To watch the 60-foot race boats filing into Baltimore’s magnificent inner harbor at the end of the sixth leg of the Volvo Offshore Race is to be in the presence of the sailing world’s princes of the sea. This quadrennial ’round-the-world sailboat race consumes nine months, 33,000 nautical miles and millions of dollars. The boats themselves are the Formula One racers of the ocean, and their skippers, navigators and crews are the superstars of the extreme sports set. (If you want proof, just log onto www.VolvoOceanRace.org.)
It came, therefore, as a bit of an anticlimax to watch the Volvo ocean racers sputter into port some 12 hours behind schedule after finding themselves becalmed earlier off Cape Hatteras during the 875-mile run from Miami to Baltimore. After all, these are exotic, racing thoroughbreds capable of sustaining 18 to 20 knots in the open sea; but when the winds go flat, even the most sophisticated of sailboats is at Aeolus’ mercy.
Harnessing the windany windis the essence of sailing; and it’s the shrewd skipper who turns the wind to his or her advantage while others just go with the blow. You could say that the same applies to the winds of popular opinion. It is perhaps a bit more than coincidence, then, that Volvo chose the occasion of the Miami-Baltimore leg of the VOR to tease a group of auto writers with a preview of the company’s latest project, the 2003 Volvo XC90 sport/utility vehicle.
With the XC90, Volvo jumps headfirst into the SUV pool. Scheduled for dealerships at the end of the year, Volvo’s newest offering exists only in pre-production form for the moment. Although a driving evaluation will have to follow, the XC90 is too significant to pass up this opportunity to introduce it to enthusiasts. Clearly, the company is no longer content to pass off its XC70 “crossover” station wagon as its sole response to such competitors as the BMW X5, Lexus RX300, Mercedes-Benz M-Class and Acura MDX. By all means, however, the XC70 remains in the lineup. According to one Volvo official, this station wagon-on-steroids will remain the company’s genuine off-road champ, allowing the XC90 to pamper a more luxury-oriented class of customer.
It’s clear that XC90 represents an important departure for Volvo. Using a minivan-pod design that shares an uncanny resemblance with its BMW rival, Volvo’s goal is to provide room for seven forward-facing seats in front of cargo space. The XC90 accomplishes this with a 2-3-2 seating arrangement that leaves an estimated 18 cubic feet of storage between the third row and a two-piece rear hatch-with-tailgate.
What Volvo manages to do differently is to provide every seat in the vehicle with independent variability that accommodates a wide variety of comfort adjustments and cargo options. At rear, for example, either one of the jump seats can be folded flat by slotting the ingeniously hinged seat-bottom into the floor and folding the seat back flush. In the second row, the seats split 40/20/40; and the center seat not only incorporates an integral jump seat and foot rest for toddlers but also a sliding feature that brings the toddler up almost into the center-space between the seatbacks of the driver and front passenger. A child can thereby occupy the safest space in the cabin without being inconveniently isolated from adults up front.
The second row also folds flat, as does the front passenger seat, thereby providing a maximum flat span of over 9.5 feet from front to rear. What’s more, all front and second-row seats slide fore and aft, and no seat requires removal of its head rest before folding. All told, Volvo estimates about 85 cubic feet of maximum cargo space in the XC90.
Powertrains in the vehicle will be limited to two distinctive choices: a new 2.5-liter inline-5 with light-pressure turbocharging and a five-speed automatic transmission as well as the tried and true T6 setup with 2.9-liter twin-turbo inline-6 and a four-speed auto. Both motors are tweaked for torque. The 2.5L makes 236 ft.-lbs., and the 2.9L produces a class-leading 280 ft.-lbs.
In either case, power is distributed to all four wheels via an electro-mechanical Haldex unit similar to that introduced with the S60 AWD sedan. In the XC90, however, Haldex has a new role to play insofar as Volvo’s SUV is the industry’s first to incorporate computerized Roll Stability Control to predict and correct incipient rollover conditions.
According to XC90 project manager Frank Vacca, gyroscopes, selective braking and engine management computers all coordinate to defend against the one perceived risk which plagues SUVs most of all. The XC90 also combines a low center of gravity with high-strength Boron steel roof and pillars, and it features inflatable head-curtain airbags that extend to all three rows of seats. Clearly, Volvo is determined to project its powerful safety reputation into the vehicle class that public opinion says needs it most.
Volvo’s vaunted safety emphasis, however, brings up the one issue concerning the XC90 that causes a bit of head-scratching. Arriving this late in the SUV game, is Volvo trying to play catch-up as best it can, or does the company think it can reinvent the SUV based on its competitors’ prior experiences? Is Volvo, in other words, caught up in an SUV wind that is out of its control, or can it harness this wind shrewdly to outstrip its rivals? It’s a following wind, the sailors say, that blows from the opposite direction to the way you’re steering. But that doesn’t guarantee it’s always the direction you ought to go.
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