JOHANNESBURG - When the latest generation Volvo XC90 debuted around four years ago, it took many critics' breathe away. Minimalist styling. Boxy, but curved in just the right places, inside and out, there was this charm to it that the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE just didn't seem to have.
The BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz GLE have both been thoroughly refreshed as all-new models in the past year, to give them that charm and presence that was lacking, which means Volvo had to refresh the XC90 too, but within reason as it's still pretty much the same as the model it replaces.
The nice stuff
Aside from the XC90's slightly tweaked bumpers and grille, there's not much to tell it apart from the pre-facelift car. Inside though, there's this nicer feeling when you jump in, especially when it comes to the materials they've used on the doors and dashboard. The interior combines soft leather and wood with what looks like hand-crafted stitching details. It also comes with two USB ports as standard now, so there's no fighting for smartphone charging capability on road trips, and a factory-fitted telematics unit with a sim card slot for enhanced safety and connectivity.
Our test car, the T8 Twin Engine model, was also fitted with an R-Design Pack (R70 500) which includes heated front seats, a Head-up display (HUD), a 360-degree view camera system, audio by Bowers and Wilkins, Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), a heated steering wheel, full smartphone integration through Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and keyless entry with hands-free tailgate operation. It's a pricey pack to add to an already pricey vehicle, but it's worth it just for the sound system and the smartphone integration. You can opt for these items individually, but Volvo, like most carmakers, are looking at rationalising options through packs such as these.
Don't feel bad if you don't take options though, particularly if you're looking at buying an Inscription model. Here you get numerous yummy (and handy) standard trimmings such as Intellisafe Assist (which includes City Safety with pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection and front collision warning with full auto brake), Driver Alert Control (DAC) with Lane Keeping Aid (LKA), an Intelligent Driver Information System (IDIS) that works in conjuction with a Road Sign Information system (RSI). Other standard items on the XC90 T8 Inscription include full LED headlights with active high beam assist, Park Assist front and back, electrically-adjustable driver and passenger seats, adaptive cruise control with Pilot Assist (making it semi-autonomous) and Volvo on Call, which places a concierge service at the push of a button from the cabin.
On dark narrow roads, you really learn to appreciate the good lights of the XC90 and the safety systems that are always looking out for dangers. I also enjoyed the Pilot Assist function when traffic wasn't too congested. It maintains a set distance to the car in front of you and can steer you around sweeps and bends on its own, provided your hands are always on the steering wheel to work with the car's brain. If you take your hands off the steering wheel with Pilot Assist engage, the car will shout at you to put your hands on the wheel again.
Built for the family
Moving away from the gizmos and gadgets, you also really need to know that the XC90 is ideal for large families. Not only does it swallow up to seven people in comfort (short people right at the back, please), the luggage compartment can swell to up to 1856 litres. Yes, luggage capacity will suffer with all the seats up, but that's always the trade-off with this sort of vehicle execution. The XC90 can be ordered with a range of different seating configurations. From the seven-seat family SUV, to a new six-seat configuration.
Seats are comfy and well shaped, and just firm enough to not let you get too comfortable on long road trips. With the baby seat in the back, my boy was well-entertained by the sights out of the large windows, and the audio system kept us all entertained to the soothing sounds of Yellow Submarine renditions. Know this, there's a sense of comfort in the car that just made every journey relaxed, whether it was to the office or to the mall or to the Lion Park.
The drive, then
So, the USP of the T8 Twin Engine XC90 model is its trick petrol/electric/turbocharged/supercharged powerplant. Displacing a relatively diminutive 2.0-litres, with 'only' four cylinders.
There's no way that a motivational package such as this would work in a big SUV, I thought, and yet it completely changed my perspective on this kind of technology in large vehicles.
Power comes in at 300kW (235kW from the petrol engine and 65kW from the electric motors when the battery is charged) and torque is rated at 640Nm (400Nm + 240Nm). With both propulsion systems on song, and thanks to the supercharger taking care of low end grunt with the turbo taking over at higher engine speeds, you get the feeling that this car could punch with V8s in the segment.
Incidentally, it's not the gung-ho performance that inherently comes with the car thanks to its outrageous engine and electrification tech, it's this XC90's ability to drive around in complete silence in FULL-ELECTRIC mode. I used the electric drive system whenever I could, covering around 50km just off electricity before having to charge it up. To charge it, you can use any one of the high speed chargers that are located around South Africa. Basically, if you can charge a BMW i Car or a Jag I-PACE from the box, you can charge the XC90 there too. Because the battery pack isn't too big (10.4kwH), it charges quickly. You can also plug the car into a three-pin socket in your garage overnight, like you would charge a smartphone, to ensure you always have enough juice in the battery for the next day.
This upper end of the SUV market is really a difficult to place to shop right now with so many nice models to choose from. An entry level diesel BMW X5 would probably offer you more distance-to-empty than the T8 Twin Engine, but then you're driving a diesel...
Luxury and technology wise, the Mercedes-Benz GLE also offers a lot, with voice control and large panoramic screens and excellent off-road capability.
The XC90 T8 Twin Engine then really has its work cut out for it to attract sales and get more people into this idea of 'charging a car'.
After driving the vehicle for a week and taking if off-road to see how its permanent all-wheel drive system worked in the rough stuff together with all that tech under the hood, I came away impressed but not blown away. You see, Volvo claims that this vehicle will use less than 3l/100km in a combined cycle, provided you always have enough battery power available, and that's going to be tough if you use the car as a daily or as a luxury shuttle for the kids school runs. I achieved around 10l/100km at the end of the test period, having run out of battery life and an encounter with some charger-point-hogging BMW i3 drivers. (At least we'll make friends in the future while we wait to charge our cars.)
Our test car, as standard, sells for R1 291 200, but the actual vehicle we drove came in at R1 426 900 after options. If you're happy to part with this sum of cash for an awesome driving experience and a new way of living thanks to keeping it charged, perhaps in preparation for going full electric, it is a compelling package. My money, if I could shop at this level, would go toward something from Spartanburg or Alabama. You get a five-year/100 000km full maintenance plan as standard with all XC90s.