The Volvo XC90 looks like a Volvo, even without the badges, merged with the rugged, adventurous, substantial look of an SUV.
Its angular styling says Volvo. In side view, the XC90's roofline rakes upward dramatically from the windshield to a high horizontal plane, with the arc of the top echoed by the curve of the roof rails. A high beltline enhances to the typical visual image of a tall SUV, and creates the feeling of a protective cocoon inside. The rear glass is inclined toward the front of the vehicle, which shortens the roofline a bit and tidies the profile. Its basic stance gives the XC90 a well-planted look and promotes handling stability. Its wheelbase is long, but the overhangs are short, so the body doesn't extend very far past the wheels. It has a wide track as well. And despite its height, the XC90 has a lower center of gravity than many SUVs.
The taillights are huge, designed to ensure visibility to other drivers. The back-up lights seem as bright as the roof lights on a Baja pickup, making it less likely to back into something at night.
All XC90s feature side mirrors with integrated LCD turn signals to warn drivers in your blind spot of your intensions. Active Bi-Xenon headlights are available that generate brighter light and swivel up to 15 degrees off center in the direction of travel to better light up the turns.
The rear hatch is split into two sections, with a larger, upper glass portion that swings up and a lower, steel gate that drops down. The split-line between is about waste high, so if you're just stowing the groceries or dry cleaning, you might not need to drop the tailgate. Larger objects require opening both halves, so this clamshell hatch has its strength and weaknesses. On the plus side, the upper glass liftgate lifts and closes easily, and because it's smaller, it's less likely to bonk you or someone else on the head when you raise or lower it. Liftgates on some SUVs are hard to raise due to their weight and the angles involved, but that's not the case here. The little tailgate also keeps groceries and other cargo from rolling out when you open the hatch.
Sporty R-Design models are dressed up with bright roof rails, additional brightwork on the front skid plate, silk-matte caps on the outside mirrors, and a racy rear bumper with quad exhausts and important-looking air outlets. But you could honestly miss all of that and just find yourself wowed by the strikingly slim, five-spoke Vulcanis alloy wheels, like certain swimsuits, what most impresses about them is just how little there is to them. By comparison the optional Cratus 20-inchers are downright ordinary, despite the deliberately uneasy asymmetry of their own five spokes.
Volvo's reputation for safety engineering is well deserved because Volvo devotes impressive resources and manpower to improve occupant protection. The XC90 offers the full array of active and passive safety features, including a Roll Stability Control system, and a rollover protection system intended to shield occupants in the unlikely event of an actual rollover. There are also features like a roof structure fashioned from high-strength steel. We've seen an XC90 hurled across a parking lot at Volvo's safety center in Sweden and it held up impressively. The lower front crossmember is engineered to inflict less damage on small vehicles if an accident occurs. It may be the safest SUV on the road.
The Volvo XC90 seats seven passengers, and leather upholstery and auxiliary rear climate control are standard. The XC90 is quiet, comfortable, and above all, roomy. By mounting its engine sideways across the chassis, Volvo has created a cabin with the space and flexibility of a minivan inside a relatively compact exterior.
The materials and finish inside are very good, and functionality rates almost as high, despite some Volvo-specific quirks. The XC90 makes an excellent vehicle for families with two or more children growing into their teens. Standard interior trim is a mix of brushed aluminum around the door pulls, wood trim on the center console and dark, matte-finish plastic behind the switches in the center stack. The standard steering wheel is covered in rich, grippy leather. Volvo steering wheels have some of the chubbiest rims in the business, and they're so thick that drivers with small hands might find them a bit too hefty.
It requires a small step up to slide into the XC90's driver's seat, though well-placed grab handles make getting in easier. Those aluminum door pulls are not so effective, however. They're fairly narrow, and seem to be made for people with little hands (in contrast to the fat steering wheel rim).
The front bucket seats are comfortable, with good, adjustable lumbar support. And Volvo leather is some of the best around.
Headroom is exceptional, thanks to the high roofline, and the big windows create a feeling of space, with excellent forward visibility. Unfortunately, Volvo's emphasis on safety has drawbacks in this regard. Large, tall headrests restrict forward visibility for passengers in the second- and third-row seats. More significantly, the headrests can reduce what the driver sees in the rearview mirror. Another minor annoyance is the perpetual reflection in the windshield from the big subwoofer in the top of the dash.
The instrument panel is canted upward toward the windshield, creating a stronger cockpit effect than one finds in the typical sport-utility vehicle. The gauges are simple and easy to read. Window switches are on the doors, right near the fingertips when the driver's left arm lies on the armrest, requiring no hand or wrist contortion to operate. Other controls are concentrated in one of two spots: on easy-to-use stalks flanking the steering wheel, or in the stack rising from the center console. Here you'll find some of those Volvo quirks, which are neither good nor bad. They're just a bit different than the convention in most cars.
The switches that direct airflow for the climate controls are fashioned with an icon that looks like a seated person set over the top. Push the person's feet and all air flows through the floor vents, push the head, and air flows toward the windshield. The audio controls are even more unusual, with a twisting knob that cycles through menus and a keypad that looks like telephone buttons. They all work quite well, once a user gains some familiarity, and nearly all are large and easy to locate, even at night.
Seating and cargo arrangements inside the XC90 are enormously versatile. Six of the seven seats fold flat, including the front passenger seat, handy for hauling long items, like ladders. Equally impressive is the ease with which the seats slide, fold, change and vanish.
The second-row bench seat is split 40/20/40, and each section slides forward independently, adjusting the amount of legroom for the second and third rows. Headrests don't have to be removed when the seats are folded flat. The console between the front seats can be easily removed, allowing the center section of the second row to slide way forward between and just behind the front buckets. With the integrated booster cushion for that seat, tending to a toddler has never been easier.
The third-row bench seat seats two. Getting into the third row is easier than it is in many SUVs, because sliding and flipping the second-row seats is a breeze. Of course, with the second row positioned for adult-sized legs, there's only enough leg room in the third row for kids.
Still, for 10-year-olds the third row is a cozy and convenient little world all its own, with a storage console, cup holders, and separate climate controls and registers. Kids actually want to sit way back in the wayback. Headphone plugs are provided, meaning second- or third-row headphone users can listen to a CD while the front-seat occupants listen to the radio through the speakers.
Storage for smaller items, particularly in front, is lacking, as it often is with Volvos. The door pockets are narrow and the small center console compartment is slim and difficult to access. If you slide a few CDs in the slots, there's no more room at all.
Cargo capacity is another story, because the XC90 can carry more stuff than most of its competitors. Making the third seat standard has reduced maximum cargo volume somewhat, but with all passenger seats folded down, the XC90 still offers 85.1 cubic feet of cargo space, or more than what's available in the Mercedes M-Class (72.4 cubic feet), BMW X5 (75.2), Acura MDX (83.5), Cadillac SRX (61.2) and Infiniti FX (62.0). Even with all three rows of seats in place, there's room in the Volvo for two or three stacked duffel bags behind the third row.
Moreover, the XC90 accommodates long objects easily. Lowering the center portion of the second-row seat opens 9.5 feet of unobstructed space between the instrument panel and the rear liftgate, and this applies with the third-row seat in place, thanks to passage space between the seatbacks. As a result, the XC90 can take four surfers and two long boards to the beach. It's a good vehicle for trout fishing because it will accommodate rigged nine-foot fly rods, allowing the angler to move to a new spot without having to break them down.