Three cheers for Volvo’s XC90 SUV hybrid

THREE CHOICES, ALL GOOD: The Volvo XC90 Hybrid offers a variety of driving modes: a normal gas-electric hybrid operation, pure electric, power, save, and all-wheel-drive.
THREE CHOICES, ALL GOOD: The Volvo XC90 Hybrid offers a variety of driving modes: a normal gas-electric hybrid operation, pure electric, power, save, and all-wheel-drive. –Volvo

Our introduction came at about 9 p.m. in a dark parking lot.

That may sound like the lead-in to a mystery novel, but even though some mystery was involved, this is purely non-fiction.

I wandered through the crowded car lot, clicking the key fob that had been left for me, hoping, somewhere, lights would go on.

They did. I saw Volvo’s signature Thor’s Hammer running lights flick on. (The sobriquet refers to their unique shape.)

And that’s how I found today’s test vehicle, a 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription Hybrid.

It’s a long name for the hybrid version of the already acclaimed XC90, a vehicle that’s been leading Volvo’s revival.

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If you decide to buy an XC90—and I’m giving it a five-star rating—you should plan to spend at least an extra hour at the dealership learning everything you can about the marvelous electronics on this vehicle because they’re that good—but you also need to understand the logic behind them. Jumping in cold in a dark parking lot is not recommended.

The gas-powered XC90 is cutting edge, and the hybrid version goes even further. A normal gas-electric hybrid operation is the default mode, but you can opt for pure electric (in city driving), power (self-explanatory), save (holding the battery for future city driving), and all-wheel-drive as needed.

The XC90 Hybrid is a plug-in that can go approximately 14 miles on all-electric power. —Volvo

People tell me they don’t want to read about lists of features and specifications in reviews. That’s a relief because listing the model lines and option packages on the XC90 could fill the rest of this column.

Instead, let’s go for a ride.

We were leaving Somers, Connecticut, just after dark on a Sunday evening—the first night after daylight savings time went into effect.

I sat in my daughter’s driveway, trying yet one more time to figure out how to activate the XC90’s automatic high beams—something that had eluded me the night before and a feature I really wanted to test on rural roadways.

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Finally, we figured out the system (Turn on headlights, switch to high beams, then turn headlight stalk one spring-loaded click).

The first half-hour of our trip home was over a hilly, curvy road—Connecticut’s Rte. 190 through Stafford Springs.

THOR’S HAMMERS: Volvo’s XC90 Hybrid is a unique combination of luxury and safety from its signature LED driving lights on back. —Volvo

The auto high beams were sensational. But the LED low beams were just as impressive. They were as good as, if not better than, any headlights I’ve experienced.

For many folks, nighttime driving can be difficult, especially taking left turns into dark roads or driveways.

The XC90 made short work of that. The headlights articulate (turn with the wheels) and the low beams light up the road as well as you could hope. An Intersection Auto Braking system warns or even stops you from making dangerous left turns across oncoming traffic.

Our trip home became two of the easiest hours of nighttime driving I can remember.

Readers often ask how comfortable the seats are in a vehicle. That’s usually an individual perception. But the seats in the XC90, with extenders under the thigh, were as comfortable as I’ve ever experienced.

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Volvo XC90 ranks among the safest vehicles of 2016

The lights and seats alone should have made our trip a breeze. But then we experienced the hybrid powertrain, the adaptive cruise control, the lane-keeping assist, and the tablet-sized touch screen that displayed a half-dozen preset radio stations with the song that was playing and how much time it had to play.

Maybe the first thing to talk about is the cruise control. We were following another car in the middle lane of Rte. 495, going along with traffic. I’d set the adaptive distance control to the maximum five bars. Suddenly our XC90 began to slow.

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Why?

The car in front hadn’t slowed.

But one of the vehicles in front of that car was moving more slowly and the XC90’s adaptive cruise control had detected it before the car in front slowed, put on a blinker, and pulled out to pass.

There were stretches on Rte. 495 late at night when there were no cars around us, and I could test what happens when the XC90 starts to wander out of its lane.

What happens is that the lane-keeping assist would nudge this SUV back into line, complete with driver-alert vibrations.

Meanwhile, the hybrid system is special.

The XC90 hybrid has a 2-liter, in-line 4-cylinder that’s both turbocharged and supercharged. It’s quick off the line, but even quicker when you add the 87 horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque from the electric engine.

Volvo’s system has the gasoline engine driving the front wheels and the electric (hybrid) engine powering the rear wheels.

It’s a plug-in hybrid that can make it 14 miles under all-electric power. That’s how I traveled the first 14 miles of my 80-mile trip home the night I picked up the XC90.

Apologies to my many engineering readers, but I can’t figure out what the real mpg is for this vehicle.

The gas gauge seemed to drop quickly; however, I soon realized it was only a 13.2 gallon tank and we’d driven about 300 miles before refilling. My best guess is that under normal (that is, not local plug-in use-the-electric as much as possible driving) operation, we were getting about 27 mpg. The EPA figure for electric-only driving is 53 mpg, and it’s 25 mpg for gas-only operation.

The 8-speed automatic transmission is smooth. And the gas-electric interface is seamless.

The XC90 Hybrid’s crystal shift knob is by Swedish glassworks Orrefors. —Volvo

There are quirks to the car, such having to tap the gearshift selector a few times to get the desired gear—something that becomes second nature. And it’s made easier by the XC90’s Swedish crystal shift knob.

The interior is all about luxury. Besides the heated seats and steering wheel, there’s a pleasing mix of leather, walnut, and metal trim.

The base price of the XC90 hybrid is $69,095 (including destination). Our upscale Inscription trim level with Vision, Climate, and Convenience packages topped out at $84,005, which seems to be as high as one can go.

But it includes top, rear, front, and side camera views, auto braking, pedestrian and cyclist detection, pilot assist (automatic driving up to 30 mph), and amazing solid handling for an SUV with the battery mounted low in what old-timers would call a driveshaft tunnel.

And if you want to be the first in your neighborhood to have a 7-seat, plug-in hybrid, this is your vehicle.

2016 Volvo XC90 T8 Inscription

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $69,095/$84,005. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 53 electric/25 gasoline. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 27 (estimated). Drivetrain: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that’s both supercharged and turbocharged, 8-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive. Separate electric motor drives rear wheels and provides AWD. Body: 7-passenger SUV.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 400 combined (313 gas, 87 electric). Torque: 472 lb.-ft. combined (295 gas, 177 electric). Overall length: 194.9 in. Wheelbase: 117.5 in. Height: 69.9 in. Width: 84.3 in. Curb weight: 5,205 lbs.

THE GOOD

Pinnacle of luxury, performance, technology.

THE BAD

Short all-electric driving range; technology can be complicated for the technically challenged.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Gas-only version should suffice for the majority, but this may be a perfect fit for those with a short commute or local driving routines.

ALSO CONSIDER

This hybrid is in a class of its own right now. Gas-powered competitors include the Audi Q7, Acura MDX, BMW X5, Cadillac Escalade, Infiniti QX60 and QX80, Range Rover Sport, and Toyota Land Cruiser.

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