Driven! Volvo XC90 T8 Plug-in Hybrid

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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It’s hard to believe that the Volvo XC90 is in its fifth model year. While most vehicles that have been in production for half a decade seem dated, Volvo’s three-row SUV still represents the state-of-the-art, especially in its plug-in hybrid T8 version.

  • The XC90 debuted in late 2014 and went on sale in the U.S. as a 2016 model.
  • Volvo has made numerous updates to its flagship each year, including increasing the T8’s battery capacity and now offering a six-seater model for 2020.
  • The 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 PHEV starts at $67,995, and a fully loaded example will top $90,000.

2020 Volvo XC90Great design is timeless, which is why the Volvo XC90 still looks fresh after five years on the market. (Photo: Volvo)

Inner beauty

The XC90 is a striking vehicle, with styling that is a perfect representation of Scandinavian design: simple and functional. Its somewhat boxy exterior is softened by just enough chamfers and rounded-off lines to be approachable. Once inside, the warmth of so much wood trim and soft leather pays off the invitation. There are few interiors available in any vehicle at any price that achieve such a standard of beauty and quality.

For the 2020 model year Volvo has introduced a six-seater version of the XC90, which does away with the second-row bench in favor of captains chairs and a center aisle to the third row. It’s a welcome move for those buyers who don’t need the extra seat and would rather have easier access to the rear. As before, the third row is spacious enough for actual adults to sit back there, and there’s no sacrifice in interior volume in the plug-in hybrid either.

2020 Volvo XC90The XC90 looks like an even more expensive vehicle, thanks to Volvo’s interior designers — among the best in the business. (Photo: Volvo)

Through the road

The XC90 T8 is powered by a rare sort of hybrid drivetrain, one with a “through-the-road” layout. A turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine drives its front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, with an integrated starter-generator handling start-stop duties and contributing extra torque. The internal-combustion engine makes 313 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque all by itself, with the electric starter-generator adding another 45 horses and 111 lb-ft.

An 87-hp electric motor turns the rear wheels, which gives the XC90 T8 all-wheel drive without a driveshaft running from front to rear and allows the interior to remain as spacious as the gasoline-only version. Instead, an 11.6-kWh battery (up from 10.4 kWh) occupies the space where the driveshaft would be. This arrangement gives the XC90 T8 a combined system output of 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque.

As complicated as the powertrain is, the XC90 T8 drives smoothly and powerfully. Although earlier iterations of the T8 sometimes seemed as if all their parts did not operate in harmony, Volvo has since sorted out the software that manages the handoff between gasoline engine and electric motors to the point that most of the time it’s hard to tell which energy sources are powering the vehicle. Combine this with a perfectly tuned optional air suspension system and the XC90 is a joy to drive, delivering a true luxury car experience.

Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine DrivetrainThe XC90 platform was designed from the ground up to support a through-the-road hybrid system. (Photo: Volvo)

Crunching the numbers

For 2020, the XC90 T8 is rated by the EPA at 18 miles of pure electric range (an increase of 1 mile from last year) and 520 miles total range (up from 490). All-electric operation is limited to a top speed of 78 miles per hour and performance is reduced, since the gas engine is shut down. The T8 still has good drivability in EV mode, which Volvo calls “Pure” in the drive mode menu, which offers six other choices that vary the vehicle’s efficiency and sportiness.

The default mode is hybrid, in which the T8 earns an estimated fuel economy of 27 miles per gallon combined for 2020, up from 25 in 2019. Those are decent numbers considering that the XC90 is a 5,000-pound vehicle that can carry up to six passengers. Certainly some owners are able to commute to and from work every day without using any gasoline, yet still have a hybrid with reasonable fuel economy for longer weekend excursions with the family.

2020 Volvo XC90A six-passenger version of the XC90 with second-row captains chairs is new for 2020. (Photo: Volvo)

The competition

When it comes to other three-row plug-ins, there aren’t too many choices. The Tesla Model X isn’t really a competitor, given that it’s a pure EV with a price that starts nearly where the XC90 T8’s tops out. Chrysler sells a PHEV version of the Pacifica, which is excellent — for a front-wheel-drive minivan. (The new all-wheel-drive Pacifica model won’t be available as a hybrid.) And the new plug-in hybrid version of the Range Rover Sport is limited to a five-seat model.

That leaves solely the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring as the XC90 T8’s competition, and it is a formidable opponent. With a combined 494 horsepower and 630 lb-ft of torque from its hybrid system based around a turbocharged 3.0-liter V6, it is certainly more of a performance vehicle than the Volvo. While the plug-in Aviator can also travel up to 18 miles on a charge, according the EPA, all that power hurts fuel economy, which trails the XC90 T8 at just 23 mpg combined in hybrid mode. The Lincoln is also a bit more expensive than the Volvo, with a $70,540 starting price, and the Aviator is simply not as nicely crafted as the XC90, regardless of price.

2020 Volvo XC90The XC90 T8 is no longer the only go-anywhere, three-row plug-in, but it’s still the best. (Photo: Volvo)

The verdict

Despite its age, the XC90 is still a really nice SUV. In its entry-level trim, the price is even below $50,000, which is a bargain for a luxury vehicle with three rows of seats. But once you add the premium for the T8 plug-in hybrid — nearly $19,000 — you’re quite literally not buying the same vehicle. Plug-in hybrids are, at best, niche vehicles. Because each one presents its own peculiar use case, a lot of up-front research is required before committing.

The Volvo XC90 T8 is even more impressive now than when it was launched. Though it no longer stands alone in its segment, it still offers a compelling package for buyers eager to drive electric without sacrificing go-anywhere capability.


About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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