My word, how excited we all were back in 2002 when Volvo launched its first SUV, the XC90. The initial production sold out almost on the spot, or so the message was from Volvo. Certainly there were premiums paid over and above the list price by buyers desperate to get into a Volvo XC90.
Why? Simply it was a seven-seat SUV. Volvo had built lots of estate cars with those funny rear-facing kids’ seats, but in the XC90 children looked in the correct direction and, hey, everyone wanted those cuddly, safe Volvo values in this newest 4×4 on the block.
Six years down the line, problem number one is there’s not much around that’s now older than the XC90. Problem two is the imminent XC60. It won’t have the space or the seven seats, but it’s newer, cheaper and crucially, greener. Is the XC90 R-Design any more than a last-ditch desperate grasp at a few more sales?
What’s special about R-Design?
It’s a specification introduced by Volvo across C30, S40, V50 and XC90. Modifications are usually cosmetic but in the case of the XC90 there’s a sports chassis to round off the package. The suspension on the XC90 had appeared previously on the SE Sport derivative, but now Volvo has pulled all the elements together.
There’s no mistaking this for a regular XC90. 19 inch alloys, quad exhausts, skid plate and matt finished to the mirrors show purpose, as do the deleted roof rails (though you can get them if you really need them). Inside the first things to hit you as you open the door are the contrasting pinstriping and stitching around the front two rows of seats. Tasteful? Your decision. We rather liked them. There’s lots of R-Design tomfoolery with logos, alloy pedals and so on, too.
Does it drive like a car designed eight years ago?
Funnily enough, no. Perhaps that’s because there are so many different ways to tackle the drive in a large 4×4, from BMW’s sports car extreme with the X5 to Mitsubishi’s more comfort-oriented, somewhat squidgy approach on the shogun. With this R-Design the XC90 moves from the Japanese end of the spectrum more towards German rigidity. Dampers are stiffer, rolls bars are thicker, speed dependent steering weighted up.
The result is a real surprise. Without destroying the ride, Volvo has imbued its big SUV with some real character. It certainly feels firmly suspended but the damping is spot on, so the drive feels not dissimilar to a previous generation X5. Even that old five-pot turbo diesel has its worst traits pressed into submission, no doubt helped by some heavy layers of sound deadening. It’s not very quick, but it’s a decently well-rounded dynamic package.
And in other respects?
The seven-seat interior will still be a strong selling point on the XC90. Others do it too now, of course, but Volvo’s balance of space, quality and price means there will a still be a place for an XC90 on many shortlists. The R-Design’s sports seats must be as comfortable as they come, there’s space for three grown men in the centre row and a couple of kids in the third.
Equipment levels don’t show the level of desperation to sell that comes with the S80, so satellite navigation is an £1,850 extra rather included. But the R-Design instantly makes the £47k D5 Executive seem obsolete.
But aren’t SUVs like this dead on the water now?
Find a used car dealer willing to take an SUV, especially a large one, in part exchange and you’re mining gold. Fuel costs, the road fund licence and any manner of stupid local initiatives in the name of the “environment” are heavily penalising everything that could be classed as an off-roader. It has happened so damned quickly too, far faster than any manufacturer could hope to adjust to in the short term.
So if a manufacturer must have an SUV, something XC60-sized is preferable to a big ‘un like the XC90. That said, Volvo’s mid-2008 facelift for the 2009 model year has resulted in this D5 Geartronic slipping just under 225g/km of CO2, which will help a bit. But economy is the worry. Forget the 33.2mpg average figure. Ben Whitworth couldn’t average 30mpg in his more compact long-term XC70, and the trip computer told a worse story during our drive in the XC90.
There’s no point beating around the bush here. You don’t just have to be thick-skinned to run a car like this, you need pockets that reach down to your ankles. And someone – you or your company – has to work out what to do with your big SUV when you have had enough of the running costs and want to bale out.
That doesn’t make the XC90 R-Design a bad car. Surprisingly this new package stands up remarkably well in the face of many rivals fighting for an increasingly small number of customers. XC90 sales have nearly halved so far is year, and that’s not just down to the age of this Volvo or a CO2 figure the wrong side the fence. At least Volvo doesn’t need to run another six years with its big SUV. Roll on the XC60.