Volvo’s range-topping SUV sees some updates for 2021

One of the oldest models in Volvo’s current lineup is still one of its most important. Despite being a six-year-old design now, Volvo is still selling its XC90 like hotcakes. And to keep things fresh, it has tweaked it for the 2021 model year and is offering it with a host of different engine choices.

What’s New For 2021?

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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Being a Volvo, most of the changes for 2021 are safety oriented. As such, the XC90 now comes with standard blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, curve-adaptive LED headlights with automatic high beams, LED fog-lights, front park assist, and wireless cell phone charging. Standard safety equipment is welcome news from any manufacturer but when that manufacturer prides its entire brand on safety, you have to wonder why these features weren’t standard in the first place.

Exterior Design

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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On the outside, you’d be hard pressed to tell a 2021 version from a 2020. Volvo has tweaked the grille and bumpers. New wheel designs are also now available, but that’s about it.

And that’s not a bad thing since the XC90 remains one of the most – if not the most – attractive designs in the segment. One exterior feature I could do without are the side running boards which are too skinny to be of any real use and are really only good for getting dirt, dust and road-salt on the back of your pant legs.

Interior Design

2020 Volvo XC90 Interior
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Like its exterior design, Volvo has brought it’s A-game to the interior. There are plenty of interior colour options available and my test vehicle came equipped with the “blonde” interior, which is more white than blonde, but does it ever make it seem like you’re stepping into a large modern Swedish home. As is the case with most modern-day styles, minimalism is the name of the game which helps to accentuate the smooth lines, elegant materials and tidy centre console. A diamond cut crystal shift knob is available on the T8, which accentuates the design even further, but my tester did not have that option checked off.

The main source of infotainment continues to be the large horizontal screen which is meant to mimic a tablet to make it easy for most to get used to and while its operation is easier to get used to than you might expect, there’s still plenty of menus and sub-menus that will easily take your eyes off the road for far too long.

2020 Volvo XC90
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And if it isn’t all the different menus and different ways you can swipe, it’s the fact that you likely need to tap that screen more than once for it to respond to command. When the XC90 is resting in your driveway, all the fingerprints left behind on the screen really take away from the otherwise impressive interior design.

Another feature which takes some getting used to is the gear shift. Unlike conventional gear shifts where you select the gear you want, i.e drive, you slide the gear into D and take off. But with the Volvo’s electric gear knob, to get into either drive or reverse you need to slide the gear knob twice, otherwise you’re just stuck in neutral. This also, eventually, easy to get used to, but it seems redundant to make the driver select the gear they want more than once.

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Like trying to write a Volvo review without mentioning safety, it’s nearly impossible to do so without mentioning the seats. Volvo continues to have the most comfortable seats in the business, though they should watch out for Lincoln and their new 20-million-way adjustable seats as well as Nissan’s Zero Gravity seats co-developed with NASA. Still, Volvo’s seats remain number one for comfort in my books and they are also available with a massage feature.

When talking about the second and third rows, comfort remains king, though third row passengers above the age of 18 will likely only tolerate shorter trips due to a bit of tight legroom.

Volvo still offers amongst the best legroom in class for third row seating, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you can stick grandpa back there for a 5-hour drive to the cottage.
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Accessing that third row isn’t immediately obvious as I had several people try (without telling them how to do it) and no one could figure it out.

With that third row folded, along with the second row, the already cavernous cabin turns into an echo chamber. There’s some serious cargo capacity offered, close to 86 cubic feet to be exact. Fold all rows back up and you still end up with a usable 15.8 cubic feet – perfect for short grocery runs. When getting that third row back up, it seems like Volvo made a fairly glaring omission. There’s no tether attached to the back so you can just pull them back up by the strap. You need to go all the way around to one side and push them back up, then go all the way around to the other side and do the same. To be fair, Volvo does offer automatic seat folding as an option which is done more conventionally from the rear. But you know this is a fantastic interior when the only complaint is the lack of a seat tether.

Powertrain & Performance

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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Getting onto the more interesting features of the XC90, it comes with three powertrains. The cheapest is the T5 which is a turbocharged four cylinder making 250 horsepower and 258-pound feet of torque. That sort of power is nothing to sneeze at however considering the XC90 is a bit of a porker, it means the engine needs to work harder to make that power. The T6 adds supercharging and turbocharging together making 316 horsepower and 295-pound feet of torque.

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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Then there’s the range topping T8 which effectively turns the XC90 into a plug-in hybrid. This setup makes 400 horsepower and 472-pound feet of torque.

The battery pack is situated underneath in the centre of the vehicle, which is why I didn’t complain about versatility when discussing the seats. The plug-in feature, when fully charged gives you roughly 18 miles of gas-free driving. You also have the option to save that electricity for when it may be more useful such as stop and go city traffic. This setup effectively erases the range anxiety that most owners of electric vehicles have felt more than once. If you completely deplete the battery, the XC90 chugs along as a normal hybrid and you’re good to go.

Driving Impressions

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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So, how does the XC90 T8 feel on the road? It’s plenty comfortable but I’d stop short of calling the ride plush.

While it is able to soak up a lot of potholes, bumps and other road imperfections, it’s the wheel/tire setup that seems to mostly let ride quality down.

For most of the wheel options available, the tires that come with them are fairly low profile. My tester’s 20-inch wheels looked the part, but you do pay slightly in road comfort. The R-design offers 22-inch wheels optional and while they make it look fantastic, your chiropractor will likely be the only one that benefits from them.

Of course, the drive mode you select is partially responsible for ride comfort. And since I’m the type that uses 400 horsepower to my advantage as much as possible, I also like knowing the vehicle can handle that much power when the road gets twisty, so I usually stayed in Sport mode for most of my time with the XC90. The Comfort and Eco modes provide for a less stiff ride.

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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Let’s talk about that 400 horsepower for a moment. The XC90 could not be described as slow by any means, but does it feel 400 horsepower fast? Not really.

It will do everything you expect of it; get off the line quickly, overtake on the highway with ease, get to highway speeds quickly from an off-ramp and would probably give an Eco-boosted 4-cylinder Mustang a run for its money from a stop light. Uh, not that I tested that theory out myself. Ahem.

But with all the power and torque I expected a tad more drama and excitement. The XC90 T8 – and indeed in all trims – provides no audible pleasure to the driver. It sounds rather mundane and mechanical. It feels, well, quite Swedish. It’s a sensible noise, not the type of noise that gives you a jolt of testosterone when you mash your right foot to the floor. This detracts from the experience slightly, which is a bit of a shame, but I applaud Volvo for at least refraining from pumping in computerized engine/exhaust notes through the speakers.

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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So, while having an electric motor provides more oomph to the turbocharged & supercharged experience, the main reason why one might consider the T8 over the other power trains is to save on fuel and perhaps do a small part in helping the environment. Officially, the T8 is rated at 25 mpg city, 28 on the highway and 26.7 mpg combined for its gasoline engine. When on electricity you get a rating of 55 MPGe. Of course, the more often you charge, the more you’ll see a benefit to fuel efficiency.

Final Thoughts

2021 Volvo XC90 T8 - Driven Exterior
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In the end, the Volvo XC90 in general continues to be formattable in its segment for various reasons and the added plug-in hybrid technology makes it all the more appealing. It’s attractive inside and out, has great versatility, plenty of standard safety tech, good power and can ease the strain on your pocketbooks, at least when it comes to the amount of visits to the gas station.

The initial price, however, might make you wonder why you wouldn’t just splurge on a performance-oriented BMW X5 or even a Porsche Macan. But if performance SUVs aren’t your jam and you’d still like something that will paint a grin on your face every now and then, the XC90 offers a unique and elegant option in the segment.

  • Leave it
    • Some Swedish quirks go from charming to irritating quickly
    • Lack of any sort of attractive audible sound
    • Price puts it in true performance SUV territory
    • Infotainment system response should be quicker
Kevin Harrison
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