It’s turbocharged. It’s supercharged. It’s front engine and mid-motor. It’s gas and electric, eight speed and one speed. It’s front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, and rear-wheel drive. If you want to collect all those attributes in your driveway, you could buy a Tesla Model 3, a Porsche 911, and, obviously, a 2002 Mazda Millennia. Or you could get a Volvo XC90 T8, which checks all those boxes plus the one for an Orrefors crystal shift lever. You didn’t get one of those in a Millennia.
The Volvo T8’s 313-hp, 2.0-liter inline-four—supercharged and turbocharged—powers the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. Out back, an 87-hp electric motor spins the rear axle, with the pair combining for 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. Because there’s no physical connection between the front and rear axles, a T8 running in electric mode is rear-wheel drive, just like an old Volvo 240 wagon. Break out the Grateful Dead stickers.
When an all-wheel-drive car can disengage its front axle, we tend to think “drift mode!” That’s the case here—albeit in the sense of an untethered trawler gently drifting away from the dock. The T8 is EPA-rated for 18 miles of electric range (we eked 21 miles out of our test car), but there’s no escaping the fact that you’re driving a 5142-pound vehicle with 87 horsepower. The plug-in XC90 tops out at 78 mph in electric mode—also the max speed at which the electric motor engages in hybrid mode—but in practical terms the EV function is for low-speed pursuits, like navigating the Jazzercise parking lot or coasting down Main Street in Greenwich, Connecticut.
It’s much more fulfilling to let the Wonder Twins activate, summoning both the internal-combustion engine and the electric motor to goose the XC90 off the line like a startled elk. We clocked a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds and a quarter-mile pass in 13.6 seconds at 102 mph, numbers that seem kind of hilarious for a three-row hybrid SUV with no outward pretensions of performance. The XC90 T8 could certainly surprise a few sports cars in a stoplight drag race. And on the skidpad, our T8 generated more grip than a Camaro Z/28. Okay, we’re talking about a 1977 Camaro Z/28, which pulled .74 g. The XC90 managed only .77 g, so maybe don’t go prowling canyon roads with it.
However, thanks to the mid-aft position of the electric motor and the 9.1-kWh battery, the T8 does arrive at a nice front-to-rear balance, with only 52.0 percent of its weight resting on the front wheels. That battery gains some capacity for 2020, thus constituting the biggest hardware upgrade for 2020. The brakes also get electronic control for the hydraulic circuits, which allowed Volvo to tune a linear pedal feel as the braking blends electric regeneration with the conventional discs. You really don’t notice anything unusual about the brake feel, which is the best thing you can say about a system that’s combining regenerative braking with old-school friction.
There are also some minor cosmetic changes, like a new grille, and you can now get a six-passenger interior layout with second-row captain’s chairs. But Volvo didn’t do anything too radical, given that the XC90 has aged exceptionally well since its 2016 debut. In terms of design, the XC90 is still competitive with the best of its class, inside and out. Sure, the front seat massage function only works on the backrest, but maybe you can get over that. Our fully maxed-out Inscription model was as beautifully trimmed as cars costing twice as much, which is impressive since it costs quite a bit itself: $86,790 as tested. But come on, you need leather-covered sun visors, right? If you can forego those and other treats, like the $3200 Bowers & Wilkins sound system and the $1800 air springs at all four corners, an XC90 T8 can be had for as little as $68,495, not counting the current $5419 federal tax credit garnered by the plug-in powertrain. Which seems pretty reasonable for a three-row luxury SUV that rips the quarter-mile just 0.4 second slower than the 475-hp Dodge Durango SRT we tested and gets 25 MPGe.
Ah yes, fuel economy. With plug-ins, quantifying efficiency gets tricky, because it all depends on how you use the vehicle—as we proved by gaming a Lincoln Aviator PHEV beyond an (indicated) 999 mpg. Run short trips around town with plenty of charging, and you’ll probably see nice numbers. Drive coast to coast on the highway with no charging, and you’re basically dragging around extra weight—although the big Volvo did post 29 mpg on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, bettering its federal estimate by 2 mpg. Over more than 1000 miles of mixed driving, charging as often as possible, we averaged 25 MPGe.
That’s well short of the EPA’s 55-MPGe combined rating for the T8. We did note that the T8 is efficient in regenerating electricity and has an effective charge mode that uses the 2.0-liter to replenish the battery while driving. We also noted that the plug-in Volvos, this one included, tend to wrestle with thermal management while charging, running cooling fans for the battery pretty much constantly while plugged in. Sometimes the fans start running even when the car is parked and unplugged. That’s probably good for battery longevity, but the XC90 no doubt burns plenty of watts staying cool before it even turns a wheel.
Like we said, it’s a complicated powertrain. And plug-in hybrids can often seem like they pursue complication for its own sake, adding weight and power in equal measures to end up nearly back where they started. But the T8 offers sizable advantages in both speed and efficiency compared to its non-hybrid counterpart, the XC90 T6 AWD. The last time we tested one of those, it posted a 6.4-second run to 60 mph and 17 mpg overall. The T8 is a major improvement on both fronts. Just don’t expect too much from its electric drift mode.
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