I’ve always wanted to drive the Volvo XC90 SUV through the rural roads of some tropical island province, and our last Evo Route in the Visayan island of Cebu turned out to be an interesting journey to a secluded paradise, so I thought it would be worth it to hustle the only available unit out of Pasajero Motors and explore other areas of the island and the vehicle while I was here sniffing out more stories for Evo and attending a grand family reunion which takes place every five years.
Being a fan of Volvos but never having the opportunity to get behind the wheel of their 4WD XC90, I was elated to discover that Loi Concepcion of Volvo Philippines had impressively pulled through in her promise to secure me one in Cebu right around the time I was scheduled to be there for my family reunion. My contact in Cebu was a gentleman named Katch Katchin and I was instructed to meet him in Pasajero Motors at ten o’clock on a wet Tuesday morning. My brother and several of my cousins were flying in from Manila that same morning so the plan was first to pick up the car, get settled into the driver’s seat, then drive to the Mactan Airport and show off the thing like it was actually mine. After all, it was a Swedish luxury SUV and the other cars in our caravan were Korean, so my car was destine to raise some eyebrows and draw out some oohs and ahhs.
I was partially right. The silver-grey unit looked great except for one thing—it looked like it was dressed up for Sinulog, the annual Cebuano Mardis Gras street orgy that takes place every fat Tuesday where the islander don crazy masks and feathers and flock to the streets to get horribly drunk and paint their bodies and faces with wild colors. The car would have looked distinguished, even noble, had it not been festooned with neon green and pink stickers that steamed across the entire sides of the car with the word ‘Cebu’ written all over it in loud Gay Pride colors. Yes this thing was definitely going to raise some eyebrows and draw out some oohs and ahhs. I had enough of the exterior so I signed all the realease documents, and quickly jumped into the cabin and shut the door.
Now I was in the comfort zone. Volvo’s trademark ultra-cozy black leather seats were plush and soft enough to make love on as usual and I felt as if I could ride on them forever. The cockpit looked exactly like all the other Volvos I’ve driven but as an SUV it felt higher and more commanding. Frame and shell felt solidly secure and heavy with quality steel, like a small tank in the body of a styling sport utility vehicle, another Volvo trademark linked directly to the car’s safety. All the brilliant ergonomics that go into the design of all Volvo production models were nicely intact, and that familiar feeling of being nurtured in a womb came over me in a sigh of contentment. The center control deck was simple and smart with just the right amount of buttons, switches and dials all logically arranged to be as convenient as possible for the driver. It was time to insert the key into the ignition slot. I adjusted my seat to an ideal driving position using the electronic buttons on the side and locked it into memory. Then I turned the ignition and two things immediately caught me off guard: First, the engine began to moan deeply, then when I wrapped my hands around the steering wheel it felt unusually heavy. Both sensations continued for some time until the steering progressively grew on me until it felt organically secure and the moan developed into a tough rumble. I realized that I had gotten used to driving around the city in my brother’s Kia Sorento which had very light steering that now seems too flimsy compared to the Volvo, better for dashing in and out of small corners. The XC90 is a journey car with a rack and pinion steering that feels a little numb but secure nonetheless, along with the rest of the car. Once you’re out on the highway or on a long and winding road, you feel one with the car and the drive. As soon as I hit mid-range I fell in love with the steering and the car, after that I felt comfortable everywhere I went.
As soon as we got on the Mactan Bridge the rain started to come down – an opportunity to test the all-wheather capabilities of the car. The wipers worked well and when I squirted water on the windshield to clean it up, the spray was so wide it seemed to even clead up the sides of the car. As I was doing this though I almost ran over a sleeping mutt on the side of the road – thankfully the intuitive handling of the car allowed me to make a swift movement to avoid an ugly road kill. When we got the airport we discovered the flight was delayed so we double-parked and this gave me a chance to examine the interior and console controls. My wife appreciated the car’s commanding ride height as compared to Isuzu Trooper and I knew this was part of the reason for the Volvo’s compliancy and cabin tranquillity. The ride felt smooth and easy through Cebu’s less than ideal road conditions. The stereo system was of good quality with strong speakers and high fidelity. The air-conditioning was powerful, instantly cooling the entire cabin even on a stationary idle – which kept us breaking into a sweat while waiting for the contingent to come out of the terminal. I fiddled around with some of the control buttons, adjusting the side mirrors and folding them in completey with a push of a single button. Everything seemed to be working just fine, although Mr. Katchin did remind me not to open the rear windows so as not to ruin all those techni-colored stickers that were emblazoned across the side windows. Among some of the other handy details were front and rear cup holders, an in-dash CD player, and the conventional Volvo DSTC stability and traction control button, which applies the brakes to the tire that needs it without releasing the throttle.
When my relatives from Spain and Australia finally emerged from the Arrivals gate with dozens of heavy bags and suitcases, I was impressed by how much luggage room there was in the Volvo. There is a small third row of seats that can be slid under the platform and the backrests folded down with the headrest hidden for extra room on the platform, so we packed the car to the brim without disturbing its excellent driving agility – in fact the car seemed to go faster as it got heavier.
As we left the airport and headed for the Ayala Shopping Center for a big Filipino lunch at Gerry’s Grill, we decided to iTrip my sister’s iPod to the Volvo’s radio and was again somewhat disappointed at the fuzziness of the sound – you can never seem to find the right frequency for that thing.
When we got to the mall everyone flocked to the Volvo to admire its athletic body frame, sophisticated lines, and lush interior cockpit. They all took turns getting behind the wheel to feel the solid snugness of the front seat and the fine grip of the black steering wheel, asking about its price and how it would translate to their home currency. My cousin commented on its all-around appeal as both a sports car and a utility vehicle and decided he would have to purchase one himself to really get an honest feel for it. My other cousin who is also a car enthusiast himself, took an immediate liking to it and put it down as a serious consideration for his next car. He currently drives an Audi A4 but wants to buy an SUV in the Range Rover category.
After a massive lunch at Gerry’s we loaded up on Starbucks’s coffee and headed out for some serious driving around the island of Cebu for a little sightseeing. Our plan was to drive down south to Argao to visit the famed Bugasok Water Falls and to check out the various flora and fauna that inhabited the area. We also planned to drive up the mountain ranges that separate the two sides of the island of Cebu, and where most of the province’s vegetables are farmed and harvested. During all this drives I carefully observed the performance of the car and asked my passengers to critique the ride.
It’s a 2.5 liter 5- cylinder in-line engines that produces 210bhp, and the sound of the engine conveys all this power as you’re driving along. It’s a very enthusiastic ride and the car seems more than willing to take you anywhere you want to go for as long as the gas can take you. You can hear the intercooler turbo contributing to the engine’s performance, howling in the wind like a muffled werewolf.
The car and its automatic five-speed transmission are very responsive, immediately reacting to the movements of the gas pedal. With a tap of the throttle I was easily able to keep up with the rest of the caravan, which included a Kia Sorento and an ambulance-white Volkswagen Caravelle. And with that same kind of tap, overtaking in blind corners was never a daunting task. Volvo’s version of Tiptronic is known as Geartronic and is a standard feature in this particular XC90.
On the Coastal Highway where there was more room and no turns, you could feel the XC90 downshift on its own and suddenly you find yourself off in the distance leaving others in the dust. I never worried about trying to stay linked to the convoy because I knew that if they got too far ahead, all I had to do was apply a little pressure on my right foot and I was at the vanguard. The torque doesn’t seem as intense in higher gears and lower revs but the smart tranny knows how to space out its power and the take-off is always something worth mentioning. Of all the cars in the caravan, I had the funnest, fastest and most relaxed drive – and I never lost complete command of the convoy, even as the tail vehicle – except maybe when my sister-in-law joined us in her Hyundai Starex drive through the town of Carcar.
The brakes were equally good. I had four young passengers with me and they never noticed all the brakes-mashing I was doing because the progressive stopping was so smooth it never felt like it was out of control or having a vigorous workout. I could accelerate suddenly and slow down just as instantaneously without speeding up any heartbeats. This resulted in a very flexible, very enjoyable ride for everybody –especially in the country like the Philippines where people and animals jump out of nowhere and jeepneys stop and go when they please.
When we got close to Argao we did some off-roading and I noticed the huge hood kind of obscured the road directly in front of me, so that lost some confidence points but not many. I defenitely need the assistance of an extra hand to guide me in and out of rough terrain corners. I suspected this could pose a small problem in some of Manila’s tight parking slots, but a careful driver could easily leap-frog this hurdle. And since we’re on this, visibility in the rear and side windows is also weak because of the Volvo’s beefy rib-cage and muscular frame. It was a bit of a struggle to clearly view the blind spot when shifting lanes and much trust must be placed in the side mirrors to execute these actions – another disability in Philippine roads where the blind spot is often raided by aggressive drivers. The rear window is not so big and sometimes feels like a window of an armoured van used to carry cash in and off the banks. This particular car was even more difficult because of all the Volvo Cebu stickers in the back.
What is really admirable about this car is the variety of ways in which the eats can fold and unfold to make room for more passengers both young and old, big and small. Volvo really pays acute attention to needs of the family and not just the driving enthusiast. The rear tailgate folds down and provides a small but solid step that will come in handy when the need to load baggage on the roof rails arises.
So yes, this car does have a lot of features to smile about, most notably its name and its rugged handsomeness. But we mustn’t forget its excellent road handling and tenacious grip, which I can firmly attest to in my travels around Cebu thanks to all the driver input transmitted through the steering. All my passengers agreed that the quality of the ride was high above average and right in line with all other premium luxury cars; our butts did not ache at all after three hours of road littered with potholes, rocks, and palm tree branches. I drove that nut through all kinds of ridiculous terrain – grass, mud, sand, shell and soil – and –t never raised a stink, except when I steamrollered over a few humps of cow dung.
You could argue that the XC90 is just as good as its much more expensive competitor, the BMW X5, and some buyers who prefer comfort over performance will actually prefer it because it isn’t as stiff as the X5. There’s a little bit of a roll on the ride but nothing too extreme as to turn off the driver, because the drive is absolutely sure of itself and the ride is smooth, smooth, smooth, in all speed ranges. Fast cornering is possible but not aggressively recommended; It’s still an SUV and sudden braking can cause some weird twitches that might catch you off guard. The very first luxury Volvo I drove, and the one that sparked my interest in the marque, was an ink-black V70 station wagon that a friend of mine owned in San Francisco – Today’s XC90 feels like the same thing, just slightly wider and heftier.
The XC90’s speed is quite deceptive; you never notice how fast you’re going because the ride is so tranquil and the damping and suspension so utterly effective. Only the driver can feel those 236 pound feet of torque hammer down all four tires at 4500 rpm as he works the throttle and clamps down on the steering wheel. It’s certainly powerful enough for the province of Cebu and this island highways and sheer cliffside passes – maybe too powerful, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, briskly thundering along the road, overtaking slow-moving vehicles like hog-slaughter trucks and tricycles. It was quite a ride, I must say, with such vivid rural scenery as hundreds, maybe thousands of old and therefore very tall coconut trees on the side of the long and subtly meandering seaside road that trickles down southward of Cebu. The coconut trees are all slightly cocked to the side of the road and this goes on for a few miles, while on the opposite side are rolling farmlands with the occasional bahay kubo and carabao grazing the rice fields. We even ran into some carabao taking a bath in a brook by the Bugasak Fall.
As I come towards a close I realize I cannot complete this story without mentioning two more things – the whimsical beauty of the Bugasak Falls itself and the all-wheel-drive system of the XC90. The falls remind me of the fairy tale lagoon in Peter Pan’s Never Never Land; a round pool surrounded by cliffs with a narrow gushing waterfall providing much entertainment for the natives of the area. It was an ideal location for a picnic and an afternoon swim, and the many exotic flowers and creatures we found there made interesting aesthetic subjects for our detail-focused digital cameras.
And finally, as I said, the all-wheel-drive system of the Volvo XC90 is smooth, subtle and highly effective. It’s 95% front wheel biased but can transfer up to 65% of the power to the rear wheels if the condition and situation calls for it.
When I returned the Volvo to Mr. Katchin , the odometer read 250.6 Kilometes and I still had a quarter tank of gas in the car – not bad for a heavyweight that floats like a butterfly.