► Plug-in petrol-electric hybrid Volvo estate
► The most powerful V90 available
► Choice of spec levels, both high
Repeated tests of many versions of the Volvo V90 have convinced us beyond doubt that the big estate is on the whole a very fine thing. It’s up against some excellent alternatives from the premium German manufacturers, but can hold its head high in that company. Its style, refinement, practicality and innovative, family-friendly interior all make it a very smart alternative.
Like the S90 saloon and huge-selling XC90 SUV, the V90 is visually arresting, sophisticated, safe and comfortable. Engine fetishists have, however, had remarkably little choice, as Volvo's range has been limited to a rather narrow band of identical four-cylinder petrols and diesels, all boost-tweaked to different power outputs to achieve the D, T and now B badge hierarchy.
The T8 Twin Engine option sits at the top of the tree, representing Volvo's plug-in hybrid (PHEV) techfest. It's the most powerful V90, as well as the most expensive, quickest and - on paper - most ecomical.
With the recently fettled T8, the spotlight is trained on the plug-in petrol-electric hardware, and the questions are all about what it is, how well it works and whether it’s worth it.
Check out our Best Hybrids and Plug-In Electric cars list
The battery pack has a capacity of 11.6kWh, enough says Volvo for a range of 29-35 miles on the WLTP standards. Volvo has been quietly updating the V90 T8, so we've had a go in the new 2020 model year model to see if the changes have been worthwhile.
So what exactly is the Volvo V90 T8?
It’s not an eight-cylinder V90, for a start. Instead it has a turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox and a 65kW electric motor on the rear axle.
The petrol engine now musters 299bhp, a little less than before, but it's still the most powerful V90. The electric motor adds the equivalent of 87bhp. The engine and electric motor can be used singly or together, depending on the driving conditions and your right foot.
You get a choice of R-Design Plus and Inscription Plus versions, both at the upper end of V90 spec levels. The slightly more techy, sporty R-Design Plus is priced from £59,655 on the road, while the Inscription Pro is £60,405. They’re both about £19,000 more than the least expensive V90. But perhaps the more significant figures concern benefit-in-kind taxation for the T8s, which are much lower than for any other V90 variant, thanks to low CO2 ratings pegged at just 43g/km.
Just remember, however, that all V90 T8 models cost significantly more than £40,000 a year - so you'll still pay the top-whack annual VED tax bill and you no longer qualify for any government Plug-in Car Grant at purchase either. This isn't a cheap car to buy or run.
How do you drive the Volvo plug-in hybrid?
You can just bung it in D and let the car get on with it. It defaults to Hybrid mode, which will blend petrol and electric propulsion nigh-on seamlessly depending on various factors including throttle position, road speed and available charge.
Other modes are Power (which brings a slightly harder edge to everything), Pure (which runs as cleanly as it can) and All Wheel Drive (for slow, slippery conditions). All-wheel drive is a boon here and the T8 is quite a go-anywhere king in icy conditions, especially if you sling a set of winter tyres on.
There’s more you can do. A Hold function will maintain the battery at its present level, so you can save the charge for later (handy if you're driving on the motorway to London, say). A Charge button will sacrifice some mpg in order to get the battery level up, but this will noticeably impinge on your economy figures.
The B setting on the gearlever stands for engine braking: when your foot is off the gas, there will be a degree of engine braking, to direct some electricity into the battery. It works really well and we found ourselves on the 2020 V90 T8 estate driving it mostly in one-pedal mode, letting the battery recuperation tech slow us down and charge up the cells into the bargain. It's satisfying.
As well as the usual trip computer read-out of short- and long-term fuel consumption, there are bar charts and animated diagrams showing whether you’ve been using petrol or electricity, and how much of it.
How economical is the T8 in the real world?
That depends on how you drive it (and how much, if anything, you’re paying for the electricity that can fill the battery in about four hours and give you a battery-only range of up to 35 miles).
In Pure mode, it’s not difficult to get mpg into the low-40mpg territory if you drive smoothly. In Power mode, you won’t struggle to drop to the low 20s. Hybrid mode, in mixed use, gave us high 20s.
The claimed 29-35-mile all-electric range was broadly realistic; count on driving more than 20 miles on e-power day-to-day. If you really hypermile it, you should achieve the claims, but cold weather and a lead foot will poleaxe electric range.
But who buys a 400bhp, 155mph estate car in order to drive it slowly and steadily? If you’ve got that performance on tap, surely you’ll be inclined to use it when the opportunity arises. And then you’re back to square one, with a big, heavy and fairly thirsty car. It's a conundrum we never quite squared-off in our time with the T8.
What do you get for your money?
Our test car was in Inscription Plus trim, but was also fitted with the Xenium pack (big sunroof, 360º parking camera, automatic parking), the Intellisafe Surround pack (blind sport warning with steering assistance, cross-traffic alert), the Family Pack (child-friendly rear seats, powered child locks), plus a bunch of individual options, taking the on-the-road price to £69,125.
But every V90 comes with a long and impressive list of infotainment delights and comfort and safety features as standard. That includes the Pilot Assist semi-autonomous function. It will – in certain conditions – keep you within your lane and at a steady distance from the car in front; it will accelerate, brake and steer, so long as you don’t take your hands off the wheel for more than a few seconds. But when you come to a roundabout, or a stretch of straight road where the road-edge markings are patchy, it will insist you take full control.
The V90 estate is a fabulously appointed thing. The interior is all Scandi-chic, with a calm, minimalist design, neatly designed switchgear and some of the best seats in the business. The boot is, needless to say, huge - though the sloping rear window means this is no boxy load lugger of yore. It will, however, accommodate Fido and the family clobber with ease.
Spending several hundred miles in the T8 was a welcome reminder of what a fine car the Volvo V90 is. Agile for its size, smooth and comfortable, with a lovely cabin and a handy turn of speed.
But the hybrid aspect is baffling. Volvo’s bold claims about moving rapidly to an all-electrified range start to look a little hollow if this is what they mean. Use the performance and you lose the economy. Even on a gentle run, this PHEV estate is not exactly that economical and you must plug in for every journey for it to make sense.
A better all-round package might be a D5 diesel, which isn’t as quick but still plenty quick enough, and isn’t as clean and frugal on paper as a T8 but in reality would be just as economical on the road for many drivers. We're left thinking yet again that chunkily expensive plug-ins will work for some specific use cases, but many would be better off with a well tuned petrol or diesel model.
More Volvo reviews by CAR magazine