Back in the automotive equivalent of the dinosaur age, Volvos built boxy and staid sedans and wagons whose plain-Jane exteriors belied their handling prowess. This secret yet satisfying ability to quickly negotiate a twisty road, along with an enviable reputation for crash-worthiness and safety, brought a following of loyal and faithful owners who knew what they were getting when they bought a Volvo.

In many ways, Volvo's XC90 is the spiritual successor to the Volvo wagons of old. It is spacious and roomy inside, will carry all of your friends in three rows of seating and promises to protect you from whatever dangers lie in your path. In fact, between seat belts, head restraints, whiplash protection systems, dual-stage airbags, side airbags and an Inflatable Curtain Head Protection System, the XC90's occupant protection in a collision far surpasses the old Volvo wagon. Add in all-wheel drive and a host of automated electronic driver aids like dynamic stability traction control and roll-stability control and it would seem that Volvo drivers have never had it so good.

The XC90 was introduced in 2002 with five- and six-cylinder engine options. For most of the world, that was fine, but in the U.S. market, about 30% of SUVs sold in the premium market have a V8 engine and Volvo needed one to be considered a player. Because the XC90's other engines were mounted transversely to allow seating for seven and to manage energy in a frontal crash, the new V8 had to mount the same way. The V8 needed to be exceptionally compact to sit sideways under the hood. A 60-degree V-angle resulted in a 4.4-liter, all-aluminum engine that is just 29.7 inches long and 25 inches wide and that weighs a mere 419 pounds. The engine produces 311 bhp at 5850 rpm and 325 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm. It is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that can also be shifted manually. A Haldex-developed electronic all-wheel-drive system distributes torque to all four wheels.

Modern premium SUVs like the Volvo XC90 are designed primarily for on-highway use and that's where I put the V8 model to the test. I drove the Volvo over a variety of freeways and suburban secondary roads, and even threw in a few canyon runs. The engine is strong, giving zero-to-60-mph acceleration in 7.0 seconds. The electronic controls shuts off the engine between shifts of the six-speed automatic, making for audible pauses in the engine's growl as the vehicle rushes to speed. In manual mode, the transmission is responsive to the driver's commands and can be put to good use. The V8 exhaust note sounds great when the XC90 is pushed hard, but has an unpleasant droning in the 65 to 75 mph range when traveling along the freeway.

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