Driving a Volvo makes me want to procreate. Perhaps it's the womb-like sense of security that envelopes you as you slide behind the wheel, knowing that various airbags and roll-over prevention mechanisms make the Volvo XC90 one of the most safety-conscious SUVs on the road. Or maybe it's the built-in toddler seat in the second row, plus the collapsible third row of seating for even more little ones. Or even the headphone outlets to let the pre-teens listen to their CDs while you stay up-to-date with NPR.
Truly, this must be what it feels like to be a soccer mom. A very well-pampered soccer mom, at that.
The XC90 is Volvo's first entry into the SUV battlefield, a market everyone loves to hate but wants to drive. That dynamic plays out in the XC90's exterior design. For those who love Volvos, the XC90 is a stylish take on the SUV model that deftly incorporates the brand's most recent styling cues. For those who dislike Volvos, well, it's just another big box on wheels.
Never having counted myself a fan of Volvo styling, over the course of a few days with the XC90 T6 I found myself being slowly won over by its style and stance. Oddly, it tends to look smaller than it actually is. Only when you park it next to something like a Jeep Grand Cherokee do the large dimensions come fully clear. It's not a Beltway behemoth like the Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator, but it's big and high enough to give you a clear view of traffic on all sides.
Once inside, the XC90 feels even bigger with a broad dash, ample cabin room, and the aforementioned multiple-seating options for the back two rows. The leather interior is comfortable without crossing over into plush, while the faux-wood and metal accents lend a tasteful touch. Exterior noise is dampened to a whisper, leaving you in your own hermetically-sealed little bubble passing pleasantly through noisy, construction-filled streets.
The XC90 provides a smooth ride in good conditions, and stays calm over the rougher stretches of city streets, while the all-wheel drive provided assured handling in a heavy rain.
Some necessary carping must be noted regarding the steering wheel controls and stereo. The plastic buttons for cruise control and the stereo are tactilely indistinguishable from the steering wheel spokes and easily pressed by accident, leading to constant inadvertent volume changes while making turns, a minor annoyance that seemed out of place in an otherwise well-considered interior.
The stereo itself, an optional in-dash six-CD changer, was confusing and awkward to learn, requiring a detour to the owner's manual to demystify the process for changing CDs and radio stations. It's like having to read a manual to work a toaster -- too much complexity in what should be a near-transparent device.
The tested XC90 with a twin-turbo, six cylinder engine provided plenty of power to move in and out of traffic with little sign of turbo lag. That power comes at the price of gas mileage. The on-board information system provides a constant fuel efficiency average -- I never managed better than 14.1 mpg (although a driver with a lighter foot than I could probably take that number up a tick or two). The base model XC90 with a 2.5-liter in-line 5-cylinder engine offers more miles per gallon (18 city/24 highway) for a lower price ($34,790 MSRP).
Given that the Volvo name conjures up feel-good notions of practicality and utility -- there's a reason the cars are stereotyped as the choice vehicles of latte-loving liberals -- a high-riding, gas-guzzling SUV seems a bit like the black sheep of the Volvo family, where even the S80 luxury sedan can go miles farther on a gallon.
But for those people who crave the space, utility and power of upper-end SUVs but are wary of safety issues such as rollover, the Volvo XC90 T6 offers an attractive choice. It's a well-rounded entry in a crowded field that manages to get by on more than just its name.