Volvo XC90 T8 R Design (2017) review: The most complete SUV on the road

£69840
Price when reviewed

The Volvo brand has come a long way. Cars such as the S90, V90 and XC60 are now legitimate challengers to the usual German offerings, and the Swedish carmaker’s Sensus infotainment system is easily up there with Audi’s Virtual Cockpit or BMW’s iDrive. This change hasn’t happened night, but the release of the new Volvo XC90 marked a clear turning point.

It’s the car that’s put Volvo back on the map for many people – and not just for the usual reasons. Sure, the XC90 is safe, but it’s also technologically advanced and stylish to a degree you wouldn’t expect from a brand better known for family-orientated tanks. It was an extremely impressive SUV when it first came out a few years back, but in 2017 it’s available with a hybrid T8 engine, and an ultra-stylish R Design package.

So, just how good is the new 2017 Volvo XC90 T8 R Design? I drove it around the UK for two weeks, from the motorways to Silverstone, to the B roads of Kent – and the odd car park or two, as well. Here’s what I thought.

Exterior

You might not instinctively associate Volvo with style, but the XC90 is a looker. In fact, to my eyes, it’s the best-looking SUV you can buy right now. Its imposing black R Design grille, those distinctive Thor’s hammer headlights, and rounded-but-square edges all contribute to its handsomeness.

Thanks to the R Design package, the Volvo XC90 T8 I drove also featured superb black and alloy wheels, adding an extra sense of understated cool. Even though it’s a monster of a vehicle, every inch of it looks slick and svelte; it hovers gracefully over the road like a cruise ship.

Interior

The sense of confident, unshowy luxury continues in the enormous cabin of the XC90, which features one of the best infotainment systems you can get. Much of the Volvo’s dashboard is devoted to its generous 9in touchscreen, with air conditioning, volume and most other functions available via its Sensus operating system. For those who prefer physical music controls, you’ll find a volume knob and play and pause buttons beneath the touchscreen.

All the switchgear around the Volvo is pretty stylish. The cabin has a distinctive character throughout, but the highlight for me has to be the odd, translucent gear selector. It’s totally unnecessary, and at night it glows with a soft, golden light, like a mysterious alien artefact. I’m not sure what the thinking behind it was, but it adds to the unique character of the car.

Performance

The 2017 XC90 supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – but to be honest, you’ll rarely want to stray from Volvo’s Sensus system. It’s set up pretty much like a smartphone, and it’s great. The onscreen buttons are large and easy to press, and you can swipe between screens, too. Swipe one way and the screen shifts to car settings; swipe the other for additional menus. Drag down from the top of the screen and you’ll find a list of notifications, just like a smartphone.

In practice, it’s perhaps a little less convenient than the sort of click-wheel-based setup you’d find in a Mercedes or a BMW, as you need to raise your hand to the dashboard to operate it. However, Sensus is a much more tactile and intuitive experience overall, so it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

Satnav

Whether you’re using the built-in satnav or pairing your phone, you’ll find navigation using Sensus relatively easy. Satellite navigation is quick and effective, and the sheer amount of screen space available makes it easy to see where you’re going. Even when the map is sharing the screen with other tabs, everything is big and clear, and there’s an option to make the map full screen for an even larger overview of your journey.

View options include a 2D or 3D mode, and you can drag the map around with your finger, and even pinch to zoom. To help you keep your eyes on the road, directions are also presented between the dials on the 8in TFT screen in the cockpit. It’s not quite as good as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but it provides a very useful layer of information – including not just directions but speed limits – and unlike Audi’s system, it’s fitted as standard to every XC90.

Unfortunately, the car I trialled didn’t have a heads-up display (HUD), but that would doubtless have made things even better. It adds £1,000 to the price, but it’s almost always worth the money.

Sound

Connecting your phone to the XC90’s entertainment system via USB or Bluetooth is very easy – but picking your soundtrack for journeys isn’t quite so simple. If you’re using CarPlay then browsing through your library is a little awkward, although to be fair that might be more Apple’s fault than Volvo’s.

Once your music is playing, the sound is very impressive. Even with the standard system, the Volvo XC90 T8 R Design delivers great sound, with a nice satisfying balance of bass, mids and trebles. It’s no match for the optional Burmester system in a Mercedes – it lacks that sparkle and depth at the extremes of the sonic spectrum, and that makes a real difference. Still, if you’re comparing like for like, the Volvo does a great job.

It’s also worth noting that the sound quality isn’t so great for rear passengers – which could mean up to five people. My colleagues in the back seat complained about drab audio and clearly didn’t get anything like the full musical experience. For people in the furthermost seats, it’s likely to be even worse.

Hybrid power

The Volvo I drove was fitted with a hybrid T8 engine, which made for a slightly surreal experience. Featuring both a two-litre turbocharged petrol engine and an 87hp electric motor, the XC90 I drove can put out a total of 400hp. The two work in combination to deliver either economy or speed, according to your preference. However, I found it only nailed one of those things – and it’s not the one you’re probably expecting.

It’s ridiculous typing this, but the XC90 T8 is fast. It’s not BMW i8 fast, but it’s way faster than it has any right to be. In Sport mode, with the Volvo’s air suspension easing it lower to the ground, the all-wheel-drive XC90 is a lot of fun to drive. Acceleration is impressively effortless, thanks to that powerful hybrid engine: if you floor the gas pedal, you’ll hear the combined whirr of electricity and the roar of petrol. Then you’ll probably find you’re going quite a bit faster than you expected.

The other potential benefit of hybrid power is economy, but here I’m not so sure the Volvo delivers. After I’d switched to Eco mode, the petrol engine still seemed to step in for even slight acceleration. Driving as sensibly as possible, I ended up getting around 32mpg – far lower than 47mpg or so I was expecting. And although the Volvo demonstrated when it was harvesting electric power, I only ever managed to store a third of the battery without actually plugging the XC90 in.

The Volvo also has a B Mode, which is designed to more aggressively store electrical energy; this works in the same way as the B Mode on the Nissan Leaf. However, it’s implemented as a separate gear, so you have to consciously select it when you’re coasting downhill. Use it all the time, and you’ll find yourself coasting far less, and therefore using the accelerator more: it’s a bit like engine braking, but it’s a bit of a fuss to use.

Volvo XC90 T8 R Design (2017) review: Autonomous tech

Volvo’s Pilot Assist autonomous mode is one of the better self-driving systems I’ve used. You engage it with a dedicated button on the steering wheel; then you click one way for adaptive cruise control or the other way for fully autonomous driving. As you’d expect, all of these options are displayed on the 8in cockpit screen. The best bit? It’s fitted as standard to all XC90s, and works up to 80mph.

On the way up to Silverstone, this was a huge help and really took the hard work out of the driving – but once or twice it seemed to take a strange line. Because the car is so big, driving quite close to other lanes felt uncomfortable, and quite unnecessary.

Like other autonomous systems, the XC90 makes sure you’re always in control of the car. It does this by measuring the input you’re putting into the wheel, so unlike the Mercedes system – which requires you to keep your hands at a quarter past nine – you can steer very gently with one hand under the wheel, and as long as the Volvo feels it, it won’t complain. If a steering input isn’t detected for a while, the Volvo will bleep before handing back control. This was fine for the most part, but the bleep didn’t seem to get louder when I had the audio system turned up; once or twice it got lost in the music. Not great.

Alongside its robust autonomous tech, the XC90 also sports a comprehensive range of sensors and cameras – and these are amazing. When I first started driving the Volvo and was still getting used to its size, I found its front cameras invaluable for navigating around multi-storey car parks, and its rear cameras essential for parking. Available as part of the £750 Xenium pack, along with autonomous parking, the Volvo’s 360-degree camera setup was well worth the money.

Volvo XC90 T8 R Design (2017) review: Verdict

Although the XC90 T8 R Design may have one or two shortcomings, it’s still one of the best larger cars you can buy today. It’s big enough for a large family and delivers all the technology you’d expect from a premium SUV in 2017. Sure, at nearly 70 grand the model we drove isn’t cheap – but many of the XC90’s best features such as Sensus and Pilot Assist come as standard.

That makes it a fantastic total package. From driverless tech to a sensor that opens the boot when you wave your foot under the car, everything in the Volvo is easy to understand and works just as you’d want it to. The XC90 T8 R Design is a fast, smart SUV – and, quietly, it’s very stylish too.

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