By Justin Pritchard
Vehicle Type: SUV
Volvo’s XC90 began its life over a decade ago as the brand’s first SUV, and after years of facelifts and tweaks to the same basic platform, an all-new model has come out.
I fondly remember this generation XC90 as one of the best driving machines I’ve ever got behind the wheel of, thanks to a heavy and locked-on steering feel, a great on-demand AWD system, a great forward view, and an overall sense that the chassis and steering and suspension were carefully calibrated against one another for a confident and stable feel on slippery surfaces.
Feature content included automatic lights, climate control and wipers, an up-level stereo system, push-button start, heated leather, a power tailgate and plenty more. Look for units with two or three seating rows, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive xenon lights, and more.
Engines / Trim
Look to XC90 nomenclature for a clue what’s under the hood. Standard 3.2 and R models were available, packing a 3.2L, 235 hp straight-six engine and all-wheel drive. The R variant used the same engine, but added some additional cosmetic tweaks and sportier wheels. Available was a gorgeous, Yamaha-built 4.4L V8 with 311 horsepower. There was a V8 R available, too.
Earlier models got turbocharged five and six cylinder engines, referenced by a T5 or T6 badge, respectively. Output landed around 210 and 270 horsepower from these units, respectively. From 2008, all XC90 units ran the naturally aspirated engines.
What Owners Like
Common owner praise points include a great up-level stereo system, a feeling of tremendous safety and security, good build quality, a high-utility design, and good handling in any weather. Exclusivity and a quiet ride are also noted as draws to the XC90, and owners of V8-powered units love the engine sound and power output. Further, most owners say the XC90 handles like a luxury sedan, not an SUV.
What Owners Dislike
As it tends to go with SUV’s, owner complaints tend to centre around fuel mileage, though other gripes include large blind spots, overly-plastic cabin in some models, and less-than-exciting performance on models with the smaller engines.
The Test Drive
The most discussed and well-documented issue you might encounter on a used XC90 deals with transmission failure, which is a pain in the backside. There are hundreds of pages of reading on the topic, several class-action lawsuits and the like, around the issue of XC90 transmissions that might fail. Here’s some reading on the issue. Said issue only affects T6 models, that is, earlier units, with the GM-sourced automatic transmission. In many cases, the transmission has failed early and was replaced under warranty. Though it’s unclear the root of the problem, the owner’s community suggests it may stem from Volvo’s modifying of the internals of the transmission from the GM design, or a leak that may allow engine coolant and transmission coolant to mix, which is bad news.
The solution is to avoid a T6 model where possible, and be absolutely sure to feel the transmission for any signs of slipping, either off the line or while accelerating and shifting gears. As this symptom may be more prevalent when the XC90 is cold, be sure it hasn’t been pre-warmed ahead of your test-drive by the seller. Note that the newer, non-turbo models won’t suffer from the same issues, as they use different transmissions.
Next, be sure to try and cycle the key between ON, RUN and START, several times, confirming that the key moves from position to position with ease. Any hesitation or failure to start or move the key could be a precursor to ignition switch failure.
Note that some XC90 models use a timing belt to set the mechanical heartbeat of their engine. When a neglected timing belt snaps, the camshaft(s) and valves stop moving, but the pistons don’t. This means that the pistons can contact open valves, breaking them off inside the engine. Within a fraction of a second, this typically results in catastrophic engine failure. This can happen while you’re driving under load, while you’re idling, or anywhere in between. A timing belt is a part that requires pre-emptive replacement before it fails, so be sure to ask the seller to prove where the timing belt sits within its service life, and budget for a timing belt change (which typically includes a new water pump job), if it’s approaching the end of its service life.
Look at the XC90’s instrument cluster for a Check Engine light, or any warning messages in the digital readout. Either of these including messages containing words like “malfunction”, “failure” or “visit dealer immediately” need to be addressed ahead of your purchase. A full system scan by a Volvo technician ahead of your purchase is strongly advised to reveal any potential problems with other systems.
Which engine? Many owners recommend sticking to the 3.2L or 4.4L naturally-aspirated power-plants. Notably, the straight-six is easy to work on for do-it-yourself types who like to do their own work (spark-plugs, oil changes, etc), and offers a decent blend of power, mileage and refinement.
Though largely inconclusive, owners have reported issues with non-functional high-beams, non-functional rear wipers, a possible water leak caused by the AC system that can result in soggy passenger footwell carpeting, and a faulty clock-spring and angle-sensor assembly in the steering wheel, which can fail and take out the stability control system with it.
Here’s a little reading on oil consumption. Though this issue isn’t reported with alarming severity with the XC90, shoppers are advised to check the level and condition of the engine oil, and look for signs of a leaky cam cover, which may affect some engines. Other drivers report more serious engine work, including piston replacement, to remedy the problem.
If you’re set on buying an older, turbocharged XC90 model, have someone watch for smoke from the exhaust at start-up, at full throttle while driving, and for a few moments after a hard drive. Smoke could indicate a problem with the turbocharger, though with sensible driving and regular oil changes, this component should last the life of the vehicle. Confirm that the turbocharged XC90 you’re considering was treated to high-quality, regular oil changes, for maximum confidence.
Note that in addition to standard engine and transmission fluids, the Volvo AWD system has occasional fluid change requirements, too. A dealer-maintained model is your best bet where long-term reliability is concerned. If the service history of the XC90 you’re considering is unclear, be sure to budget for a full fluid change and tune-up. Finally, if you take the unit you’re considering for a pre-purchase check-up, have the mechanic inspect the transmission/transaxle assembly and rear differential for signs of fluid leakage, which could be caused by leaky axle seals.
For maximum peace of mind and access to a unique SUV loved for its feeling of safety and confidence, a newer XC90 with the 3.2L engine and a full record of all servicing by a Volvo mechanic should satisfy. Avoid the earlier T6 model where possible in light of potential transmission issues, and invest in a full check-up at a Volvo dealer ahead of your purchase, just to be safe.