Sporty and Safe

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2005

No perfect vehicle combines performance, handling, comfort, safety, convenience, fuel efficiency, utility, reliability, insurance affordability and resale value. The ultimate in any of these is accomplished at the compromise of others: Sports cars aren't the safest vehicles; trucks aren't the most fuel efficient; and that luxury car is really a mishmash of all considerations, where corners are cut to tilt the final equation toward comfort and convenience.

In today's world, families have to prioritize desires when they seek a new vehicle. And when that prioritizing is done, safety often rises to the top.

It's a statistical fact that each American will be involved in an automobile accident once every 10 years. The extent of injury-even of survival-might depend on the vehicle. By any measure, not all vehicles are created equal.

Volvo got on the safety bandwagon early and has never gotten off. The company has a well-earned reputation for building safe vehicles, for being quick to adopt every new safety feature, for selling station wagons to families as one-third of its total vehicle sales. Volvo sells safety first.

Like the excellent Subaru company, Volvo was a bit tardy to introduce a sport utility model. When America decided it preferred the boxy SUV to minivans or station wagons, it was Ford that captured the market with its Explorer. But Ford owns Volvo, so you knew a Volvo sport utility would appear and be excellent.

Now we have the 2006 Volvo XC90, a sport utility that is as safe as it gets and can meet the needs of most families. It does that while providing outstanding luxury and convenience.

Now let's examine where corners were cut.

How about performance? The XC90 is powered by a 311-horsepower, 4.4-liter V8 that even qualifies as an ultra-low emission vehicle. Volvo further cares for the environment by coating every radiator with PremAir, a substance that removes ozone from the air.

The horsepower, which matches figures first obtained by muscle cars, moves through a six-speed automatic transmission to full-time all-wheel drive. That means the XC90 will perform as well on wet streets as it does on dry. It easily moves through sand, as well. The suspension is soft enough to be comfortable, yet firm enough to invoke confidence during spirited driving. The speed-sensitive power steering needs further tweaking, however, since the XC90 moves around too much at interstate speed. The slightest movement of the steering wheel off center sends the Volvo in a new direction.

And the fuel efficiency for this big vehicle is 15 city and 21 highway. Expect the real-world figure to be closer to the city figure.

Our tester had a number of options that took the $45,840 base price to a final sticker of $52,095. Among the valuable options were a parking assist feature, a premium sound system and a rear-seat entertainment package that alone was $1,995. That system plays DVDs through two television screens mounted in the front-seat headrests.

Important to many families is a third-row seat, and the XC90 has one. Fold it down and the cargo bay is so cavernous that a week's worth of groceries can be retrieved only by crawling into the large area. The second-row seats can also be dropped to add still more cargo space. Finally, the front passenger seat can be folded down.

The XC90 addresses luxury with its leather seats throughout, a power moonroof, dual-zone climate controls with seat vents, and power everything.

But it's safety concerns that raise Volvo near the top of any family's list of vehicles to consider. The entire vehicle is built as unibody construction around a safety cage, much like those found in NASCAR racecars. The roof braces are made of boron steel, the hardest metal to be found. This roof will not collapse in a rollover accident-that's Volvo's implied promise. And to prevent rollover in the first place, the XC90 has a computerized rollover projection system.

Air bags? The XC90 has all the expected ones front and side, then adds full-length head curtains as standard equipment. Even the third-row passengers receive protection. And there are seven, count 'em, seven three-point belt restraints in each XC90. There are also seven padded head restraints.

Volvo's unique seat- and head-restraint system is called WHIPS. The units combine to prevent whiplash injuries to driver and passenger by turning the seats into a kind of baseball mitt to cradle the spine if the vehicle is hit from behind.

With a Volvo, it's not necessary to ask if measures like anti-lock brakes, roll-stability control, distributed brake assistance and the like are part of the package. They are. And all-wheel drive contributes safety value, as well.

It's also worth noting that last year's Volvo XC90 had the highest resale value of any sport utility.

In an older movie, a character creates a Volvo slogan on the order of: "It's boxy but it's safe." It's a joke. Volvo cars were ugly but safe.

Well, Volvo brought aboard some designers, and its vehicles are no longer boxy. But they remain safe, true to their reputation. In fact, the real Volvo slogan is subtle but to the point:

Volvo.for life.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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