The 455hp plug-in XC90 has been around for a while now. It's still a tough act to beat…
By John Howell / Sunday, January 9, 2022 / Loading comments
PH isn’t known for its love of SUVs, but I’d like to make a case for the Volvo XC90 T8 being a great car to live with if that’s what you need. For a start, I think it’s the best-looking large SUV this side of the big Rangie (current or incoming). Maybe even as handsome. The Audi Q7, BMW X5 and Mercedes GLE are great cars in many ways, but are they emotive pieces of design? Will they have you looking over your shoulder as you walk up to the front door? Possibly not. Yet with the caveat of “each to their own,” the XC90 does. Isn’t that a little ironic? All the German brands are layering on the gaudiness, especially with respect to oversized the front grilles, because it’s said that’s what the Chinese like. Yet the brand that’s owned by the Chinese is producing some of the most elegant cars of our time.
It’s just as fantastic inside. For a start, I love its lofty driving position. It makes you feel like you’re on board a proper SUV (even if it won’t challenge a Discovery up a mountain, let alone a grassy knoll). And the seats are possibly the best in the business. I’ve been running around the country in this car for three weeks and I haven’t felt a twinge in my legs, back or butt. It’s not just me, either. When you put the issue of seat comfort to a wider audience - other journalists and friends – I’ve yet to hear a dissenting voice. Along with excellent cushions, side bolsters and shoulder wings – this being the R-Design with sports seats – the controls are built around you, too. There’s no offset to the pedals, the steering wheel comes out to your solar plexus, and the wheel doesn’t obscure the dials in the slightest. Not all its rivals are so thoughtfully designed.
Then there’s the amount of space you get. I am on the tall side (six-foot-three) and a lot that comes from my unfeasibly long legs. Yet I don’t find leg room in the front an issue, and if you are a few inches taller than me, I doubt you would either. In a Discovery, for instance, I have the seat at the end of its runners and, like Oliver Twist, am still wishing for more. Anyone unlucky enough to have to sit behind me will attest that there’s never much space left in most cars. There is in the XC90. You can fit five tall adults on board and, in the main, they’ll be happy. Indeed, at one point I had all seven seats in play and no one grumbled.
Fair enough, the XC90’s third row isn’t as generous as a BMW X7’s, but it’s still roomier in the back row than many of its rivals. And if those rivals are hybrids, they probably won’t have the option of seven seats. With the T8 Recharge, the biggest practicality compromise is the enlarged transmission tunnel in the second row that the middle passenger has to straddle, which is actually stuffed with some of the 11.6kWh of lithium-ion batteries. The boot volume is just 40-litres shy of the non-hybrid models at 640 litres. That’s still enough to get a bathroom vanity unit, washbasin, boxes of wall lights (I am doing up a house in case you’re wondering) and five people’s luggage to Wales for New Year.
The quality stacks up, too. Volvo’s interiors are beautifully made these days. The fit is right up there with the best of German and the materials are superb. I’ve said this before about Volvo’s cabins: if you get the colour combination and veneers right, they feel like a cut-price Bentley. There aren’t any obvious hard plastics – which isn’t something you can say about the GLE – and even when you poke around there’s a distinct the lack of penny pinching. For instance, the inside of the door pockets are lined on all four sides. Many brands cheap out by not carpeting the part you can’t see, but not Volvo. It’s a small point but I like it because it tells you a lot: there’s been no skimping. And it brings you peace, with no buzzing keys and the like. The Sensus infotainment system isn’t its best feature; it can be sluggish, but even this is not as bad as it used to be. And it has some useability advantages over the Android system that Volvos are swapping over to.
Moreover, the second-generation XC90 marked a turning point for Volvo in ride, handing and noise. For years, Volvos had been uninspiring to drive, but the XC90 was the first model to be mounted on the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform, which was a gamechanger. It’s generally well isolated, and while I am not saying the XC90 is the best-handling or comfiest car out there, it’s competitive in both respects.
Obviously I’m not immune to its faults. For example, I’m convinced there’s the hint of chassis flex (more than any other SPA-based vehicle) that sends a slight shimmy through the body over certain surfaces. But otherwise it bowls along with aplomb. Bearing in mind that T8s, with their heavy battery and motor, aren’t the best-riding XC90s, yet this version, with air suspension and massive 22-inch wheels, is comfortable enough. It’s very soft and cushions you over most bumps, even if that softness also means there’s a bit of sway on motorways and A-roads. And those massive wheels generate a bit of fidget, too – but it’s calmer than a Discovery on similar-sized wheels.
It doesn’t steer as sweetly as the Disco, mind. That’s because the weighting isn’t as good and it’s a bit harder to gauge around the first few degrees of input – you need to concentrate more to keep it tracking straight along motorways. But that’s a minor gripe, which is countered by a lot more grip and far better body control than the Disco. It’s one of those cars that’s easy to hustle along without being particularly stimulating.
And you don’t want for speed. The 2.0-litre supercharged and turbocharged four pot sounds vanilla when you hoof it, but it’s not coarse and delivers a healthy amount of thrust from its combined 455hp. With the electrification element, it’s also very alert off the line and the eight-speed gearbox is quick to respond when you kick it down. The only thing is that its hybrid advantages aren’t massively compelling for long-distance needs. I wasn’t getting much more than 20 miles on a full battery charge (WLTP is 43 miles) and when that’s gone, struggled to average more than 25mpg on a run. I was getting about that from a Range Rover SVR a couple of months back. Still, I can’t charge at home and if you can keep the battery regularly topped up, no doubt you’ll see that average climb substantially.
Be that as it may, I wouldn’t pretend that the XC90 is the best large SUV out there, but unlike any number of similar-sized rivals, it doesn’t do anything to offend either. I’m happy when I’m in it, and look forward to driving it again when I’m not – which always says a lot. As is typical with the latest generation of Volvos, its trick is being beautifully easy to live with. The best way I can describe it is this: it’s a bit like John Lewis. Macy’s or Selfridges are higher end and highly venerated, but the John Lewis experience makes you feel content and happy. You know where everything is and it’s a safe environment. That’s the Volvo XC90 to a tee, and why you should still consider one if you’re in the market for a big, seven-seat SUV.
Specification | Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge R-Design
Engine: 1,969cc, 4-cylinder, supercharged, turbocharged, petrol plug-in hybrid
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 455 @ 6,000rpm (combined)
Torque (lb ft): 420 lb ft @ 3,000-4,800rpm (electric motor: 309 lb ft @ 0-3280)
Top speed: 112mph
Weight: 2,297kg (running order)
Price: £70,075 (as tested: £82,875)
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