Volvo’s original landmark SUV
Volvo’s synonymousness with wagons made the XC90 an entirely natural vehicle for the company to build, and certainly one desired by both its customers and dealers.
Yet Volvo Cars took the opportunity to introduce innovative solutions to the drawbacks associated with SUVs of the time.
One of those drawbacks was a concern about the increased chance of SUVs rolling onto their roofs owing to an inherent higher centre of gravity created by its tall body.
So, firstly, the XC90 was engineered with a centre of gravity lower than that of conventional SUVs. While the front seats were positioned 6.5 inches higher than those in the company’s XC70 wagon – achieving the commanding driving position appreciated by SUV buyers – the centre of gravity was only 3.5 inches higher than the XC70’s.
And it was equipped with technology to help avoid a rollover – or optimise protection in the event an accident couldn’t be prevented.
The XC90’s Roll Stability Control system used a gyro sensor to monitor the vehicle’s yaw rate and roll angle to determine risk of a rollover. If the XC90’s computer detected an imminent roll, the electronic stability control system was engaged to reduce engine power and braking applied to one or more wheels to help the driver regain control.
Epitomising Volvo’s holistic approach to safety – focusing on the interplay of multiple features rather than any one single feature – the XC90 was designed to help protect occupants if Roll Stability Control couldn’t prevent a tip-over.
Three approaches combined to achieve the goal of reducing the chance of an occupant’s head coming into contact with the cabin ceiling or sides of the car: key parts of the roof structure were reinforced with extremely tough boron steel, which is up to five times stronger than normal steel; all seats were equipped with seatbelt pretensioners to hold occupants firmly in place; and a curtain airbag would inflate along the interior’s length, covering all three rows.
Other safety measures included Volvo’s award-winning Whiplash Protection System (WHIPS), which could help reduce spine or neck trauma by activating in the event of a rear-end collision, and Side Impact Protection System (SIPS).
A study conducted by Thatcham Research, a UK safety body established in 1969 by motoring insurance companies, revealed in 2018 that the Volvo XC90 had proven to be the country’s safest vehicle.
Above: The interior of the original Volvo XC90.
Thatcham examined official Government accident figures dating back to 2004 and despite more than 50,000 XC90s having been sold in the UK was unable to find a record of any fatalities related to occupants travelling in the SUV. (The timespan covers both the first- and second-generation models.)
The Volvo XC90 also considered other road users, however.
The higher ground clearances of SUVs typically means higher bumpers – and therefore an increased risk of significant damage to conventional, lower-riding cars, elevating the chance of serious injury to the occupants.
Volvo’s solution was to supplement the XC90’s front suspension subframe with a lower cross-member that was integrated into the vehicle structure yet concealed neatly behind the spoiler.
With this lower beam more closely aligned with the corresponding beam of a conventional car, it ensured the oncoming car’s protective structure was hit – activating that car’s crumple zone as intended to provide the occupants with the maximum level of protection.
As a luxury family SUV, the Volvo XC90 naturally applied plenty of thought to younger passengers.
ISOFIX anchorage points were available for securing child seats with confidence, and the XC90 featured an innovative pop-up booster cushion integrated into the outer middle-row seats. The booster seats could also be slid forward, allowing a child to be within closer reach of parents in the front seats.
The Volvo XC90 also offered unrivalled versatility. Not only was it the only European premium SUV to offer the option of seven seats at the time but there was good space in all three rows.
The two third-row seats could be stowed conveniently in the boot floor when not required, and the second-row seats could slide so users could balance the priority between cargo room and leg room.
It was perhaps inevitable the Volvo XC90 won countless awards, including the 2003 North American Truck (SUV) of the Year.
The original XC90 now takes pride of place in the Volvo Museum in Gothenburg – appropriate for a vehicle with such a significant place in automotive history.