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Modeldriver Jul 18 2003, 11:11 PM
Volvo XC90 and BMW X5L: The sludge match
Buy one and your life will almost certainly be made easier
Let's get two things straight right away. First, the non-off-roading off-roader may be the most maligned of motoring breeds, but it's also one of the most bought. We're converts; you need to have driven a big four-wheel drive around town to get the appeal of sitting high above traffic, unfazed by kerbs, with seats, space, cupholders and cubbyholes only a people carrier can match, yet without the dowdy image. We're not going to debate whether you should buy one; your life will almost certainly be made easier if you do.
Second, this test won't give much weight to these cars' ability to scale Scafell Pike. Only a tiny minority of those sold in the UK will even venture onto its foothills. Plainly, this hands a clear advantage to the two cars you really want to read about - the XC90 and the BMW X5 - as well as the Mercedes ML. But it will be instructive to see if there's any point buying a capable off-roader for road use; as we'll see, the Volvo, BMW and Mercedes don't get it all their own way.
Buy one of these and practicality and ease are clearly more important to you than lap times; they make most sense with the economy and lazy low-revs urge of a diesel, so that's how we've specified them.
The XC90 immediately looks impressive; for your £28,400 a D5 S gives you seven seats, but for £2000 more the SE tested here electrifies the driver's chair, adds leather seats, an inch to the 17in wheels on the S and a six-disc changer. The X5 3.0d starts from £33,145 or £35,045 for the Sport we've been sent; neither includes an auto 'box, leather seats or a CD changer - all essential and £1220, £1200 and £250 respectively. The X5 is also the only car here which can't be had with seven seats. Advantage Volvo.
The XC90 just beats the X5 on company car tax, insurance and economy, but the BMW has the more impressive outputs. From six cylinders and 2926cc it produces 184bhp and 410Nm of torque at a high 3000rpm: more than anything else here. The XC90 makes a mid-table 163bhp and 340Nm, though the latter arrives at just 1750rpm.
Among the others a few figures stand out. You can have a very basic seven-seat Land Rover Discovery for just £22,995, but it's easy to push it, the new Toyota Land Cruiser and the revised Mitsubishi Shogun over £30,000 if you add autos, leather and the trinkets you'll need to stop them feeling like commercial vehicles, but they'll still be cheaper than the BM or Merc. The Disco lags significantly on power and torque at just 136bhp and 298Nm.
When you fire up the XC90 you get Volvo's trademarked and slightly bovine five-pot engine note, but impressively little clatter; the only refinement issues are a slight vibration and boominess when you approach the rev limiter, though you'll seldom stray so far. A combination of the low torque peak and clever engine management means the D5 is keen off the line and feels alert in traffic, but it can't sustain the impression. The XC90's performance is fine by the standards of the class, but even four-up we were aware our vehicle was slower than average and overtaking required plenty of forethought. The brakes stop the car well but follow slack initial travel with slightly over-servoed bite, and the engine's mooing doesn't quieten as much as it ought to.
Criticisms aside, the drivetrain is excellent but - bizarrely for a Volvo - it's the chassis that really impresses. The XC90 shares its platform with the S60, V70 and S80 but the strut front, multi-link rear suspension is strengthened to cope with the 'all-roading' Volvo intends its car for. On British roads this makes for a slightly firm but impressively quiet ride at low speeds around town or on the motorway. The tyres, the narrowest here, help, but the suspension takes the credit, adept at both control and isolation. Push harder and the firmness translates into excellent body control, which works with the quick if numb steering and the grip of the Haldex permanent four-wheel drive system to make the XC90 a car you can drive quickly with confidence - and in comfort.
The X5's drivetrain is a little more refined. The weighty throttle and higher torque peak mean it lacks the Volvo's sharp first response but, once awake, it mashes the Swede.
You'd expect the BMW's chassis to beat the Volvo's, too. But the fact that it doesn't is the shock of this test. The X5's chassis is extraordinarily good for a car of this type if you want to drive quickly, but the Volvo's set-up is a better reflection of what the people who buy these things want. In town and on the motorway our 19-inched X5 rode much harder and a little louder than the Volvo. As with the Volvo, its firmness translates into effective body control as the suspension works harder, but while the Volvo has its limits the X5 seems only to improve the more you ask of it, until finally you're travelling faster than you'd have thought safe for a tall, heavy off-roader in something that appears to have morphed into a really nicely damped sports estate. The steering is a major factor; heavy, direct, communicative and most un-off-roader-like.
But as impressive as this is, it only turns the X5 into the 5-series estate you should have bought if you like driving fast. The Volvo's less dramatic talents are concentrated where soft-roader buyers need them most; pure ride comfort and the comfort and security that come from good body control.
It might sound dismissive to ask how 'the others' fare, but that's the way this test very quickly pans out. The ML270CDi is the only other car clearly optimised for road use, with a monocoque chassis and all-independent suspension. Its superb engine splits the BMW and Volvo for refinement but its dynamics flounder with over-assisted, disconnected steering and a choppy low-speed ride which falls apart completely at speed. The remaining three are in a GM Conference league of their own for engine refinement - the Shogun sounds like a Transit - but the two Japanese cars can each teach the Merc a lesson. The Land Cruiser has a remarkably supple, quiet ride for a car with a live rear axle, and a short, positive gearchange; few will specify their Mercedes with the manual 'box, and with good reason. The Mitsubishi offers impressive body control for a specialist off-roader, but the Discovery is perhaps best left alone; goat-like off-road, it requires patience and tolerance on it.
Inside, the Discovery feels like something from another age, with its flat bonnet, upright screen, square-framed doors and an absurdly tight cabin for a car of this length, but a massive boot. The plastics are coarse but look tough; it feels like the working vehicle it often is. The Shogun's interior can't begin to justify its £27,000 price; the seats are thin and flat and the materials are matched by Korean hatches. The Land Cruiser is hugely improved; the cabin architecture is old-school off-roader with a flat, upright dash, but it frees space for big cubbies and cupholders and the instruments, materials and fit and finish owe a lot to Lexus. It certainly beats the Mercedes; you might recognise some of the switchgear from Merc saloons but the plastics used for the dash look unbelievably cheap, with gaping panel fit and a glovebox lid that just falls over when opened.
The Toyota is infinitely better than the Merc but the Volvo and the BMW are in a class of their own. The X5 seems to want to counter concerns about its American origins by using materials yet more unctuous and tactile than its German-built brethren's. It succeeds; it might be more expensive than the Volvo but it feels it. The cabin styling is bolder than a 5-series' but it's as enveloping as a saloon's; there isn't much extra space or functionality.
The Volvo is still exceptionally well-made, of course, and as premium and durable as you'd want. It has everything you'd expect of a Volvo - logical, beautifully lit instruments, a massive range of driving position adjustment and exceptional seat comfort, particularly in the back, where it bests the BMW. But it also does stuff no other off-roader has even thought of, like the astonishingly intelligent rear-most seats (see panel) which leave a much bigger boot than the X5, the centre console which lifts out to allow the central, integrated booster seat to be slid to within reach of the front seats, and the stereo, which allows the four main rear occupants to listen to different sources.
The X5's final, killer argument was its incredible desirability. But there are long queues outside Volvo dealers for the XC90 and our experts reckon demand will keep its resale value at least as high as the BMW's. Image is important for these cars; it's the reason you're not buying a people carrier. We wouldn't have predicted that a Volvo could match a BMW for cool, but it has; the people have spoken.
Which seals the Volvo's victory. The X5 is a benchmark car; the class still doesn't have anything to match its quality or dynamics. But Volvo has been more innovative and better understood what buyers really want. It has produced a better-value package and done it without being remotely worthy - quite the opposite. Still irritated by urban off-roaders? Prepare to be annoyed by a lot of Volvo XC90s.
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