• By: Neil Moore

Big Volvo XC90 Sips Gas and Goes Fast

My son is a car geek. And at fourteen years old, he may not be old enough to drive, but that hasn’t stopped him from dominating any and all automotive discussions around the dinner table.

These usually involve muscle cars and tuners, and anything that handles well and goes fast.

But his most recent fixation was a particular SUV on my testing schedule. One that was redesigned and revealed in 2014, and had since earned no shortage of accolades, including AJAC’s “Best New SUV over $60,000”, North American Truck of the Year and even Chinese-Canadian Consumers’ Car of the Year.

It was Volvo’s full-size XC90 – not your typical teenage top pick. But he knew, based on my prior experience, that it wasn’t a lumbering monstrosity, and could duke it out with the likes of Range Rover and Porsche Cayenne.

This three-row, seven-passenger sport utility comes in three flavours, from mild to wild, from the base T5 Drive-E AWD to the “twin engine” T8 that hits the wallet at $75,750 plus options. (2016 pricing)

Mine was the latter.

Volvo’s 9.3-inch tablet eliminates most buttons and knobs. It controls most vehicle functions and keeps the front panel clean and uncluttered.

T8 is the most unorthodox of these, but all models are powered by something you wouldn’t expect in a vehicle this size: a turbocharged four cylinder.

At least that’s where it starts. The T5 gets a 2.0-litre inline four-pot engine that produces 250 hp and 258-280 lb/ft of torque, depending on overboost.  The T6 adds a supercharger to the turbo, delivering 316 hp and 295 pounds-feet.

The T8, which you could say produces V8 power, does so with an alchemy of the following: 2.0-litre engine, turbocharger, supercharger and electric motor. The latter adds 87 hp to the petrol engine’s 303 hp, for a combined output of 403 hp and 472 lb/ft. More than ample to launch this 2,254-kg (4,969-lb) sport utility like a sport sedan.

Zero to 100 km/h takes only 5.6 seconds.

So why would Volvo complicate matters with so much tech? Let’s start with the fuel economy.

The petrol-burning units consume fuel at a rate of only 10.0/8.8/9.5 litres/100km (city/hwy/comb). Not bad for such a sizeable ride.

Factor in the plug-in hybrid system – capable of up to 40 km on electrons only – and consumption drops to a fuel-sipping 4.7 litres/100 combined city/hwy.

I made full use of this feature, plugging in to my 110-volt garage outlet at every opportunity, and running most errands around town without petrol.

A full charge takes about seven hours. The better bet is installing a 240-volt unit, which gets you there in as little as 2.5 hours.

But for motorheads like my son (and me, when feeling less thrifty), performance matters. Stomp the pedal and the T8’s complex powertrain reacts with instantaneous torque from the electric motor, followed by linear thrust (and a delightful whine) from the supercharger, and finally a rush from the exhaust-driven turbocharger, which had been spooling up all this time.

There’s plenty of head and leg room for second-row passengers, who also enjoy their own HVAC controls and optional seat heating. The three positions fold individually.

But such tomfoolery is icing on the cake, and getting the most from this unit relies on the six drive-mode options – accessed by rotating and pressing a dimpled chrome roller.

Hybrid mode is the “go to” for everyday driving, and employs a seamless exchange between electric and gas motors to achieve optimal fuel consumption. On models, like mine, with the optional $2,350 air suspension, the focus is on comfort.

Pure/Eco runs on electric only, tweaking throttle response, gear changes and even the climate system to use less energy. The air suspension drops for better aerodynamics.

AWD mode engages all four wheels, but Off Road triggers more aggressive mods: differentials are locked, Hill Descent Control is activated and ECS is set to Traction/Sport. The suspension lifts 4 cm.

My favourite was Power mode, which has the petrol and electric motors working in parallel, with quicker throttle, later gear changes, sharper steering and a lowered suspension. Handling is more like a mid-size sedan than a beefy, three-row sport utility.

There’s an individual mode as well, allowing drivers to tailor the experience to their own needs for comfort, performance or thrift.

The air suspension begets other nifty features like Easy Entry and Exit’ – kind of like a ‘kneeling bus.’ And there’s a pair of switches in the cargo hold that manually does the same thing to help with loading.

The interior is as good as anything from Volvo’s Euro competitors. The XC90 makes ample use of soft leather and wood, with my “Inscription” tester getting open-grained walnut inlays, and even a gear lever crafted from Orrefors crystal.

The diamond-cut chrome knobs and the previously-mentioned drive-mode roller are a nice touch.

All XC90s are equipped with four-zone climate control, heated and power adjustable front seats with memory for the driver, 9.3-inch infotainment with 10-speaker audio and navigation, and even power-folding headrests.

My daughter refers to these as “headslappers,” recalling the time I pressed the button and inadvertently bonked her older brother. Aside from disciplining children, this feature does improve rear visibility.

The touch screen is intuitive and replaces a pile of buttons and knobs, keeping the dash clean – almost Spartan. It operates like your tablet, using a swipe feature to move between logical clusters of apps.

Higher-trim models, like my T8 Inscription, have both heated and cooled front seats with power cushion extenders. Not needed for guys my size, but those upwards of six feet will appreciate the added support.

There’s enough room here for a load of groceries. Optional air suspension buttons on the right raise and lower the vehicle for easier loading.

On the outside, T8 Inscription models gets additional brightwork and badging, and roll on 20-inch diamond-cut alloys instead of 18-inchers. Mine was upgraded with 21-inch wheels, which meant even lower-profile tires and a slightly firmer ride.

Which was still forgiving enough on rough pavement, and with ample sound deadening efforts, maintained a Zen-like environment in the passenger cabin.

And it’s not just the front seats where Volvo pays attention to creature comforts. The standard 40/20/40 split-folding middle row is well padded and offers plenty of head and leg room. And benefits from its own HVAC controls, and optional heating.

There’s plenty of fore/aft travel, allowing you to slide them forward to easily accommodate kids and modestly-sized adults in the third row. I was comfortable enough for short distances, but taller folk might complain.

Behind this 50/50 split bench there’s enough room for a small load of groceries, but these fold flat for a more generous 1,019 litres behind the second row. Drop all seats for a flat deck and a cavernous 2,427 litres of space. Not bad when you consider the T8’s 286 kg battery pack.

Utility aside, the XC90 is also a handsome vehicle. Since launching in 2002, it had only minor facelifting, but with the recent redesign – sharpened shoulders, high beltline and “Thor’s Hammer” LED running lights flanking the big upright grille – it looks more robust than its predecessor, yet more modern.

And it doesn’t hurt that it’s bloody quick.

Yet another reason XC90 continues as Volvo’s top selling ride in Canada.

The 2016 Volvo XC90 looks athletic from the rear with its sharpened shoulders, prominent roof spoiler, vertical taillights and integrated exhaust finishers.

SNAPSHOT: 2016 Volvo XC90 T8
BODY STYLE: three-row sport utility
ENGINE: (as tested) T8 powertrain – 2.0-litre four cylinder with supercharger, turbocharger and 80-hp electric motor (400 hp and 472 lb/ft of torque)
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic with electronically-controlled AWD
FUEL ECONOMY: as tested, 10.1/8.8/9.5 litres/100km (city/hwy/comb), est. 4.7 combined with electrics
CARGO: 1,019 litres behind second row; 2,427 litre max with all seats folded
DRIVER/SAFETY AIDS: park assist camera, pedestrian & cyclist detection, lane departure warning, road-edge and barrier detection with auto steer
PRICING: T8 Inscription AWD $75,750 (plus options) – see website for 2017 pricing and packaging
WEBSITE: volvocars.com