Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: November 9, 2020
There’s never been a better time to be in the market for a Volvo. Their current line up is the most diverse it’s ever been. Wagons, SUVs, sedans, and performance hybrids - there’s something for everyone. The largest SUV in the portfolio, the XC90, was the vanguard that brought their current design language to bear fruit, and it’s been around for five successful years. Half a decade is a lifetime in the automotive market, but the XC90 has withstood the test of time and aged gracefully like a fine wine, bringing some minor updates to the sheetmetal for 2020. The powertrains have been reworked, a six-seater layout with captain’s chairs is now offered due to overwhelming customer demand, the battery in the plug-in hybrid T8 variant is larger than before, and the regenerative brakes have been redesigned for a more natural pedal feel.
The XC90 T8 R-Design we tested is a plug-in hybrid utilizing an e-AWD system where the combustion engine powers the front wheels while the electric motor controls the rear. The 2.0-litre turbo- and supercharged four-cylinder engine dishes out 314 hp and 295 lb-ft, while the 34 kW generator and electric motor offer 87 horsepower for the rear axle. Total claimed output is 400 hp and 472 lb-ft, but like the V60 and XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered (PE) models, that output is deceiving, as the power is dished out in a way that makes the XC90 feel slower than it sounds on paper. 0-100 km/h comes in a relatively average 5.6 seconds despite its rather quick shifting 8-speed automatic transmission.
Our XC90 came equipped with a Polestar Engineered Optimization tune offered after delivery at authorized Volvo dealerships for $1,465 CAD. This bumps up the four-cylinder’s output from 314 hp to 330 hp, recalibrates the throttle for more immediate power delivery, changes the shift mapping for smarter and faster gear shifts, and distributes more torque to the rear wheels for a sportier drive. It will also sprint from 0-100 km/h one-tenth of a second quicker, in 5.5 seconds. All this without affecting the original warranty. The tune even comes with a Polestar Engineered driving mode, selectable on the center display, much like it is on the other T8 PE models, and spices up the power delivery, lowers the air suspension if equipped, and firms up the steering.
The battery capacity has been increased from 10.4 to 11.6 kilowatt hours, offering roughly 25 to 30 kilometres of electric-only driving. Of course, real world range is much less. Even with a full charge, we barely had enough battery to get ourselves home after picking up the XC90 from Volvo’s Richmond Hill head office. With the weather at 3 degrees Celsius, the cabin temperature set at 22, and the heated seats and steering wheel on full tilt, we only got 16 km of zero-emission mobility. Though the engine is small, the amount of forced induction and its high-stressed nature means it's not the most fuel efficient powertrain either. In the city alone and with the battery depleted, we averaged 13.6 L/100km, a nudge higher than other V6-powered seven-seaters in this category.
But the real appeal of the hybrid setup doesn’t lie with its electric-only range, but how it amplifies the acceleration. The T6 is not the most potent powertrain, somewhat struggling to get the XC90 off the line with fizz, but the T8 really gives it proper, accessible, and authoritative thrust. You have to remember that the XC90 isn’t a lightweight and afterall, this is no BMW X5 M competitor. But leave it to Polestar to find a remedy to the three-row performance SUV dilemma.
What it all amounts to is a smooth, silent, and comfortable driving experience, when in electric-only mode. Like a newborn, when that petite little engine wakes up, it creates an audible and palpable ruckus, vibrating the steering wheel and your eardrums for a rather non-luxurious atmosphere. The supercharger whine is not pleasant, the engine feels coarse and rough mid-range, and you can tell the twin-charged unit is huffing, puffing, and struggling to keep up under large power demands. At least the swap between combustion and electricity is seamless. Volvo has done a phenomenal job in this regard. Straight-line acceleration is without fault, and it’s clear the T8 harbours some impressive power, matching the aggressive looks brought forth by the R-Design package and its unique high-gloss black front grill, more aggressive front and rear bumpers, and standard 20-inch wheels (22s are optional).
I don’t believe the Polestar tune would make a significant difference to the average driver, and if you really wanted a sportier drive with a rear-biased AWD system, the BMW X5 would make for a better dancing partner. The Polestar tune subtly amps up the power delivery to be spikier and more vigorous, but it doesn’t seem to suit the XC90 very well. The calmer attitude provided by the less aggressive modes might not be as rapid, but feel less forced and more natural. Honestly, I would skip the Polestar tune and wholeheartedly endorse the $2,350 four-corner air suspension upgrade instead that also pairs in an electronically-controlled adaptive damper system. They will lower the vehicle when exiting, easing ingress and egress and loading cargo. It also makes for one serene ride through town, absorbing bumps with uncanny precision, but still manages to ride a tad stiffer than the equivalent BMW X5 and Mercedes GLE.
I can do without the hyper-reactive steering rack that is typical of modern Volvos. The rotation is super light and offers almost no rotational resistance, so those used to wrestling their steering wheel will find themselves over-rotating and over-correcting their angles quite often. This Volvo requires a bit more finesse of the wheel, but at least it ensures arm strength isn’t a prerequisite to pilot one. And like other hybrids, the regenerative brakes equate to a springy and soft brake pedal, offering non-linear resistance and feedback that takes some driver adjustment. Volvo switched from a vacuum-assisted to a hydraulic system for 2020, so it’s not as bad as previous PHEV offerings, but it does require practice to nail down a smooth stop.
The XC90 was the progenitor of Volvo’s current interior design language, and it’s a thing of beauty. The dashboard is simple, the center touchscreen is large, and the sleek, simplistic dials and switchgear, while not coated in the most top-shelf materials like in BMWs or Mercedes’, still give off a chic vibe. That upscale finish also rings true with the optional carbon fibre inlays and blond nappa leather seats. Think less of IKEA and not so much West Elm, but more of Structube. The R-Design trim further adds a beefier perforated leather steering wheel, paddle shifters, and charcoal headlining.
The XC90 with all the bells and whistles, and in PHEV configuration, is not a cheap offering. Our specific test vehicle rings up just under $100,000. That said, if you have the means of keeping the T8 fully charged, take advantage of its zero-emission capabilities, and if the commute is short, it’s a worthy admission to your garage. If 16 kilometres of range is too little, best to find a car that works around you, instead of a car you’ll have to work around. The XC90 T5 with its smoother and more refined turbo-four engine is a solid alternative. Even though it’s only offered on the base Momentum 7-seater trim, it would be my pick of the litter for its more straightforward and organic approach to driving. And if its 250 hp output isn’t enough for you, well, there’s always that Polestar tune.
Model: 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design
Paint Type: Bursting Blue
Base Price: $84,100
Price as Tested: $94,575
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,950 / 2,008 / 1,776
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder + electric battery and motor/generator
Horsepower: 400 hp combined @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 472 lb-ft combined @ 2,200 - 5,400 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 9.1 / 8.4 / 8.8