Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Volvo XC90 T8

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It was eight years back, travelling home from Toronto to Sudbury, through a climatically unpredictable section of Ontario called the Snow Belt – and the Snow Belt was not happy.

Volvo’s latest posh-ute has now won practically every SUV award in existence, and the new T8 powertrain is going to attract even more buyers for a look.

The mid-January snow fell in big puffy clumps. It was dark. The highway was unplowed and empty, because the weatherman was telling people not to drive. Snow. Ice. Highway-wide snowbanks. Little snow-tornados flitting past the headlamps as the thick wind licked at the window seals.

These were some spectacularly bad driving conditions: among the worst I’d seen, ever. And I was sitting back comfortably, toque on, coffee nearby, listening to some tunes with a smug sense of satisfaction, conquering the elements, as strongly as I’d experienced in any snowstorm, in any ride.

The vehicle? The XC90 R-design. The then-top-dog Volvo crossover was chewing up the lousy driving without a care in the world. With the delightful crunch of the winter tires beneath, the AWD system working to actively process the road surface, it was slicing through the snow and ice like an all-wheel-drive figure skater, while the xenon headlamps blasted through the dark like cannons.

All hell was breaking loose outside, and in here, I was snug as a bug, comfortable, and backed up gorgeously. The Yamaha-built 4.4L V8 was humming away, almost inaudibly, in the background all the while. This was a crossover born in a country where people go downhill skiing on their lunch breaks, and it showed.

Fast-forward to the present day, and I’m in the new XC90 T8. It’s cold, grey and windy, yes, but sadly, no snowstorm. And winter’s here, but it’s not angry yet, and I’m thinking about how different a machine this has become, just one generation later.

Like the changes? Hate them? Doesn’t matter: Volvo’s latest posh-ute has now won practically every SUV award in existence, and the new T8 powertrain is going to attract even more buyers for a look.

Most notable? That gorgeous 311 horsepower V8 engine from the last-generation unit has been benched in favor of the new T8 Twin Engine powertrain. With 400 horsepower, the new XC90’s output leaves the old V8-powered XC90’s output in the dust: using batteries, forced induction, electric motors, and plug-in charging, rather than progressively less fashionable displacement, as its means of motivation.

Up front? An increasingly familiar Volvo 2.0L straight-four, turbocharged and supercharged, and teamed up here with motor-generator componentry, powered by a battery pack mounted low and lengthwise in the middle of the body. That battery is recharged by the vehicle’s engine, or by plugging the XC90 into a power outlet. With a full charge, you’re good for around 40 kilometers of all-electric driving, even at a good clip, and sans fuel.

Still with me? Here’s the neat-o part: to facilitate the all-wheel-drive functionality, the traditional rear differential and driveshaft are replaced by the battery pack and rear motor. Front wheels are powered by a hybrid gasoline engine, and rear wheels are powered solely by voltage – all synchronized through the central control system, and totally automatic and self-regulating.

The rewards of this space-age powertrain setup, from the driver’s seat, are numerous.

First? The electric motors enable instant, on-demand torque. Compared to virtually any other SUV, V8-powered or otherwise, there’s this charming disconnect to the result of throttle inputs at lower speeds. Even little pedal-prods see the XC90 lurch ahead with creamy smoothness, all but noiselessly. That brief lag between throttle application and forward momentum typical of most vehicles isn’t invited to the party.

Second? Seamlessness. Other than the occasional, nearly imperceptible squirm felt through the powertrain as electrons and gasoline come and go as the currently-enabled propulsion source, and the alternating presence and absence of certain subtle noises from beneath, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the XC90 was using an array of processors and controls to combine and switch the efforts of two motors and a gas engine when it’s driven gently, and on a high-traction surface.

Hard acceleration or braking on snow and ice is a little more telling though: the XC90 squirms and lurches at times, as volts and combustion work at driving all four wheels in the most optimal fashion, and as electric motor braking blends with conventional pads-and-rotors braking during hard stops.

Third? Plug her into a 120 volt outlet, and after a few hours, you’re greeted by a full battery charge – good for a theoretical 40 kilometers of driving, even at highway speeds, but usually less, especially in winter. The ability to pre-heat the cabin on grid power (just tell the XC90 what time you’d like to leave on your next drive) was appreciated during a chilly, late-November test-drive – especially given that the performance of the heater system is on the sub-par side. More on that later.

Finally? The performance. The XC90 is rated for 400 horsepower and the better part of 475 lb-ft of torque. Stuff your boot to the mat, and the motor-torque flings the XC90 forward, right now, with the engine, and its supercharger, and then turbocharger, keeping up the pace a moment later. There’s no power curve or sense of rising action. No sense of various systems or power-boosters kicking in and out: simply, it rockets ahead, full steam, instantly, and never lets up.

Since the engine never sounds like its working particularly hard, and since it’s quiet, and since there’s no shape to the power curve, this is as modest and discreet a 400 horsepower powertrain as you’ll find. If you’re looking for lusty V8 engine sound effects or a peaky, high-revving power curve, you won’t find it here. If you prefer to dispense your 400 partially electric ponies to the road on the sly, you’ll like what’s happening.

It might be time to rethink the old idea that there’s no replacement for displacement: all this torque and horsepower, along with low emissions and slashed fuel bills begs to differ. It’s electric tech intersecting with old-school gasoline power, to give shoppers a big win-win.

And you take it all in from a cabin that’s warm and inviting – a near carbon copy of the S90 I visited a few months earlier, where the palette of trim colors, materials, metals, edges, stitching, and various details designed to flaunt build quality are concerned. Same initially fussy, but eventually slick central display screen. Same gorgeous, infinitely adjustable seats, with a precise amount of give and firmness at key points, making them among the most comfortable seats you’ll visit in a given day.

Entry and exit up front are a cinch – thanks to wide door openings, a relatively low step-in height, and the air-adjustable suspension’s ability to squat the XC90 downwards a measure when parked. Second-row seats are adult-friendly with good comfort and headroom, and the third row, when in use, are adequate for kids, who will have minimal issue entering them.

Larger or less-agile adults? Not so much. But fold that rear row flat, and you’ve got a generous cargo hold that’s flat and wide, right to the edges. The battery is mid-mounted, remember – so there’s minimal negative impact on cargo space.

How’s she drive? Peacefully. On most surfaces, it’s laidback, body motions are kept in check nicely, and the whole thing feels creamy smooth. The FourC suspension system adjusts height and damper settings based on the currently selected drive mode, giving the XC90 a unique feel in each. At times, the tester fell slightly behind the solid and heavy feel you’ll find in the brand’s other machines on rougher surfaces though, and the 20-inch tires can pound hard into larger bumps.

Tradeoff being the handling: it’s a big heavy SUV, but engage “Power” mode and drive it like you stole it, and it’s ready to play ball. The XC90 is lighter and more responsive than it looks when pushed, and handling is predictable on slippery surfaces. Should a skid occur, it’s easy for a winter-confident driver on proper tires to mitigate with minimal drama.

And the underlying sensation, which largely defines the way the XC90 rides, steers and even handles, extends into the rest of the vehicle – every switch, lever, control, button, and even this questionable-looking gear shifter, finished in luxury glass, feels smooth and buttery. Hell, even the turn-signal noise sounds fine-tuned: just the right amount of tick, and not too heavy on the tock.

Also notable? Headlights: Volvo does ’em right. Colour? Perfect. Spread? Fantastic. Peripheral illumination? Heaps. Simply, you get lots of really crisp light reaching far and wide, and this is one of the best headlight systems on the road, period.

Mileage? Plugging the XC90 in every night at home and doing my daily errands used virtually no fuel – most of the gas I did burn was on the highway. All said, I drove 1,265 kilometres and used 112.5 litres of fuel, for 8.9 L/100 km. I’ve literally put more fuel through the new Honda Civic.

Gripes? The big one is the heater. When you try to heat a great big cabin with a tiny little engine that’s intended to run as infrequently as possible, there are compromises. Leave it in the “Pure” drive mode, which uses as little gas as possible, and it’s a good long while before the cabin heats up. I’m fond of being warm – and in this weather, that means using a drive mode that runs the engine more often, which eats away at the fuel savings.

Further, some of the levers used to adjust and maneuver the rear seats feel flimsy and delicate, and you’ll often wonder if you’ve broken them.

End of the day, if you’re after the most award winning luxury SUV on the market today, powered by among the market’s most advanced partial-electric powertrains, there’s really not much else to consider. The Volvo XC90 starts under $56,000, with the T8 Twin Engine starting around $78,000.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 313 hp @ 6,000 rpm + 87 hp @ 7,000 rpm electric
Peak Torque 472 lb-ft @ 2,200–5,400 rpm
Fuel Economy 10.0/8.8/9.5 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb; 4.85 Le/100 km cmb
Cargo Space 1,816 L
Model Tested 2017 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription
Base Price $75,750
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,195
Price as Tested $87,670
Optional Equipment
$10,625 – Vision Package $1,800; Climate Package II $1,350; Convenience Package $2,200; Metallic Paint $800; HUD $1,150; 4C Air Suspension $2,350; 21-inch wheels $975