- Best-looking three-row SUV on the market
- Excellent use of materials and attention to detail
- Smooth and composed ride and handling
- Middling fuel economy despite being a plug-in hybrid
- Confusing shifting sequence
- Power-efficient heating features cost extra
The 2019 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription – the plug-in hybrid version of Volvo’s largest SUV – costs a full $12,650 more than its T6 internal-combustion-engine equivalent. Will owners save that much in fuel costs over the life of their vehicle? Not a chance. But the people who buy it don’t mind paying a premium for driving a beautiful, serene, and professional-looking SUV that’s functional, offers seating for seven, and delivers a relatively light carbon load thanks to the 65-kW electric motor driving its rear wheels.
Despite the fact that new contenders such as the Cadillac XT6 and Lincoln Aviator are entering this segment and finally giving the XC90 some competition, I still find this to be the most attractive of the lot (and it’s a feat of design to make a three-row SUV truly a thing of beauty). Despite several years in the field, I’m still impressed every time I sit in an XC90, no matter the model.
Some sought-after safety features are available for the XC90, but most of them cost extra. Standard equipment includes collision mitigation with pedestrian and bicycle detection, and lane-keep assist. Blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert require the Premium Package; the 360-degree camera and Pilot Assist with adaptive cruise control and active lane-keeping are included in the Premium Plus Package. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates the 2019 XC90 a Top Safety Pick, coming short of the Top Safety Pick+ designation only for having room for improvement on its headlights and child seat-anchor accessibility.
Any large SUV comes in at a pretty high baseline for practicality. What’s nice about this vehicle is its flat-folding seats, which makes the maximum space of 1,815 L behind the first row more useful, and the plethora of hooks, shelves, doors, and straps for keeping various types of cargo stored away.
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User Friendliness: 7.5/10
For the most part, I adore the XC90’s minimalist layout and don’t have too difficult a time finding the functions I’m looking for, though some people don’t like having to adjust HVAC and seat heating settings through a touchscreen. The one thing that drives me crazy from a usability standpoint on Volvo’s T8 powertrains is the shifting sequence. It takes two pushes upward on the shifter to get into reverse and then another two pushes downward to get through neutral and into drive. This makes three-point turns frustrating, especially if one of the taps doesn’t take and you’re sitting there in neutral revving the throttle.
For what it costs to get into this vehicle, the list of standard features feels about right: A panoramic sunroof, heated and ventilated power-adjustable front seats with driver’s side memory, a 12.3-inch infotainment display, a subscription-based in-car Wi-Fi hotspot, cabin air filtration (which is amazing during allergy season, by the way), satellite navigation, and front and rear parking assists are all included.
But it’s surprising to have to pay extra for adaptive cruise control, and – given how much more efficient surface heating is compared to HVAC in an electrified vehicle – I’m always left scratching my head when I see an extra charge for a heated steering wheel and second-row outboard seats, especially at this starting price.
No complaints here. The T8 is powered by a 2.0L turbo- and supercharged four-cylinder engine driving the front axle, plus a 65-kW electric motor on the rear axle, and they combine for on-demand all-wheel drive while producing a maximum combined total of 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque. Apart from the noticeable – though not jarring – transition between one power source and the other, this combination produces power that feels like it’s confident, strong, and more than enough.
Volvo’s got some of the best seats in the business, and everything that the driver needs is within easy reach and accessibility. The second row is equally spacious, though the third row is a touch tight and the seats aren’t quite as shapely. A remarkably quiet cabin adds to the tranquility of the drive experience.
Driving Feel: 8.5/10
There are five drive modes on the XC90: Pure, which leads the vehicle to run on electricity most of the time and conserves energy and fuel (but cannot force the vehicle into using electricity 100 percent of the time, which is a shame); Hybrid, a compromise between efficiency and performance that draws power from either the engine or the electric motor to achieve the best fuel economy for the current situation; Power, which lets both power sources rip to their full potential; AWD, which forces full-time all-wheel drive; and Save, which lets the driver choose to stop using the battery and save its charge for future use.
All of these drive modes come across as intended and benefit from the XC90’s smooth and tranquil ride quality. And even when you haven’t plugged the vehicle in for a while, the regenerative braking will continue to give the motor just enough charge to provide a pleasant hit of power on initial acceleration.
Fuel Economy: 8/10
With Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) fuel consumption figures of 9.8 L/100 km in city driving, 8.7 on the highway, and 9.3 combined, the XC90’s efficiency certainly is very good for what it is. I averaged 10.2 L/100 km over the course of a week, but I wasn’t as diligent about plugging it in as I should have been. (That’s perhaps a downside of a PHEV versus a battery electric vehicle: they allow you to be lazy about keeping them charged.)
There’s just one other problem: It’s not the most fuel-efficient vehicle in its segment despite being the only plug-in hybrid. The Lexus RX 450h is rated at 8.1 L/100 km and has seven seats, and it’s a traditional hybrid that doesn’t need to be charged externally. There are other reasons not to choose an RX L – its tendency not to be as stylish as this car and the fact that it wasn’t initially designed to have a third row being among them – but it goes to show that appearances can be deceiving.
As stated off the top, no one who buys the XC90 T8 is ever going to make up the cost difference in the fuel they won’t use by choosing to buy this vehicle. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right vehicle for the right person: I recently recommended it to a real estate agent with three kids because he’s looking for something that’s far less of a gas-guzzler than his current car, yet can still accommodate his family while looking buttoned-up, with a bit of flair and brand cachet.
There’s going to be a broader discussion about this soon: the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring is a brand-new luxury three-row plug-in hybrid, and drops into this segment as an immediate contender. Meanwhile, the Volvo XC90 T8 fills a niche that no other large SUV can, and it does so beautifully.
|Engine Displacement||2.0L||Model Tested||2019 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription|
|Engine Cylinders||I4 (plus electric motor)||Base Price||$84,100|
|Peak Horsepower||400 hp combined (313 hp @ 6,000 rpm (ICE); 87 hp @ 7,000 rpm (electric motor))||A/C Tax||$100|
|Peak Torque||472 lb-ft combined (295 lb-ft @ 2,200–5,400 rpm (ICE); 177 lb-ft @ 0–3,000 rpm (electric motor))||Destination Fee||$2,015|
|Fuel Economy||9.8/8.7/9.3 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb||Price as Tested||$98,265|
|Cargo Space||317 / 966 / 1,815 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row|
$12,050 – Premium Package, $2,500; Premium Plus Package, $3,900; Bowers & Wilkins 1,400-watt 19-speaker sound system, $3,750; 21-inch alloy wheels, $1,000; metallic paint, $900