The facelifted XC90 remains a likable luxury SUV and a so-so PHEV.
For a time, it seemed like plug-in hybrids would be the stepping stones for the mass EV adoption. People could get comfortable with charging and retain the flexibility of gas, while the public EV infrastructure had time to build up. The Volvo XC90 T8 is a good example of why that idea never really came to fruition.
With just 14 miles of electric range when it arrived in 2015, the $69,095 2016 XC90 T8 carried a price tag nearly $20,000 higher than a comparable gas-powered model. Sure, it was more powerful and came with a federal income-tax credit, but neither an extra 130 horsepower nor a $4,600 savings from Uncle Sam could overshadow its poor value.
Several years on, the 2021 XC90 T8 features a new name – Recharge – and benefits from a slight facelift. But Volvo failed to address the main faults that prevented folks from considering the T8 in the past: poor electric range and a significantly higher price tag than a gas-powered model. The Recharge T8 remains a poor value, but like the broader XC90 range, this is still a damn good luxury crossover.
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The XC90's facelift for 2021 is a minor thing, and that's fine. This is still a clean, obviously Scandinavian crossover. Crisp, simple lines create a minimum amount of fuss in the two-box shape, while traditional Volvo elements abound. The waterfall grille receives a small update, adopting a concave shape that ties in with the company's newer products – the waterfall slats remain unchanged, though, as does the positioning of the iconic Volvo badge and the strakes that cross it at a diagonal. Beyond that item and a couple new wheel and paint options, the XC90's exterior is as unchanged as it is handsome.
Volvo's minimalist approach to aesthetic updates carries over to the cabin, which is still, somehow, even nicer to look at than the exterior. Soft leather is everywhere, while matte wood, piano black trim, and strips of metal contribute to the eye-pleasing environment. Volvo's lack of buttons, switches, and knobs is as refreshing in 2021 as it was when the XC90 ushered in Volvo's renaissance in 2015. And as has been the case since it debuted in 2015, this interior feels bank-vault solid. Really, there's little about the XC90's design that deserves criticism.
For those in the first and second row, the XC90 is a fine place to hang out. The front chairs are supportive and comfortable without feeling pillowy or over-cushioned, and they provide an impressive range of adjustability. The second row is available with either captain's chairs or a three-abreast bench – we had the latter here, but unless you need the extra spot, go for the individual seats.
A pair of adults should be happy on a lengthy drive, even if they're taller. There's enough cushioning in the bench and an adjustable backrest to make life a bit more pleasant. That said, the XC90 lags behind the competition in second-row legroom – the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring offers 39.0 inches to the Volvo's 37.0, while the Audi Q7 and Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class come in at 38.8 and 40.9, respectively.
Those values only matter if you're routinely using the third row and need to make adjustments to the second to account for that. Speaking of the back seats, the XC90 boasts class-leading third-row legroom. The Volvo's 31.9 inches is tight by any other measure, but it bests the Q7 and Aviator, which both offer 29.2 inches of knees-in-the-chest passenger space. Really, though, none of the vehicles in this class show well here – we wouldn't put an adult in the back of the XC90, the Aviator, or the Q7 for more than a short drive. If you need that space, get a minivan.
Space aside, the XC90's powertrain isn’t all that impressive in terms of refinement. Sure, the gas engine and electric motor play together well, but the turbo and supercharged four-cylinder was buzzy and harsh sounding during testing. The ride, though, is impressively quiet with the optional four-corner air suspension managing rough roads and quelling harshness from the 21-inch wheels. And there's little wind or tire noise, either.
Volvo updated its Sensus infotainment suite for model year 2020, improving its load time and responsiveness and in turn, solving the two biggest complaints against it. In the 2021 XC90, it booted up far quicker, even in cold conditions – getting the heated steering wheel and seats running can happen seconds after starting the car, so wave goodbye to the days of impatient tapping as you slowly freeze on cold leather.
But while Sensus is definitely quicker, the XC90 tech suite's age is starting to show. The 9.0-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen on the center stack feels somewhat small, and the software within, while pretty, lacks the graphical punch of newer displays. Still, the general layout of Sensus is easy to learn, even compared to a popular setup like MBUX. The 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster feels similarly aged, although the main concern there is the lack of customization in the way it displays data, in addition to the yesteryear graphics.
This tester carried the XC90's flagship audio system, a $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins setup with 19 speakers and 1,400 watts of power. Not only is it an aesthetically pretty system, but the British audio company delivers solid, powerful sound, along with the ability to easily tweak the sound profile.
Every XC90 features a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, but variety comes in the form of artificial aspiration. Turbocharged fours are standard on T5 models, while T6s pair turbocharging and supercharging. The Recharge T8 range featured here supplements its twin-charged engine with an 11.6-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack and a 67-kilowatt, rear-mounted electric motor for a total output of 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque. Like so many electrified crossovers, the XC90's all-wheel drive is a function of the gas engine up front and the rear motor at the back.
Matched up with an eight-speed automatic transmission, the Recharge is strong off the line, owing to the electric motor, while clever work on Volvo's part results in cordial relations between gas engine and electric motor – the hand-off from one to the other feels mostly seamless, which, if the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring is any indication, is a challenging engineering feat. The Aviator is something of a foil for the XC90, though, with the American offering much more power at the expense of some refinement.
Power ratings aside, the XC90 shows its hand early and often when pushed hard. Despite a healthy 5.3-second sprint to 60 (six-tenths quicker than the Range Rover Sport P400e), the turbo and supercharged four-cylinder lacks the high-speed acceleration or the overall urgency of the 494-hp, 630-lb-ft Lincoln. The eight-speed transmission also struggles in these situations, fumbling multi-gear downshifts in cases where the driver suddenly calls for more steam.
Unlike some hybrids, the brake pedal is easy to modulate. There's little of the grabbiness we normally associate with regenerative brakes. In fact, it's easy to forget that the stoppers are trying to recapture kinetic energy. Stopping power itself, meanwhile, is more than adequate for a vehicle that weighs in at around 5,100 pounds.
The XC90, despite its cosseting four-corner air suspension, isn't as tight or settled a handler as the plug-in Range Rover Sport or the Aviator – none of the cars in this class is particularly graceful, but the competition does a better job hiding its curb weight when facing a corner than the 5,100-pound Volvo does.
save over $3,400 on average off MSRP* on a new Volvo XC90
Volvo's Pilot Assist active safety suite was one of the early leaders in advanced driver assistance tech and it remains impressive many years on (with even more good stuff to come). Standard equipment on every XC90, Pilot Assist marries full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, lane centering and other technologies into a single cohesive system that drivers can engage at the press of a button.
In addition to the usual active safety gear, though, the XC90 also uses navigation data to take into account curves or hills, adjusting the speed as needed. The integration of all the systems is smooth and predictable, even for corners – there's no catching Pilot Assist by surprise.
Beyond this technology, the XC90 features excellent LED headlights and very good sightlines to the front, back, and sides. Volvo made its name on safety, and the latest XC90 deserves its perfect score.
With just 18 miles of all-electric range, the XC90 Recharge falls well below our target for premium plug-in crossovers, 35 miles per charge. This number is doubly disappointing, though, considering it represents just a four-mile improvement over the original plug-in XC90 from 2016.
The bigger problem, in my experience, is that I've never been able to get an XC90 to charge at home. Since 2016, I've tried charging two separate plug-in-hybrid XC90s at two separate 110-volt outlets in two separate garages on two separate properties using two separate Volvo-provided charging cables, and the CUVs refuse to accept a single electron. The first time I thought it could be a problem on my end, but twice? No, there's some other issue here.
This failing was all the more annoying because the XC90 accepted a charge from a public Level 2 charger. Still, with a relatively small 11.6-kilowatt-hour battery and a promised charging time on a 110-volt plug of six to eight hours, you shouldn't need to rely on a pricey home charging solution or public chargers to take advantage of the XC90's modest range.
Poor EV showing aside, the XC90 is still the most efficient member of the Volvo line, returning 27 miles per gallon combined. That's two points better than the front-drive T5, which is down 150 hp and over 200 lb-ft of torque on the Recharge.
As for the competition, the Aviator can manage 21 miles on a charge and is more efficient with a full battery, at 56 mpge, but it manages just 23 mpg without a charge. But it's the BMW X5 xDrive45e that really ruins the Volvo's day. The XC90's combined EPA rating blows the BMW out of the water, at 27 mpg to 20, while its 55 mpge figure is superior to the X5's 50-mpge rating, too. But the BMW will cover an EPA-estimated 31 miles on a charge, which is inarguably more usable than the XC90's 18. As a PHEV is only as good as its electric range, the Volvo earns low marks.
The 2021 XC90 starts at $49,695 for a gas-only, front-drive model, but getting into the T8 range requires at least $63,450 (not including the 2021 model year's $5,419 federal income-tax credit). This seven-passenger Inscription model rings up at $69,750, but then adds basically all the goodies. Headlining items on the march to an $81,690 as-tested price include a $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins audio system and an $1,800 air suspension, which are items I definitely endorse. Less necessary are the $1,500 Advanced package (head-up display, 360-degree camera), the $1,700 Lounge pack (massaging front seats, nubuck headliner), or the $800 21-inch wheels.
While $82,000 isn't cheap, the XC90 enjoys the lowest starting price in the class. By comparison, a Range Rover P400e is the segment's priciest at $83,000, while the base Aviator Grand Touring rings up at $69,070. While it's basically impossible to build a plug-in hybrid Range Rover Sport with content to match our Volvo tester for less than $90,000, the Lincoln has an impressive showing with its range-topping Black Label trim.
Aside from the rear-seat entertainment system, a fully loaded Aviator Grand Touring Black Label costs $83,005, or a mere $1,315 more than this Volvo. Whether you prefer the Lincoln or the Volvo is ultimately dependent on whether you want the American's power and content or the Swede's impeccable build quality and refinement.
XC90 Recharge Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge T8: Review
2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge T8 Inscription