Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review – Super-Practical, But Needs Updating

WSuper-practical, high quality level, safe, decent ride and drive,

Interior badly needs an update

Volvo XC90?

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar 7 seat SUV

Released in 2002, the Volvo XC90 was an instant hit. An SUV with individual looks, it was perfect for big families in that it offered a roomy, 7-seater cabin which was utterly practical, while also incorporating the usual high level of safety that Volvo are known for. Since then, the Volvo has had only minor updates, the main one being in 2007 for the interior and exterior, and one in 2012 incorporating LED rear tail lights.

However, the XC90 is still on its first-generation model and is in obvious need of an update, with the possibility of one coming in 2015. So, is it still worth parting with your cash before the new second-gen version arrives? We were sent the Volvo XC90 D5 R-Design AWD for test and review to find out…

Exterior. Butt ugly or beauty?

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar 7 seat SUV

I like the XC90 design. Always have. While it’s individual, it also has class – from the physical looks to its powerful, but elegant, stance. It’s a purposeful-looking SUV, and its sheer looming size adds to that weightiness. Depending on the spec too, it can actually look pretty sporty. Our ice-white coloured R-Design came with decent 19″ alloys and distinctively mean lookin’ square quad exhausts. Or, you can go the other way and make it look as smart and chic as they come by selecting the Executive spec version.

Whichever one you choose though, it always looks good and the XC90 fits in seamlessly no matter where you take it. Pulling up outside a swanky hotel or manor house? No problem. Forging your way up a snowy alpine road, or down a boggy farm track. Same again.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review 7 seat suv

The XC90 doesn’t give away how much wealth you do or don’t have either. I’ve seen these Volvo’s parked in the drives of huge mansions next to something like a Bentley Mulsanne or Porsche Panamera, and I’ve also seen them in front of a modest bungalow or cottage. I don’t think there’s a class distinction with the XC90, and that’s an appealing thing. I love the Range Rover but if you’re seen driving a fairly new one, people automatically make assumptions about you being a bit of a rich and possibly quite arrogant, usually while giving you a dirty look. This Volvo doesn’t attract conjecture, and you can waft about happily minus the contemptuous countenances.

Since the facelift and the new rear LED lights, plus some very smart colour and wheel choices to option, the XC90 is more bling than older versions but it looks better for the details that’ve been added, such as the small LED running lights and the satin silver undercarriage protector at the front. Other than that, it’s very similar to the original, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Interior. Neat or nothing special?

Volvo XC90 D5 R-Design Polestar interior driver seat and controls

From the start, the interior didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as I expected. On opening the driver’s door, you notice there are a lot of bland grey plastics, and comparing it to slightly older versions it doesn’t appear to have been updated much since 2004. Compared with newer Volvo’s like the V40 and V60, the XC90’s cabin is nowhere near as stylish or nicely-designed.

It is clearly outdated by today’s Volvo standards too. For instance, the little display in the centre console appears to have graphics taken directly from the Commodore 64, and there are way too many buttons and controls. I still don’t like this kind of Volvo layout, because cars becoming more minimal and simplistic – allowing you in turn to concentrate on the road ahead better – and taking into account Volvo’s track record for producing cars that are safety-first, I just don’t understand why they make these aircraft-control-like centre consoles.

The satellite navigation system rises from the centre of the dash, and while it’s fairly decent at getting you places, the graphics are antiquated by todays standard and the system isn’t touch screen either. Instead, you have to use either the controls on the steering wheel for it, or the provided remote control. Either way, it’s annoying.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review Sat Nav system

On that note, something else I don’t like are the huge amount of controls on the steering wheel. These have not been thought out well and you often can catch the ones for the phone and cruise control without meaning to, when turning the wheel. Not only are there buttons on the front and front top of the steering wheel, but also behind it for controlling the sat nav. It’s just too much and there are too many.

Onto positive stuff now, and the anodised dials within the drivers instrument cluster is something I do like. They look really superb in this style, even though the little LCD displays within them don’t display much information.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar driver instrument cluster

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar interior satnav gear stick door heating controls

Seating in the front of the XC90 is exceptionally comfortable. The luxurious soft leather on them make you feel like you’re sat in an armchair, and you can drive for many, many hours in absolute comfort. Unfortunately, the middle row of seats aren’t as nice as the base of these are very short on your legs, and the backrest does not recline as much as you would have thought. Considering the amount of room in the boot, I can’t see why they don’t. The third-row seating is aimed more at children than adults, as there’s not much legroom even if you move the second row of seats forward. The third row do not recline either so are not comfortable for any length of time, unless you’re a child, that is.

Head and leg room for the first and second row of seats is fine though, and again with the third row of seats it’s okay if it’s just kids sat there. With up to 1,837 litres of room in the boot area (with the central rows seating folded) you can get a serious amount of kit in there. It’ll swallow a few sets of ski or snowboarding equipment without trying, and should you need to get shot of a load of old clutter out the attic, the XC90 will very likely hold most of the contents in one go. I exaggerate slightly, but it is a massive space.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar seating rear middle and fronts seats

If its peace and quiet you want on a journey, you should know the Volvo XC90 provides a rather tranquil experience, even at high cruising speeds, and at least for the fronts it’s a very comfortable and relaxed place to be. It’s also well-known for being a hugely-practical vehicle, and with that large boot space and the fact the second row of seats fold almost flat, you can get a lots of gear in the back of the car. The third-row seats fold down individually into the floor beneath to provide maximum boot space, but should you need them it’s a very easy and quick job to fix them into place.

The other thing I like is the cargo net accessory, which fixes to the roof in two places: either behind the second row of seats, or if fold those flat you can hook it just behind the front seats. It then attaches to anchor points in the boot area via seat-belt-like straps which are hugely strong and over-engineered for the job in hand, really. This’ll then stop your dog from getting into the seating area, or your luggage from flying into the back of passengers heads should you have to brake heavily. Very handy.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review boot space and mesh cargo net

When I was out and about testing the Volvo, I saw another XC90 being used by a family. Jumping into the boot was a large dog, and the parents had crammed in loads of gear, such as a pram, a big cooler box, plus all the millions of weirdly bulky items you need to lug about when you have kids. As well as that they were strapping a couple of young children into their seats. In that moment it became completely apparent that the Volvo XC90 is very much one of the ultimate family vehicles. Not just because of the size – there are loads of vehicles bigger – but because it’s been designed with supreme practicality in mind, whilst also being safe, tough and tremendously capable should the weather turn nasty.

While all that is well and good though, the current 2013/2014 cabin of the Volvo XC90 is in need of an update- badly! Once it’s in line with the same rather wonderful style and trim level as the newer models though, it should be sublime.

Engine & gearbox

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review engine bay

For the UK market, Volvo offer just one engine with the XC90, but by heck it’s a good ‘un! A 2.4 litre,  5-cylinder, 20-valve turbo-diesel provides 197 horsepower at 3,900 rpm, and 310 lb ft (420 Nm) of torque between 2,000 – 2,750 rpm. However, the XC90 we tested was graced with a tuning upgrade from Volvo’s official tuning arm Polestar. This is an £830 option, and adds 10 hp and 30 lb ft (40 Nm) of torque. That’s a substantial amount of money for that sort of increase, and aftermarket chip and remap companies will provide the same – or even more – power/torque for a lot less money.

With the Polestar tuning, 0 – 62 mph drops slightly from 10.3 to 9.9 seconds, but the CO2 emissions and fuel consumption stay the same, as does the top speed of 127 mph. Official fuel economy stats read as urban: 26.9, extra urban: 41.5 and combined: 34.4, with CO2 emissions of 215 g/km. That’s not bad for such a big SUV. There’s also only one gearbox for the Volvo; a 6-speed Geartronic, and the XC90 is comes standard with all-wheel-drive too.

Ready to roll? Let’s drive!

Driving the Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar

Fire the XC90’s 5-cylinder diesel into life, and you’ll notice how quiet and smooth the engine sounds. Pull the selector into drive and the Volvo sets off fluidly, while a small poke of the accelerator shows the turbo-diesel to be responsive and willing, even from low rpm. The XC90 rolls down the road with the sort of presence that only a big SUV can give, and there’s this constant sense abounding of security and solidity. Even when the clouds suddenly decide to drop their load seemingly in one go while I was doing motorway speeds, the XC90 remained completely unfazed, planted and gave confidence as the heavens chucked giant-sized buckets of rains down.

Once you’re out onto a section of road where the XC90 can stretch its legs, you’ll find the Polestar-tuned model gives a decent grin-factor. The sound from the engine is superb, and it growls and roars in a very un-diesel like manner. Strangely though, from the outside the noise is barely perceptible. The XC90 is also very quiet inside too, as mentioned, whether you’re doing motorway speeds or simply driving past noisy roadworks in town, it’s obvious that Volvo’s engineers have spend a good amount of time insulating it from all that unwanted exterior noise.

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review

Plant the accelerator, and the Volvo surges forward dynamically with an unexpected turn of speed. The speedometer rises quickly, and without really trying you’ll be up to 70+ mph, and once there the Volvo cruises in an entirely relaxed and almost effortless manner. Should you want to overtake slower traffic, it’s not a problem, and the XC90 R-Design Polestar has plenty of power on tap. It’s not massively fast, but there’s absolutely enough there to be satisfied with considering this is a big, practical SUV.

Such is the ride and drive quality of the XC90 that city driving is actually pleasurable. 360˚ vision is good thanks to large windows, and even though it’s a long vehicle it is manoeuvrable and decently-light on its feet at lower speeds. Out into the country though, and the XC90 feels its weight being slightly top heavy around the bends at speed. While it’s sticks to the road well thanks partially to the wide track, there’s still a fair amount of softness apparent. There’s got to be a compromise on the suspension setup somewhere on such a big SUV, and Volvo opts for the comfort side of things here, not tight handling.

Travelling down a bumpy section of countryside tarmac at around 60 mph, it’s noticeable that the XC90 flows well over bad road surfaces, soaking up the uneven and badly-mainitained sections and taking them in its stride. I know what suspension setup I’d like if I owned one of these, and it’s definitely the comfort side of things. There’s simply no point or need to make it handle like a fast saloon car, so why bother when it does think well enough as is.

 Off road driving in the Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar

Unlike a lot of big SUV’s, the AWD (all-wheel-drive) XC90 directs powers almost entirely through the front wheels, with just 5% of that power going to the rears under normal conditions. It uses the amazing Swedish-designed Haldex all-wheel-drive system, and there’s no buttons to push or levers to pull to engage it as it automatically fires power to all wheels only when slippage is detected. Apparently it takes a wheel just one-seventh of a turn during a loss of traction before the AWD system kicks in to send power to whichever corner is necessary. Impressive stuff.

What’s more impressive is that against some seriously tough and well-established AWD/4×4 opponents, as this YouTube video demonstrates just how good the XC90’s AWD system really is. Jump to: 8:55 and 27:10 for the Volvo’s tests.

Intertwined electronically with the AWD, there’s also a Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) system to bring the XC90 back in line should things go pear-shaped on a slippery bend. Volvo are fairly serious about the XC90’s off-road ability, even quoting a wading depth of 400 mm (15.7″), plus decent ground clearance of 218 mm (8.6″).


Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review-4593

The price tag for the XC90 ranges from just over £37,000 to £43,600. With a couple of option boxes ticked, our D5 R-Design AWD cost almost £44,500. Does it feel worth it? Yes and no. That 5-cylinder turbo-diesel is a lovely engine, and build and material quality is very good overall, plus the exterior is built as solidly as they. However, the interior is absolutely in need of modernising now as it’s very dated in comparison with most rivals.

Competition-wise, we’re looking at 7-seaters SUV’s, not full-on 4×4’s. Examples include the Mitsubishi Outlander at £20,000 – £40,000, the Hyundai Santa Fe 7-seater at £27 – £35k, the Kia Sorento at £25 – £34.5k, the Chevrolet Captiva 7-seater version at £27 – £30. If you want to go higher in the price range, there’s a load more to choose from, such as the Audi Q7, where the base model starts at the same price as the highest-spec XC90 does, and goes all the way up to £64,000.

Volvo XC90 D5 R-Design AWD Polestar verdict & score

Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar

The Volvo XC90 is a strongly-established vehicle with a good customer base and absolutely loads sold since it was introduced. Things I like are the build quality – which is second-to-none. Driving it you physically feel like you’re in a solid, strong and safe vehicle. The practicality side means it’s perfect for bigger families, and the ride and drive is good overall, alongside with a sweet turbo-diesel. The Polestar performance upgrade is a must, by the way.

However, the cabin switchgear and materials need to be brought into line with the rest of the new range of Volvo’s. The interior is now simply overly dated, and personally, the only thing that’d really keep me from waiting until the new version comes out before buying would be a big price cut on the current model, and even then I’d wait and see what the new XC90 brings. If Volvo’s other models are anything to go by, it’ll absolutely be worth waiting for though…

Do you own a Volvo XC90? What are your views on it, and what are the best and worst points? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Exterior  8
Interior  7.5
Engine  7.5
Gearbox (auto)  7.5
Price  7
Handling  6
Drive  7
Overall Score  7.0 / 10


Model (as tested)  2013 Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design AWD
Spec includes  7 seats, 19″ alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, satellite navigation, high-performance audio system, bluetooth handsfree, speed-sensitive steering, SIPS, DTSC , ABS, EBD, AWD,   See website for more info
Options you should spec  Polestar Performance Optimisation: £830
The Competition  Mitsubishi Outlander, Hyundai Santa Fe 7-seater, Kia Sorento, Chevrolet Captiva 7-seater, Audi Q7
Price  (Apr. ’14) £37,000 to £43,600
Engine  2.4 litre,  5-cylinder, 20-valve, turbo-diesel
Power, Torque, CO2  197 hp @ 3,900 rpm | 310 lb ft (420 Nm) between 2,000 – 2,750 rpm. Polestar tuning adds 10 hp and 30 lb ft (40 Nm) of torque.| CO2: 215 g/km
Drive, Gears (as tested)  AWD | 6-speed Geartronic (automatic)
Ground clearance & Wading depth  Clearance: 218 mm (8.6″) | Wading: 400 mm (15.7″)
Top Speed, 0 – 60 mph, Euro NCAP  Max speed: 127 mph | 0 – 62 mph: 10.3 (9.9s with Polestar tuning) | Euro NCAP rating: 5-star
Fuel economy (UK mpg)  Urban: 26.9, Extra urban: 41.5, Combined: 34.4
Weight (kerb)  2,196 kg’s (4,841 lbs)
Websites  Volvo UK, Volvo USA, Volvo global

Check out our other car reviews here

Words: Chris Davies | Tested by: Chris Davies | Photography: Chris Davies, Matthew Davies

2 responses to “Volvo XC90 D5 AWD R-Design Polestar Review – Super-Practical, But Needs Updating”

  1. Dr John M Cooper

    A very fair and complete car test of the new 2014 model. Only point you miss out on is the abysmal turning circle. My car buying days are long and many, but no car in my past history has had such a poor turning circle. One of my other cars is a Mercedes ML and that you can turn on a sixpence!
    Sorry for being rather negative on this point but apart from agreeing with all of your other comments it’s still a great car.

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