► First drive of Volvo’s production-ready plug-in hybrid XC90
► Oh-so stylish new seven-seat Swede goes part-electric
► The numbers read £59,955, 401bhp, 5.6sec 0-62mph, 140mph, 134.5mpg and 49g/km CO2…
Volvo’s renaissance kicked off in earnest earlier in the year with the launch of the petrol and diesel versions of its extremely desirable all-new MkII XC90, an SUV that melds all-you-eat versatility with aching desirability. Now we’ve driven the production-ready T8 plug-in hybrid, the range-topping powertrain that’s got company car drivers and power-hungry prolific parents equally excited.
A 400bhp, £60k Volvo with a crystal gear selector
If you were in any doubt about Volvo’s direction and ambition in its post-Ford, Chinese-funded era, the T8 XC90 delivers answers. Expensive, fast, stylish and beautifully crafted, it’s a standard-bearer for the Swedish marque in its assault on the premium establishment, a move that’s being met with more success than Volvo dared hope. Twice as many UK buyers have opted for the T8 than anticipated (some 20%), and where previously trim level preferences tended to be conservative, more than 40% of the XC90s coming to the UK will do so in lavishly appointed Inscription specification.
The XC90 uses Volvo’s new SPA scalable product architecture. Set to underpin the company’s next generation of large and mid-size vehicles, including the S90 saloon and V90 estate, the chassis was designed from the outset to package electric powertrains. In the T8 a petrol engine in the nose drives the front wheels via an eight-speed auto gearbox. A generator sandwiched between the two rapidly cranks the petrol engine into life, boosts torque and charges the battery as required. The cells, housed in the central tunnel a propshaft normally calls home, feeds a large single electric motor on the rear axle that also generates electricity under braking. A control unit in the engine bay synchronises the two power sources, ensuring happy, efficient collaboration and all-wheel drive when required.
Does it feel 400bhp fast?
Not quite – think effortless performance rather than unlikely dragster. Mash the throttle to the carpet in Power mode and the T8 launches pretty smartly, the battery pouring power into the electric motor as the turbocharged and supercharged direct-injection 2.0-litre four slogs its guts out. As a performance powertrain it’s undoubtedly effective, the claimed 5.6sec 0-62mph feeling entirely believable, but the car’s not inconsequential weight (2343kg) blunts performance. This kind of heavy-footed tomfoolery also feels pretty inappropriate, not because the chassis can’t cope – far from it – but because the petrol engine’s strains lack charm, shattering the XC90’s otherwise very endearing serenity. Volvo insists a more sonorous higher cylinder count would have been incompatible both with the firm’s new product architecture and the wants of environmentally responsible consumers. Certainly the four-cylinder engine contributes much to the T8’s headline figures of 49g/km of CO2 and 134.5mpg on the combined cycle, though the latter will surely prove impossible to achieve in normal use.
Better to select the Hybrid drive mode and trade a little of Power’s throttle response and poke for improved economy and some far more agreeable peace and quiet. Either way the integration of electric and petrol power is almost seamless, and it’s upon this crucial calibration, of drivetrain and of the regenerative braking, that months of attention have been lavished since we first drove the pre-production T8 back in February. At smaller throttle openings the petrol engine chiming in and out is almost undetectable, and the brake pedal is similarly well resolved, passing through the regenerative phase and into hydraulic braking with no discernible shift in resistance.
The usual PHEV functionality ensures a good degree of control: choose Save to preserve charge for use later; select Braking for stronger regenerative braking on downhill runs, or even a lower gear for increased engine braking; use the instrument display or the dead-spot in the throttle pedal’s travel to stay on electric power, rather than accidentally triggering the petrol engine’s assistance.
High-rise limo or lively steer?
As with the original D5 and T6 launch cars only air-suspended T8s were available. Thus equipped the XC90 is an impressive drive, blending a cossetting ride with impressive body control. Appropriately there’s a little initial roll before the outer air struts take up the slack, lending the 5m-long seven-seater the wieldy feel of something much smaller and lighter. Conventionally sprung XC90s manage a good impression of the same body control but lose a good deal of the ride quality, occasionally running out of answers on the kind of weather-beaten roads the UK does so well. So budget for the air suspension, which also drops the rear of the car by 40mm on demand for the easy loading of heavy furniture and arthritic dogs.
Back to that crystal gear selector – sounds hideous
It does, but in reality it works. Curious timbers, machined aluminium and acres of beige leather don’t sound too promising either but, almost irrespective of colour choice, the XC90’s is one of the finest interiors out there, certainly in anything like a comparable price bracket. Fit and finish are exemplary, the design striking in a very pleasing, understated way and the overall sense of light, space and uncluttered calm the perfect ally to the T8’s potential for 27 miles of near-silent pure electric transportation. Additional NVH work has banished much of the background chatter of fans and compressors a combustion engine’s machinations normally mask, leaving an impressive and luxurious absence of noise.
Out there on its own as a plug-in hybrid seven-seater priced firmly as a premium product, the T8 XC90 is an intriguing proposition. The second-generation XC90 is fundamentally a very fine SUV, and the Twin Engine powertrain has much to recommend it, not least the tax breaks afforded by its miserly CO2 output. For most the D5 diesel will surely deliver comparable if not superior economy, particularly if the battery’s never charged from the grid (50% of its existing PHEV owners don’t, according to Volvo) but the T8’s potential for both lunging bouts of acceleration and silent electric running is hugely attractive. Much like the car itself.
Click here to read CAR's long-term test of Volvo's V60 Plug-in Hybrid