Volvo XC90 3.2 review: Can the Swedes do it with a 3.2-liter six?

2007 Volvo XC90 3.2

2007 Volvo XC90 3.2

We submit for your consideration the age old question: Can a 3.2-liter naturally aspirated in-line six-cylinder engine live happily ever after in a sport-ute weighing some 4400 pounds? We’ve stayed up late at night pondering that one.

Well, lucky for us, we need ponder no more, and neither need you. Cabuzzard.com had a 2007 Volvo XC90 3.2 in our test schedule and, goodness, it’s an SUV that weighs more than 4400 pounds. How convenient!

But first, let’s talk money. Finding happiness is relative, and if happiness can be found for $10,000 less, well, that’s all the merrier. And indeed, the difference in price between the six-cylinder Volvo XC90 3.2 and the V-8-powered Volvo XC90 4.4 is almost exactly ten grand, at least for base versus base models. Qu’une surprise.

But the XC90 with the V-8 but no options lists for $46,426, and our nominally $36,135 six-cylinder XC90 was optioned up to $45,200, including such things as all-wheel drive and several option packages, including some items of which are standard on 4.4…including all-wheel drive, sunroof and third-row seating with air conditioning with separate controls.  It’s a conspiracy, actually, by sneaky Swedes who are just trying to confuse us. But trust carbuzzard.com: The V-8 costs more than the six.

With either engine, however, the Volvo XC90 is based on Volvo’s P2 large car platform and indeed is a brawny station wagon on stilts. Unlike some brands whose trucks are very different from their cars, Volvo applied its corporate design theme of well-defined shoulders, chair-shaped taillights and the classic upright Volvo grille to its SUV.

Inside it’s recognizably a Volvo as well, though not so distinctively as the exterior. Of course the audio system weird—Swedes apparently have some innate drive to reinvent radio controls—and in our test XC90 that meant the large knob on the right doesn’t tune stations, it selects bands. To choose stations, push buttons. Sorry, Volvo, that’s backwards. That aside, the interior has an obvious look of quality and the touch surfaces are excellent. The door pulls have soft rubber touch; the leather-covered steering wheel is soft without being squishy.

2007 Volvo XC90 3.2 profile

The 2007 Volvo XC90 3.2 has the profile of a station wagon. (click to enlarge)

Volvo is famous for its orthopedically designed seats and the XC90 doesn’t disappoint. The front seats have 4-way power, but lumbar support adjustment requires an awkward reach to a knurled knob on the side of the seatback. The second row seat slides fore and aft, no doubt designed to inspire hours of family fun discussing who needs more leg room where. The third row, however, is really just for kids. Clamber is something most adults don’t do very well and clamber one must clamber to get into row number three. It’s not all that big in back anyway.

But give Volvo credit for a clever way to hide the third row seat: The seat bottom slides back under the rear cargo deck and the seatback folds down to where the seat bottom had been. With second and third row folded, the XC90’s cargo area has a flat floor and 85 cubic feet of cargo capacity. That’s spot on with the Ford Explorer and less than the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe at 108 cu ft. With all seats raised, however, the XC90’s cargo capacity is limited.

Volvo gave the XC90 a clamshell rear gate instead of an ordinary liftgate. It’s hinged at the top like the common liftgate, but about of foot of the tailgate is hinged at the bottom to make a mini-tailgate. We suppose that it makes the liftgate itself smaller, and the tailgate portion makes a better seat than if the XC90 had a conventional liftgate. Otherwise we’re not sure. We couldn’t determine any particular advantage for a system that must be more expensive to make.

The extra ride height of the Volvo XC90 means extra liftover for the model compared to an ordinary wagon, but while the XC90 has a center of gravity 3.5 inches higher than the ordinary Volvo wagon, the driver sits a full 6.5 inches higher. That’s great for the look-over-the-traffic-ahead-unless-it’s-an-SUV-too seating position SUV buyers live for, but it also has an effect on handling. While the XC90 has firm, though not harsh, suspension, it rewards with relatively flat cornering.

The driver never forgets that this is a tall vehicle, however. The driving height magnifies whatever chassis there is and the vehicle mass can be felt though the steering wheel. Start pushing the XC90 too hard on gollywiggling roads and the XC90 doesn’t so much understeer as exhibit Newtonian laws of physics, particularly that “objects in motion” bit. One needs to apply a lot of outside force to persuade it around a curve.

Too much force on a tall vehicle, however, can make an SUV do what SUVs are famous for, and the Volvo XC90 has a solution for that: Roll Stability Control. RSC is what Volvo calls “an active stability enhancement system.” It utilizes gyroscopic sensors to determine roll speed and angle, and if the appropriate on-board computer decides a rollover is imminent, it telephones the XC90’s standard-equipment Dynamic Stability Traction Control and tells it to reduce power and/or applies brakes to selected wheels in order to induce understeer to keep the vehicle from turning over.

The bad news, of course, is that no amount of techno-trickery can overcome the ultimate reality of physics. Pushed to the extreme, understeer forces the vehicle plow a wider arc, and if something is in the way, that something will get hit.  The good news is that without RSC, the vehicle likely would have run into it anyway, but would have done so on its side. It’s that pesky Newton guy again. We’ve tested the XC90’s RSC on wet asphalt and can confirm that it works as advertised.

But the engine is where we came in. The inline six, set transversely under the hood (a remarkable feat in itself), is smooth, like a good in-line six should be (which is why BMW stays with the configuration). Idle is quiet but more important, the XC90 3.2 accelerates well, even if not particularly astounding. Remember, we’re saving ten grand. Need a V-8? Not really, not unless you plan to tow. Both V-8 and six have a maximum towing capacity of 4960 lbs, but we suspect that a trailer-towing XC90 will be happier, as will its driver, with a V-8. Ditto climbing hills with a full load.

We noticed that even without a load, driving in hilly areas kept the transmission busy downshifting. Although its programming kept it from hunting, and although top gear is a very “high-range” gas mileage ratio, any upgrade bumped the six speed automatic down into fifth. That said, the shifting was smooth and usually could be detected only by watching the rpm change on the tachometer.

With all-wheel drive, the EPA estimated fuel mileage is 16/22 mpg city/highway. We had to work hard to obtain a sub-19 mpg reading in mixed driving. More commonly the XC90 returned just under 20 mpg. For reference, the XC90 4.4 is EPA rated at 16/21 mpg, though we don’t have real world mileage for the V-8. With a 2003 Volvo XC90 T6, powered by a twin-turbocharged inline-six (the V-8’s predecessor), we recorded 19 mpg. That was good then and it’s still good now for such a large vehicle.