 pounds, about the same as the larger, V8-powered Cadillac SRX. Pitted against such mass, the 2.5T's output of 208 hp must feel pretty overmatched. I don't know for sure because I've never driven the vehicle in this trim.
I have driven a T6 version with the 2.9-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder (268 hp), and even with it remember thinking how welcome an extra 50 ponies would be.
Well, here they are, but it took jamming a Japanese outboard motor under the hood to get them. Because the XC90 uses a transverse-engine layout (the engine sits sideways under the hood), the available V8s in parent-company Ford's quiver were too big to fit in the engine bay. So Ford and Volvo called upon Yamaha to build the compact, 4.4-liter, 311-hp V8, with the cylinder banks angled at 60 degrees, just like Yammie's big, four-stroke outboards.
Thus the answer to the ancient riddle: How are a Volvo and a bass boat alike?
Inveterate gear heads may remember that Yamaha also built the V6 under the bonnet of the mid-1990s Ford Taurus SHO - it stands for Super High Output, but let's forgive them for that.
Atop the XC90's aluminum block are two 16-valve heads equipped with variable-valve timing that gives the big V8 a sweet, silk-rope refinement. Peak torque of 325 pound-feet is rated at 3,900 rpm, but in practice the vehicle feels in the muscle anywhere over 2,500 rpm. Kick the slats and the Volvo moves out with righteous authority, shuffling through the gears in the new six-speed transmission as seamlessly as an iPod shuffling through your favorite '80s dance hits. Volvo claims the V8-powered model accelerates to 60 mph in seven seconds, which is plenty quick for an all-wheel-drive kid-schlepper.
AND yet, oddly, in lazy throttle conditions such as stop-and-go traffic, the XC90 V8 feels positively feeble. The tip-in is so weak and gradual that it must be by design, a fuel-saving algorithm in the engine-transmission interface, perhaps. The sensation is like stepping into a kiddie pool - a watery resistance until your foot finds the cement bottom. This is one of those learn-as-you-go adaptive transmissions that adjust to driver behavior. I hope it can teach itself not to do that.
A couple of other notes about this engine: Stretched across the engine bay is a transverse bar between the tops of the strut towers. Attached to this strut bar is a lever arm attached to an elastic engine mount designed to absorb vibration and twisting forces from the engine. It works beautifully to isolate the engine from the rest of the vehicle. Let's see the "Unique Whips" boys do an install as slick as that.
What makes the engine's refinement all the more noticeable is that the car's dual-exhaust note is so dang feral and aggressive. In the higher registers, it has the game-on growl of a late-model Corvette. That will turn some heads when you pull away from the Bikram studio.
Fuel economy for this 4,610-pounder: 14 miles per gallon city, 20 mpg highway. And to think Sweden signed the Kyoto Protocol.
To complement the additional horsepower, the XC90 V8 wears a set of 18-inch Michelin Pilots and sports its own performance suspension (struts and links, with anti-roll bars, front and rear). The Volvo feels well-sorted and comfortable at speed, with a nice, shoulder-down attitude when bent into corners at high speed.
With the new, grippy rubber at the wheels, it takes a concerted effort to bring out the ute's front-plowing behavior. Overall, though, the Volvo feels dialed back, lacking an edge: The steering is light and gently reactive, the brake uptake is soft and so, as mentioned, is the throttle uptake. So, Speed Racer, if you are cross-shopping the XC90 V8 and, say, the BMW X5 4.4i, you will probably prefer the latter.
Oh, and what's the deal with the turning circle? Forty feet? Thus the answer to the ancient riddle: How are a Volvo and a dump truck alike?
All V8 models offer seven-passenger seating (third-row seating is a $2,100 option with the smaller engines). These are some complicated seats. For instance, smartly integrated into the middle-row, middle-seat position is a child booster seat. The middle-row seats slide fore and aft and fold flat, and their headrests are spring-loaded to flop forward with a tug on their release tabs. The rear seatbacks are built into the cargo floor panels. Lift these up and then pull the tab at the bottom; the rear seat cushion pops out from nowhere.
EVEN though the rear seat positions are pretty tight and are for occasional use only, they are well furnished with dedicated climate and audio outlets. A dual-screen entertainment system is a $1,995 option.
I like the Volvo's palette of interior materials - the dense, rubberized dash materials, the large-grain leather and padded door gussets. The wood-rimmed steering wheel included in the Touring package always feels nice in the palm. Volvo says the Touring package also includes "wood inlays," but the only pieces of wood I could see in the cabin were Hasbro-effect trim pieces on the console and dash. Where do you find plastic trees?
My biggest peeve? The navigation system. The XC90's nav screen pops out of a recess in the center dash speaker unit. This is a shared piece with Volvo sedans and wagons, which have much more intimate cockpits. But in the spacious ute, the unit is too far away, too small and angled too far forward to be readable. Also, the controls for the system, built into the back of the steering wheel, make any navigation task an ordeal. The safety geeks at Volvo have got to know this system requires much too much eyes-off-road time.
The base price of the V8 model is $45,395, but with a few must-have options, the price of the vehicle can easily top $50,000. That puts the V8 model in an entirely different market than the 2.5T.
Still, the XC90 V8 is a lovely sport-ute, so its price shouldn't be problem, especially since no one is predicting a downturn in the economy, right?
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Auto critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes .com
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Base price: $45,395, plus $695 destination fee
Price, as tested: $53,280
Powertrain: 4.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam V8, variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting mode; mechanical all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 311 at 5,850 rpm
Torque: 325 pound-feet at 3,900 rpm
Curb weight: 4,610 pounds
0-60 mph: 7 seconds
Wheelbase: 112.6 inches
Overall length: 188.9 inches
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
EPA fuel economy: 14 miles per gallon city, 20 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Kicking sand in the yuppie playground
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