Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: February 24, 2020
If you were to ask me what car has aged the most gracefully in the past decade, it would be the Volvo XC90. Even after five years on the market and without any significant sheetmetal updates, the XC90 still appears fresh and modern. The 2020 model year brings some minor tweaks to the front grill and rear fascia, but it’s nothing the casual eye will ever notice. The powertrain has also been reworked, a six-seater layout with captain’s chairs is now offered due to overwhelming customer demand, the battery in the T8 PHEV is larger than before, and the regenerative brakes have been redesigned for more conventional braking feel.
The XC90 T8 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. Our expedition around the city in brisky zero-degrees Celsius Canadian winter offered us only around 18 kilometres 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 a disappointing 13.3 L/100km, in line with other V6-powered seven-seaters in this category.
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.
The XC90 comes with an optional 4-corner air suspension that 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. 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 air suspension upgrade instead that also pairs in an electronically-controlled adaptive damper system.
I can also do without the hyper-reactive steering rack that is signature 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 has stood the test of time incredibly well. The dashboard is simple, the center touchscreen is large and in charge, 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. Think less of IKEA, and not so much West Elm, but more of Structube. The rocker-style crystal gear lever has been given a new design for 2020 and is again supplied by Orrefors, a Swedish crystal making company. Exclusive to the T8 models, the new design with its flat-sided shape is a bit of an eyesore for me - I much prefer the old example. And depending on the XC90 trim, you can spec it to four, five, six, or even seven seater capacity.
The XC90 with all the bells and whistles, and in PHEV configuration, is not a cheap offering. Our specific test vehicle rings up just over $100,000. That said, if you have the means of keeping the XC90 T8 fully charged, take advantage of its zero-emission capabilities, and if the commute is short, the T8 is a worthy admission to your garage with its wrinkle-free sheetmetal, chic interior, and pleasant driving experience. If 25 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 choice. Even though it’s only offered on the base Momentum 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 Inscription 7-Seat with Polestar Engineered Optimization
Paint Type: Bright Silver
Base Price: $85,800
Price as Tested: $102,965
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
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 13.3 (on empty battery)