Styling

The Volvo XC90 received a major redesign for 2016, after 13 years on the market with relatively few updates to its styling. In addition to a totally revamped exterior, the SUV now offers a new powertrain option, becoming the first seven-seat plug-in hybrid SUV on the U.S. market.

For 2016, the look of the XC90 has been completely re-envisioned to compete with expensive luxury SUV models like the BMW X5, Mercedes GLE Class and the Acura MDX. This is part of a greater effort on the part of Volvo to ditch its image as the dowdy, utilitarian, safety-first cousin to flashy European luxury nameplates. One look at the new XC90 shows the difference in Volvo’s approach.

Where the outgoing model had a pinched, sedan-like front fascia, the new XC90 leans forward with an aggressive, imposing attitude. From a distance, it could be mistaken for a future edition of a Land Rover or Escalade. Inside, the XC90 plug-in is pure luxury refinement. Soft leather, brushed metal and high-quality plastics line the cabin. The joystick shifter is handmade by a renowned Scandinavian glassmaker. The console boasts every technological capability you’ll find this side of a Tesla Model S, but it feels more like analogue luxury than sitting at the controls of a spaceship.

A single touchscreen sits between the driver and passenger air vents, and save for an unobtrusive row of buttons below, the console is devoid of clutter. Using a relatively intuitive operating system based on expanding and contracting panels, the XC90’s touchscreen interface should be easy enough for most first-time drivers to use without digging through the manual. Or if you prefer, Volvo’s natural language voice command system can pull up directions, change the music, or tweak the climate control hands-free, as needed.

Sound comes from a 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins premium system complete with a reverb setting tuned to mimic the atmosphere of Gothenburg Concert Hall. Volvo designers went to every length to convince buyers that this is indeed a high-end luxury SUV, both inside and out. Reviews suggest they succeeded.

Performance

Where many plug-ins and hybrids ask drivers to trade power for efficiency, the Volvo XC90’s proposition to buyers is quite the opposite. Power for the gas-only XC90 T6, which gets 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, peaks at 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Those who spring for the plug-in T8 are rewarded not only with higher fuel economy but a shot of electric drive capability and that rockets the SUV to 400 total horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. Where the T6 accelerates from a stop to 62 mph in 6.5 seconds, the T8 can accomplish the same feat in just 5.9 seconds.

Some of that extra power is necessary to compensate for the additional 550 pounds of curb weight brought to the T8 by its lithium ion battery pack and twin electric motors. On the whole though, the effect is to give the SUV a more muscular, substantial feel, and the T8 especially benefits from the available air suspension system included at the Inscription trim level.

Like most plug-ins, the XC90 provides several driving modes. The default is “Hybrid,” which fades power between the engine and both electric motors for optimal energy efficiency. “Pure” shuts the engine and puts the car into electric-only mode for up to 17 miles in typical conditions. “Power” and “All-Wheel-Drive” optimize performance for different terrains, engaging both the engine and motors for maximum output. “Save” mode shuts the battery’s contribution to save power for “Pure” operation later on.

Critics say the XC90’s ride is more comfortable and its handling more responsive than you might expect from its maker, but it’s still not quite up to par with some European luxury counterparts. Even with the optional air suspension system, some critics noticed that the ride can occasionally get a little bumpy—particularly with the available 21-inch tires—but that’s typical of many vehicles this size.

The Volvo XC90’s “twin engine” powertrain pairs a 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged engine with twin electric motors attached to the front and rear wheels. The SUV uses a 34-kW starter-generator to charge the battery pack when its regenerative braking system is in use. That system is noticeably more gentle than many other regenerative braking setups, which some drivers who miss coasting might find consider an attractive bonus.

Efficiency and Range

As the only seven-passenger plug-in hybrid on the market, the XC90 may not feel the same pressure to eek the most possible range from its battery pack. This is decidedly a luxury performance SUV—albeit one that gets the energy equivalent of nearly 60 mpg thanks to its plug-in capability. Though the XC90 T8 hasn’t yet been rated by the EPA, Volvo says it expects a 17-mile all-electric range and a 59 MPGe rating.

What this translates to is “your results will vary drastically” depending on your driving needs. If, like most people, you do most of your driving close to home, or have the opportunity to keep your car plugged in most of the time that it’s not in use, you should get a lot of use out of the XC90’s 90-kWh battery. Visits to the gas station will be infrequent. If you regularly take your car on longer trips or have a half-hour-plus commute to work every day, you’ll still be driving the most efficient large SUV on the road, but your gas savings will be cut significantly.

We don’t yet have fuel economy ratings for the T8 after its battery is depleted, but thanks to its hybrid capability, it’s likely to do noticeably better than the T6, which gets 20 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.

Charging

The Volvo XC90 comes with a 3.5-kW, 16-amp onboard charger, and a Level 2 charging cable supplied by AeroVironment. Volvo says the XC90’s 9.2 kWh battery pack can charge to full capacity in as little as 2.5 hours using a 240-volt Level 2 charge station and about seven hours using a standard 110-volt outlet. The XC90 is not compatible with high-speed DC fast-chargers, which is essentially irrelevant in a plug-in hybrid with a 9.2-kWh pack. With the equipment provided, and at its battery capacity, you will not need to install a dedicated home wall-mounted charging station.

Passenger and Cargo Room

The XC90 T8 plug-in is a spacious and inviting seven-seat SUV, with plenty room for either seven passengers or a substantial cargo load. The front seats feature 10-way power controls, the second row reclines and slides—not necessary an expected feature on cars in this class—and the back row is surprisingly roomy. The entire cabin is decked out in premium leather and lavish flourishes to make even the seventh passenger feel a little bit privileged.

With up to 85.7 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the XC90 is among the leaders in its class. It has three rows of seats that can be adjusted to several configurations. With all three rows in position, the SUV has 15.4 cubic feet of stowing behind the third row, suitable for shopping bags and carry-on luggage. With the third row down, the XC90 provides up to 41.8 cubic feet of cargo space (depending on how the rear seats are adjusted.) The T8 comes with a standard hands-free tailgate and optional remote controllable air springs that lower the rear of the car for easy loading.

Contributing to the XC90’s aura of spaciousness are large, intelligently positioned windows and a panoramic sunroof that come standard on all T8s. The only downside to the SUV’s surprising roominess is that it left no room for a spare tire.

Safety

The image that Volvo is trying to transcend with models like the XC90 is one of staid dependability and unsurpassed safety. The latter of those two perceptions is well-earned, and Volvo has no intention of abandoning its bread and butter, even as it aims for a more luxury-oriented consumer base. The frame is made with five times more high-strength boron steel than the outgoing model, and the SUV aced the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s five crashworthiness safety tests. NHTSA safety ratings for the 2016 have not yet been released.

The XC90 is available with all of Volvo’s critically acclaimed safety features, including blind-spot monitoring, automatic breaking to protect drivers from accelerating into traffic and a pre-collision conditioning that adjusts the seating to embrace for impact. The XC90 also has an optional Heads Up Display, which keeps the driver’s eyes on the road by projecting important information on the windshield.

The available Pilot Assist system is an automatic driving feature that brakes and accelerates along with traffic and steers to keep you aligned with the car head. Unlike other adaptive cruise control systems, this feature is just as useful in city traffic as it is on the open highway (although it must be re-enabled after the car has been at a complete stop for six seconds.) The system isn’t designed to allow hands-free driving, but it can be very handy if you need to adjust the defroster or stretch your fingers.

Price

The 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 comes in three trims. Base level Momentum starts at $69,095 including a mandatory $995 delivery fee. The sportier R-Design trim level comes with styling touches to the front fascia, nappa leather upholstery and paddle shifters, and starts at $70,995. For $72,595, the Inscription trim level brings upscale styling flourishes inside the cabin, matte-silver grille, and chrome window framing.

Depending on the trim level, the XC90 T8 plug-in costs about $17,000 more than the gas-only T6. Volvo is quick to remind us that these prices don’t include a $4,600 federal tax credit or additional incentives in states like California, which offers an additional $1,500 rebate for plug-in hybrids. Subtract those discounts and factor in the significant performance boost that comes from the T8’s electric drive system, and the SUV begins to make a compelling case for itself if you’re looking for a large family hauler that won’t make you take out another credit card to pay for its fueling.

Typical of any luxury vehicle, the numerous optional features available at any trim level make it possible to add thousands of dollars to the price of the vehicle if having a Heads-Up Display or remote-controlled rear air lift is important to you. These features are tempting, but complicate the cost analysis when comparing the XC90 to even more expensive SUVs that may offer a few of those features standard.

Comparisons

As the only seven-seat plug-in hybrid available in the United States, direct comparisons to the XC90 are scarce. The closest plug-in hybrid currently on the market is the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid, which starts at $78,000 but only seats five. The Cayenne has an all-electric range of 14 miles and an overall EPA efficiency rating of 47 MPGe, both significant downgrades from the less costly XC90 T8.

Tesla also recently began making deliveries of its high-anticipated new Model X, an-electric seven-seat luxury SUV with a range of about 250 miles. The waiting list for the Model X currently extends well into next year though, and the editions that have been made available to the first lucky buyers start north of $130,000 before incentives. Tesla plans to make a trimmed down $80,000 version of the Model X available late next year, which should put it closer in line with the XC90—if and when that happens.

In the plugless hybrid market, the Toyota Highlander offers three rows of seating and an EPA estimated 27/28 mpg of fuel economy starting at $48,750. Due to its lack of luxury features and modest performance though, the Highlander Hybrid is not really a competitor.

Purchase Process

The Volvo XC90 T8 is available at Volvo dealerships nationwide beginning in late fall 2016. Visit Volvo’s website to request a price quote and be put in touch with dealership near you.

Volvo XC90 T8 specifications

Availability: Now
Base MSRP: $69000
Est. tax credit: $4600
Technology: Plug-in Hybrid
Body type: SUV
Seats: 7
EPA Range: 17 miles electric + gasoline
Battery size: 9 kWh
Charging rate: 3.3 kW

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