2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design review: Long-term report three

Rating: 8.0
$78,810 $93,720 Dealer
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We swap blue for white and upgrade to the 300kW Volvo XC90 T8 plug-in hybrid. But is the extra power worth the extra cost?
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Hey, wait a minute, you say. That Volvo is white, and the one in the last two updates was blue!

It’s the greatest continuity travesty since Sully’s Porsche Targa repair in Commando. A flip-flop more obvious than Bond’s flop flipping Mustang in Diamonds Are Forever. Jump on the internet. Get those hashtags burning!

And while you would be correct, there is a good reason why our Crystal White 2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design is not the Bursting Blue XC90 T6 of previous updates.

Volvo sold it.

Sales of the big Swedish SUV grew a whopping 177 per cent in 2016, with a total of 1486 cars sold, including 'our' DCW•51P. That’s about half as many Audi Q7s, but in 2015 the XC90 accounted for just a quarter of the seven-seat Audi’s sales (537 against 2045), so things are on the up! With our lovely blue car a good example of the breed, it was in demand and quickly snaffled up by an eager buyer, an 'executive driven demonstrator' if ever there was one.

With the blue meanie sent to a new home, we waited for the updated 2017-specification XC90 models to arrive before nabbing our bookend wheels.

Externally, other than the colour, there is no difference to the 2017 XC90. The changes are limited to pricing and specification.

Considering a like-for-like T6 R-Design model, the price has crept up $1000 to $102,900 (before options and on-road costs), but the $4000 driver support pack (lane departure assistance, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control) is now standard equipment.

Volvo noted that upwards of 70 per cent of XC90 buyers wanted this technology, so it makes sense to include it as baseline equipment.

There is also a new $8000 ‘Premium Pack’, fitted to our car, which rolls in the excellent Bowers and Wilkins stereo system, air suspension, stitched dashboard and heated seats for front and middle-row passengers.

Individually, the items in the Premium Pack work out to about $12,000, so it does make sense if you want to kit out your XC90 with all the funktioner och finesse.

But, while the inclusion of the assistance pack is good, there are some cheeky price increases too.

Premium paint like our Crystal White Pearl has jumped from a $1750 to a $1900 option.

And the surround camera, Apple CarPlay function, head-up display and DAB radio tuner, arguably items that really should be standard on a $100,000 SUV, are part of a $3000 technology pack.

But wait, there’s more!

For this final update, we’ve opted for the range-topping T8 driveline, which adds another $20,000 to the bill. That gives the white XC90 a list price with options of $135,800.

Exactly enough to buy everything in the entire IKEA BESTÅ furniture range, five times over.

The T8 is a tricky bit of kit, though, and thanks to its hybrid twin-engine layout, is the most powerful XC90 variant, with 300kW on tap. It's the same motive power as used by the very flashy, and more expensive XC90 Excellence four-seater too. (See our world-first review.)

Up front is the same 235kW 2-litre twin-charged four cylinder as found in the T6 ‘XC, but instead of a mechanical drive shaft and rear differential, there is a pair of electric motors and a 9.2kWh battery pack.

Yes a pair, so in theory, the T8 should wear a tri-engine badge.

Between the rear wheels is a 65kW electric motor, giving a total power output of 300kW, but there is also a 34kW electric generator, called the CISG, attached to the eight-speed automatic transmission.

This is essentially a starter motor for the petrol engine, allowing a smooth shift from wholly electric to hybrid drive. It also acts as a torque booster for the 2.0-litre, helping plug any gaps in response between gear shifts.

Torque rates vary, depending on whether you are running as an EV (240Nm), petrol only (400Nm), gaining value from the CISG (up to 150Nm) or combining everything for a peak of 640Nm.

Performance is pretty solid, with a claim of just 5.6 seconds from 0-100km/h and an even more impressive claim of just 2.1L/100km fuel consumption.

And yes, nail the 2315kg XC90 T8 off the line and the seven-seater shifts pretty darn quickly. The fly-by-wire transmission, with its Orrefors crystal gear selector, is smooth and quick as you zap up to triple digits, a marvel of both comfort and technical engineering. For a while, at least.

You see, for short hops, either as a super-efficient and blissfully quiet family shuttle, or a sprightly and responsive sports wagon, the science lab running the T8 works brilliantly.

But, the 9.2kWh batteries give the XC90 T8 a ‘theoretical’ range of about 30 kilometres, for either role. Beyond that, and you’re left with a husky (there’s about a 300kg weight penalty for the T8 over the T6) and more expensive version of the same car.

A country drive of about 70km saw our fuel use slip toward the 10L/100km mark, and that was with a full battery charge at the start. Your tank of electro-juice never gets fully depleted, the transmission tries to keep the electrons in a job through regenerative braking, but it gets close.

After 25km or so, the car is largely using the petrol motor, needing a rest of the throttle or solid downhill section to gain enough charge to warrant using the battery again. Even then, the T8 will err to battery performance first - so as soon as you get it, you lose it.

You can set the T8 to a charge mode, which will regenerate about 30 per cent of the battery, but that’s sort of like interval training. Sprint, recover, sprint, recover, and so on. It’s not a seamless experience, that a car like the XC90 should be.

It’s a pity, as around town, driving in hybrid mode, the T8 is quiet and brisk enough for a big, luxury wagon. The live fuel consumption graph becomes a bit of a challenger to achieve a lower and lower consumption rate.

Keep things sedate and you’ll meet the consumption claim, providing there’s charge in the battery. Remind yourself that there is 300kW available by mashing the throttle and that 2.1L/100km thing? Well, in the words of Lt. Ellen Ripley, you can just kiss all of that goodbye.

In fact, you can’t actually drive 100km with the battery in use as an EV or hybrid, essentially making the claim an impossible target.

We tended to average around 7.0L/100km. Not bad, but not what is represented in the brochure.

The problem is, whispering around the inner ‘burbs of Melbourne, with just a hint of eco-smugness, is quite addictive, and given our stone-age charging infrastructure, the XC90 T8 becomes a ‘cup of sugar’ car.

Everywhere you go. You stop in to ‘borrow’ a quick cup of sweet, sugary electrons.

Drive to work. Plug in for a quick charge. Swing past the shops on the way home, hunt for a power point in the underground car-park for a quick charge. Drop in to see mum for a cup of tea, snag a charge while you’re there.

Parking becomes a strategic game, how close can I get to nab a sneaky hit. The supplied charge lead allows you to select from 6 amps to 10 amps current draw and will charge the car to fill in about four hours.

All because you’ve committed $20,000, or the equivalent in petrol use of driving an HSV Maloo around Australia’s ‘Highway 1’, three and a half times.

Hilarious fun that would be, sure. But you get the point.

Unless you are popping from charger to charger at a distance of under 30km, every day, or just love the idea of a crystal gear selector, the T8 doesn’t really work. It needs to say you can have that sub-six second 0-100km/h sprint time OR sub-3L/100km fuel consumption, but not both, and not for long.

It’s a shortcoming in what has become a very likeable and practical vehicle.

That excellent interior, those lovely materials and of course, the amazing stereo, make the XC90 a classy and so far, dependable option in the luxury SUV space.

Even the mild tweaks to the Sensus infotainment software, with an audio notes app (super handy for me), Yelp ratings for cafes near you, and better wi-fi and over-the-air update support, show how user-centric the brand is becoming. A set of powered third-row seats like in the Audi Q7 would be nice, though.

The R-Design pack does look good, and although the car rides much better without the enormous 22-inch wheels, even with air suspension it is still on the firmer side of things.

What is cool, is with the air package, you can raise the car for an off-road setting, but also lower the rear to make loading luggage easier. It moves quickly too, something a few other air-setups need to pay attention to (looking at you Audi).

But what the higher-end XC90 models have shown us (the executive layout XC90 Excellence also uses the T8 drivetrain), is that the best car is a bit lower down the range.

A well-equipped D5 Inscription is a much more sensible starting point (from $97,900).

With the same technology and luxury, options added (yes, yes, that includes the stereo), plus the addition of a Polestar tuning package, the 177kW (up 4kW) and 500Nm (up 20Nm) 2-litre turbo diesel offers consumption of just 5.7L/100km and a range of over 1200km.

It might not be as gee-whiz fancy as the T8, but it makes a lot more sense and is still just as lovely inside.

That said, the 2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design is a very clever car and a fantastic stake in the ground as Volvo’s first mainstream plug-in hybrid model. Things can only improve from here, and we’re keen to see what they do next.

MORE: Volvo XC90 T6 R-Design: Long-term report one
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Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss the 2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R-Design below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.