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Driving impression: Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine

27 June 2016

The Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine has landed in South Africa, making it the first plug-in hybrid 4×4 to go on sale here.  Touted as a performance SUV that will save the planet, the T8 represents a new dimension in the world of the 4×4. That’s the theory anyway we spent a few days with the XC90 to find out what all the hype is about.

First an introduction via a term: game-changer.

It is a term that signifies a giant leap forward for motoring, which means it should be reserved for those rare occasions when a car not only rewrites the       rulebook, but shreds said book to pieces and replaces it with its own manuscript. The Volvo XC90 T8 Twin engine is such an automobile it has rewritten the SUV rulebook in so many departments.

And it all started with a proverbial blank cheque courtesy of Chinese company Geely, otherwise known as the makers of forgettable Chinese hatchbacks. Interestingly, some industry pundits predicted that the Chinese investment would be the beginning of the end for the then beleaguered Swedish manufacturer.

But the top brass at Geely had a plan: clearly Volvo had the people, the skills and the ideas to make great cars. What they didn’t have was money, which you obviously need if you want to think about great cars and actually design and produce them. So the Chinese company handed over heaps of cash and told the Volvo designers to go and turn their bright ideas into practical solutions and, eventually, cutting-edge cars.

The XC90 is one of the results of this arrangement, which saw Volvo’s Swedish engineers stick to the company’s original ethos of being innovative in as many ways as possible. One of the XC90’s most interesting attributes is the introduction of Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform. The SPA platform can be used for a variety of models, and was designed from scratch to fulfil different roles.

For instance, the T8’s 9.2 kWh battery is fitted in the traditional transmission tunnel in the middle of the vehicle’s chassis, where the driveshaft to the rear wheels would normally live. This is beneficial in the weight distribution and centre of gravity departments, and also means that there is no impact on the XC90’s cabin space or layout.

Another interesting Volvo design criterion is the company’s new in-line four-cylinder engine technology. All the SPA engines, both diesel and petrol, are limited to two-litres and breathe through turbochargers, and they vary only in their ultimate output. But more on the drivetrain specifics a bit later – let’s get a bit more practical with the new plug-in hybrid first. Tackling the concrete jungle is usually the Achilles heel of any large luxury SUV, but the T8 is a prime example of how a sizeable vehicle can be equipped to handle inner-city parking, congestion and the school run. Let’s start with the obvious Volvo attributes and work our way up to the newer stuff.


Minimalist luxury
Volvo is currently at the sharper end of the understated luxury field. There aren’t a bazillion buttons and gimmicky gadgets that you’ll only ever use once, and only after studying the owner’s manual to figure out what is what. The Twin Engine indeed has a great many gadgets, but they’re all hidden away in
a computer, which interacts with the human behind the wheel and their smartphone via an iPad-like touchscreen called Sensus Connect.

It sounds a lot more complicated than it is and you’d be surprised how quickly you adapt. What we like most of all with regard to this interactive slab is the way it’s set up and how it reacts to touches and slides. The main menu consists of the basic features you’ll use most of the time, like navigation, climate control and music selection.

There are naturally submenus and submenus to those submenus, but the main selections on the home screen are all you ever need, with the submenus kept for things you may occasionally glance at. Essentially though, it’s so easy to use that even the more technology-challenged among us figured it out in a few seconds – Sensus Connect is one of the best human/car interfaces we’ve experienced. In the rest of the cabin the leather is clearly of very good Swedish stock, but a particular highlight is the Orrefors crystal shift lever, which adds a dash of exclusivity over and above other XC90 models.

Our test unit was fitted with the optional Premium pack, too. It adds extras such as heated seats, additional safety equipment, a 360-degree HD camera parking assist with a view from the top and keyless entry. The cherry on top of the Premium cake is the 1 200W, 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system. This is about as good as sound quality in a premium SUV can get and it offers outstanding sound reproduction and acoustics. Another highlight is the space. Rear seat passengers have copious amounts of space, and the third row pews are surprisingly comfortable and spacious. And even with that last row of seats in place, there’s still 451 litres of boot space available. Fold those two seats flat into the floor and you have 1102 litres to work with.


Tech that matters
Volvo has been synonymous with safety innovation and features since the company’s first car rolled off the production line in 1927. Volvo created the three-point safety belt for instance – a feature we all take for granted today. The XC90 is now the torchbearer for Volvo in the safety department, and currently holds the title as the safest car in the world. Volvo has gone so far as to say that by 2020 no person will die in a collision in a Volvo. That’s a pretty bold claim.

The XC90 comes equipped with everything you’d usually find in a high-end SUV: ABS, EBD, BAS, HSA, HDC and stability and traction control. In addition to these, it also comes with IntelliSafe, which incorporates City Safety. This system has pedestrian/cyclist detection, run-off-road mitigation with impact-absorbing seats, autobrake at intersections for oncoming traffic, front collision warning with full auto brake, lane departure warning, driver alert control and road- sign information.

Ticking the Premium Pack option includes the blind spot information system and cross traffic alert. Another safety option is Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) with lane-keep assist and Pilot Assist. This R19 000 piece of kit allows you to activate the system in heavy traffic at speeds of less than 50km/h – and the Volvo will steer, brake and accelerate for you, sticking to your chosen lane. Amazing. Given the sheer amount of tech that’s constantly working at keeping you safe and on all fours, you’d have to be a real chop to crash an XC90. In case you do, the seven airbags and tried and trusted crumple zones will ensure that the impact causes the least amount of damage to the occupants.

City slicker?
In terms of large SUVs, certain things are mutually exclusive. You can’t, for example, have frugal without sacrificing fast, and vice versa. Or can you? Well, in the T8 Twin Engine, Volvo reckons you can. The 300kW SUV tips the scale at 2.3-tons, but it’s said to be able to sprint from 0-100km/h in just 5.9 seconds. Yet it drinks less petrol than a 1.6-litre hatch. Or, it can use absolutely no fuel too, if you choose. The secret lies in the T8’s plug-in hybrid drivetrain. The Volvo’s main source of motivation comes from a win-turbocharged two-litre petrol engine that delivers 235kW of power and 400Nm of torque. This engine drives
the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

An additional 65kW and 240Nm electric motor lives on the rear axle, and this mill can work either by itself only, providing an electric-only range of a claimed 42km, or it can work in conjunction with the petrol engine to provide either exhilarating performance or economical hybrid mode driving. Volvo calls it the Electric Rear Axle Drive (ERAD) system.

But hybrids such as Toyota’s Prius have been around for years now. What makes the Twin Engine unique is the plug-in function. You simply plug the charger into a standard 220V power socket and three hours later the lithium-ion battery is fully charged. It costs less than R20 per charge. In electric-only mode, the Volvo can realistically, and depending on traffic and weather conditions, reach about 30km with a full charge. So if you live within about 20km of the office, you can drive it there and back on electric power only (if you recharge at the office). Hence the fuel consumption will be zero litres/100km.

The default driving mode however, is ‘Hybrid’. This setting offers a blend of economical petrol and electric power. In Hybrid mode in Pretoria’s CBD, ensconced in the Volvo’s ultra-refined cabin, it was impossible to tell which power source it was using at any given point. The only sign is the digital instrument cluster, which often displayed a very gratifying ‘0.0l/100km’ consumption reading.

But it’s not like there isn’t enough power on tap in this mode… step on the go-faster pedal and the XC90 surges forward at quite a rate of volts. There are those times though, when a BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz ML lands up next to you at the red traffic light. And for those occasions the T8 is equipped with the ‘Power’ option. In this mode, the twin-turbo engine and electric motor unleash all their ponies in unison for a full-fat, 300kW and 640Nm blast.

Sure, in this mode you burn more petrol and volts, but hey, sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.


And the long road to timbuktu?
What if you want to hit the open road and take in some C-roads and gravel along the way? Let’s start with the default Hybrid mode. Cruising at 120km/h, the petrol engine and electric motor work in seamless unison to provide the most efficient propulsion while there is still plenty of power on tap for quick overtaking manoeuvres.

At this cruising speed the cabin is utterly refined, although the driver has to keep an eye on the battery charge level. Unlike typical hybrids, the gasoline engine does not charge the battery, and there is only limited energy harvested from the braking system, which is sent back to the battery. So, if you drive it in Hybrid mode over longer distances, the battery will eventually be depleted. To prevent the battery from running empty, the Twin Engine has a ‘Save’ mode. By selecting this function, the electric motor is completely shut down and the Volvo is powered only by the turbopetrol-engine. This function is especially handy if you are planning on negotiating some slippery gravel roads and could do with four-wheel drive. Remember, the rear axle is only powered by the electric motor.

Right, so let’s go drive over some obstacles
Hang on there… although this Volvo does have all-wheel drive, it certainly was not designed to tackle 4×4 obstacles. Ground clearance is claimed to be a handy 230mm but the front and rear overhangs are not off-road friendly at all. And those flashy 19-inch wheels certainly look good but they won’t appreciate rocks, dongas and mud very much.

The XC90 T8 Twin Engine is however, not scared of a bit of rough-roading in other words, dirt roads that are not in the greatest shape. There are two drive mode settings you can use in such conditions. The first is ‘AWD’ where the petrol and electric mills are active all the time and the system maintains a minimum charge in the battery to ensure 4WD grip.

The second setting is ‘Off-road’. Here an electronic limited slip differential and hill descent control are activated, and both power mills run continuously. The setting certainly works, gearing the eight-speed automatic gearbox to the lowest gear on steeper descents. Still, the AWD function will work just fine for 95% of rough gravel road conditions.


Trip down memory lane
Volvo was established in 1915 as a subsidiary of SKF, the well-known ball-bearing manufacturer. Interestingly, the name Volvo means “I roll” in Latin – it is in reference to the company’s origins in the ball-bearing industry. The first Volvo car was produced in 1927 when a Volvo OV4, nicknamed Jacob, rolled off the production line. Over the years Volvo became a leading force in the field of automotive safety, pioneering the use of laminated glass, the three-point safety belt, side airbags and many other new safety technologies.

Volvo’s car division was sold to Ford Motor Company in 2000, but eight years later, following a year of financial losses and with a bleak economical forecast, Ford sold the company to the Chinese Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. With massive investment from Geely and a flurry of amazing new models, Volvo increased its market share in both Europe and China. The company also recently announced a huge investment in a new manufacturing plant in the USA. Clearly Volvo is a vibrant company that is on the up and up.

So what is it with this Volvo?
The Volvo XC90 T8 is an all-wheel-drive SUV that changes the 4×4 game. Not everyone needs or wants a Toyota Land Cruiser station wagon with a transfer case, 35-inch mud terrain, trick suspension and three diff locks to go and drive over mountains.

Safety, comfort, economy and versatility are increasingly the more popular criteria for potential SUV buyers who want to experience the great outdoors but who would rather ride a bike over a mountain than drive a 4×4 over it. And in that light, the Twin Engine is indeed a pioneering 4×4.

Combine the label of  ‘the safest car in the world’ with the highest level of refinement and luxury, styling that makes heads turn, seven-seat practicality, an innovative drivetrain that is also amazingly frugal for a 300kW, 2.3-ton SUV, and you land up with an SUV that clearly deserves all the awards it has won across the globe.

Look, it’s not the kind of performance SUV that will make you wake up in the dead of night, with a need to go and buy another 100g packet of sugar at the 24-hour shop across town. But it is perfect for the conscientious and practical-minded outdoors person who doesn’t mind the occasional traffic light-to-traffic light dice with a BMW X5.

And you’ll keep your braai buddies enthralled for hours explaining and demonstrating all the technology in this SUV. It really is a showpiece for motoring innovation and engineering. Clearly the Chinese executive who decided to hand over the heaps of cash and let the Swedish engineers go about their innovative business was a very wise man indeed. A game changer.


Engines Four-cylinder, twin-turbo petrol & electric motor
Power 235kW + 65kW = 300kW
Torque 400Nm + 240Nm = 640Nm
Gearbox Eight-speed automatic
4×4 Drivetrain Front wheels petrol driven, rear wheels electrics
4×4 Driving aids Electronic limited slip differential, traction control, hill descent control
Ground clearance (claimed) 230mm
Fuel consumption (worst, ‘Power’ and ‘Off-road’ modes) 9.5 litres/100km
Fuel consumption (best, electric only) 0.0 litres/100km
Average consumption 4.75 litres/100km
Fuel tank 50 litres
Range (if battery remained charged) 1 052km
Maintenance plan Five-year/100 000km
Standard price R1 092 100
Price as tested R1 178 975