The XC90 was Volvo's first sport-utility vehicle in 2003.

The all-wheel-drive vehicle features two rows of seats behind the driver, with the rear seats easily folding flush with the floor. First-row seats fold down as well, giving owners a variety of floor plans and cargo-carrying options. With all the back seats down, the XC90 boasts 92.3 ft3 of space, more than any other ute in its class. And with the seats up, there's still some room behind the rear seats. All this makes the vehicle well suited for families and hauling kids.

Under the hood, a responsive in-line five-cylinder DOHC engine sits sideways between the front wheels, leaving more room for the interior. The 2.5-liter turbocharged engine, the first five-banger I've ever driven, smoothly puts out 208 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic transmission with adaptive-shift logic sends power to the wheels, and it never failed to deliver. The engine also gets 18/24 mpg (city/hwy) and meets ULEV II pollution standards. (An optional in-line six-cylinder 2.5-liter engine with twin turbochargers is also available. It produces 268 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque.) Combining the strong engine with a tight suspension -- MacPherson strut and stabilizer bar up front, and a multilink set up with a stabilizer bar in back -- gives the ute some real driving panache.

The interior is quiet, comfortable, and well thought out. And to ease your mind, Volvo engineers included a host of safety features: front and side-impact air bags, whiplash protection; curtain-style head-protection air bags for front, middle, and rear seats; seat-belt pretensioners all around; traction control; a roof reinforced with a steel-boron alloy said to be five times stronger than the steel usually used; and ABS. They even came up with some new safety stuff. For example, they lowered the front chassis crossmember to the same height as the bumpers on sedans, reducing the damage it inflicts in crashes with other vehicles. And gyroscopic sensors in a Roll Stability Control system continuously calculate the risk of a rollover. If the risk is great, it activates the antiskid system to prevent it.

Besides being fun to drive, the XC90 is also one of the better-looking sport utes, with a somewhat raked roof and wide stance. Now for the bad news. It's a rather pricey vehicle. Our test model had a few options: a Nautical blue metallic paint job ($450); a Climate Package with heated seats, headlight washers, rain sensor, and interior air-filtration system ($595); all-wheel drive ($1,750); a Premium Package with power glass sunroof, power front passenger seat, auto-dimming mirrors, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer ($2,750); and a cargo net ($300, which seems way out of line to me). The total price is $40,795. The XC90's performance and safety features should give some real competition to SUVs from BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Infiniti.

-- Stephen Mraz