The One Where We Road-Test a Volvo XC90

Back in the dark mists of time – summer 2005 – I started looking for a new car.

I’d been driving my little Citroen C3 for a couple of years but I was due to have a baby and that meant I needed a car that could manage a Labrador, husband, pushchair and baby plus assorted shopping – and my C3 was very definitely not THAT car. One of the vehicles we looked at was the Volvo XC90 – I loved the space, and knew it would be really comfortable for the regular journeys I made from Sussex to see family in Lancashire.

As it happened, we opted for something more affordable – with hindsight, the right decision as I ended up moving to Lancashire two years later, and soon afterwards wrote off the car. If there’s one thing that makes you feel better about writing off a £25,000 car, it’s not having written off a £35,000 car. Okay, it doesn’t make you feel a LOT better, but still – it was a silver lining, of sorts.

Anyway, fast forward a few years, and I found myself between cars – so the lovely people at Volvo gave me the opportunity to road test my dream car, the Volvo XC90, for a couple of weeks.

Volvo collage

So what did we make of it?

The first thing you notice about the XC90 is its size. This is a TANK of a car. It seats 5 adults comfortably in the front and back seats, with an optional third row of seats that will seat two smaller people. If you don’t need the third row of seats, they fold flat, meaning you have a boot that I can happily inform you will hold six small children, assorted teddies, welly boots and a week’s shopping (not while the car is moving, that would be unsafe).

For the driver, the seating is really spacious, and the leather interior is under-stated and very comfortable – as you’d expect from a Volvo, really. I did slightly miss having an arm rest in a car of this size, but that’s a small niggle. The rear seats are comfortable enough that Flea fell asleep on our journey down to London last week – which she NEVER does in our regular car.

The Volvo Xc90 has some lovely gadgets that were fun to use – the in-built navigation is great, seamlessly steering us off the motorway to avoid traffic jams, and the simple steering-wheel controls for the navigation are ideal when you’re the only adult in the car, as I generally am. You can connect a mobile phone in the car using Bluetooth, and the sound system is really impressive.

I remember reading that Volvo involved women in the design of the XC90 and it certainly shows – with a drop down tailgate and a strap to help the shorter ones amongst us pull down the boot, for example. The middle rear seat has an integrated booster cushion, and you can pull it forward so that a child in the back is closer to the front seat passengers. That sort of feature comes in really handy when you need to pass back water and things to a child in the rear seat (when Flea was younger, I lost count of the number of tearful journeys caused by my having to say, “I’m really sorry darling, I can’t reach to give it to you.”)

There’s bags of storage in this car, in the front and back of the vehicle, and a handy rear seat power socket, too, so I could let Flea plug in the iPad and play on long journeys. And leather interior feels luxurious but is also mercifully easy to wipe down – which was much appreciated when Flea spilled a bottle of milk all over the back seats – phew!


And what’s it like to drive?

After writing off my 4×4, I downsized to a mid-sized car, so my first thought on driving the XC90 was what fun it was to drive a BIG vehicle again. The XC90 has a great driving position and I loved the extra visibility, especially on the motorway. Indeed, for long drives, I thought the XC90 was perfect – it has one of the most intuitive cruise controls I’ve ever used, which makes life a lot easier on those long stretches of roadworks on the motorway where you need to stick to 50mph for mile after boring mile.

Put your foot down and the engine roars pleasingly, and the car certainly responds when you need to over-take someone, for example. Overall, on the motorway, I thought the XC90 felt powerful, safe, and comfortable – pretty much everything you could want, in fact.

But in the urban environment, I was a bit less sure. The automatic gearbox is hassle-free but felt slow to respond from a standing start – I was quite nervous at T-junctions and roundabouts because compared to other automatics I’ve driven (such as the diesel automatic CR-V or VW Touran) the XC90 was much slower to move, meaning you couldn’t “nip into” a gap in the traffic.  The engine’s quite noisy in that situation too, which meant my left hand would be twitching nervously, itching to shift a gearstick!

Parking was loads easier than I thought it might be – despite my Dad laughing at the very thought of me trying to park such a big (not to mention expensive) car without pranging it, I managed to parallel park on our town’s main street without any hassles at all. Yes, the parking sensors are a big help, but actually the steering on the XC90 is really good, so parking is very straightforward.

Of course, it’s a Volvo, so there are bags of safety features including front, side and curtain airbags, roll stability control and a strengthened roof that helps protect the occupants in the event of the car rolling over in an accident. It’s certainly a nice feeling to strap your child into something that feels so substantial.


Back when we first looked at the XC90 we were put off by the high purchase price, but prices have come down a lot in recent years. There’s now just one engine available (an automatic diesel) which you can pick up for around £28,000, and the newspaper reviews I’ve read all seem to be speculating that there are even better deals to be had if you negotiate hard, since a new XC90 model is expected in the next year or so.

For such a big car, the running costs of the XC90 were way less than I expected. After around 10 days of driving, the onboard computer told me that the XC90 was delivering an average of 29.5mpg.


Additional Top Tips

One of the benefits car companies should consider when loaning us a car to review is that if there is something in your car that is a) easy to break or b) potentially confusing, we’ll find it.

And so it was that I found myself Googling “What do I do if the XC90 sat-nav doesn’t work because it says the DVD cover is open?” (Answer: the sat-nav unit is under the seat, you can very easily knock it with the back of your foot; just reach under with your hand, and slide the front bit down again).

I also may have turned to the Internet to find out how to move the driver seat forward when I accidentally moved it so far back I was no longer able to reach the brake – turns out, this is electronic and controlled by a lever on the right side of the seat (pretty cool) and that once you’ve electronically adjusted the seat height, position and incline to your liking, you can save this in the car’s memory as a preference – you can save up to three different driver preferences and the XC90 will recognise which driver is in the car based on which key they’re using (even cooler).

It’s also really hard to get a good look under the seats – but just because you don’t SEE your phone under there, doesn’t mean this isn’t where you lost it – three days after my mobile went MIA, I turned a corner and my phone suddenly slid out into the rear seating area!

Overall Verdict

There are a few small niggles with the XC90 – for me, it felt heavy and slow to respond in lower gears, which you’ll notice most when you’re driving in town.

But there’s definitely a lot to love – bags of room, loads of comfort and a really practical, not too complicated layout. It’s an absolute dream for motorway driving, and I’m going to cry next time I drive on a motorway in something other than this car. Given it’s a Volvo, it feels very safe, which is crucial when you have kids. And there’s loads of boot space – perfect for trips to Ikea, or the recycling centre.

Fundamentally, the XC90 isn’t designed for single Mums with one child – every time I’m tempted by a big car, I imagine myself setting fire to £1,000 in my front garden, and suddenly feel a bit less appealed by the whole idea. But if I had three kids and a dog and bikes and I did a lot of open-road driving, I’d definitely consider the XC90. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be looking at the XC90’s little brother, the XC60, as an option for our next car.

We were provided with the use of a Volvo XC90 for the purposes of this review. We had to give it back, mind. 


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