Not content to let its new star, the 2017 V90 Cross Country wagon, take all the spotlight at that car’s recent launch in the icy wilds of central Sweden, Volvo also brought along a brace of XC90 SUVs for us to put through their paces. Not just any XC90, either: We had our chance in the fully equipped Volvo XC90 T8 model decked out in R-Design trim.
Plug-in for the win
While it may seem strange to attach “R-Design” to a plug-in hybrid—essentially the smarter, more environmentally conscious version of the truck—you’ll start to understand why it’s absolutely deserving of this moniker when you realize just what the hybrid power means for the XC90.
The addition of an electric motor powering the rear wheels is actually a third “bonus” when it comes to the Volvo XC90’s powertrain, for it joins both a turbocharger and supercharger in helping provide motive force to the big 2,400kg SUV. Total system output grows to 400 horsepower and 475 lb-ft of torque, which is more than enough to offset the 250 kg tacked on by the EV motor. Unless you attempt quick, right-left-right transitions more befitting of a sports car (or the V90), you won’t really feel that weight.
That’s the EV boost in the powertrain sense; it goes farther than that, however. You see, there’s no actual driveshaft running to the rear wheels, and no differential on the rear axle. Instead, when you need more traction, the electric motor sends power to the rear wheels, so it’s an integral part of the AWD system. It also helps save weight, as there’s no need for all that equipment back there. (Here’s a video showing how the T8 powertrain works).
Surely, then, there must be an adverse effect on the XC90 T8, right? Maybe it can’t tow as much or climb as steep a grade? According to Volvo, that’s simply not the case. This plug-in hybrid model has almost the same capabilities as its more traditional T6 sibling. Now that’s mighty impressive!
You can feel it, too. As was the case with the V90 Cross Country, we were given the chance to put the XC90 to the test on a frozen lake to see just how dynamic it was. Granted, the former proved to be the more responsive car, but the way we could keep slides going and change directions without really getting too far out of sorts in the XC90 was surprising.
The way it reacted depended, of course, on which of the five drive modes we selected. “AWD”, for example, allows the electronic safety aids to step in a little more aggressively, while “Power” mode has the gas and electric motors working in unison to provide the quickest reaction time possible.
That’s all well and good for track use, but when you think about it, a grand total of maybe five XC90 owners will ever take their SUV onto an icy lake in Sweden. What the test did show, however, is just how capable the Volvo XC90 T8 is on the snow- and ice-covered roads that many Canadians deal with for much of the winter. There were times where I’d be on a completely iced-over road (many drivers use studded tires here, so they don’t plow and salt as much) and wouldn’t know it until I had to perform a panic stop. This is a well-sorted powertrain that will inspire confidence in its occupants.
The other obvious advantage of a plug-in hybrid vehicle is its ability to cruise on full EV power for an extended amount of time. In the case of the XC90 T8, that’s about 40 kilometres according to the manufacturer. Meanwhile, just a few hours get you a full charge.
It all depends on the conditions in which you’re driving, mind you. If you’re going to rely more on the climate control system, you’re going to use a little more battery. Having said that, you can pre-program your XC90 to start warming itself up before you hit the road using the Volvo On Call mobile app, or setting it up through the infotainment display.
Once underway, the drive modes also have an effect on the climate control system. Indeed, selecting “Pure” mode will also govern just how powerful the climate control system can be. Alternatively, go the other way and use the car’s “Hold” function to prevent the electric motor from being used. That way, you can save EV juice for when you really need it and use the gas engine when it’s at its most efficient, like on a fast-moving highway, for example.
You’ll want to be sure you get those climate control settings right. Otherwise, there’s a chance you could be missing out on a big part of the Volvo XC90—well, any Volvo, really—experience.
I’m talking about the fantastic interior environs, of course. While I do like the R-Design trim and all the exterior add-ons (wheels, badging, roof spoiler, and more), the model pictured here is not quite how I’d spec my XC90. It’s missing one crucial element that Volvo does so well: luscious, warming open-pore wood. It’s what adds a certain level of Swedish-ness other manufacturers can’t quite match. In other words, what we have here could easily be found inside a BMW or Mercedes.
It doesn’t change just how comfortable the Volvo XC90 is, however. That comfort, obviously, starts with the seats, which continue to be some of the best in the biz. They’re supportive, well-cushioned, and adjustable in so many ways that I find it impossible to believe anyone, of any body size, would ever call them “uncomfortable.”
The other big piece in the interior puzzle of this SUV is the infotainment system. Volvo’s is dominated by a very Tesla-esque 12.3” display right in the centre console, and it’s your pathway to your music, navigation, electronic driver aids (automatic parking, lane keep assist, etc.), climate control, and more. It’s an incredibly slick interface once you learn to swipe through the pages—so slick, in fact, that even though it has support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you still use Volvo’s interface to navigate through those apps when on most cars, and you get a mirror image of your device on the screen. Volvo didn’t want to make it too hard to switch between their apps and those from a third party, so they decided to keep things in the Volvo environment.
I understand why they decided to go that way, but both myself and my drive partner found that it took a little more getting used to than necessary. For example, it was hard to tell, at first, whether we were using playlists from our connected phone through CarPlay, or through USB. Eventually, we worked it out.
Having it all
As far as “getting used to” goes, the CarPlay issue is small potatoes compared to just how good the rest of the Volvo XC90 T8 is. Its supercharged and turbocharged 4-cylinder gasoline engine alone is a strong performer; with the addition of EV power, it manages to find yet another level.
Furthermore, you get all that EV goodness that comes with a plug-in hybrid, as well as a fantastic, spacious, and well-appointed interior, not to mention the fabulous-looking R-Design exterior. It’s one of the most complete packages in the entire luxury SUV segment.