The BMW X5, the Range Rover Sport and the Porsche Cayenne. All of these SUVs have two things in common: they can all be specced with lots of power, and all three will make you feel like the entire world hates your guts.
Fast SUVs are a symbol of excess, an indication that the owner doesn’t give a damn about the environment, and a sign of someone who wants to lord it over every other motorist on the road. With one notable exception, of course: the Volvo XC90. The old one was always a classless thing, which said nothing about the driver other than that he or she needed a spacious family bus to keep their nearest and dearest as safe and comfortable as possible when in transit.
It’s exactly the same deal with the new one, which looks attractive (we dig whole ‘Thor’s hammer’ thing going on in the headlights and elsewhere) in an understated way, and yes - you can have a quick one, the T8. This has the added bonus of being a hybrid - lowering the SUV hate factor even further - and it’s the one we’ve been looking forward to driving the most.
On paper, everything looks promising. We have a 320bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with a supercharger and a turbocharger, plus an electric motor putting out 80bhp. So, 400bhp in total, which means 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds, just a couple of tenths off a Porsche Cayenne S. At the top end you’re looking at a terminal speed of 140mph.
In reality though, the XC90 never feels particularly fast. It’s more about effortless performance, though off the line it does pick up particularly briskly. The four-cylinder engine is smooth and responsive, and makes a pleasant - if not particularly thrilling - din, and there is the occasional whiff of supercharger whine to spice things up.
Where proceedings get more interesting is in the corners. The light and relatively quick steering does a good job of disguising the XC90’s 2.3-tonne mass, and there is less roll than I was expecting, no doubt thanks to the T8’s thicker anti-roll bars and tweaked shock absorbers.
The interesting bit is best split into two parts. Firstly, there are the brakes to consider. As a side effect of the regenerative braking system, the pedal is unbelievably inconsistent. It’s a case of nothing, nothing, nothing, BITE!, which makes you feel like you’re about to fly through the windscreen. In time you’d get used to it, but it’s irritating when plenty of other hybrids have similar systems that don’t completely mess up the brake feel.
The other area of concern is the sizeable dollops of understeer I frequently encountered. The front-end washes out easily, and once you delve into the T8’s unusual drive layout, you’ll understand why.
The sole hybrid XC90 is best thought of as a BMW i8, but the other way around, where the internal combustion engine powers only the front wheels, and the electric motor deals with the rears. As keen mathematicians will have worked out by now, that means that the T8 biases 80 per cent of its total power output to the front.
So why no mechanical four-wheel drive system? It’s all about packaging. The T8’s batteries sit in the space usually occupied by the propshaft, as otherwise they’d end up eating into interior space, probably by sitting under the boot floor.
It’s that decision that’s telling as to what the XC90 is about. It doesn’t handle anything like as tidily as a Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover Sport, but that doesn’t really matter, as your average XC90 buyer won’t have as much of an urge to fling their ride around a twisty mountain pass.
Practicality is key here - if you want to lug seven people around in comfort, few cars will do it as well as the XC90. Everything inside is sturdy but with a plush finish, and so long as you spec the air suspension (the standard-fit setup is disappointingly hard on UK roads), it has excellent waft potential. I still have reservations about putting things like heater controls within a touchscreen, but the responsive eight-inch unit in the XC90 is the best I’ve used in a car.
Other than brisk but undramatic straight-line performance, why would you buy one of these hybrid XC90s over the D5 oil-burner? The claimed 134.5mpg figure is - as with the MPG figures for most other plug-in hybrids - best ignored thanks to the way the EU fuel consumption and emissions test works. In reality, how good your economy is will vary greatly depending on how much you plug the car in to utilise its 27 miles of electric-only range.
The real benefits come when the government realises that you’ve bought a low-emissions vehicle, after which it will be very nice to you. In the UK (similar schemes exist in other countries) you get a £2500 grant to take off the price tag (T8 prices start at £60,455), you won’t pay any vehicle tax, and if you have it as a company car, you’ll pay just five per cent Benefit In Kind Tax.
If you haven’t a clue what BIK is, just consider that a similarly-powerful BMW X5 has a rate of 37 per cent, and you’ll realise how bonkers cheap it is to have an XC90 T8 as a company car. Depending on your circumstances you could end up paying just £100 a month.
So as a business car, you can see why it’s tempting. In fact, 13 per cent of XC90 buyers (a figure that’s expected to rise) have gone for the T8 thus far; it’s unlikely the share would have been as large if the range-topper was a big, thirsty inline-six or V8. For regular buyers, though, it’s probably worth just sticking to the cheaper D5 and enjoying a proper four-wheel drive system, plus ‘normal’ brakes.
The T8 shows that even with a lot more power, the XC90 isn’t exactly a petrolhead-friendly SUV, but the idea of running one as a preposterously safe and comfortable family bus alongside something more exciting remains an appealing prospect. Now, if Volvo would just go and make a Polestar version…