There’s a bit-part character in Mad Men whose portfolio is filled with “the cure for the common X” taglines. If Danny Siegel got any amount of seat time with the 2020 Volvo XC90 he’d almost surely call it the cure for the common SUV. And he wouldn’t be wrong.
The first-generation XC90 was a game changer for the Swedish brand back in 2002. It was a softer choice, one that majored on safety and practicality, true to Volvo form. It soldiered on for a dozen years before its replacement landed. This second-generation model, the first clean-sheet design under new owner Geely, brought with it numerous changes. It ushered in a new design language, new hybrid drivetrains (care of a new scalable platform) and a new infotainment system.
That was five years ago, so the XC90 went under the knife for this model year. It emerges fitter for purpose, with choice updates that make it more compelling in a crowded market without sacrificing what makes it unique. We tested it in top-shelf T8 Inscription trim to see how it stacks up.
A Calming Interior
There’s not much to report on in terms of exterior changes with the 2020 XC90. That’s not a mark against it: Volvo nailed the look at launch, with simple Scandinavian lines and clean detailing. The facelift tweaks the front and back ever so slightly, with the most noticeable changes being a concave grille. New wheel designs are also available, measuring up to 22 inches across. It being the middle of February, our tester sits on smaller 20-inch wheels wrapped in winter rubber.
The interior isn’t vastly different either. The XC90 launched with a high-quality interior that stood apart from the competition, and five years later it’s still unique. All of the touch points feel good, and the grey ash wood on our tester looks it too. The Orrefors crystal shifter is the shoutiest piece of interior trim, but even it’s balanced, less blinding than the blingy equivalent in modern BMWs.
While there are multiple interior color options, this big boy comes in somber gray. It drowns out some of the cleverer design touches, but at least the humungous glass roof lets a lot of light in. There’s a new “tailored wool” trim option that sounds like a great alternative for those tired of or otherwise opposed to former bovine.
Storage space is certainly class-competitive thanks to the XC90’s boxy shape. With all the seats up there are 15.8 cu-ft of the stuff; drop the third row for 41.8 cubes, and the second row for a grand total of 85.7.
Space in the way-back is tight for teens and adults, but it fits children fine. They’ll have a bit of a climb to get back there, as the second-row seats are quite the hurdle even fully folded down. There is a new six-seater option, swapping out our tester’s three-person second row for a pair of captain’s chairs. The outboard middle row seats are plenty comfy, and like the fronts come with heating too.
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It’s the fronts that earn big points for the XC90. Adjustable to the nth degree, with heating and ventilation, these thrones come with a massaging function too. It’s soothing in city traffic and keeps us alert hours later, deep in cottage country.
Lots Of Tech, Mostly Good
It’s a shame then that the massaging function — and most everything involving settings — is locked within the infotainment screen. There’s a lot to like with it: the main menus are clear and quick, the swipe functionality makes it familiar for anybody who has used a smartphone in the last decade, and it’s a decent size.
Seat functions are the most noticeable issue. Some of the seat-mounted controls do as you’d expect, but others control your selections on the screen. You can also use the touchscreen itself, and have to for massage functions. Adjust one seat and its menu pops up in the middle of the touchscreen: okay, fine. But if the front-seat passenger wants to fiddle too, the menu shifts up to make room for a second one below it. If we’re forced to rely on touchscreen controls, they should always appear in the same place.
Other issues were mostly minor annoyances. Depending on what other settings were being changed, for example, getting back to Apple CarPlay could take more attention than we’d have liked.
The XC90 comes chock-full of advanced driver aids. Frontal collision avoidance, lane keep assist, hill start and descent aids, road sign recognition, auto lights and rain-sensing wipers are all standard. Optional extras present on our tester include rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, rear collision warning, adaptive cruise control, Pilot Assist, a birds-eye camera, head-up display and Volvo’s Park Assist. The latter will scan a lot or road for available spots, either parallel or perpendicular, and offer to take control of the steering to guide the XC90 in. The driver is still responsible for braking though.
SEE ALSO: 2020 Volvo XC60 Review
Adaptive cruise control works well in heavy Toronto traffic. It changes speeds naturally, and is capable of coming down to a complete stop; just tap the throttle to get it going again. Thoughtfully, Volvo has designed it to accelerate if you signal a lane change (and it isn’t already at the set speed, of course).
A Green(er) Drivetrain, A Stately Steer
No matter which XC90 you pick, a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine will reside under its bluff hood. In T5 trims that translates to 250 hp and 258 lb-ft, going to either the front or all four wheels. The T6 bolts a supercharger to the engine and sticks to AWD, bringing outputs to 316 hp and 295 lb-ft. Our T8 uses a similar engine — it’s down three ponies — bolstered by an electric motor on each axle. Volvo quotes the same 400 hp and 472 lb-ft combined as the 2019 model, though the battery’s capacity is up slightly to 11.6 kWh. That doesn’t change its possible all-electric range much: Volvo estimates a whole 18 miles before the good ol’ ICE does its thing.
The XC90 gives the driver a lot of control over how the propulsion systems are used however. You can stick to electrons, hold the current battery charge for later use, or even use the combustion engine to recharge the battery (and predictably eat up remaining gas range). Leave it to its own devices on longer drives and it’s essentially a T6; if you do lots of shorter stints and plug in in-between, a tank could conceivably last weeks. The EPA rates the XC90 at 27 mpg combined, and we averaged just over 30 mpg during our time with it.
In Inscription trim the XC90 is a confident drive. On the comfort/handling spectrum it’s firmly in the former camp: it’s not floaty, but it’s also not going to encourage you to go apex-hunting. That wouldn’t really fit its character. With a full charge it builds speed deceptively quickly. Bury the right pedal and that little four-cylinder sounds frisky in the mid-range and above, shedding its slightly diesel-sounding low-rev nature.
For 2020 the other pedal is also more positive. Volvo installed a new braking system that better transitions between regenerative braking and the discs doing the work. Gone is the inconsistent brake feel of previous XC90 hybrids, replaced with something more positive and predictable.
Our tester’s optional air suspension lets it ride high on snow-covered country roads and dropped it down for dry tarmac. It initially feels quite big — because it is — but excellent sight lines make it easy to place on the road.
Verdict: 2020 Volvo XC90 T8
The Volvo XC90 continues to age gracefully. The 2020 facelift builds on an excellent base that Volvo has consistently improved on each year. It isn’t perfect: it has an over-reliance on its touchscreen and the third row isn’t as accessible as we’d like. It’s also not cheap: while a base front-drive T5 comes in under $50,000, our T8 tester breaches the $85k mark.
That sticker comes attached to a unique vehicle though, which is saying something in the crowded mid-size luxury SUV market. The XC90 steers clear of the aggressive thrustiness so common in its class, countering with the gentle grace and cool interior only the Scandinavians can pull off. A cure for the common crossover, indeed.