Tested: 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge is a Super Swede
This expensive plug-in hybrid SUV from Volvo is more Crate & Barrel than Ikea.
Luxury and Volvo are historically not what people associate together. Safety is what comes to the minds of many first, with their indestructible station wagons from the 80s and 90s. An 'old-person's car' is another that might be thought of, unfortunately, but Volvo wants to change that with the swag and vigor infused into their current lineup. The XC90 is no newcomer, being on sale for 20 years now, and was a result of the European brands realizing there was a market for civil SUVs for civil people in the early 2000s. BMW X5, Porsche Cayenne, Mercedes ML; that type of crowd. This latest edition of their XC90 brings the latest tech and luxury in an increasingly refined package for those with the dough to blow.
Let's get the elephant in the room addressed promptly, though: This XC90 T8 Recharge Inscription is $81,690 as equipped. Take a deep breath, or two, because that's a lot no matter what perspective you're coming from. Instead of the bargain aisle at Ikea, this Swede is priced like the finest from Crate & Barrel and Williams-Sonoma. The outside is a clean and understated design that embodies elegance. It's good looking without even trying, like Ryan Gosling. As their flagship specification, you do get basically every feature imaginable for that price, so it's not like you'll be missing anything at least. The cabin is finished in a beautiful combination of luscious Nappa leather and craftsman wood, with on-point metal detailing sprinkled here and there. The shift lever is a Orrefors crystal that is bewilderingly pretty and eye-stealing, even if the operation of it is strange (push and/or pull twice each time for reverse or drive). Despite this overwhelming quality of materials inside, however, the quality of the build is more underwhelming, with the XC90 lacking the robust solidity of other premium offerings. There were a couple more rattles here and there, and even the door didn't give that satisfying air-tight feel that an astronaut would want in the space station. It's marvelous to look at and be in, but it's not quite perfect yet. I reckon I'm nitpicking, but at over $80,000 somebody has to nitpick.
I do highly recommend this example's interior combination as it absolutely screams luxury. The warm and assuring saddle brown-colored Amber leather simply makes it feel like home. Don't get boring black leather in your luxury SUV - get something interesting and that looks expensive. The seats are similarly fabulous to both sit in and look at. Like coming home from a night of drinking Hendrick's Gin martinis - none of that cheap 'well gin' crap - and coming home to sinking into your favorite leather armchair until morning, that's what these seats feel like. Plus, this example has the optional massage function as part of a $1,700 Lounge Package, which I wish were easier to activate as I used them literally every time I drove the damn thing. You can choose lumbar, a treading pattern, shoulder, whatever 'swell' was, and it's all pretty good. It's odd that you have to first press a lever on the side of the seat before then controlling it through the large center touchscreen display, but what a feature. I wish every car had these. Also included in the Lounge Package is a Nubuck headliner with a suede texture. It's impossible to not gently pet when bored at a red light.
Space is a big plus for the XC90 as it should, being a vast three-row SUV. Nobody will have complaints in the front or second rows and my own passengers enjoyed their time spent in the Volvo's comfort and ambience. A panoramic sunroof further enhances the mood and creative space inside. The third row should be reserved for small children and maybe emergencies only, but it's there when you need it. Speaking of which, the operation of the third row plainly sucks. While other cars like the Genesis GV80 have electronically raising and lowering third-row seats, the Volvo does away with that. Nor are there any pull straps even to make it easier, which means you have to awkwardly reach in and pull them up yourself. Entitled? Sure. But for eighty grand, I want my third row to go up and down on their bloody own accord.
In the center of the cabin is an alluringly large center display touchscreen to handle all your media and navigation controls. It's designed to function more as a tablet in interface design than other cars so it did take me some time to acclimate. I didn't like that some settings were buried too deep in menus or were just in the wrong place, example being the manual switch for the incredibly useful 360-degrees surround-view cameras. While most cars have a physical switch for that, it's in the screen's settings page. Something I childishly enjoyed in the V90 wagon I recently tested was also present here in the XC90: a way to rapidly fold down the head restraints of the second row seats. I'm guessing that feature exists for visibility reasons, but I adore it for the means of boyishly folding them into my friends' heads when they're not suspecting it. Another worthy mention is the Bowers & Wilkens stereo which can pump out your tunes with aural aplomb. At $3,200 it better be good, but if it were me speccing my own, I'd likely save the money and deal with the standard welfare-class stereo.
So the interior is all mostly lovely, but what about the drive then? As I expected, the XC90 offers a luxuriously detached driving experience. For those wanting a sporty, visceral, and engaging attitude, well unfortunately those traits were not in the design brief. If you want that, get a German alternative with over 500 unnecessary yet addicting horsepower and stiff suspension. Those characteristics are not the point of the XC90, as they clash and contradict with the very notion of luxury. So instead of compromising, the XC90 steers lightly and easily on all roads, with the large footprint able to be placed accurately, too. The ride is comfortable without feeling sloppy thanks to an optional air suspension (you can see and hear it deflate and lower each time you park) that glides over the road. Handling really just isn't, but if you do need to make up for lost time on a backroad, the XC90 will strongarm the pavement into submission with surprising pace. However, driving like that is not enjoyable in this SUV; it's just not the point of it. Behind the wheel, trips cruising on the highway or 60 MPH sweeping country roads are turned into relaxing ventures, which is exactly what buyers will want.
Remember how this is called the T8 Recharge? Well, this XC90 is a plug-in hybrid. Starting with the familiar 2.0L supercharged and turbocharged inline-four engine in all Volvos, it's paired to a 9.1 kWh lithium-ion battery pack with an 87 horsepower electric motor. Total peak output is 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque, both being big improvements over the non-hybrid T6 model. The gas engine actually only powers the front wheels while the electric motor is responsible for the rear axle, meaning the XC90 can be front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive.
With 9.1 kWh of juice when fully charged, you can drive the XC90 as a full EV for about 20 miles. To charge, you can use the included charger cable and leave it plugged in overnight in your garage to reliably ensure a full charge each morning. However, you can also never charge it and have it act like a normal hybrid. Driving it as such netted a real world average fuel economy of 22 MPG in my time, which is pretty good for a 5,000 pound SUV behemoth. Freeway mileage recorded a mean of 27, which also is pretty decent given the shear mass that's being moved. Both are also significantly better than what you'd get from the non-hybrid T6. Whether you decide to charge the XC90 or not at home also might depend on your local energy rates. You can choose between two modes of regenerative braking: on or practically off. The latter makes the big SUV feel totally normally, but bump the crystal shift lever into the 'B' mode and you're greeted by an aggressive regen system that nearly enables one pedal driving because of its refusal to coast. This way, when you take your foot off the throttle, the XC90 dramatically slows to harvest energy for the battery back. It's nice for drivers that Volvo gives you the choice. For the utmost efficiency and involvement, you can constantly be changing the lever back and forth from Drive to 'B' for when you want coasting ability and then for each time you do need to slow down.
Even with 400 horsepower, performance is shocking. I timed the 0-60 MPH dash in only 5.3 seconds, an absurd figure for an SUV that honestly has no real sporting intentions and is also about a full second quicker than the last T6 the Road Beat tested. This completely belies the more normal characteristics of the powertrain, too. When left in the standard hybrid drive mode (using a odd spinning wheel in the center console that could be improved), power is delivered smoothly and lazily, with shifts from the eight-speed auto virtually non-existent. Because the engine only propels the front wheels, pulling away from stops while turning can sometimes induce torque steer as you pull away using only electric power before the gas engine comes to life with a huge surge in momentum. In standard hybrid operation, the XC90 just never felt all that quick, though.
However, roll that drive mode to Sport and the entire demeanor of the power unit is transformed. Hit the pedal from a stop and all four tires dig right into the asphalt and launch you immediately with no inertia at all. Sport mode also gives you a real tachometer, with a digital needle that spins ferociously fast to the redline, pulling with an authority that the T6 lacks (a T6-engined Volvo runs out of puff at the top end). The T8 charges hard all the way to the redline and the eight-speed then cracks off viscous shifts like that of a dual-clutch box, all with an aggressive soundtrack to boot. Where did this come from, Volvo? More of this! When all was said and done, the XC90 T8 is a serious barnstormer when in Sport Mode and is easily the most pronounced Sport mode of any recent car I've driven (most 'sport' modes just change throttle sensitivity); Serious speed from a wholly unsuspecting source. Now, if Volvo were to make a hard-edged AMG style Polestar (their performance branch) XC90, this would make a strong basis.
Volvo has long been huge advocates of safety. From indestructible old sedans and wagons that many parents fancy as first cars for their children to new age tech, safety is a sensible proposition from a sensible carmaker like Volvo. So it comes as no surprise that this Volvo is equipped with every modern safety feature possible. Earning 5-stars crash ratings like most other Volvos, it's also a top safety pick by the IIHS. Besides the usual collision mitigation systems and blind spot monitoring, the standout feature that blew me away were the incredible LED headlights. No way around this one - these are the best headlights I've ever seen, and they dramatically turn in the direction you steer. Lots of other vehicles have turning lights, but none as noticeable as on the Volvo, which allows you to really see through corners. Very useful at night on dark winding roads.
The XC90 T8 was a vehicle I thoroughly enjoyed having spent time with. It's pretty on the outside and still has a magnificent interior. Climbing inside each time it was hard not to think, "yeah, this is pretty damn impressive." While some hybrid SUVs offer no economy gains due to the excessive weight such systems add, the T8 does bring real world MPG gains plus massive performance increases when you ask for it. For luxury wafting, it's a legit alternative to the usual German crowd, but perhaps the biggest threat and usurper is the new flashy Genesis GV80 that is threatening the very stronghold of luxury SUVs.
2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge T8 Inscription
As-tested price: $81,690
Base Recharge T8 Inscription Price: $70,745
Pros: Beautiful inside and out; stonking flat-out speed; decent economy
Cons: Expensive; Third-row operation
Verdict: it's a looker inside and out, but this Swede comes at a price.