First Drive: 2016 Volvo XC90 T8

Feb 23, 2015 09:00 AM EST | Jeff Jablansky

Tags Volvo, XC90, t8, hybrid, SUV
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If our experience of starting up the 2016 Volvo XC90 T6 was a stereophonic journey into a luxurious Swedish trance, then it's fair to say that turning on the XC90 T8 was more like agreeing to a vow of silence.

That's because the XC90 T8 is Volvo's first plug-in hybrid for sale in the United States, and the engine was off by design. Interestingly, Volvo has chosen to showcase its first hybrid and an innovative all-wheel drive system for the first time in its follow-up to the successful XC90 SUV. Why? Despite a prolific portfolio of relatively low-volume sedans and wagons, the brand needs the XC90 to penetrate the SUV market in order to guarantee future success.

Read on for our first impressions of Volvo's second-generation XC90 T8, and click here to see our complete review of the XC90 T6.

What is it?

The XC90 T8 is the plug-in hybrid companion to the T6 standard-bearer, utilizing the same engine with a complex battery-electric system. Volvo is calling the technology "twin-engine," although we prefer to think of it as a traditional series hybrid. It utilizes the same 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder engine as the T6, and adds a 60-kW, 82-hp electric motor.

The T8 is also a rolling showcase for the company's most cutting-edge advancements since it was purchased by Geely. 

How does it drive?

Brilliantly. The XC90 T8 has its own distinct character on the road, compared to the petrol-only T6, which can be attributed to an entirely different transmission and all-wheel drive system. Whereas the T6 has a true AWD system supplied by Haldex, the T8 is essentially front-wheel-drive with assist to the rear wheels from the hybrid system.

In the XC90 T8, the drive mode selector—relegated to suspension and engine power settings in the T6—also controls the distribution and balance of power to the front and rear wheels. Cycling through the different setups changes the spice, but not the flavor, of the way the XC90 drives. A battery-hold mode conveniently stores electric energy and recharges the battery on demand, to benefit moments when all-wheel drive would be most useful—as in the case of an inspired impulse to take sunrise glamor shots on a local beachfront.

On the road, this translates to an exceptionally pleasant driving experience, enhanced by sublimely weighted steering and a suspension that absorbs imperfections as well as any of its competitors can. The boost from the hybrid system always seems a welcome surprise, given a firm stomp on the accelerator. We would have preferred more polish be applied to the hybridized braking system, which was slightly nonlinear in pressure approaching exit ramps and full stops. According to a Volvo executive, the tuning of the T8 hybrid setup is "about 80 percent done." 

What's it like inside?

Ritzy. Like so many recent Volvos, the quality and finish of the interior materials is truly a cut above in styling and substance, and the T8 shares the same beautiful cabin design with the T6. (We were particularly taken by the buttery quality of the "blond" seat leather.) Breathing room is plentiful in all three rows—the T8 comes with three rows standard—and little cargo space is compromised because of the battery pack. 

What's its specialty?

Quietly exhibiting its presence wherever it goes.

How's the competition?

Burgeoning. BMW already offers a plug-in hybrid of its X5 sport-utility vehicle, and it's likely that other European manufacturers will shortly follow suit. There's also a strong chance that a derivative of General Motors' second-generation Volt platform will be an SUV. In strong luxury SUV markets, such as southern California—where Volvo expects is keen to rule the roost—it will contend with the Acura MDX, Lexus RX, Mercedes-Benz M-class, and upcoming Land Rover Discovery. It will also compete with the standard T6 for sales, and we don't know yet what the price differential will be between the two.

Its most innovative feature is?

From the driver's seat, there are few differences from the T6's interior, except for an optional, lighted, jewel-like shift knob produced of Orrefors crystal. If ever a featured existed to make its user feels kingly, this is it.

Overall:

It's difficult to find fault in the XC90 T8's innovative, value-added factors: its hybrid system and reliance on four-cylinder technology. 

Highs:

Sounds as powerful as a straight-six and feels even more so, has no real compromises to rear-seat cargo capacity, beautifully appointed interior accommodations, excellent visibility all around.

Lows:

Nonlinear brake feel at the limit.

The ideal setup:

With all of the options.

By the numbers: 2016 Volvo XC90 T8

MSRP: Not yet announced

Power / drive wheels: 2.0-liter, 318-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine, assisted by a 60-kW, 82-hp electric motor / front-wheel drive or on-demand all-wheel drive

Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission

EPA fuel economy: N/A

In showrooms: October 2015

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