2017 Volvo XC90 T8 – The Big Swede Gets Plugged In

The launch of the second-generation XC90 marked the beginning of a new era for Volvo a couple of years ago. The XC90 is the first model to ride on the company’s all-new scalable product architecture (SPA), the first all-new platform to come from Gothenburg since Ford sold the Swedish brand to China’s Geely in 2010. After initially being available only with boosted four-cylinder engines, the XC90 is now the first regular production plug-in model Volvo is offering in America and I recently spent a week driving one.

Like an increasing number of its premium competitors from Germany, the XC90 T8 Twin-Engine is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that offers both some purely electric driving range as well as regular blended hybrid electric control. Actually, regular is a bit of a misnomer here. The Twin-Engine appellation actually gives a bit of a hint as to what is going on here.

Most hybrids available today have some degree of integration of an electric motor with the internal combustion drivetrain. Companies including Toyota, Ford and GM integrate motor-generators directly into the transmission in order to blend the torque output from the engine and motors. Volvo has followed a slightly different path with what is known as a through-the-road (TTR) hybrid architecture. In this layout the electric drive and engine/transmission are physically separated.

The same 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder used in the T6 variant sends its output to the front wheels through the same 8-speed automatic. Instead of a driveshaft coming off the transmission to send torque back to the rear axle, the T8 has a 9.2-kWh lithium ion battery in the center tunnel and an 87 hp electric motor to drive the rear wheels. With the 313-hp from the engine, the T8 delivers up to 400-hp, making it the most powerful XC90 ever.

This setup is mechanically easier to implement than the integrated systems used by other OEMs and it even allows the XC90 to operate on electricity alone for up to 14 miles. However, there is one downside to having the electric drive at the rear axle, reduced regenerative braking capability. The amount of braking force each wheel of a vehicle can generate is a function of the friction between the tire and road and the weight pushing down on that tire. When you decelerate any vehicle, physics dictates that you get some weight transfer which increases the load on the front wheels and reduces the load at the back. That’s why all vehicles have bigger brakes at the front wheels, because those wheels are capable of doing more of the deceleration work.

The same principle applies for regenerative braking on a hybrid or electric vehicle. You simply can’t recover as much energy through regen at the rear axle as you can at the front. That’s why when Tesla introduced the dual motor all-wheel-drive on the Model S, it’s range actually went up despite the added weight. It was able to use more regen to put energy back into the battery. If Volvo used an integrated hybrid system that could capture regenerative braking energy from the front wheels, it could probably get a couple of extra miles of range from the same battery.

With that technical discussion of hybrids complete, I can say that 400-hp and 470 lb-ft. Of torque is more than adequate to move a 5,154-pound luxury SUV around smartly without ever feeling like it’s working hard. Power delivery is seamless from both components of the powertrain with the twin-charged engine having a shocking amount of grunt for its modest displacement. The idea of a 2.0-liter four-banger in two and a half ton SUV would have been laughable even 10 years ago. Now, no one should think twice about it.

As with all other recent Volvos, the cabin of the XC90 is generally a wonderful place to spend time with comfortable and supportive seats and lovely materials. There’s plenty of space to stretch out in the front two rows. Like most three-row SUVs, the third row is less commodious although the second row seats can slide forward to provide a bit of extra room.

Android Auto or Apple Carplay are displayed on the lower half of the Sensus screen.

The 11-inch Sensus Connect screen still looks good and retains the built-in support for apps like Spotify and Yelp. For 2017, Volvo has also added support for Apple Carplay and Android Auto so you can use those maps, messaging apps and media services. When using the phone projection systems, the portrait layout screen is split in half with the top retaining the Sensus interface while the lower half gets the phone interface. As with most newer vehicles that have shifted toward software-based touch interfaces to replace a lot of physical controls, the results can often be more annoying than having a cluster of buttons. Some of the seat and climate controls are buried in layers of software and finding them is not obvious. At least the system was responsive and never crashed.

Oddball shift layouts seem like change for the sake of change rather than improving functionality

Another annoyance was the shifter in the T8. The non-hybrid XC90 T6 I drove a year ago retained a more conventional PRNDL shift lever on the console. You simply apply the brake to get out of park and then move back and forth in the gate as we’ve learned for decades. The hybrid replaces this with an electronic switch topped by a stubby metal and glass knob. While it looks quite premium, it has some functional issues.

Based on the markings, you might think that pressing the brake and tapping the knob forward engages reverse while pulling it back gets drive. Like all such electronic units, it returns to its central position after a shift. The problem is that one tap of the knob in either direction actually engages neutral rather than a gear. On more than one occasion I did the expected action and then squeezed the accelerator only to have the engine rev aimlessly as the XC90 started a slow roll if I wasn’t on level ground. It actually takes two taps to engage a gear that will drive the vehicle. Like most such electronic shift systems from other automakers, this seems like change for the sake of change with no functional benefit.

The only other disappointment of this XC90 was the second-generation pilot assist system. This advanced driver assis is generally described similarly to Tesla’s AutoPilot. It combines adaptive cruise control with lane keeping, now at speeds up to 85 mph (the original version only went to 31 mph). The speed control portion worked really well, smoothly maintaining a consistent distance to the vehicle ahead without racing up and applying the brakes at the last moment. The lane control was much less robust however.

Compared to the last XC90 I drove, this one did a much better job of recognizing lane markings and keeping the system active. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a very good job of keeping the XC90 in the lane if using a light touch on the steering wheel. On a straight highway it would track the lane pretty well but when going through a curve it often drifted over the line, sometimes without a warning even though the lane detection icon in the instrument cluster was glowing green indicating it was active. You really cannot rely on this system to handle any steering for you. Frankly I found the lane keeping system in the $25,000 Hyundai Elantra to be more effective.

As long as you keep your hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road as you should be anyway, the Volvo XC90 is a wonderful place it spend time once you get Drive engaged. The ride quality is excellent and the cabin is exceptionally quiet. The XC90 is also very fuel efficient, averaging 27 mpg over a week of driving. I plugged it in whenever I returned to my garage but otherwise didn’t really try to optimize my driving.

Compared to the BMW X5 xDrive40e, the Volvo is more powerful, delivers slightly less fuel economy (27 mpg vs 30 mpg for the BMW) although it was colder and it snowed during my time with the Volvo. At just over $75,000, the XC90 plug-in hybrid is priced pretty similarly to the BMW. We’re now seeing all of the premium brands move to offer plug-in hybrids that combine additional power and fuel economy in a bid to make them more appealing to customers and boost their fleet averages. If you can afford it, it’s a good trend. The XC90 T8 isn’t perfect, but if you need to haul the family or friends in style without wasting fuel, it’s an option worth a look.

Click here for full specifications of the 2017 Volvo XC90 T8

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