Mountain Wheels: Electrified Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid is a cruising dream |

Mountain Wheels: Electrified Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid is a cruising dream

Imagine yourself cruising on some unpopulated and perfectly paved Nordic highway and you get the driving experience of Volvo’s XC90 Recharge.
Courtesy photo

I initially, based on each of its jumble of numbers, proposed doing a mashup review of the Infiniti QX80 and the Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid Recharge but Volvo won out in a way and is certainly worth its own focused piece.

I say this because the largest member of the now all-hybrid/electric Volvo family offers a sharper blend of distinctively imported looks and overall in-cabin technical intensity than the gargantuan Infiniti.

And yes, Volvo’s tiny third row is small enough to be overlooked entirely, though hidden, Ikea-styled, child-friendly details, such as etched spiderwebs in the elbow boxes, suggests Volvo knows exactly who will be riding back there.

All of your memories of V8 engines in the XC90 are long, long past, unlike the Infiniti competition. In this extended range, Inscription-level model of the XC90 Recharge — which retails for $72,100 but was stickered at $84,000 with 21-inch wheels, air suspension system, massage front seats and a premium Bowers and Wilkins sound system — the system is a 312-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo and a 143-horsepower generator/18.8-kilowatt-hour battery system making an impressive 455 horsepower and 523 pound-feet of torque.

“Extended range” here is not quite Tesla territory, but rather an EPA-rated 36 miles — window stickers now include that info, plus the 66 combined electronic mpg and 26 combined gas-only mpg the XC90 will generate.

But 36 miles is a little more entirely quiet territory to play with, or the remaining power simply gets blended back into the gas engine/generator setup and allows the big car to cruise smoothly and elegantly at Interstate 25 highway speeds.

XC90 offers five drive modes, including hybrid, electric-only and power-optimized, plus electronic All-wheel drive (with gas power to the front and electric power to the rear) and a low-speed, off-road setting. It can also do the electric vehicle-styled, one-pedal drive mode, speeding up and self-braking with just the accelerator. 

That smaller engine is very occasionally cranky and loud, as are most 2.0-liters, but for the most part, you’ll find yourself entirely happy with the power, akin to a much larger engine.

I was most impressed with the XC90’s dynamics as a highway vehicle, where its mass and the optimized air suspension led to a feeling of serenity I had forgotten in SUVs. The air system, plus those 21-inch wheels, were unfortunately hyper-sensitive in urban settings of potholes and concrete bumps, though you can lower or raise the system via buttons in the cargo area to help load goods, should you wish.

I did have a major hiccup, which I saw mentioned on a variety of Volvo enthusiast forums: The high-voltage cabin heater absolutely refused to heat up at all in the XC90’s fully electric mode. On a second outing, I messed with the “extra heat” setting in the Volvo’s upright 12.3-inch Sensus navigation touchscreen, and it still took 25 minutes for heat to come on. On the third try, it got as hot as the sun in minutes. My understanding is that it’s an issue that many plug-in electrics struggle to deal with but that Volvo technicians are able to correct it.

Otherwise, as always, the design is spectacular, perhaps even more so as the XC90 does not have the gigantic proportions of the very large QX80. Getting in is more car-like, with a relatively long step in to plant yourself, but you’re not 3 feet off the ground.

Outside, it’s splashy in Volvo’s still-unique way, with just enough chrome trim to be glitzy, but a style and presence that’s definitely an alternative to German, Korean/Japanese or new high-end domestic luxury.

A crystal shift knob requires a couple of additional taps either up or down to get you into drive or reverse — a trick of the car you’ll have to learn quickly — and with just a twist-to-start ignition starter and parking brake controls on the console, it’s one of the most simplified cabin layouts imaginable.

If you want to make the drive even more serene, you can turn off the Google Android-operated Sensus navigation/control input screen and go with the minimalistic panel instrumentation, and almost nothing else.

The Inscription level provides real wood dash inlay, your choice of either Nappa leather or a tailored wool blend for upholstery and those blessedly orthopedic seats. In retrospect, this is the vehicle I should have driven all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as it would really fit in there, as well, but such was not the case.

PS: On the very near horizon is the new EX90, the all-electric version of the automobile.    

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