According to the instapundits, sport/utility vehicles have suddenly become latter-day dinosaurs. With one stroke of the fuel-price spike, trend mongers hope to slay the SUV as a viable form of transportation and to foment such a mob of moralizing that SUV ownership will remain despised for all time.
Problem is, righteousness better serves high dudgeon than basic needs. If seven folks-a family of five, say, with two extra kid-friends in tow-want to travel somewhere without making ferry trips, a seven-passenger vehicle is a prerequisite. And if that family's lifestyle tends toward off-the-beaten-path sorts of adventure, a merely suburban minivan ain't gonna cut it. Accordingly, SUVs-much to the dismay of Prius-hugging Petro Puritans-will still be with us for a while yet.
Two of the most refined among modern SUVs happen to reside under the same Ford Motor Co. teepee, even though their respective origins couldn't be more different. Volvo's XC90 is an imperturbable Swede, whereas the Range Rover HSE is an eccentric Brit. Both models tested here boast V8 power of identical displacement but differing parentage. And both wear lofty enough window stickers that they effectively price-ration themselves to the very folks who are least dismayed by any sudden blips of dollar-per-gallon gasoline.
If anything, Volvo's perseverant reputation for superior safety is apotheosized with the XC90, which celebrates its second birthday in 2006 relatively unchanged. This seven-passenger people-pod boasts front, side and head airbags as standard equipment; an industry-leading cockpit design surrounded by strategic "crumple zones"; and electronic counter-measures for combating skids, slides and rollovers. Should the XC90's myriad safety parameters ever become legislated as mandatory, even walking around by oneself will have to be judged out of compliance.
Alas, Volvo's reputation for safety is as stolid as it is solid. After all, an iPod is a heck of a lot more exciting to own than life insurance, even if the latter is the more responsible asset. So it is with an eye toward "spicing up" the Volvo experience that the company has shoehorned a mischievous, Yamaha-designed V8 into the XC90. Producing 311 horsepower and 325 foot-pounds of torque from 4.4 liters of twin-cam displacement, Volvo's V8 is gutsy, clean-burning and about as fuel-efficient as a V8 can be.
Mileage ratings are 15 miles-per-gallon/city, 21 miles-per-gallon/highway, using premium. These are a long way from hybrid-vehicle ratings; then again, they're rare enough for a 4,600-pound vehicle that can transport seven folks, haul a payload of 1,470 pounds and tow a 5,000-pound trailer. While still meeting onerous ULEV clear-air standards.
The XC90 V8 combines think-and-go acceleration with a marvelously smooth six-speed shiftable automatic transmission. Roadholding is unruffled and unflappable. The self-leveling, all-independent suspension automatically adjusts for passenger and cargo weight, and four-wheel-disc brakes provide positive slowing and stopping.
Volvo inventiveness creates maximum seating efficiency in a minimum of space. Second row seats are adjustable fore and aft; and a third-row two-seater bench folds effortlessly, as a whole or in halves, until flush with the cargo floor. Adults will wince if banished to the rear bench, but kids love both the spaciousness and the remoteness from Dad's long arm of the law.
A combination-hatch system is another helpful feature. If the main hatch is opened onto the cargo space, a smaller half-foot tailgate remains upright until released. This gives unequalled access to cargo without risking unexpected spillovers when the main hatch is lifted. At only 8.8 cubic feet, the default cargo space with all seats in use is unnaturally small by typical SUV standards. At max capacity, however, the XC90 redeems itself with 93 cubes of flat-floored stowage.
With its V8, the XC90 starts at $45,840 for 2006, rising to $49,480 as-tested after adding 18-inch wheels, premium audio and extra wood'n'leather curlicues. It's an indulgence, no question about that. But as indulgences go, the XC90 V8 is smart, safe, powerful and efficient enough to render many cheaper vehicles as false economies.
If a $50,000 Volvo XC90 V8 is self-indulgent, the $74,950 Range Rover HSE for 2006 is 50 percent more self-indulgent yet. And, in fact, Land Rover's Range Rover models have positively preyed upon self-indulgent appetites ever since post-colonialism eliminated the four-wheeling traffic of mad dogs and Englishmen throughout the South African veldt and the Afghan Hindu Kush.
The 2006 Range Rover is available with either a 4.4-liter V8 making 305 hp or a 4.2-liter supercharged V8 making 400 hp (and costing over $90-grand). Both motors are borrowed from Jaguar, and both are spirited in powering a 5,500-pound behemoth; but even the 4.4-liter "HSE" motor is plenty thirsty with its estimated 13 mpg/city, 18 mpg/highway ratings.
Longer, wider, taller than the XC90, Range Rover nevertheless seats only five. In most interior dimensions, passenger space is also superior to the Volvo's, although the XC90 boasts more front legroom and second-row headroom. Range Rover's maximum cargo space is middling at 75 cubic feet, and so is its 1,360-pound payload capacity. But a tow rating of 7,716 pounds is certainly adequate for a lot of adult pull-toys.
For all its weight, the Range Rover HSE handles well enough. Active and self-leveling suspension eliminates any feeling of floatiness, and steering is sporty. The interior is, well, British-an amusing mixture of the sumptuous and the odd. Most marvelous of all is Range Rover's multivalent four-wheel-drive system that represents for off-roading what Volvo represents for safety. It is virtually impossible not to get out and back in a Range Rover. This is not, of course, to say that extreme off-roading, Range Rover-style, will be free from scratches and dents. But if dings in a $75,000 SUV are irrelevant to you, Range Rover is chiming your tune.
4-door, 5-pass.; 4.4-liter DOHC "Jaguar" V8 w/ vvt; 4WD w/ hill descent control; 6-sp. shiftable auto;, 305 hp/325 ft.-lbs., (est.) 12-14 mpg/city, 17-19 mpg/hwy w/ premium; cargo: 75 cu. ft.; payload: 1,360 lbs.; tow: 7,716 lbs.; std. equipment: four-wheel self-leveling "active" suspension & ABS disc brakes, three-zone auto-HVAC, AM/FM/6CD in-dash audio, 19-in. wheels; as-tested price: $74,950
4-door, 7-pass.; 4.4-liter DOHC "Yamaha" V8 w/ vvt; AWD; 6-sp. shiftable auto;, 311 hp/325 ft.-lbs., 15 mpg/city, 21 mpg/hwy w/ premium; cargo: 8.8-93 cu. ft.; payload: 1,470 lbs.; tow: 5,000 lbs.; std. equipment: four-wheel self-leveling ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, dual-zone auto-HVAC, AM/FM/6CD in-dash audio, 17-in. wheels; as-tested price: $49,480