I don’t know that I’ve ever felt safer driving through the mountains.

It didn’t hurt, mind you, that I’d just run the gamut of briefings from Volvo Car officials touting the enhanced safety features of the soon-to-be launched XC90, the auto maker’s first luxury cross/utility vehicle.

With dropoffs looming around nearly every Northern California curve, I was comforted by the presence of the reinforced boron steel roof panel (boron steel supposedly is five times stronger than normal steel) and the side curtain airbags that extend the length of the vehicle.

And XC90’s story isn’t just about "passive" safety features – its dynamic performance adds to the confidence.

Winding, mountain roads inspire confidence in XC90.

Volvo’s new rollover protection system (ROPS), in its first use here, takes its cues from a gyroscopic sensor to detect when a rollover may be imminent. That’s when the dynamic stability and traction control coordinate to regain the vehicle’s stability.

The potential of ROPS was experienced first hand when my driving partner executed an unannounced panic stop.

Not once did it feel like the XC90 – despite an 8.9-in. (22.6-cm) ground clearance, higher than many more-traditional SUVs – was going to roll or spin out of control. And there was almost no side-to-side sway when taking the tight turns.

The same Haldex coupling-based AWD system found on the S60 sedan also does duty for the XC90, allowing for 2-wheel drive unless enhanced traction is needed. The system is unobtrusive and enables a luxury car-like feel instead of a 4-wheel-drive truck sensation.

Engine performance, though, is where the XC90 comes up short. In both mountain and flat highway driving, the base 2.5T’s 2.5L DOHC 5-cyl. and its 208 hp is patently inadequate.

Upgrade to the twin-turbocharged T6 6-cyl. engine, however, and the 268 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) makes for segment-competitive thrust.

Interestingly, the 2.5L enjoys a 5-speed automatic transmission while the more-expensive twin-turbo makes do with a 4-speed. With the transverse orientation of its engines, the 5-speed transmission does not fit with the larger 6-cyl. engine.

However, the transverse engine orientation allows Volvo to do what competitors such as the Lexus RX300 and Mercedes M-Class can’t: add a third row of seating while maintaining ample cargo space.

And the T6 doesn’t suffer with the lesser transmission because the twin-turbo 6-cyl. always delivers ample torque.

Although the auto maker is coming to the luxury CUV market four years behind its competition, John Neu, project manager for the XC90, is confident. "We might be late coming to the dance, but you can be sure we’re bringing the best-looking girl," he explains.

Volvo may indeed be dancing with the best-looking vehicle in the segment. The shoulder lines, starting at the back and wrapping around the vehicle’s hood into the grill, enhance that distinctive V-shaped look that now is distinctive to recent Volvos. From the exterior, there is no denying a premium appearance.

Add the optional (and expensive) exterior styling kit with accessories like hefty 18-in. wheels, rear skid plate, running boards, mud flaps and roof ribs, and the vehicle is ruggedly elegant.

Volvo has dressed the interior with an eye toward luxury, making real wood inlays and a leather steering wheel standard on the base model. Meanwhile, standard amenities such as a CD player, dual-zone climate control, power driver seat with memory, tinted windows and an onboard computer add to the comfort.

The real story, though, is Volvo’s ability to add that third row of seating and the ease with which owners – using one hand – can fold down the passenger seats.

Customers will have to wait until next spring to get the base 2-wheel-drive version that starts at $33,350.

The all-wheel-drive model, priced at $35,100, seems to be the vehicle of choice as Volvo – one month before the vehicle hits showrooms – has sold 5,000 of the 6,000 available for this year.

That’s a phenomenon officials admit they’re not used to. If current demand is any indication, Volvo should have no problem reaching its annual sales projections of 38,000 to 39,000 through 2006.