2020 Volvo XC90 First Drive Review: Still Stunning


Time does not stand still in the auto industry. No automaker can rest on its laurels.

Such is the fate of winners of the MotorTrend Car, Truck, and SUV of the Year awards: Headlines splashed across the world, Champagne popped at corporate, a flurry of congratulatory emails, and a blizzard of advertising. But everyone else (i.e., the losers) have started sharpening their pencils before the bubbly has gone flat.

So what happens to an SUV that triumphantly won the award four years ago—the Volvo XC90? How has it stood the test of time?

Pretty damn well. As we described it at the time: “The Volvo XC90 is functional, elegant, and above all, different … a captivating work of art, inside and out.” It still is.

Automotive journalists tend to cycle through the latest and greatest stuff. Anything that launched more than a year ago is old news. As a result, we often forget that the average age of a car on the road is 12 years. That means there are lots of people driving cars built when George W. Bush was president. That also means when Joe and Jane Average climb into a 2020 Volvo, it remains awe-inspiring in a relative sense. They don’t know this car’s design and engineering are relatively old, from when Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office. To them, it just flat out looks cool.

How Does the Volvo XC90 Look?

This Volvo’s design has legs. Its distinctively minimalist Scandinavian styling didn’t beg, borrow, or steal from German or Japanese rivals. It has remained current; its exterior is sleek and yet solid all at once. And for 2020, the XC90 gets an updated concave front grille design, new-look wheels, as well as restyled front and rear bumpers and integrated roof rails and tailpipes.

Inside, there is a level of elegance that is space-efficient while also tech-friendly. A raised, knurled alloy ignition knob mounted in the center console is your first touch point, whereupon your hand moves to an Orrefors crystal gearshift. When you start your journey with tactile points like that, you know you are in a luxury vehicle.

Volvo maintains its leadership in the “comfortable seats” category, with the perfect blend of firm yet yielding support. The stylish midnight zinc tailored wool seat coverings definitely pass the suave test.

Then you look around. The matte, wood-inlay dashboard trim pieces are unlike those from any other automaker. The driver views a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, while a 9.0-inch iPad-style screen is integrated into the center console.

Volvo has updated the touchscreen user interface of the central screen since launch, but it still requires a bit of a learning curve compared to the relative intuitiveness of systems from some other automakers. Swiping through menus can be distracting, and the icons can appear small to the eye—you definitely don’t want to be switching menus from Apple CarPlay or Android to change satellite radio stations, or activating the hybrid recharge system, while in stop-and-go traffic. At least there is a giant audio volume knob.

If you are in the second row, a 6-footer can sit behind a 6-footer up front without issue; the climate control reaches the second row very well. The third-row seats, however, are definitely an “in case of emergency” situation.

As for cargo space, the cargo area fits two folding bikes side by side. For shorter drivers (or kids helping parent unload groceries), you can lower the load height with the press of a button.

How Does the XC90 Drive?

The XC90 drives exactly its size. OK, an explanation is needed here. Behind the wheel, you definitely get the feeling that this is a vehicle of heft. It is not necessarily nimble feeling; nor does it feel like a colossus. It does not feel overburdened on its tires. It drives just as you would expect a vehicle of its girth to do as you approach it. No surprises. Just consistency.

The numbers back it up—the XC90’s skidpad and figure-eight performance are right in line with the BMW X5 and Audi Q7 and Q8. It’s sufficiently sporty, while the suspension is excellent at absorbing routine road rash. The $1,800 optional air suspension with electronically controlled damping is a big part of making that happen. There are three driver-adjustable settings for steering feel and response, in case you desire a more sporting feel in your feedback.

The XC90 is built on what was the then-new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) that has underpinned almost all new Volvos . It has proven a very effective platform: Every SPA-based Volvo unveiled since then has made the finals of MotorTrend Car or SUV of the Year. In other words, it’s aging quite well, thank you.

How Does the Volvo XC90 T8 Hybrid System Work?

If you are upgrading to the XC90 T8, it’s probably because you want part of your commute to be in battery-only mode and not burning gas while stuck in traffic.

A modified version of Volvo’s four-cylinder, 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged engine provides 313 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. When combined with the electric starter/alternator and the motor on the rear axle, up to 400 hp and 472 lb-ft is available to the driver. The hybrid gas engine and electric motor power the front wheels, while the other electric motor powers the rear wheels for all-wheel drive.

Driving in Pure mode gets you about 18 EPA-rated miles of electric range, and the Hold setting preserves your battery-only range until you reach a traffic snarl or an electric-only city-center. Unlike in most electric vehicles, you cannot hear the whine of the electric motors in Pure mode, which thus means some tire noise sneaks into the cabin—but otherwise the interior is a relatively quiet environment.

The XC90 T8 comes with a dual voltage (110V and 220V) charging cable. This allows customers to charge at home using a standard 110V or 220V wall outlet—the latter delivering a recharge in 2.5 hours. Unfortunately, I live in a midcentury modern house that runs low-voltage lighting. My garage fuses are already maxed out, so if I plugged in, I’d just keep popping fuses. I didn’t get to see how long it would take to recharge on a standard 110-volt outlet.

Is the Volvo XC90 Safe?

Pretty much every luxury automaker makes bank-vault-safe cars these days, so how does Volvo—once the acknowledged bastion of safety—differentiate itself? Well, take a deep breath, because all these features are standard on every XC90:

  • Volvo On Call
  • Pilot Assist driver assistance system
  • Roll stability control
  • Lane keeping assist
  • Oncoming lane mitigation
  • Drowsy/distracted driver alert
  • Road sign information
  • Automatic braking after collision
  • Automatic door unlocking in collision
  • Run-off road mitigation
  • Run-off road protection
  • Collapsible brake pedal
  • Front, side, and knee airbags
  • Inflatable curtain airbags
  • Energy-absorbing seat cushions
  • Anti-submarining protection in seat design
  • Safety belt pretensioners
  • Safety belt load limiters
  • Accident avoidance and mitigation system
  • Intersection autobrake
  • Blind-spot monitoring
  • Cross-traffic alert with autobrake
  • Pedestrian, cyclist, and large animal detection with auto­brake and brake support
  • Forward collision warning

Feel safer yet? Well, let’s unpack just one of the systems: steer assist. If the driver swerves to avoid colliding with a vehicle, a cyclist, or other large, detectable object, software helps the driver steer away as effectively as possible by braking the wheels individually during the swerve and then to course-correct.

This also works with the blind-spot system to correct an attempted lane change into one where faster traffic may be coming up from behind. Also, if the XC90 drifts over a lane marking, heading into the path of an oncoming vehicle, and the driver takes no action, this system automatically steers the car back. (The system is active at speeds between 37 and 87 mph.)

If a crash does happen, the XC90 received a five-star rating from NHTSA and has been rated Good (the highest rating) by IIHS in the driver-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength, and head restraint tests, as well as standard, superior-rated front crash prevention. It did not meet all the requirements for a Top Safety Pick or Top Safety Pick+ designation.

However, during my time with the car, the XC90 issued several false collision alerts when it detected parked cars while I was going around a gentle bend and with no chance of collision. So the system software might be a bit oversensitive.

What Does the Volvo XC90 Cost?

Our test vehicle was not some ordinary XC90; it was the XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription Plug-In Hybrid, with a base price of $874,295 (the base T8 Momentum starts at $67,995).

Our tester came with an as-tested price of $84,440. That gets you options like the stunningly clear $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins audio system, as well as 360-degree surround-view camera, head-up display, and active headlamps ($2,450), 21-inch wheels ($800), heated rear seats ($750), parking assist ($200), and upgraded interior bits and bobs. If all that’s a bit rich but you still want an XC90, you can find a T5 base model with a merely turbocharged engine, with prices starting at $49,345.

By the way, for those of you who need the latest, greatest thing in your driveway, the redesigned XC90 will likely arrive in fall 2021 as a 2022 model. But for most folks, whose cars were built during the Great Recession, the current edition will do just fine.

























2020 Volvo XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription
BASE PRICE $74,295
LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/313-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged + supercharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, plus front/rear electric motors; 400 hp/472 lb-ft (combined)
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 5,150 lb (MT est)
WHEELBASE 117.5 in
L x W x H 195.0 x 75.7 x 69.9 in
0-60 MPH 4.9 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECON* 26/28/27 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY* 130/120 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB* 0.72 lb/mile
ON SALE Currently
*in charge-sustaining mode (58/52/55 mpg-e in charge-depleting mode)
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