BARCELONA, SPAIN—“This is the moment we’ve waited for, the second-generation XC90,” said Bodil Eriksson, a Volvo executive vice president. Much is expected of the four-years-in-the-making SUV in the American market, a critical one for the company. The XC90 comes in several T6 gas versions, and as the T8 it is also the world’s first seven-seat SUV plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV). Despite a history of innovation in the field, this is Volvo’s first U.S. hybrid of any kind.
The XC90 sits on Volvo’s new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis, which is set up for electrification. SPA will be the basis for all new Volvo models, and it’s clear that plug-in hybrids (but not full electrics) will be very important to the company going forward. Volvo has been selling the V60 diesel hybrid very successfully in Europe, but it’s probably right that limited American taste for diesels would keep it a niche vehicle in the U.S.
So this PHEV runs on gas, and is very quick about it, too. The 400-horsepower T8, in fact, will get to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, making it faster than the regular gas version (which, a test ride proved, is also pretty brisk). Volvo has gotten out of the five- and six-cylinder business; its new line of turbo- and supercharged Drive-E engines are all four-cylinder. The XC90's four produces 318 horsepower, and its mated to an eight-speed automatic. The 82 horsepower electric motor powers the rear wheels, and drives off a 9.2 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.
Yes, it’s a plug-in hybrid, with approximately 25 miles of electric range (speed limited to 78 mph). You can also use “Save” mode to store battery power for when you really need it. Recharge time is approximately 2.5 hours at 240 volts; there’s no fast charging.
Unfortunately, we don’t have pricing on this beast yet, but the regular gas versions come in various trims from $48,900 to $54,500. Dean Shaw, a Volvo spokesman, told me only that it would be “a bit more” than the gas trims. Here’s hoping that the company doesn’t price it too high, because they’ll sit in the showrooms. At a reasonable price, this vehicle will take suburbia by storm—it gives you seven seats, ridiculous levels of safety (with every conceivable electronic aid), and the equivalent of 59 miles per gallon.
Right now, Americans can buy plenty of seven-seat SUVs, but they’re almost all gas-guzzlers. This one is certainly going to stand out as the green alternative. GM’s attempt to occupy the same space with its dual-mode hybrids was half-hearted—the fuel economy gains were barely worth mentioning.
After an entertaining blast around the Catalonian countryside, I can say that the XC90 T8 (particularly in “Power” mode, which turns both motors to 13) accelerates like a Porsche Cayenne, is very quiet in operation, and handles well, with slightly heavy steering. It’s a joy on the highway, with a commanding driving position, good visibility all around, and plenty of passing power.
It’s only on Spain’s twisty and narrow country roads that you remember that this is a big and heavy car, though lighter than the previous generation XC90 (thanks in part to lightweight steel and aluminum). Ergonomics are mostly good, though I found the shifter initially confusing (despite its lovely crystal glass from Sweden’s own Orrefors).
A big plus is the infotainment system, which benefited from the 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins option in our test car. The system, Volvo’s own with input from Melco, mimics an iPad with a home button, touch and swipe capacity (even with gloves on) and four main categories to choose from. The navigation system also works well.
This may be Volvo’s first U.S. plug-in hybrid, but it certainly won’t be the last. I expect that the full lineup with get PHEV options. Volvo has been champing at the bit for quite a while. It actually developed an ahead-of-its-time hybrid Environmental Concept Car (ECC) in 1992, and planned to field a PHEV as early as 1998. But Ford ownership derailed those plans—instead, the company unveiled the Ford Escape Hybrid in 2004.
Now with Chinese ownership, Volvo is seriously plugging in. Here's the XC90 T8 PHEV on video in Spain: