Driving from Northern California to Oregon is seemingly a simple task. Find Interstate 5 and progress north for five hours or so. The road is largely well-maintained, and the normal flow of traffic is brisk.

But good roads, a fast pace and few navigational tasks don’t necessarily make a long drive easy. Changing weather, drivers’ strange habits, elevation gains and the overall challenge of enduring a 300-mile drive from Sacramento can all provide obstacles.

Of course, comfort, efficiency and enjoyment of the trip can also vary greatly, depending upon the vehicle used.

In one recent instance, the journey was made appreciably easier and enjoyable in a 2006 Volvo XC90, the first and only sports utility vehicle offered by the Swedish manufacturer.

The XC90 provides an exceedingly smooth and comfortable ride, particularly on the open road. My test vehicle was the 4.4-liter, 8-cylinder, 311-horsepower model with a six-speed automatic transmission. The 32-valve V8 engine is transversely mounted, and the vehicle is the most powerful car Volvo has ever made. It’s also the first V8 to meet the Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) level II standards.

Acceleration to ride quality maneuverability to comfort, the XC90 couldn’t have been any better. During a four-day mini-vacation, my wife and I traveled more than 1,000 miles.

Since much of the trip comprised freeway miles, the vehicle’s most noticeable attribute was its smooth ride. And while certainly impressive, the ride quality of the XC90 can also be a potential issue. On more than one occasion, I exceeded 80 mph on the interstate with no inkling of my speed.

Introduced in mid-2005 as a competitor with the Acura MDX and the Lexus RX 330, the new XC90 has several improvements for 2006.

All-wheel drive now includes a trademarked feature called Instant Traction. It delivers an increase of up to 50 percent more torque to the rear axle when appropriate.

Also new is a convenience package. It includes rear park assist, power retractable mirrors, power child door locks and a cargo security cover and protection net.

This option further complements an already impressive list of standard features and options:  Leather seats in all three rows, power moonroof, an audio system with a six CD in-dash changer and rear-seat audio controls, automatic dimming mirrors, climate control, combined wooden and leather steering wheel, heated front seats, and rear-seat audio controls were included on my test vehicle.

The options don’t come cheap. The climate package (heated seats and headlamp washers) adds $675 and the Touring Package (18-inch alloy wheels, sound system wooden inlay, wooden steering wheel and leather shift knob) are a $1,795 addition. Metallic paint contributes another $475 to the price. Factor in the $695 destination charge and the vehicle approaches the $50,000 plateau — a restrictive price barrier for buyers.

Despite its size, the XC90 has a impressively short turning radius. Its exterior design is sleek, not the more standard box-like SUV look. Instrumentation is attractive, although the clock is small and nearly hidden. The vehicle also has a full list of stability and traction features, and it’s big on cargo space, offering 93.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity.

Another small but appreciably functional feature is a rotational digital read out of the estimated remaining miles left in the gas tank as well as the estimated average speed during and gas mileage per tank. In our 1,000-mile voyage, we averaged 20.4 mpg.

All things considered, the XC90 is a fine choice. It’s Volvo longest and biggest vehicle, and it could also soon be among the most popular luxury SUVs on the market.

Safety Features — Driver and front passenger side-impact and dual-impact supplemental airbags and inflatable curtain airbags on all three rows.

Fuel Mileage (estimates) — 15 mpg (city), 21 mpg (highway).

Warranty — Bumper to bumper, 4 years/50,000 miles; Corrosion, 8 years, limited mileage; 4-year, unlimited mileage roadside assistance.

Base Price — $45,840.

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