Volvo XC90 T8 Plug-In SUV Review


Ever since seeing the plug-in electric Volvo XC90 T8 rotate under glittering lights at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 2014, I’ve been keenly interested in driving one. To say the XC90 is impressive is an understatement. The “dual motor” XC90 T8 redefines Volvo’s market position, putting it on even footing, at least, with the PHEV versions of the Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE. Volvo says the XC90 is not just a relaunch of the vehicle, but of the entire brand. After driving the XC90, I can confirm the transformation. 

The XC90 is big and it is not cheap. But if you’re in the market for a luxury SUV that can comfortably seat seven passengers and still have room for cargo, the XC90 should be on your short list. 

The interior styling is first class, bringing classic Scandinavian design aesthetic together with modern technology. There are a few flourishes, including Orrefors crystal on the shift lever and textured metalwork on the start knob and drive mode selector reminiscent of classy jewel box baubles. But the overall impression is one of uncluttered serenity. This is a vehicle which can keep you safely insulated from the insanity of urban freeways, which is where I found myself after leaving Santa Monica on the way to Ojai for lunch at a country villa courtesy of Volvo. Although initially surprised by the four hour length of the scheduled excursion, I quickly came to appreciate the time given to get fully acquainted with the XC90 because there’s a lot that was new. 

The first was the driver assist features. I had used adaptive cruise control before, which will slow down for traffic and then speed up again. But the XC90 also has lane keeping, which will gently turn the steering wheel to keep you from inadvertently crossing lanes during a moment of inattention. It will not override driver input, and will not activate at all if you use your turn signals when making a normal lane change. But it was generally successful at keeping the car from crossing into another lane on the freeway from Ventura to Capitola in medium traffic despite my feigned nonchalance. It does not keep the car in the center of the lane, instead running along one side of the lane, so hands off driving is not an option. The system will not steer with enough authority to keep you in your lane if you are rounding a bend, like the kink along Highway 101 at Mussel Shoals, but it’s an interesting technology and a preview of the fully autonomous drive that Volvo says it will have on sale in 2017. To reinforce the driver assist functions a heads up display provides visual warnings and instrumentation in the windshield. The entertainment system, climate control and driving settings are managed via the 9 inch center console multi-touch display. 

The XC90’s suspension is a little more firm than I expected it to be, but not out of character with an SUV and it does have an electronic adjustment that allows you to set five different levels of performance vs comfort, including “Individual” where you can adjust personal driving preferences. After my freeway experiments with cruise control and assisted driving, I was ready for the kind of old fashioned backroads driving that demands your fullattention. While maintaining the speed limit, I put the car to the test. The XC90 provided very responsive handling on the hilly serpentine roads leading in and out of Ojai. There was a little body roll, this is a tall SUV not a sports car, but the car felt remarkably stable at all times, better than most SUVs I’ve driven. The XC90 is quiet and refined. But because it’s a hybrid, I found the noise and vibration of the gas engine in the XC90 noticeable after having been so utterly spoiled by the silky smooth silence of the Model S. It seems that the Tesla Model X, also a 7 seater, will be the XC90s strongest competition, albeit with a price tag likely to be $10-$20k higher depending on options. The XC90 has excellent seats that not only fit well with good lumbar support, but provide extra safety by having their own internal “crush zone” that provides protection for your spine. The XC90 is a car that can comfortably tick off the miles cruising the highway. Even though it is a full-sized SUV, it still felt manageable around town. The sound emanating from the 1,400 watt, 19 speaker Bowers & Wilkins stereo system was sublime; a $2,500 option worth every cent. Volvo says they will soon have the Apple CarPlay entertainment system available. Volvo added some thoughtful refinements to the XC line, including a pop-up booster seat in the middle of the second row, fold flat second and third-row seats that drop with touch of a button, and most helpful, a hands-free rear lift gate that you activate by sweeping your foot under the rear bumper when the key fob is in your pocket. The all-electric AC system can keep the cabin cool even when the engine is not running. 

Volvo’s XC90 T8 uses theDrive-E Twin-Engine Powertrain System. Two electric motors are matched with a 2.0L 4-cylinder. The 4-cylinder engine conects to the front wheels via a shift-bywire 8-speed automatic transmission while the rear wheels are powered by the Electric Rear Axle Drive motor. The 2.0L 4-cylinder engine has both a supercharger and turbocharger which gives the engine plenty of torque throughout its RPM range yet making it more economical around town and at highway speeds. The car can run only on the silent, smooth electric motor for the first 13 miles of every trip after charging. But press on the accelerator and the internal combustion engine kicks into service with a low growl, moving the car with an agility that belies its 5,200 lb curb weight.  

To wring every extra bit of power from the integrated ICE engine/electric motor package, Volvo replaced the starter motor and alternator with a single unit they call ISG. In addition to starting and charging the car, the ISG actually supplies traction power under high load. That’s a technical detail that you’ll feel in your back as you kick down the accelerator to get things moving along. The dual super-turbo chargers and dual electric motors give the hybrid powerplant 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque, enough giddyup to spur the beast from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, a feat I accomplished repeatedly on the flat, wide traffic-free Ojai agriculture backroads. Just to make sure it really worked. The XC90 T8’s all-wheel drive provides superb traction control and a 6,000 lb towing capacity.  

Because T8 plug-in hybrid offers up 20 miles of pure electric range with electric fuel from your wall socket, the fuel for your commute could be reduced to the equivalent of $1 per gallon, or less if you have solar panels mounted on your roof. Volvo paid attention to the details with the plug-in charging system, right down to the charge cord. The XC90 T8 is the first plug-in hybrid to come standard with a 240V charge cord, an imminently sensible move matched only by Tesla among all OEMs. In fact, Volvo provides the Aerovironment TurboCord, one of the most compact, versatile and high quality charge cords made. This small lightweight charger changes from 120V to 240V simply by snapping on a plug adapter, so can be used with a 240V circuit at home, or any available 120V circuit when away. The 3.3kW charger will charge the T8’s battery in less than 3 hours. After completing the four hour, 179 mile drive over every type of road and traffic conditions, I was still as impressed as I had been admiring the good looks of the car on the auto show turntable. The XC90 is very comfortable and performs well. Although I’ve never used an SUV as a daily driver due to the fuel cost (financial and environmental), I’ve rented them for road trips before the Model S took over that duty. It’s hard to beat a luxury SUV for comfort and capacity on a road trip, or if you have a troupe and gear to haul around in town. With the XC90’s capacity to drive the first 20 miles of every trip on the electric equivalent of $1 per gallon fuel, the monthly cost equation changes in the driver’s favor by several hundred dollars a month, bringing the total monthly cost in line with much less expensive SUVs. Purchasers may be able to offset $4,600 of the $69,095 MSRP with Federal tax credits, and may qualify for other state and local incentives that could knock another few thousand off.

The XC90 received accolades including the Best Luxury Midsize SUV by U.S. News & World Reports, North American Truck of the Year by North American Car & Truck/Utility of the Year Awards, and Best New Luxury Crossover by Car and Driver/Good Housekeeping. This should bring even more people into dealerships to look at the SUV including the plug-in, T8 version, making it a success.

This article first appeared in the 2015 Plug-In SUV Buyer's Guide. The guide was printed in the 2015 Q3 issue of Electric Car Insider magazine. Current issues of Electric Car Insider are available at hundreds of newsstands throughout the U.S. and Canada including Barnes & Noble. Never miss an issue by subscribing.

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