Wednesday, February 01, 2017

TEST DRIVE: VOLVO XC90 T8 - All Hail, the King of the North

The thing about a lot of people is that they have a preconception about nearly automotive brand out there. Take for example Volvo. A lot of people have that notion that a Volvo is one of those cars for family types. Some however think that a Volvo is those old square boxes like the 240 which are meant for hipster type folks out there. Then there are some who think that you should follow precisely what Volvo's previous slogan to the tee, which is 'Volvo, For Life' and just buy one Volvo and use it for the rest of their lives. But ever since Volvo recently gave their whole line-up a good shake, a Volvo is a stupendous vehicle to drive.

Things started falling into place for Volvo cars when they first built the current V40 and XC60 vehicles. These were surprisingly good to drive, well built, filled with interesting technology and still keeping with the virtues of safety which Volvo were known for. They drove well, looked good and the only thing which I believe stopped a lot of people from buying the brand here in Malaysia was its fuddy duddy image of their cars from the early 2000s. Of course, it is my duty to right a wrong (even though it is only a perceived wrong) and tell you that Volvo builds interestingly good cars. And after driving the Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine I have to say that they brand has upped the ante even more by building a bahnstormer complete with a sense of occasion.

Everytime you drive one with verve it becomes a celebration of sorts. The XC90 T8 is actually one of the most complete SUVs out there on the market today and this is my story about it.

I ended up somewhere in Shah Alam where I was supposed to meet the chap from Volvo who had the keys to the white XC90 T8 you see in the photographs. After arriving at the not so secret location where Volvo Car Malaysia trains their staff as well as store some cars I was met by Zahir, the man who held something which I now call the 'Scandinavian Key to Happiness'.

Of course, you will not be handed over the keys to happiness easily. In the case of the XC90, which comes better equipped than some spaceships out there the handing over process takes quite a fair bit. I must say that Zahir patiently went through the process of telling me what this button does, how that works and what other equipment this large sized SUV has. This took about half an hour. This process would also be quite similar if you actually bought the XC90 in the first place.

The XC90 T8 has tons of tech built into it. There is so much equipment that I underestimated the need to actually pay attention to the briefing. The XC90 here is a Twin Engine Plug In Hybrid. In simple English it means that there are two engines in the car. One is a petrol powered 2.0liter turbocharged/supercharged engine and another is an electric motor powered by a battery pack cleverly placed in the middle of the car. 

If the XC90 were a traditional SUV the place where the battery is placed is actually the transmission tunnel for the propeller shaft which would transmit power from the engine to the rear wheels. In the case of the XC90, it does not have a prop shaft. The car, whilst all-wheel drive has a clever separate system. The front wheels get its power from the petrol engine. The rear from the electric motor. All somehow work through a clever setup and eight speed gearbox. So it is a very clever hybrid of a vehicle.

It is also a Plug in Hybrid. This means that it also comes with a charging cord so that you can plug it into your power supply at home directly (via a specific cable) or get a proper charging station at a price or charge it at one of those EV charging stations you see at certain locations throughout the Klang Valley. Of course, Volvo claims that you can get up to 40 kilometers of mileage running the XC90 on full electric mode.

So all of this is good. You have two engines, a plug in cable and tons of equipment inside to monitor all conditions pertaining to the battery, fossil fuel engine and other stuff. The car's air suspension is also adjustable to a degree. So is the climate control and a lot of other stuff. So much so the XC90 runs on 6 Can-Bus systems which talk to each other as soon as you unlock the door and get it. All go through a central processing unit. So that makes 7 systems that would need to go online. So by the time you start the XC90 T8 a lot of things are already going on in the background.

Anyway, let's move on the the basics. The XC90 looks chunky, solid and has immense road presence. The designers have managed to get its basic proportions so right. The squareness of the design works well. It has a big pronounced front grille that shows off its heritage. No small tiny grille but a confident and showy Volvo. It goes a little bit against the cool and understated Swedish styling, but I do believe that this is the way forward when it comes to cracking the premium car market. With the very nicely styled front headlights with the 'T' or 'Thor' Daytime Running Lights (DRL) it cuts an imposing figure. Very good so far.

Inside things get even better. You get the fit and finish of something premium inside. Everything feels upmarket. So much more than any other Volvo that has come before. This interior consists of proper luxury fittings. What is supposed to be aluminium is aluminium. What is wood is really wood (in a very unique textured finish, very grainy and natural to the touch). What is leather is high quality leather. And what is plastic feels very high quality too. 

Add that large touchscreen with only four large knobs around it and you have Scandinavian interior design at its best. In simpler words, the dashboard and interior fittings are luxurious. The seats and seating are also good and well designed. If I were to steal a word or two from the infamous Clarkson, the seating arrangements in a XC90 was designed by someone who has had children. It is so flexible. You can carry seven adults and some luggage. This is eating the whole cake and not gaining weight.


So you then start the car up. Nothing sounds at all since it starts in full electric mode. You slot that crystal gearknob into Drive and head off quietly. Volvo claims that you can run on the XC90's batteries for up to 40 kilometers before the engine needs to kick in. But with the air condition running (one that runs with an electric a/c compressor instead of a normal belt driven one) as well as other creature comforts like the audio system I only managed 30 kilometers on a charge.

The car in full electric mode is very quiet. Tyre noise is very low at these speeds (under 40kmh usually). When the engine kicks in it does sound slightly industrial if you give it some boot. I think this is quite alright as the XC90 is a SUV. It adds to the character of the car.

The thing about it being a Plug In Hybrid is that it will only allow you to charge up to one third of its battery capacity via the engine. If you want to reach full capacity, it needs to be plugged into a power source or you need a very, very long downhill stretch so that the regenerative braking can do it for you. It is quite logical why Volvo does it like this. Using the engine to charge up the battery would basically mean using up fossil fuel from the car and not from the power grid, which is actually cleaner to the environment. So if I did not plug the XC90 into the wall socket at night, it will only charge up to a third of its capacity. Or about 12 kilometers of electric only mileage at a time.

I also have to state that for the weekend I had the XC90 T8, I actually took out its charging cable and plugged it into the wall socket located outside my house. Yes. My house has external wall sockets and it so meant for running plug in hybrids. But the XC90 is huge. Because there were two other cars parked in the driveway I had to park the full sized SUV properly so that the charging cable would reach the wall socket. It should take about 5 to 6 hours at around 8amps for the car to receive a full charge. 

It is also quite noticeable when you charge the car as there is a cooling fan for the built in charging unit that automatically runs when it is charging. And note to myself. Pay attention when Zahir was explaining as to how to charge the car! I fumbled the first time around. The chap mentioned that you needed to work the locking mechanism of the XC90 to get the charging cable to unlock once you've plugged it in. Of course, this is what happens when you think you know everything.

So that settles the charging part. Now for the driving part. It is so much an eye opener. The twin engine combo gives you a total 407hp and a truly satisfying 640Nm worth of torque. It may weigh 2,300kgs but because it has that much torque, it basically flies. For a SUV that is. 0-100kmh is easily despatched in around 5.5 seconds (when both battery and petrol power are available and in Power Mode – Volvo claims 5.6seconds). I know. I tried it a few times and never ever thought a Volvo SUV could be even more, or as ballistic as a Porsche Cayenne GTS (the fastest normally aspirated Cayenne out there).

Doing a round of very high speed cruising is also enjoyable as the car is planted. It is even more stable if you keep it in Power Mode as the air suspension lowers the car a few centimeters. Now because it is equipped with air suspension, it is also very plush. My cross country jaunt with five other passengers on the village roads in and around Sepang, Dengkil, Morib tested the suspension thoroughly. So it adapts well to most Malaysian road conditions. I suppose air suspension allows for a magic carpet ride of sorts. It can also handle some slightly rough terrain too. Touch the Off-Road mode on the Volvo Sensus touchscreen and it will rise some centimeters taller.

I actually cannot complain about the XC90's ride and handling. It is very well sorted out. The car balances comfort and spirited driving well. It has an intelligent suspension. Even the steering seems well sorted out. It is precise and actually allowed me to place the car where I wanted to. And with all the torque available, it actually made the XC90 nimble on most roads. I also have to say that the 8 speed transmission works well with the powertrains. It is smooth and suits the character of the car. 

You only feel its girth or width when you are in the city. In traffic and when idiots double park where they are not supposed to. Even making a U-turn in this is easy. Again, its all that instantaneous torque from the electric motor. I have a love for hybrids like this which actually add another dimension to driving pleasure because it does not only allow for efficiency but for allowing us to have a lot of driving fun.

Drawbacks? Well, this is the first of Volvo's next generation of efficient vehicles. I have to start with the fact that I managed to charge the XC90 every night when I got home. The cable is actually quite bulky to lug around. I do not actually know whether most people have the discipline to religiously charge the car every night. I suppose people who can afford a RM403,888 SUV would be bothered to save a few Ringgit worth of petrol. 

If I was one of those super busy Captain of the Industry type of person I may not be so bothered to do so every day too. I suppose the problem of charging the car would not be a problem if you have a driver or someone paid to do it for you. Do note that each charge could cost you RM5.00. So add that to your monthly electric bill and you're still paying for something.

Aside from that I also note that I managed 465km from a full tank of fuel with the a full charge every night. The full tank of petrol lasted me Friday morning to Sunday evening with a charge on both friday and saturday night. This is partly due to the fact that the XC90 isn't equipped with a touring type tank. I believe Volvo specced it with something slightly around 50liters or so. Some with a lighter foot would definitely achieve better (easily over 500km), I think if I did the math, I did about 10.5liters/100km or there abouts. Very good in such a large and heavy car but it would be better if the tank was a good 60 liters or so for long distance touring. As it is such a comfortable car to be in, extra range would be always welcomed.

Its safety features are the best in the market. No other car gives you so much safety. Blind spot sensors, lane departure systems that work well, collision alert, park assist and pre-collision brake assist. Every darn thing is available to help you steer the car and avoid getting into a situation. There are so many things the XC90 T8 can do.

This car, this SUV, has my utmost admiration and respect. It blows everything what most of us have perceived what a Volvo is. It drives and handles so well that I forget that it is a Volvo. It has the performance to outpull some sportier SUVs out there that I forget it is a Volvo. It has an exterior and interior that exudes luxury as well as having a sense of occasion that I cannot believe comes from a Volvo. It also has my utmost respect that underneath all of that simplicity in its lines and clean dashboard lies a ton of electronics and technology. I fear it may be too complicated to own in the long run but I still want this car to be mine.

This, folks, is the best car I have driven in 2016. If you want me to tell you what this Scandinavian SUV really is in just a few words I have to say that this is the King of the North.  

VOLVO XC90 T8 Twin Engine Plug In Hybrid 'Inscription' Specification CKD Malaysia

RM403,888 with EEV tax incentives
In-line 4-Cylinder Turbocharged/Supercharged Engine w/87 hp Electric Motor
All-Wheel-Drive 8 speed automatic
407 hp

2343kg unladen

Fuel economy (tested)

0-100kmh (tested)

Max Speed
230kmh (manufacturer's figure)

 Child Booster seat in the middle of the second row seats

 Adults can fit comfortably in the third row

 Usable boot space with three rows of seats up.
 With the third row down it is already huge...

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