Russ Smith

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Choose with care and a 2006-2014 Volvo XC90 could make a cracking tow car, as used car expert Russ Smith explains in his buying guide

We took a look at the pre-2006 version of Volvo’s high-rise estate car more than six years ago so, with the 2015 replacement model now firmly established, it’s time to find out how those produced in the intervening years have shaped up as a used buy.

They’re certainly a big part of the British landscape: for several years the XC90 was the best-selling large SUV in the UK market, which means that there are going to be plenty for secondhand buyers to choose from.

The other big deal about the XC90 is that it was Volvo’s first proper 4x4 and, being Volvo, the company didn’t enter into that lightly. Even though most never see proper off-road action, they are fitted with all manner of clever stability and traction controls – all the better for dealing with harsh Scandinavian winters. So they’re not going to bat an eyelid at the prospect of a damp campsite in the New Forest. Plus, you can choose to have seven seats, or five and an enormous boot.

Model history

The April 2006 model change that we used as a cut-off point was really just a facelift but, as well as updated bumpers, grille and a rear parking camera, it also ushered in a new range of engines. Here we’ve primarily focused on the diesel unit for several reasons: not only does it make the most sense for towing, and is of course much more economical than the petrol engines, but it was also the only way that you could get a manual gearbox in an XC90 – a six-speed, just like the Geartronic automatic. Also, the unavoidable truth is that almost 95% of new XC90s were sold with a diesel engine, so that’s where the most choice lies.

The slightly revised and refined D5 diesel engine was still a five-cylinder 2.4, but it now kicked out a whisker less bhp (182 rather than 185), albeit with the same 295lb ft of torque. In 2010 the D5 was uprated to 197bhp and 310lb ft without harming economy.

There were also two petrol engines: a single 3.2 straight-six to replace the 2.5 and 2.9 units (putting out 234bhp), and the 4.4 V8 that had previously only been sold in other markets. The latter kicked out a chunky 310bhp and 324lb ft.

All XC90s have loads of kit – these were £32k-£40k cars when new – but the basic trim levels were named S, SE and Executive. At various points there was also the stripped-down Active, sporty R-Design and various add on levels such as Lux, Premium and Sport. None is likely to disappoint; even the S model had 17in alloys, roof bars and parking sensors, plus climate and cruise control. SE added leather seats, 18in alloys and a CD multichanger, while Executive got aluminium roof rails, xenon headlamps and split-rim alloys. You can also add whatever option boxes were ticked.

Trouble spots

The big catch with the XC90 is that it’s suffered problems with the Geartronic automatic gearbox – and this particularly affects vehicles used for towing. That is a big problem, because fewer than 10% of D5 models (and, as noted, no petrol cars) were originally sold with a manual gearbox. But that’s what we’d try to track down: you simply don’t know if and when an auto ’box might fail and land you with a bill for several thousand pounds. The later gearboxes (from 2010) were supposed to have been improved, but it’s too early to be sure, because problems don’t tend to show until later in the life of the car.

For any XC90 there can also be problems with the transfer box, so listen out for transmission noise on the test drive. Reject any car where it’s apparent, because that box can cost more than £2500 to remove and rebuild.

You should always try to see a D5 started from cold, then later from hot. If there’s any reluctance to start from either state, suspect the injectors. Failure of these is not an uncommon problem, but replacing them can land you with a £1500 bill.

Timing belts should be replaced at 60,000 miles or four years, whichever is sooner, along with their tensioners, pulleys and water pump. The tensioners are supposed to last 96,000 miles or eight years, but plenty are failing before that (along with those other items), so you should consider early replacement a worthwhile insurance policy against a £6000 engine rebuild.

Also, listen for any rumble from wheel bearings: they cost around £200 each to replace, so it’s worth haggling over.

Verdict

Despite all of the issues above, I’m still a big fan of the 2006-2014 Volvo XC90; I just wouldn’t buy one with an auto gearbox for towing. The cars are well put together, practical, nicely equipped and brilliant with a caravan in tow, offering great stability and strong pulling power from the D5 unit. The older ones are also now temptingly affordable.

So, don’t be too put off by the problems detailed here – go into XC90 ownership with your eyes open, and you’re sure to enjoy it.

Our pick of the range is the XC90 D5 SE manual. It will come as no surprise that we’ve singled out the manual gearbox, but the SE is not a hard-and-fast declaration: more the minimum trim level you should aim for.

However, we'd steer clear of the XC90 3.2 Lux Geartronic. Want a petrol XC90? It may as well be the 4.4 V8: they’re not that much thirstier than the six-pot 3.2. Both have the automatic gearbox, though.

What you need to know

You're looking at £3500-£29,000 for a 2006-2014 Volvo XC90. At the lower end of the scale you’ll only find high-milers (140k+). That’s reassuring in one way — they’ll go the distance — but for something with lots of life left you need to pay more than £6500. At least there’s no premium to be paid for the rarer, and preferable, manual gearbox.

For something really desirable and long-term, around £13,000 should land you a manual 2010 D5 SE with below-average miles and a proper history. Above that, prices rise sharply as we venture into nearly new territory, along with the prospect of still-fierce depreciation.

Here are some useful figures (for 2009 XC90 D5 SE):

  • Kerbweight 2105kg
  • 85% match 1789kg
  • Towing limit 2250kg
  • Towball limit 90kg

If you're intending to tow, according to quotes received from PF Jones, a Witter flange towbar will cost £112.80 and a Bosal detachable towbar will be £177.42, fitting extra. And what about servicing? We got quotes for a Volvo XC90 D5: an interim service is £126.39 and a full service is £213.88 (quotes from Servicing Stop).

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