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XC90 Will Be First Volvo to Get V-8 Engine
Posted 6/17/04 2:43 p.m. CDT

By James R. Healey
USA Today

Swedish automaker Volvo, known more for sensible safety than high performance, is planning its first V-8 engine early next year as an option on the popular XC90 sport-utility vehicle.

Yamaha will custom-build Volvo’s first V-8 engine, which the automaker will put in its best seller, the XC90.

It’s part of a push by Volvo Cars North America CEO Victor Doolan to make the brand more exciting. Doolan formerly ran German automaker BMW’s U.S. operations.

“Nearly 100 people out of 100 know what we stand for; only 25 of them put us on their shopping lists,” Doolan says. “The Volvo brand is strong, but lacks the excitement people look for.”

The 4.4-liter, 320-horsepower V-8s are to be custom-built for Volvo by high-performance specialist Yamaha in Japan and shipped to Sweden for installation in XC90s, nearly all for the U.S. market.

Doolan forecasts 10,000 to 12,000 per year, roughly 8 percent of Volvo’s U.S sales.

The V-8 will become optional on some other Volvos 15 to 18 months after making its debut in the SUV, Doolan says.

Volvo is owned by Ford Motor and considered using a V-8 from Ford-owned Jaguar, but preferred the trimmer fit of the Yamaha-built engine because it allows more crush space to absorb crash forces.

Volvo mainly uses turbocharged five-cylinder engines, powerful but not as smooth as V-8s, especially in stop-and-go traffic.

“An appropriate, sophisticated V-8 could work very well, appealing to both the European cognoscenti and the broad American market,” says Jim Hossack, analyst at industry consultant AutoPacific.

“The average American favors a V-8, and in that [price] segment, people aren’t as sensitive to high gas prices, so that won’t dissuade them,” says Anthony Pratt, global powertrain specialist at consultant J.D. Power and Associates.

The V-8 model, probably priced in the low $40,000 range and likely to take the place of the twin-turbocharged T6 model within a year, shows that Doolan’s begun to banish the torpor that has kept the conservative Swedish automaker from putting some of its most-interesting ideas into production.

The brand has dabbled with V-8s since 1970, for instance, but never developed them for production, even as the important U.S. market began demanding more and smoother power that’s generally beyond the reach of turbocharged, small-displacement engines that Volvo favors.

A V-8 should do well, Doolan says, because “The only negative about XC90 is performance.”

That’s not quite so. The model’s been hurt by niggling quality gaffes — some as minor, but irritating, as faulty key rings — that have kept it off the influential Consumer Reports magazine’s “recommended” list.

Doolan says those problems have been fixed, and the next round of quality surveys and next year’s Consumer Reports auto rankings should show great improvement.

Despite poor quality scores, XC90 is the best-selling Volvo, the top-selling European-brand SUV, and is riding a sales boom as main rivals BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class struggle with slumps. According to sales tracker Autodata, XC90 sales this year are up 24.7 percent vs. last year’s. X5 sales are down 15.4 percent. M-class is off 14.4 percent.

In addition to being an unusually bold move for Volvo, the V-8 shows that automakers are going to great lengths to stand out in the increasingly competitive crossover SUV market.

Crossovers are based on car chassis and drivetrains, which make them smoother riding and running than truck-based SUVs. They incorporate the high ground clearance and elevated seating that make truck-based SUVs popular. Most offer four-wheel drive for bad weather.

They typically get better fuel economy because they weigh less and use smaller engines than truck-based SUVs.

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