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Review: Volvo S90 T8 is an impressive hybrid, but may not be worth the price

The S90 T8 starts at a base price of $74,950, which is almost $20,000 above the T5 edition.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

There’s been all kinds of confusion about electric Volvos since last summer, when the Swedish auto maker laid out its future model plans.

“Volvo Cars has announced that every Volvo it launches from 2019 will have an electric motor,” the company stated in July, “marking the historic end of cars that only have an internal combustion engine (ICE) and placing electrification at the core of its future business.”

Some read that to mean every new Volvo will be a fully electric car, while it actually includes hybrids that share an electric motor with their gas engine. Others believed it means that as of next year, you won’t be able to buy a new Volvo that’s not electrified in some way, but it only refers to new models yet to be launched, and doesn’t include existing models that will continue production into the next few years.

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Even so, it’s an ambitious plan that calls for five new fully electric cars to be introduced by 2021, each of them with hybrid and mild-hybrid variants.

We don’t yet know what those cars will be (although two will be Polestars, from Volvo’s new high-performance brand), but the chances are that one of the last to be replaced will be the S90 full-size flagship sedan. Fully electric cars favour light weight and small size, and the S90 is big and heavy and new to the market.

The newly reintroduced S90 arrived late last summer with its T5 and T6 gas engines, while the T8 plug-in hybrid – the only electrified version of the model – finally landed this winter. Of the three engine choices, the T8 is the all-singing, all-dancing version that starts at a base price of $74,950, which is almost $20,000 above the T5 edition.

For that extra money, though, you get an exceedingly clever car. Its gas engine is shared with the T6’s 316-horsepower drivetrain, which is a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder block that’s both turbocharged and supercharged. It’s more powerful than the 250-hp T5, which uses the same size engine but is only turbocharged.

The gas engine drives the front wheels while the electric motor drives the rear wheels on demand.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The T8, though, adds an electric motor and a battery pack, boosting power to 400 hp and 472 lbs.-ft. The gas engine drives the front wheels while the motor drives the rear wheels on demand. The motor comes on without the engine when only nominal power is needed, such as creeping silently in traffic or through the drive-through, and works with the engine when extra power is needed. It also creates an all-wheel-drive system that activates when the road gets slippery.

The hybrid’s 10.4 kWh battery pack can be plugged into your household electric supply, and can also be charged from the engine if you need it. Which you might: it’s rated for a measly all-electric range of 34 kilometres, but in practice, you won’t see much more than 20 km before it runs out. It will never be entirely drained, though, keeping enough in reserve for power or AWD when it’s needed, and recharging on the fly if it must.

The 2018 car is much revised from the 2017 car, adding 12 centimetres to its wheelbase and putting almost all of that length into leg room for passengers in the rear. This isn’t a surprise: Volvo is now owned by the Chinese auto maker Geely, and the S90 is built in China, where both chauffeur-length comfort and electrification are high priorities. Fortunately, they work well in the rest of the world, too.

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The new model is about 300 kilograms heavier than the previous model, however, thanks mostly to the weight of those batteries. Such is the cost of electrification. It uses extra fuel to move, and extra power to drive. Even so, the S90 is fast when you want it to be for such a large car, hitting 100 km/h from standstill in a claimed 4.5 seconds.

It’s not a performance sedan, though. The handling is comfortable and forgiving, but lacks the crisp precision of the German brands, or Cadillac. The S90 makes up for it with a beautifully designed cabin that’s open and airy, and which now includes a panoramic sunroof as standard.

Flagship sedans are comparatively easy to build when money’s no object, with every auto maker vying to stand out in the crowd. Volvo’s S90 is no different, but its comfort and technology truly are impressive in a crowded market. And if you live in Ontario, you qualify for a $7,000 government rebate thanks to the T8’s electrification (in Quebec, it’s a $4,000 rebate, and in B.C., it’s a $2,500 rebate).

Money back and you get to drive alone in the HOV lanes, too. Get it while you can.

The hybrid’s 10.4 kWh battery pack can be plugged into your household electric supply, and can also be charged from the engine if needed.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $74,950/$91,850
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder, plus electric motor
  • Transmission/Drive: 8-speed automatic / AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city; 7.1 highway
  • Alternatives: Cadillac CT6 PHEV, BMW 530e

Looks

Stretching the S90 by 12 centimetres did its looks no harm at all. The Volvo has a graceful appearance, now just a little longer and more balanced. There are no performance-minded creases along the side panels, and it’s an elegant swoop from the roofline over the trunk, but the grille is all business – distinctive from other brands, and a little concave, as if it’s pushing into the wind.

Interior

The T8 comes with the top end Inscription trim, which offers walnut-wood inlays and heated Nappa leather seats.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

You’ll spend a lot of time inside the car and it’s a very satisfying place to be. The T8 can only be bought in the top end Inscription trim, which offers walnut-wood inlays and Nappa leather seats that are extremely comfortable. They’re heated and ventilated as standard and for an extra $3,500 can give the driver and front passenger a massage that really works. Those optional extras add up quickly on the Volvo, though. The improved sound system on the tester was an extra $3,250; heat for the steering wheel, wiper blades and rear seats was another $1,250.

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Performance

There’s no doubt the S90 is fast enough, but is this really why you pay almost $10,000 extra for the plug-in hybrid engine? The optional active-air suspension (an extra $2,350) on the tester probably helps, but you won’t want the car to hurl into corners, if only because your passengers stretched out in the back will start doing the same thing. Nobody’s going to take their Volvo limo to the track, but they are going to chew up lesser traffic on the highway to the office, which is where the extra power can impress.

Technology

The vertical central touch screen acts like a tablet.

Mark Richardson/The Globe and Mail

The drive itself is remarkable, switching seamlessly between gas and electric, but we’re used to this now from plenty of other cars. Connectivity is all-inclusive, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a four-year free subscription to Volvo’s On Call help centre.

Inside, the vertical central touch screen acts like a tablet, complete with a home button at the base, and it can summon almost anything you want (and paid for as an option). Navigation? Self-parking? The various driver’s-assistance options? A fabulous 1,200-watt sound system that can recreate the Gothenburg Concert Hall? Just swipe and push the digital buttons. There’s no AM radio available, though.

This display screen means most of the physical buttons no longer exist, creating a cleaner, more spacious feel to the cabin. It also means I was never able to figure out how to hang up the phone.

Cargo

The trunk is pretty small, at 382 litres, mostly because it’s shallow. There’s no spare tire available, either, which is usually the case with hybrids – they use the space for storing the extra batteries. You won’t get more trunk space with the gas-powered S90, but you will get a larger fuel tank: the T8’s 50-litre tank is good for only about 450 km between fill-ups, with an extra 20 km or so from the electric motor.

Verdict:

8

The S90 T8 is a lovely and impressive car, priced well against its competition. But is the plug-in hybrid really worth the additional $9,450 over a similarly equipped T6? It gives you extra power that you’re probably not going to need or want, and it gives you a green licence plate and clear conscience, but adds a lot of otherwise unnecessary weight to the vehicle.

If you live in Ontario, where the generous government rebate knocks the price difference down to $2,450, the answer is: absolutely. Elsewhere in Canada, the decision is not so clear-cut, and there’ll be gas-powered S90 options for another couple of years yet.

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