Remember when Volvos were big, safe, conservative cars built for families who didn’t swallow slick marketing campaigns about performance, but instead wanted a refined luxury vehicle that still looked fresh a decade later? Well, those days appear to be back for the Chinese-Swedish manufacturer, except this time, it’s in an era where those previous values, together with minimalism and sustainability, are the cornerstones of every manufacturer’s marketing pitch.
Now in its 11th year operating under China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, though importantly with its headquarters remaining in Gothenburg, Volvo has reinvented itself from the hedonistic noughties. That was when, under Ford ownership, it deviated away from the safety message and initiated a mainstream European luxury-performance campaign, developing V8 engines, sports models and entering motor racing under its high-performance division, Polestar.
With China already fixated on electrification, Geely took control in 2010 and began the long path to transform the brand once more, returning it to a more familiar theme that earned it global respect for decades and on a path where it will adapt to full-scale electrification and autonomy faster than its legacy rivals.
Geely’s first step was to withdraw Volvo from motorsport, axe its large engines and switch its fleet to efficient, four-cylinder powertrains with a long-term eye on hybridisation and electrification.
What that means for us today is we have this incredibly likeable, all-wheel drive Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV) XC90 T8 SUV that silently slinks around town under battery power before its 390 brake horsepower, 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo and supercharged engine takes over.
The result is that it delivers astonishing performance, offering a claimed 5.8 seconds from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour, which is remarkable for a 2.3-tonne, seven-seat, four-cylinder SUV.
Even more impressive is that the acceleration seems effortless as the electric motor does the hard yards to get its weight moving before transitioning to the petrol motor and is backed by a sweet, eight-speed automatic transmission.
Like the rest of the XC90 range, the T8 Hybrid has an all-wheel drive, except the drive is split between the petrol engine for the front wheels and an electric motor for the rear wheels.
As a result, in everyday motoring, the car can run in any configuration of front-wheel drive, rear-drive or all-wheel drive with the system choosing the most appropriate setting depending on the mode selected and the conditions at the time.
It has a range of just under 50 kilometres on electric power, with a full charge from empty taking as little as two-and-a-half hours from a fast-charger, or six hours from a domestic wall socket.
However, like all PHEVs, the key to maintaining its good fuel economy is to keep the battery charged, otherwise you’re carrying a few hundred kilos of dead battery and electric motor for nothing. If it’s not charged, you’re better off with a conventional petrol car.
Both motors in a PHEV like the XC90 need each other to make the deal work and while the electric motor will be partially charged by the combustion engine as it drives, it always pays to plug it into a charger whenever you get the chance, such as at shopping malls or parking stations.
It won’t leave you stranded, but you’re wasting the opportunity to save money and emissions by not cycling the battery.
Inside, the occupants are welcomed by refreshingly light hues of cream leather with a matte blonde wood timber grain that’s a welcome change from the tan and black leathers mixed with dark timber veneers so often seen in premium prestige cars.
The light and airy feel is capped by a full-length glass panoramic sunroof that keeps heat out, though it’s always wise to give your air-conditioner an easier task by closing the sunshade when parked outside.
Overall, the interior fit and finish is good and the seats are about the most comfortable I have experienced in a family-sized SUV in a very long time.
Apart from the external charge flap mounted on the front guard, the only tell-tale signs that it’s a hybrid are the slightly different dials and a crystal gear selector ahead of a rotary dial that lets you choose from the six different operating modes.
Despite Audi, BMW and Range Rover all launching PHEVs since the initial XC90, this T8 Hybrid still feels quicker and more comfortable without the showmanship.
It continues Volvo’s thinking person’s persona, in that it doesn’t boast about its green credentials with badges, illuminated grilles or decorative blue stripes; it just gets the job done.