I took it to Whitstable to sample Britain’s best oysters. Weekend traffic crawled into the seaside town, much of it families in their SUVs and estates belching noxious gasses. Not so my XC90, which was doing its best to keep the garden of England clean. You see, the model I tested, the T8, is a plug-in hybrid boasting two engines; one a very efficient four cylinder 320bhp petrol unit and the other an 87bhp electric. This is no afterthought: the chassis was designed from the outset to package electric powertrains. The petrol engine under the bonnet drives the front wheels via an eight-speed auto gearbox. A generator boosts torque and charges the batteries. The cells, housed in the central tunnel a prop shaft normally calls home, feed a large single electric motor on the rear axle that also generates electricity under braking, and a computer in the engine bay ensures all the parts talk to each other and the driver can rely on this techno-wizardry in serene air-conditioned ignorance. The integration is seamless, and it’s enough to throw this 2.3 tonne machine up the road at 140mph and fire it from 0-60 in a damn impressive 5.3 seconds.
Its lines are clean and simple, utterly modern yet unassuming. The headlamps are the stand-out design aesthetic, but if I close my eyes I cannot recall exactly what the rest of it looks like. It’s almost a stealth car. You couldn’t pick it out of a police line-up. And if you’re planning a diamond store raid you could fit the entire shop in its cavernous boot.
It’s very cheap to run provided you keep the electric charge topped up – which I sweepingly failed to do – and there’s no tax or congestion charge. It emits just 49g/km of CO2 and theoretically is capable of 134.5mpg on a combined cycle. However, at £64,000 the T8 with lavish Inscription trim is £18,000 more than the bog standard D5 Momentum. With the charge depleted I was getting around 25mpg, which is most assuredly nothing to write home about. This car is best used for short trips, such as the school run which, with its seven seats, can probably accommodate someone else’s family too, thus cutting congestion as well as emissions. If your daily commute is 20 miles and you charge it religiously you will see your fuel costs tumble; drive farther and that 134.5mpg figure might begin to sound like fraud. Volvo says 50 per cent of petrol-hybrid owners rarely bother charging from the grid and, given the scarcity of charging points around SW1, I can see why. To that end, the D5 diesel may deliver superior economy both at the filling station and the showroom.
It handles brilliantly for a car of these proportions, but what it’s really designed to do it swerve taxes. I can see a lot of these T8s being snapped up by company car user-choosers, and with 49g/km emissions its company car tax will be trivial – about £100 a month.
The price of the one I tested, with some desirable options like a Bowers & Wilkins sound system, parking and lane keeping assistance, brought it up to £72,000, and that is serious luxury car money. But that’s what it is.
It’s one of the most tasteful interiors I’ve seen in a big SUV. Acres of soft creamy leather, subtle machined aluminium, and matt timbers are a modern, decidedly Scandi combination: understated, uncluttered and with an overall sense of light and calm, assisted by the massive panoramic glass room. The command screen, like an iPad, is easy on the eyes and equally easy to use (it was custom made to fit the same aesthetic as the rest of the car).
One surprise is a crystal gearstick not much bigger than a thumb, which seems uncharacteristically bling and glows lilac at night, a bit like a plug-in air freshener. But that’s the only thing that jars, and it’s a small gripe. The fit and finish exceeds the standards of Mercedes and BMW, probably even Jaguar and Land Rover. In fact, I venture that this is the loveliest SUV interior this side of a Bentley Bentayga, and it’s better designed. You sense the designer took his work home with him, sketching through the night to get it ergonomically and soulfully perfect. When it’s on fully electric mode, which can run up to 27 miles, the silence makes this car as relaxing as a bubble bath in a Japanese garden.
It lacks the haughtiness of a Range Rover, but the driving experience is just as relaxing and the info-entertainment display and connectivity far better. It’s a very easy car to live with: intuitive, comfortable and, in that high seating position, commanding. It’s the most sophisticated and capable Volvo ever, an achievement for which Volvo’s new owners Geely should be proud.
And it’s a Volvo, which means it’s practically uncrashable. By mating it to an electric motor what we have here is the most socially responsible Chelsea tractor yet. And responsibility is the new sexy, isn’t it?
I eventually made it through the throngs of traffic to my destination on the coast. On the stony seafront, where families braved the spring North Sea gusts, huge dunes of oyster shells had been dumped along the shore, while freshly shucked ones were being served on paper plates with a wedge of lemon. I wandered to the end of the promenade to the battered looking and proudly unvarnished Old Neptune – scene of Peter O’Toole’s last moments in the movie Venus – for a pint of Whitstable Bay Black, a silky local oyster stout. Outside “The Neppy”, as the locals call it, the Volvo looks a bit out of place, largely because its not covered in rust and ropes.
When stouts were first served in the 18th century oysters were not the delicacy they are today – they were a pub snack. As a culinary trend it’s not unlike Volvo’s transition from workhorse to chic lifestyle statement. Volvo has come a long way.