Never mind its clunky name, the 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 eAWD is one of those rare cases in which paying for the most expensive version of a car makes total sense.
At a starting price of $74,295, this two-and-a-half-ton, plug-in hybrid SUV is the priciest model in Volvo’s line-up. But what it delivers in style, luxury, and performance is unquestionably compelling, even for the considerable cost. For those considering a Range Rover or other large luxury SUV, it is uniquely appealing from both a design and technology standpoint.
As its cryptic “T8” moniker implies, the hybrid XC90 achieves the output of a conventional V-8—400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. How it does so with an engine half the size is far more intriguing than the numbers themselves and demonstrates the kind of forward thinking even Tesla converts will appreciate.
Onboard the XC90 T8 eAWD is a conglomeration of technology: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, a turbocharger, a supercharger, and two electric motors—one attached to the crankshaft and another driving the rear wheels (putting the “e” in eAWD). None of these components is particularly novel, but the way Volvo engineered them to work so harmoniously as a whole certainly is.
Flooring the throttle releases a wave of torque familiar to anyone who has driven a big-engine Bentley—responsive, smooth, and relentless. Given how disjointed the power delivery on many hybrids can be, this is no small achievement. It is not easy to get electric and gasoline propulsion systems working in lockstep.
The engine’s supercharger and the electric motors help deliver a forceful shove off the line, and by the time you’ve hit most speed limits, the turbocharger has spooled up to goose top-end power. It all comes together in one seamless arc, punctuated by hushed whooshing and whirring from the turbo and electric motors—sounds I quite enjoyed for their novelty in a family-size luxury SUV.
The non-hybrid (and less expensive) XC90 T6 also has a turbocharged, supercharged four-cylinder engine, but without the electric motors to lend prodigious low-end torque—up to 177 lb-ft on the T8. Without them, acceleration is noticeably diminished. The T6 is also noisier and not as smooth in operation; its engine and nine-speed transmission work harder to deliver bursts of acceleration. The even slower base-model T5 represents a stark contrast, powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that lacks the supercharger but retains the turbo. Both the T6 and T8 have a towing capacity of 5000 pounds, while the T5 gets by with a 4000-pound rating.
I’ll note that the lesser XC90 models are by no means anemic; they’re perfectly fine conveyances for well-heeled families. And, as we’ll explain, there are many other redeeming qualities to consider in the XC90 besides its powertrain. The T8 is just better when it comes to driving dynamics; it’s both faster and more serene.
That said, if you think you’ll smoke a Tesla Model X at a stop light, that’s far from the reality. Volvo claims 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds for the XC90 T8—1.5 seconds slower than the base Model X and about half a second off an all-wheel drive BMW 330i.
Other aspects of the driving experience are typical Volvo. The company describes handling as “neutral.” Benign. Innocuous. Dispassionate.
The XC90 feels stable and inspires confidence, which for most of its buyers, is right on the mark. The SUV is quite capable of hustling down winding roads or powering through sweeping bends with authority, it just doesn’t feel as enjoyable or well composed as a BMW X5 in the process. Case in point, changing lanes to make sure I didn’t miss an exit on the highway, the XC90 duly complied, gamely jumping lanes and scrubbing speed simultaneously, but not without a disconcerting shimmy under very hard braking.
The suspension offers a decent balance, allowing enough compliance for comfort while keeping the tall vehicle impressively flat through corners. The ride, however, can be brittle over expansion joints, asphalt seams, and other road imperfections. Steering feel remains numb and low effort, as is the case with most vehicles these days. Fortunately, you can customize the drive mode settings and select a heavier feel without making the suspension, throttle, and transmission behave more aggressively.
For 2020, the XC90 gets a larger battery—11.6 kilowatt-hours versus 10.4, previously—allowing an electric-only range of 12 to 24 miles, depending on conditions and driving style. The battery occupies the vehicle’s center tunnel, where it is positioned for solid weight distribution and shielded from impacts. Charging from empty takes about two and a half hours with the included cord and a 220-volt plug.
You’ll have to look closely to find other tweaks for 2020. On the exterior, there’s a new concave front grill and lower front bumper design. At the rear, the tailpipes have been integrated into the bumper. Low-profile roof rails are now standard on all trims and the wheel designs have been updated across all trims, with 19-inch rims replacing the previously standard 18-inchers on the base model.
Inside, a 12.3-inch digital display in front of the driver is now standard. Coupled with the optional head-up display on the models we tested, it worked well to keep necessary driving information in clear view. Not as intuitive were the steering wheel controls used to navigate various menus and change views for the displays. They made it hard to find the right mode or setting in the moment, whether it was adjusting the type of information to display or changing a radio station.
Likewise, Volvo’s Sensus Connect infotainment system for its nine-inch center touchscreen. The main menu with four horizontally arranged tiles—navigation, media, phone, and a catch-all for other features, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—along with swipe and pinch-to-zoom capability similar to an iPad is elegant, in theory, allowing for fewer hard controls that normally clutter up the center console. In practice, it’s just not as easy or safe to use as systems with dedicated knobs, buttons, and switches. You can’t safely drive and use an iPad at the same time, period.
Changing temperature settings and fan speed for the climate control takes multiple taps, as does most everything else. And although Volvo upgraded the hardware for 2019 to improve processing power by up to 50 percent, it still lags—forcing you to keep eyes off the road for longer than other systems. Tapping tiny buttons along the top of the navigation menu took several tries nearly every time. For a company so focused on safety and usability, Volvo’s Sensus system is especially baffling.
Otherwise, the interior is a wonderful place to spend many hours. New trim choices like Grey Ash wood and innovative wool-blend upholstery options truly stand out in a copycat industry, without feeling overwrought. If you’ve ever looked at images of Swedish interior design—or better yet, actually experienced such settings firsthand—and felt an overwhelming sense of calm and well-being, you can understand how long drives in an XC90 are so relaxing.
The seats are firm but well contoured and supportive, so as not to create fatigue. Visibility is excellent. Road noise is negligible, but wind noise is higher than expected, seeming to emanate from the upper A-pillar or roof area. The optional 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system is one of the best in the industry.
Perhaps the most significant change to the interior for 2020 is the addition of a six-seat configuration ($500), which replaces the second-row bench with two separate chairs—a boon for those who require more than one baby seat. It was something U.S. customers were clamoring for, Volvo says, as it allows easier access to the third row, which is surprisingly accommodating, even for adults.
The top-level T8 eAWD Inscription model I tested rang in at $86,990, including options and delivery fee. This puts it between a Tesla Model X and a Ranger Rover in price. It’s a perfect middle ground in other ways, too: more stylish/luxurious than the former and less ostentatious than the latter. It’s the choice for socially conscious urbanites who demand the best in design and technology, but value doing business with a company whose corporate image is among the most progressive in terms of protecting both humans and the environment.