Volvo Cars of North America LLC has an unqualified hit in its XC90 cross/utility vehicle.

Launched in 2002 to strong reviews and even stronger sales, the XC90 finished 2003, its first full year in the U.S., selling 29,397 units. The number was large enough to scare established European mid-luxury CUV leaders BMW X5 (39,654 units) and Mercedes M-Class (32,179 units).

Volvo's rivals had cause for concern. In 2004, the XC90 leaped past its competition to emerge as the segment's best-selling European CUV by a comfortable margin, selling 39,183 units.

So it's not like the XC90 needs any help. But it's coming anyway, in a most un-Volvoish fashion: big brutish horsepower from an all-new, Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. 4.4L DOHC V-8.

“The opportunity is huge,” says John Neu, XC90 V-8 product-launch manager. He says 30% of all premium SUVs sold in the U.S. are equipped with a V-8, and until now XC90 was excluded from that playground.

Volvo says North America will account for at least 75% of the 15,000 V-8-equipped XC90s it produces annually. Volvo says it could sell 9,500 or more in the U.S. this year, 70% of which are expected to be incremental sales. Volvo calls the new vehicle its XC90 Power Utility Vehicle.

Armed with the new V-8, Volvo has more numbers on its side. The XC90 V-8 starts at $45,395, $9,000 less than an equally equipped X5 4.4i, says Volvo, and close to what many competitors ask for V-6 models.

And at 311 hp and 325 lb.-ft. (441 Nm) of torque, the Yamaha-designed and built 4.4L DOHC V-8 is stronger than Mercedes' current 5L SOHC V-8 and gives little ground to the strongest V-8s in the segment.

More important to buyers, the new V-8 pours on the salsa for the XC90's leaning-toward-stodgy image. The new V-8 — Volvo says it's the smallest 4.4L engine in the world — yanks the XC90 from 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a handy seven seconds, cutting two seconds from the best time managed by the XC90's previously strongest powerplant, Volvo's yeoman 2.9L twin-turbocharged DOHC I-6.

The I-6 still is available, but the meager upcharge for the V-8 could mean a dwindling take rate. The 268-hp I-6 isn't exactly torpid, but even with its dual blowers pumping their utmost, the bulky XC90 — 4,610 lbs. (2,092 kg) with either engine (strangely enough) — barely gets out of its own way.

The identical curb weights Volvo lists for 6- and 8-cyl. XC90s may owe to the fact that the all-aluminum V-8, itself, weighs just 33 lbs. (15 kg) more than the 6-cyl. The compact dimensions, meanwhile, were a necessity to ensure the powerplant could be installed in a bay designed for a transverse engine and maintain the generous crumple zones upon which the safety-first Volvo engineers insist.

Volvo has yet to release final fuel economy figures, but engineers expect the V-8's habit won't be much worse than the I-6, which gets 15 mpg (15.7L/100 km) in the city and 20 mpg (11.8L/100 km) on the highway.

The XC90 is a compelling package, with an attractive price: The $45,395 base represents a premium of less than $4,000 compared with the I-6 model — a paltry upcharge in this league. Smart customers factoring in the XC90's already stellar resale values instantly will recognize the top-of-the-line V-8 as a can't-lose proposition.