Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Volvo S90 T8 PHEV AWD Inscription

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There has been come confusion surrounding last year’s announcement from Volvo regarding its future electrification. Stating that all new cars launched by Volvo from 2019 onwards will be electrified sent observers into a frenzy. Leads like “Only Electric Cars from Volvo in Two Years!” certainly got our attention, but that was far from the truth.

The S90’s interior is exquisite, showing a simple and elegant Nordic aesthetic accented with fine brushed metals and beautiful open-pore wood.

First off, electrification does not mean 100 percent battery electric – that term includes hybrid and plug-in hybrids. Closer scrutiny also reveals that while every new Volvo model line will offer some form of electrification, the current crop (S90, V90, XC90, XC60, XC40) will continue to be available with purely internal combustion motivation – at least for a while.

Nonetheless, Volvo is deadly serious about this shift. Between 2019 and 2021, the Swedish automaker plans to introduce five 100 percent electric vehicles, and Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo chief executive, says: “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”

It also suggests Volvos won’t be getting any more affordable.

Tested here is the 2018 Volvo S90 T8 PHEV AWD Inscription full-size plug-in hybrid luxury sedan that starts at $74,950 – here optioned up to a healthy $91,850. This gets you a load of fascinating tech wrapped in Scandinavian high style, and while the sticker might be high, this sedan could still be considered good value when looking at the established German luxury marques. Additionally, the polar bears might raise an eyebrow at the T8’s 8.9 L/100 km city / 7.1 highway / 8.1 combined fuel economy and claimed 34 km electric-only range.

As of 2018, all S90 sedans (now built in China) are long wheelbase only, getting a 12 cm (4.7 inch) wheelbase stretch over last year’s shorter model. Almost all of this extra length is realized in rear-seat legroom. Best-in-class, Volvo claims, and that class includes the Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 Series and Audi A8.

So what makes this plug-in Nordic longboat tick?

The T8 PHEV AWD employs the T6’s 316 horsepower supercharged and turbocharged 2.0L four, but the mechanical Haldex all-wheel drive system is ditched for a 10.4 kWh battery pack (that lives where the driveshaft used to be) and a rear-mounted 87 hp electric motor driving the rear wheels. Dubbed “Twin Engine”, the plug-in hybrid system combines to make 400 hp and 472 lb-ft from 2,200 rpm.

On a full charge, the T8 is good for about 25 easy-driving kilometres before the gas engine kicks in. Overall, the system’s transitions are quiet and transparent; and with the instant torque of the electric motor always on tap, the T8 goes down the road in a relaxed, effortless manner. The electric motor takes some of the strain off that pressurized four-cylinder, which can get gravelly when pressing on. Transmission duties are handled by a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic.

This T8 plug-in hybrid weighs about 250 kilograms more than the gas-only T6, and in day-to-day operation you’re aware of its extra mass. While outright speed is not at issue (it bolts like a kerosened cat), handling is uninspired and the Volvo’s steering is not best-in-class either, feeling artificial and at times uneven.

Equipped with the $2,350 optional air suspension (a must with this new generation of Volvo, be they sedan, wagon, or SUV) the T8 is a generally smooth operator, but again, there are some niggles – you’ll find more tire and road noise here than in the benchmark Mercedes S-Class (probably those $1,000 optional 20-inch alloys don’t help), and sharp impacts broadcast through the structure.

Okay, so it’s not a sport sedan. Fair enough. But the ride is not as composed and isolated as it should be for this class of car.

Ah, but the S90’s interior is exquisite, showing a simple and elegant Nordic aesthetic accented with fine brushed metals and beautiful open-pore wood. Every surface feels good to the touch, and the $3,250 Bowers and Wilkins audio is truly outstanding. As is the case with all Volvos, the T8’s multi-adjustable climate-controlled front seats are exemplary.

Here, the $3,500 Luxury Package adds ventilated rear seats, deluxe rear-seat armrest, upgraded headliner, and massage front seats that feel like a Nordic gnome is trapped within, pummelling your back to get out. This is a good thing.

Directly ahead of the driver, a 12.3-inch configurable TFT screen takes care of major gauge-cluster duties, and topping the centre stack is Volvo’s signature portrait-oriented 9.2-inch touchscreen interface, now standard with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and a four-year subscription to Volvo On Call.

It’s a clever, comprehensive, and easy-to-decipher system that, as with all of this ilk, asks too much of the driver in the way of distracting screen poking, all in the name of reduced dash clutter (read: tactile knobs and buttons). Yes, there is a volume knob, but good-old HVAC dials would go a long way in helping keep your eyes on the road. For 2018, the interface gets new software that improves response time and simplifies some menus.

Volvo, of course, is all about safety, and standard City Safety incorporates vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist and large-animal detection, collision mitigation, lane-keeping assist, road-departure mitigation, and road sign information. Also standard is distance warning, rear collision warning and Pilot Assist (semi-autonomous steering that pairs with the adaptive cruise).

If you want blind-spot detection (now with assist) you’ll fork out $2,000 for the Vision Package that includes cross-traffic alert, auto-dimming mirrors, retractable exterior mirrors and a cinema-grade 360-degree surround-view camera. In this tester, the $1,150 head-up display projects your speed and the posted speed limit.

The little “Orrefors Crystal Gear Shift Knob” requires double nudges to select Drive or Reverse. I’m assuming that is a safety measure to prevent accidental selection.

Starting and shutting off the T8 is a matter of twisting an artfully designed knob just aft of the shifter, and behind that is a sculpted metal roller for selection of the drive modes – AWD, Pure (Eco drive), Hybrid (default), Power, and Individual. Power mode is aptly named as throttle response sharpens markedly and that great wallop of 472 lb-ft blasts this sedan ahead with a V8-like thrust.

The S90 T8 is certainly a striking-looking sedan, all long, low, lean and peering into the future through those “Thor’s Hammer” signature LED headlights. I got plenty of appreciative stares during my week with the Volvo, so if exclusivity is something you seek in your luxury sedan, the T8 delivers.

Is it a legitimate contender for the established German marques? Aesthetically, no question. The cabin is a work of art. Technically? On paper the T8 is a marvel – a 2.0L four, both supercharged and turbocharged, driving the front wheels; linked to an electric motor that drives the rear wheels. All super geeky stuff, and it does deliver on effortless speed and impressive fuel economy. My test week concluded at 7.9 L/100 km.

Yet as a whole, the Volvo S90 T8 PHEV AWD isn’t completely resolved. The 2.0L will never have the sonic signature worthy of a true luxury car engine, but it’s the ride / handling / steering that requires some fine tuning. Volvo needs some chassis guru to come along and meld it all into a harmonized, dynamic piece.

Engine Displacement 2.0L; 87 hp electric motor
Engine Cylinders 4
Peak Horsepower 400 hp
Peak Torque 472 lb-ft
Fuel Economy 8.9/7.1/8.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 396 L
Model Tested 2018 Volvo S90 T8 eAWD Inscription
Base Price $74,950
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,015
Price as Tested $93,965
Optional Equipment
$16,900 – Convenience Package $1,500; Climate Package $1,250; Vision Package $2000; Luxury Package $3,500; Metallic paint $900; head up display $1,150; Bowers and Wilkins audio $3,250; 20-inch 10-spoke alloys $1000; rear air suspension with Four-C Active Chassis $2,350