First Drive

2020 Volvo XC90 T8 First Drive Review | A vroom with a view

Small tweaks and welcome improvements to a proven formula

2020 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription
2020 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription / Image Credit: Volvo
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  • Trim
    T8 Inscription
  • Engine
    2.0L Twin-Charged I-4; Electric Motor
  • Power
    400 HP / 472 LB-FT (Combined)
  • Transmission
    8-Speed Automatic
  • 0-60 Time
    5.3 Seconds
  • Top Speed
    140 MPH
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    4,993 LBS
  • Towing
    5,000 LBS
  • Seating
    2+2+2 / 2+3+2
  • Cargo
    9.3 Cu. Ft.
  • MPG
  • Base Price

BANFF, Canada — For 2020, Volvo’s lineup gets some tweaks: hotter Polestar Engineered trims for the XC60 and V60 models, and new styling and seating configurations for a few others. While the updates aren’t ground-breaking, they are enough that Volvo had us up to Alberta’s incredible Banff region to show off the changes. Sometimes it pays off to be subtle. While the Polestar Engineered models would seem at first blush to be the most interesting additions, the new six-seat configuration for the 2020 XC90 actually struck us as the most important update.

Available on T6 and T8 models in Momentum or Inscription trim, and only with the charcoal or blonde interiors, the second-row captain’s chairs are something that customers requested, and changes the subjective impression immensely. They give the interior an airy, special feel – an extra layer of luxury. And in a cabin already slathered in quality materials, it’s a force multiplier. But don’t waste any effort looking for an armrest on the inboard side of the seat. In a decision that seemed jarring at first, Volvo didn’t put one in.

After talking to some of the folks involved in the decision-making process, it was clear that there was some deliberation about the armrest question. Some in the company wanted one, others felt (with some justification) that third-row egress and ingress was far more important. Folks in the latter camp prevailed. Although a six-seat variant had been considered for years, the timeline between greenlight on the variant and production was exceptionally tight, too.

Whether Volvo made the right call depends on your priorities, but third-row ease-of-access seems to be a strong motivation for potential buyers. There’s nothing to fold, just a little slalom into the car, onto the raised dais the second-row sits on, and then shoot down the center slot into the third row. It’s certainly less of a procedure than folding a bench out of the way. Meanwhile, after more than three hours in total in the second-row chairs, the lack of armrest wasn't a bother. If anything, the low bottom cushion was more of an annoyance. But leaning back, watching the Canadian Rockies sweep by through the panoramic sunroof and listening to the T8 hybrid system do its thing softly in the background was a pleasant way to get around.

The XC90 T8 Inscription model we drove itself is mechanically much the same, although there’s a slightly larger battery (now 11.6 kWh) — Volvo estimates this'll give the XC90 T8 a mile more range in EV mode, but official EPA numbers aren't out yet. Power is ample, although the automatic is slow to shift even in sportier drive modes. The braking system of the last XC90 T8 — a plug-in hybrid model with a twincharged gasoline engine — came in for some criticism, so Volvo improved brake feel with a revised brake booster system that switches from vacuum assist to hydraulic. It proved to be transparent in operation, which seems like a step up from the previous system. Unfortunately, the steering feel wasn’t improved while the XC90 was under the knife. Volvo’s system feels like a holdover from the early days of electric power assist steering systems, vague and numb. Maybe the engineers can get to that at the next update.

Otherwise, the XC90’s tweaks are minor. The Excellence trim is no more, as are the 18-inch wheels and certain exterior colors (three grays and a “birch” displace a red, silver, and blue, which were undoubtedly more interesting). The lovely grille, now concave, and wheels have been tweaked. A wool blend seating material will eventually be available on Inscription models, although our testers had leather — it’s a seat that we can’t wait to try out for ourselves, given the company’s mastery of premium touch-and-feel materials. And more important for sanity’s sake, the beautiful Sensus infotainment system gets a hardware and stability upgrade. Unlike the implementation in previous Volvos, which was slow and buggy to a fault, the new system seems rock-solid and quick. It’s still not our favorite system, but it’s much better.

But not all is improved. Even the luxurious Inscription model’s Orrefors crystal shifter, which is lovely, can’t hide the annoyance of the shift pattern. Each step through the gear range requires a separate motion. It’s perhaps the worst of the rocker-style shifter implementations; but would a pushbutton design be an improvement? Who knows. It’s an annoyance rather than a complete turn-off.

That said, the XC90 has been around for a while and still looks remarkably fresh. The buttery leather, the open-pore wood, the clean and crisp design language all communicate that, at least in the top trims, there’s a refreshingly different alternative to the omnipresent German brands. But the luxury doesn't come cheap — the XC90 T8 Inscription starts at $74,795 and quickly goes up from there. Lowly XC90 T5s start at a hair under $50,000, for comparison's stake. The 2020 models carry interesting improvements, but nothing that buyers could live without — with the notable exception of the six-seater configuration, which we assume will quickly become the most popular arrangement for Momentum or Inscription trims. 

Volvo XC90 Hybrid Information

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