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2020 Volvo XC90: Is this the smartest crossover?


When Volvo’s redesigned XC90 debuted in 2016 it was a smash hit, initiating a string of awards that keep coming (the only luxury utility on a 15-vehicle “Car of the Decade” list recently announced) and driving sales that place Volvo in the enviable position of their flagship vehicle, the most expensive in the line, also being the best-seller. That’s unique outside the “Big 3” pickup manufacturers.

XC90 is still sold in T5 and T6 gas engine trims, and the T8 “twin-engine” plug-in hybrid. Whenever I hear that I recall the Hannibal Twin 8, antagonist Professor Fate’s car in Blake Edwards 1965 farce The Great Race, even though those cars were powered by air cooled VW four and Corvair six-cylinder single engines. Every XC90 has a four-cylinder engine.

As a smaller manufacturer Volvo is able to more-quickly make changes to its cars, if not yet at “over-the-air” software update speed, and since 2016 it has added some equipment, options, and dropped the two-row version altogether (that’s an XC60 after all). For 2020, chemistry changes give the T8’s battery an 11.5% increase in capacity in the same size package, appearance is lightly upgraded, there’s a six-seat option ($500 more than the seven-seater), and the braking system has been revised.

Typically I lean to the sporty-looking side of things–R or R Design at Volvo—but the XC90 (indeed, most of the 90-series) is so clean and elegant I prefer it without the look-at-me variations. Besides, I appreciate sidewall more than wheel in my off-track devices and R usually goes the other way, and the last base I choose for a sporting vehicle is a tall 2.5-ton box.

My test T8 was striking in Birch Light paint though once chrome and glass were dirty you couldn’t find it on a cloudy day. Of ten paint colors only one is no charge (white) and only Denim Blue isn’t somewhere on the gray scale: I appreciate minimalist design but more color would be welcome.

Beautiful, clean design continues inside, with more hues and materials to warm it up. Solid and perforated leathers in multiple colors, real and faux metal, linear walnut or optional gray ash wood, gloss blacks and the T8’s signature crystal shift knob: Extensive digital diamond bling not recommended. Soothing is an apt descriptor, magnified if you pop for options like backrest massage, power cushion extensions and heated rear seats and steering wheel.

This sample had 21-inch wheels for the look-at-me canyon-carving crowd and while the ride was steadfastly comfortable, the Scorpion Verde Pirellis got loud on some road surfaces even at sub-highway speeds. 

I readily admit I can’t follow the Porsche-philosophy of charging more for taking stuff out, namely the premium for six rear seats rather than seven. Perhaps the two buckets are superior chairs but I couldn’t feel it. Perhaps that carpet is pricier than it looks. Perhaps it’s just an “executive” thing and premium economy seating always has to cost more than regular economy. 

Some have noted, often pessimistically, the middle row’s lack of armrests. I ran multiple test dummies between 16 and 61 years, 5’4” to 6’3” through the back doors and not a single person even mentioned them. And to reach the third row all those bodies chose to clamber between the middle seats rather than slide them forward. Depending on build, the comfort limit in the third row is around 5’10”, and the six-seat layout does add a bit of leg stretch room down the center.

Cargo area is competitive and useful, third-row seats folding easily, bag hooks and numerous accessories for securing things, protecting the car or carrying more.

All that makes the XC90 functional, but what makes it smart: An updated Sensus (touchscreen) system, safety “assistants” that work and are easy to disable, and a unique powertrain.

Volvo’s vertical touchscreen is better now than when introduced…I’d say it’s mid-pack to above average, not perfect, but these things change so fast it might be out of date at your reading. There are few buttons—fortunately volume, next/back, and front and rear defrost amongst them—virtually everything else on-screen (including the owner’s manual). However, most climate and seat heat/cool functions also run through the screen, a six-passenger technowagen like this should have more USB ports, and it didn’t comprehend some of my voice requests.

Seat adjustments are excellent (controls on the seat, display on screen), setup is straightforward and the head-up display visible with polarized sunglasses. I did occasionally drive off the screen map if I pinched or swiped on route-following, had only a couple of what-the-___ moments and eventually switched off the turn-following headlights when they seemed more following than keeping up or predicting. Yes, I make better time than the average XC90 owner, but no, I didn’t draw the road.

All the driving assistants worked well, and were easy to switch off for road construction where road markings disappeared, merged like the skid sign suggesting your axle swapped underneath you, or worse. I still park myself faster than the car does, even with the 360-degree camera coverage off, and unfortunately for drivers among us the car will get you out of a parking spot you could not get yourself into. Active cruise control works fine in traffic (at least at U.S. speeds) but with judicious use of the shifter you can manage creeping traffic without using any pedals or assistant.

When you do need the brake pedal you’ll notice the biggest change to driving dynamics: It now feels like a brake pedal rather than an electric on/off switch. You may still hit the pedal too hard in your other non-hybrid car after driving the T8, but this is a major improvement in drivability and feel and will result in a smoother ride and perhaps better fuel economy through longer regeneration. 

The suspension remains firm, fairly precise and compliant, the optional air suspension with adaptive dampers excellent, but if you’re not towing or carrying heavy loads you could survive just fine without it. The XC90 dutifully goes where you point it, yet steering feel is mostly absent and audible is often the first feedback. The XC90 T8 weighs more than 5,000 pounds, but because a big chunk of that is battery centered low underneath, it doesn’t require artificial active roll stabilizers to make it feel lighter.

T8 propulsion consists a 2-liter four-cylinder gas engine up front and an 87-hp electric motor on the back…there is no driveshaft running down the tunnel. The 2.0 is both supercharged and turbocharged, a pairing Volvo began 30 years ago on marine diesels, resulting in higher power density than Ford’s “EcoBoost” turbos, response aligned with chosen drive mode, seamless power transitions and plenty of grunt. It still doesn’t feel like 400 hp and 472 lb-ft from a dead stop, but propulsion is effortless at virtually any speed.

In my experience XC90 range solely on battery meets estimates in favorable conditions. The new estimate is 55 mpg-e with level-two recharge time of 2.5 hours. When I quit charging the battery and began with it depleted, it ran a week averaging 24 mpg, 20-22 in urban environs and 26-27 on the highway, all of it with at least 50% load and in moderate weather of 30-48 degrees F. EPA numbers are 55 mpg-e, 18 miles battery range and 27 mpg combined.

The T8 starts at $67,500, about $17,000 more than the base T5 XC90. Load it up with Inscription trim, Advanced and Luxury packs, sparkling Bowers & Wilkins sound system, metallic paint, 21-inch wheels, park assist pilot and air suspension and the tab is $86,990. It comes with a 4/50,000 warranty and 3/36,000 scheduled maintenance.

For comparison, the electric Tesla Model X runs from $81,000, the updated BMW x5 45e isn’t yet priced but four years ago a 40e based at $63,000, and the Lincoln Aviator (56 mpg-e, 23 mpg combined) starts at $68,800 to mid-80’s similarly outfitted. The only other plug-in seven-seater is Chrysler’s Pacifica Hybrid, with mild hybrids like the Mercedes-Benz GLE450 $85,000 similarly equipped and the less lux Lexus RX450h in the mid-60’s. 

If you’re in the market for a mid-size, luxury seven-seat crossover ultimately how smart a T8 is depends on how and for how much you get electricity, your typical driving cycle, and perhaps your proximity to a Volvo dealer.

GR Whale

GR Whale has been breaking parts for 45 years and writing about it for 30. An award-winning writer, he's served as Technical Editor on a few magazines, been published in more than 40 outlets and quit counting at one million miles and 10,000 vehicles driven. Equally comfortable with vehicles to 56,000 GVW or sports cars, he'd rather be sailing. He owns nothing newer than 2006 and holds no positions with any automaker.

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