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Old 06-05-2002, 06:14   #1 (permalink)
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Volvo strives to show its XC90 “SUV” is as safe as its station wagons and sedans

By ALEX LAW from "Autoweek"


Volvo engineers barrel rolled an XC90 4.5 times before it came to rest on its starboard doors. The windshield popped, but the body was strong enough that all its doors opened easily after the crash.
A decade ago, Volvo seemed perfectly suited to create a sport/utility vehicle. It was famous for building “boxy but safe” vehicles, which SUVs were and still pretty much are. With much of the sport/utility sales boom grounded in the “my vehicle wins” school of thought regarding collision performance, a Volvo SUV seemed a natural.

Today, Volvo turns out cool-looking cars, but wants to hold tight to its safety reputation. And—bad timing, maybe—Volvo wants to call its new XC90 a “midsize SUV.” Simultaneously touting safety and SUVs is a trickier move today, when SUVs are understood to have a tendency to roll over at the slightest provocation, like a dog looking to have its stomach scratched. This is most infamously true of the previous version of the Ford Explorer. Volvo is related by marriage to Explorer, since Ford owns the Swedish company.

The coincidence may be influencing the work of Volvo spin doctors, who seem remarkably sensitive to the word rollover. Volvo itself remains mum about its Ford connection, partly as a PR move, partly from personal motivation for Swedes inside Volvo. They have yet to admit they are part of the collective, and are fighting assimilation. This is resented at Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, but apparently resistance is not futile if you’re the source of the biggest share of the company’s profits, as Volvo is of late for Ford.

XC90 is clearly about profits, since the sticker price starts at $35,000 for the base five-seater that you’ll never see at a dealership and goes up to $45,000 and beyond for the full-figured seven-spot unit. (Sales start Nov. 1.)

If Volvo’s plan works, XC90 won’t cannibalize sales of Volvo wagons or even Ford Explorers, but will latch onto the market for upscale import SUVs from BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Volvo intends to move solidly into this rich market by billing the XC90 as “the safest SUV you can buy today.” The vehicle itself is not what your average consumer would think of as an SUV (shorter in lengthand lower in height than a BMW X5 or Mercedes ML), but it’s hard to argue with the urge to cash in on the craze. The Ford conglomerate today also includes Land Rover, however, which seems a likelier challenger to the Euro-SUVs, while XC90 plays against crossovers like Acura MDX, Buick Rendezvous and Audi allroad.

Sadly, the desire to claim the high ground here for XC90 causes Volvo to fudge reality when the company says, “Owing to its higher center of gravity, an SUV may have a higher risk of rolling over in certain critical situations compared with a conventional passenger car.” There’s no “may” about it, as science and NHTSA stats make abundantly clear.

Anyway, Volvo says it worked to keep the XC90’s center of gravity low compared to most SUVs; it’s just 3.5 inches higher than that of the Volvo XC70. Raising the roof a few inches inspires Volvo to equip XC90 with Roll Stability Control (RSC), a name that owes as much to marketing as it does to engineering. RSC uses a gyro-sensor in the floor to register the XC90’s roll speed and roll angle. If a rollover seems imminent, the XC90 steps in and takes control by reducing the engine’s power and by braking one or more wheels until stability is regained. This is little more than a variation on the stability control systems that have been in cars for years, and are moving into more trucks and SUVs, with GM taking the lead. This is a welcome thing, since it is often a combination of driver ineptitude and a curb or pothole that leads to a vehicle rolling over.

If all that fails and the XC90 actually rolls, Volvo has taken significant steps to ensure the vehicle will survive intact. This was made clear during a recent demonstration, in which Volvo engineers barrel rolled a test vehicle 4.5 times before it came to rest on its starboard doors. Only the windshield was lost, and the steel-strengthened body was still intact enough that its doors opened easily when the vehicle was righted.

Ironically, an examination of an unrolled XC90 suggests that it’s already safer than most SUVs by virtue of the reality that it’s pretty much a jacked-up unibody station wagon rather than a genuine SUV. For purposes of federal fuel economy and crash certification, Volvo plans to classify the vehicle as a light truck, and rejects the notion that this isn’t a real SUV. That’s because it needs to claim the command seating that is key to marketing such vehicles while alluding to the macho (read: not a station wagon) image that only an SUV can claim.

So, for sales purposes Volvo wants to say the XC90 is something it really isn’t and then prove that it’s safer than the vehicles that really are what it isn’t. Isn’t marketing fun?
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