Volvo’s flagship SUV has gone hybrid, meaning the XC90 T8 is possibly the most sensible product from Sweden yet. So says our man Luca, anyway…
|Engine||Power (combined)||Torque (combined)||0-100kph||Top speed||Weight||Price (as tested)|
|Inline 4cyl, turbocharged, supercharged, 1969cc||401bhp @ 5700rpm||640Nm (472lb ft) @ 2200-5400rpm||5.3 secs||225kph||2319kg (173bhp/ton)||$97,900|
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|Superb refinement, wonderfully smooth drive|
|Polestar ‘sportiness’ unnecessary. On the pricey side|
Sweden. It’s a country with less than ten million people living in it, where 67 per cent of the land is laden with trees, and the rest, for at least six months every year at least, is covered in snow. The native language is beautiful, even though pretty much everybody speaks fluent English. The country is comfortably in the top three for the best health care and education in the world, and if Skype has proven anything, products that hail from Scandinavia’s cousin are simple, practical, logical, and uncluttered by fussiness. Sweden gets things done properly, is basically the point I’m making here, so it came as no surprise that, when a plug-in hybrid version of Volvo’s flagship SUV was announced, Sweden would once again rise to the fuel efficient challenge. And with the Volvo XC90 T8, boy did they…
Let’s start with the looks (I’ll come back to the hybrid powertrain in a second). For an SUV that weighs close to 2319kg, Volvo has done an impressive job not making it LOOK like an SUV that weighs close to 2319kg. Yes, there’s a hint too much ‘Audi’ in the massive R-Design front grille and slick headlights, and more chrome detailing than a ‘sensible’ SUV should have. But overall the look is a strong one, modern and well-balanced without looking overly showy or cumbersome (note also the extra flap for the electric motor over the driver’s side wheel arch). R-Design 20in wheels aside – I’m not sure they’re really necessary – this, to me, is a beautiful machine. Tick tick for Sweden.
What’s the cabin design like?
Inside meanwhile is possibly the cleanest cabin design I’ve ever seen. There’s no fuss, no overt sense of drama, and no swathes of buttons threatening to ruin the minimalist centre console: a surprisingly small, opaque layered gear-lever is about it for ‘drama’, alongside the twisting Stop/Start button that we still find pretty neat. The whole cabin just feels classy, and while perhaps not quite up there with Mercedes-levels of refinement, is closer than it should be for such a significant price difference.
There’s a 12.3in infotainment screen mounted perfectly in the dash, which is controlled by a simple rotary dial system. It’s simple, yes, but fabulously straightforward to use, and is linked to, possibly, the finest quality audio system I’ve ever experienced. Unsurprisingly, the leather-backed seats offer great lumbar support – even if they’re a bit stiffer than you’d expect from a Volvo – and with excellent reach and rake options for the steering rack, the seating position is also superb: high enough for good front and rear visibility, but low enough to make me feel immediately at ease. As, for that matter, do the sheer number of driver assist safety systems. Volvo, remember…
But enough of the design, you want to know how that new plug-in hybrid T8 powertrain stands up. And quite frankly, so do I, because I still can’t quite get my head around it.
Really? Is the plug-in hybrid setup that complicated?
Ish. Power is sent to all four-wheels from an eight-speed automatic gearbox, and since Volvo has now abandoned its heavy 3.2-litre V6 and 4.4-litre V8 engines for the new generation, an impressive 316bhp and 400Nm (295lb ft) of torque is produced by a 2-litre four-cylinder, but the total output is actually closer to 401bhp and 640Nm (472lb ft). I repeat, 401bhp, from 2-litres, a figure some rivals units close to twice that size can’t get near to. Not quite a miracle, the four-cylinder is assisted by a turbocharger, a supercharger, compressor, and a 235kW electric motor, and if you think combining pretty much every engine-related technology is an accident waiting to happen, you’d be wrong. The result is outstanding.
The combination of super and turbocharging, plus the immediacy of that electric motor, means torque is available in healthy doses right across the rev range. Don’t pay too much attention to that Polestar badge though – the performance sub-division offered insight on the suspension mainly – the power delivery is never less than silky smooth, offering enough punch to make the near two-ton SUV sprightly but not enough to affect fuel efficiency. Ditto the gearbox. At a cruise, you’d honestly believe a naturally aspirated V8 was purring away instead.
It’s an impressive setup, one Volvo also uses – albeit without the hybrid tech, to begin with – in the new V90 estate, and will also squeeze into the new 40 and 60 compact series. Smart ‘economy of scale’ intelligence there.
What’s the handling like?
The Swedish engineers haven’t just spent their time on the powertrain though, since the drive is surprisingly good too. Don’t get me wrong – and again, ignore that Polestar badge – you wouldn’t want to chuck the XC90 into the corners by the scruff of the neck. Take a mature approach, and turn-in is very precise. Body roll, thanks to a lower centre of gravity compared with previous generations, is limited, traction is solid, and the power assisted steering is still very accurate for an SUV at least. Stick to the longer sweeping corners and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful flow of momentum, a well-balanced chassis helping to hide the T8’s weight extremely well.
I can’t finish though without addressing the Polestar and R-Design additions on our test model. Are they really necessary? The 22in wheels and low profile tyres may look the part but spoil an otherwise excellent ride comfort more than they add to the ‘sportiness’ of the experience, and if subtle nuances from Volvo’s performance sub-division can be felt in the dampers and suspension, they’re lost on me: I’m never left in doubt that I’m driving an XC90 through the turns. Stay practical and logical Sweden, ‘sporty’ is not your strong suit…
So, overall verdict?
Does all this mean that Sweden, of all places, has developed a plug-in hybrid SUV that people might actually want to buy. Quite simply, yes. And I say this having always found SUVs rather boring. Practical, yes, but rarely fulfilling. The XC90 T8 though is different, combining a classy design – both inside and out – that’s sprightly but not unnecessarily energetic, comfortable without the need of Polestar and R-Design trimmings, and not damaging to your bank balance as a daily commuter vehicle even if the initial $98K for this particular model is a bit high. Choose the right road, and it can even be fun to drive, provided you don’t get too carried away. Proper. Logical. And uncluttered by fussiness. Yep, that sounds about right.
- Technical specifications available on page 2