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Review: 2018 Volvo S90 T8 Plug-in Hybrid
Smart, Sophisticated, and Efficient.
THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Beautiful styling inside and out; Thor’s hammer headlights; hybrid powertrain is powerful and efficient
- What’s Worst: Frustrating gear shifter operation; brakes can be difficult to modulate smoothly.
- What’s interesting: The S90 is made in China and from 2018 onwards will only come in a long wheelbase version.
The Volvo S90 T8 does not have paddle shifters or a manual gearshift mode of any kind. Instead, you’ll find a stylish leather-wrapped steering wheel and a crystal gear shifter made by Swedish glassworks company Orrefors, better known for their high-end glassware than automobile interior pieces.
The lack of sporting pretensions in this elegant and sumptuous cabin was one of the things that I enjoyed most during my time with the S90, even though fast sporty cars are what I gravitate towards. The predominantly German competition seems set on blurring the lines between sport and luxury, trying to offer a jack-of-all-trades experience that can sometimes strike a confusing balance.
The Volvo does not make any of these sporty promises. It’s a big comfortable cruiser, that doesn’t smack you in the face with tech but takes a cleaner, more simplistic approach to luxury that is a breath of fresh air.
This is not to say that the big swede is a wet noodle on the roads, quite the contrary in fact. For something of its size the S90 moves about with a commanding presence, always feeling planted and composed. There’s a fair bit of body roll around slower corners but the optional rear air suspension does a commendable job of keeping everything in check while providing a magic-carpet ride even over the roughest roads.
Steering is quick and direct but provides little in the way of feedback. And that really isn’t a big deal, as this remains an easy to manoeuver and enjoyable car to drive.
Volvo recently claimed that from 2019 and onwards each and every new car they launch will offer some form of electrification under the hood. And while that might be a bold claim this S90 T8 twin-engine AWD sedan offers a lens into what these powertrains might be like.
The T8 plug-in hybrid powertrain option is only available on the Inscription trim level, which is the more expensive one and it starts at roughly $75,000.
There is no big powerful V8 under the hood of the Volvo like you get in some of the competition. Powering the front wheels of the S90 T8 is an advanced 2-litre turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder engine that generates an impressive 313 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. An 87 hp electric motor mounted on the rear axle provides electric power to the rear wheels. This twin motor setup, similar to some other plug-in hybrids on the market, can drive all 4 wheels creating an electronically controlled all-wheel drive (AWD) system.
The total power output is 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of twist that’s good for a 0-100 km/h dash in 4.9 seconds according to Volvo. While it never feels that fast, passing multiple cars on two-lane country roads proved no problem at all, and I didn’t encounter a situation where I needed more power.
Mounted in the central tunnel of the chassis under the cabin floor, for better weight distribution and a lower centre of gravity, the 10.4 kWh battery pack provides up to 34 km of all-electric range on a full charge. You really have to try hard to achieve that as I only saw 27 km before the gasoline engine sprang to life. But it was a muggy summer day and I had the A/C and ventilated seats on the entire time.
Still, 34 km is not that much and might be just enough for the average commute. If you have access to a plug point at home and at work, then it shouldn’t be a problem but many don’t have that option.
Cycling through the Volvo’s drive modes sets the car up for different situations and it’s done by rotating a small textured drum situated in front of the unique ignition knob. A big pop up menu on the iPad-mini sized screen confirms the mode that you are in.
Hybrid mode is selected by default, and in this mode the car will intelligently balance electricity and gasoline power to deliver the best economy it can. In the place of an rpm gauge in the digital gauge cluster there is a type of power gauge that uses little icons to tell the driver if forward progress is being made using gasoline, or electricity, or both.
If you’re judicious with throttle application especially in city driving I found this Volvo to be very efficient. That power meter is a wonderful guide that tells you basically how much throttle you can use before the gasoline engine turns on. Keep the needle within a highlighted zone of the gauge and the car will only use electric power. Pass the marker at the end of that highlighted zone and the engine will turn on.
I played around with this quite a bit keeping the needle within that zone which will vary in size depending on many factors, including speed and battery charge levels, and I was easily able to achieve an astounding figure of 4.2 L/100 km on a commute from Toronto to Richmond Hill and back with moderate levels of traffic the entire way.
On a longer drive of roughly 800 km and paying much less attention to efficiency I registered a still impressive 7.3 L/100 km making this easily the most efficient full-size sedan I have ever tested.
There are also a few other driving modes that I didn’t spend much time using: Pure mode only uses the electric motor for thrust until the batteries have been depleted beyond a certain point. The Volvo will never actually allow the battery to drain fully as it always keeps a reserve to ensure the AWD system is always available. AWD mode will send power to all four wheels permanently until it’s turned off and Power mode is a performance setting that slightly stiffens the suspension and steering, pulls all 400 hp into action, and calls for quicker shifts from the 8-speed automatic.
A depleted battery will take about 3 hours to charge with a 240V fast charger, and about 8 hours using your standard 120V household socket.
One of the things I enjoyed most on this Volvo was the simplicity of everything. There are no obvious clues that this is an electrified vehicle and because you can use the gasoline engine to charge the battery while driving you never need to plug it in.
I’ve already talked about the interior and it really is a wonderful place to spend time in, with an uncluttered, button-free design and unique flourishes like that crystal shifter. Thick slabs of open pore walnut trim with book-matched grain adorn the dash and doors, and high-quality perfectly stitched leather covers virtually all surfaces.
The vertical screen operates just like a tablet, complete with a home button, and because it’s tall it displays just about everything you need at one time: navigation, music, phone connectivity, and climate controls, all laid out logically and neatly just like the rest of the interior. After a long day, this is a great place to relax and unwind. Very good seats, another Scandinavian specialty, offer one of the best massages I have felt in a car.
On the outside, the S90’s good looks have not aged and the car is just as beautiful to my eye as it was when it first came out a few years ago.
Thor’s hammer headlights have to be the coolest thing ever and the 12 mm wheelbase stretch, now the only way you can get the S90, has not made a difference in the looks department. That extra bit of length allows back seat passengers to ride in supreme comfort with leg room for miles.
Now being built exclusively at the Daqing plant in Heilongjiang province, situated in Northern China, the S90 is part of Volvo’s plan to increase production capacity in China. If you were not aware, China’s Geely Holding Group has owned Volvo Cars since 2010.
There are a few issues though, one of them being the brakes which can be difficult to modulate smoothly. There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between pedal pressure and braking force and this non-linear relationship can cause some jerky stops that can be unsettling for rear passengers that otherwise ride in supreme comfort.
That beautiful glass shifter feels very nice to the touch, but the operation to put it into gear requires a double-tap up for reverse or a double-tap down for drive, and while it sounds simple, it’s just not intuitive and can be embarrassing when you think you’ve selected drive but are stuck going nowhere in neutral. Every manufacturer is re-inventing gear shifters, and an operation once standardized is now vastly different in every new car I drive and it really doesn’t need to be this complicated.
Minor quibbles aside, the S90 is one of the best plug-in hybrids that I’ve driven, but on top of that, it’s also one of the best new luxury cars on the market.
By taking great pride in distinguishing themselves from the rest of the competition, Volvo has given us their own interpretation of luxury, one that remains approachable, yet thoroughly modern and proves that copious amounts of power and paddle shifters are not required for entry.
Photos © Kunal D’souza/Wheels.ca
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