Little did I know that, a decade after, I'd feel the same way about a Volvo, hardly thinking twice about driving it through muddy trails.
It may have seemed preposterous back then, but Volvos have evolved far beyond their family-friendly roots and deep into territories it never ventured to before. Gone is the old boxy and boring family estate stigma and in are the sexier lines and adept off-road abilities of the new breed of Volvo's.
In all honesty, I have a soft spot for this particular Volvo. On my first month on the job, we had arranged to shoot Volvo's entire fleet in commemoration of the brand's 10th anniversary in the Philippines. Many of the others opted for the brand new S60 T5, equipped with a high pressure turbo and pumping out an astounding (back then) 230 horsepower. Me, I was still enamored over the XC90, even though it had already been launched a couple of months back. It might have had something to do with the sexy shoulders, adding some femininity to a typically masculine body. Maybe it was the slightly raised eyebrows, an illusion created by the signal lights over the projector lamps. It's hard to tell, really. All I know was that Peter Horbury was a design genius.
So instrumental was his broad-shouldered style that Volvo has seen little need to change it since its initial 2002 inception. The current XC90 still closely resembles its first iteration save for some changes in its front fascia and tail lights.
Inside is still a very civil and user-friendly interior that doesn't intimidate with a dizzying array of buttons switches. Instead, you'll find one that is simple, clean and very intuitive. Perhaps lagging behind its competitors in terms of tech these days, but admirable none the less. Take time to adjust the plush electronic leather seats and there soon becomes very little reason to leave the cabin.
This is because, even with a common-rail turbo diesel power plant, it's still very quiet inside. No typical diesel rattles nor wind noise as you speed along. The excellent suspension insures that any bumps are hardly felt while the cabin insulation keeps all the noises out. All the better to enjoy whatever's playing on the Dolby ProLogic audio system. There won't be any fights over climate or tunes as the front has dual zone climate control and steering wheel mounted controls while the rear passengers also have their own set of controls.
It's easy to keep on driving as the SUV is an exercise in effortlessness. Whether left alone or toyed with in Geartronic mode, the car returns excellent mileage as the sheer torque of the 5 cylinder turbo diesel keeps the car rolling with ease. There's a bit of lean in turns as it is a heavy vehicle, but this hardly penalizes its handling as full-time all-wheel drive intelligently distributes power where needed, making the car handle like any sedan half its size.
The XC90 also has a few tricks up its sleeve, or more accurately, up its tailgate. What seems like a single piece hatch is actually a two piece door. The top portion swings open as normal, while the bottom gate can be swung down for easier loading. The rear cargo area also hides two seats that easily pop up to extend the vehicle's seating capacity to seven.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Volvo without the safety features, and no expense has been spared here. All seven passengers have self-tensioning seatbelts with the rear seats being ISOFIX child seat compatible. No less than 6 airbags are scattered throughout the car. HID headlamps are standard, along with all four discs with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, traction control and stability control.
All told, it may not seem very exciting, but it's on an out of town trip that the car truly shines. The size is more than enough to fit the whole family and their bags for a weekend trip. Two more seats pop out from the flat folding rear. It's not taxing either as the steering is light and the car drives like a very high sedan. ABS, Brake Assist and traction control make it easy to reign in, in the event of the unthinkable. Finally, the all-wheel drive will guarantee traction no matter what road you take. True, it may lag behind its competitors in terms of toys like headrest mounted screens or even with power and handling, but the XC90 D5 is still more comfortable and frugal than its newer opponents.
Perhaps its only sin is being too humble for its own good, lacking the shiny chrome bits, carbon fiber and oversize rims you typically find in SUV's these days. Then again, none of them can guarantee piece of mind quite like a Volvo.
And when it comes down to it, all that flash will only draw compliments for the first few minutes of any other SUV's arrival. The XC90 D5 continues to amaze all the way to the destination.
Maybe I'm just being sentimental. Maybe it's first car, first love bias. What I do know is, that for a "boring" car, this Volvo certainly knows how to get my heart racing.