2021 Volvo XC90 Review

2021 Volvo XC90 - An immersive experience on four wheels.


Almost twenty years ago we were introduced to Volvo's first three-row mid-size crossover known as the XC90. Now in its second generation, which debuted in 2015, but was updated for 2020 with subtle upgrades to the exterior, new wheel designs, more seating configurations, more safety, and the introduction of the fuel-saving plug-in hybrid option. The XC90 comes in three trim levels (Momentum, R-Design, or Inscription) and depending on the trim, there are three powertrain options to choose from (T5, T6, or T8 Recharge).  All XC90s mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission. T5 models come standard with front wheel drive and offers all-wheel drive as a $2,500 option. All other XC90 models come standard with all-wheel drive. Prices start at $50,095 for the Momentum T5 FWD and can get into the $80,000 range in the Recharge T8 Inscription model with added options. Competition includes vehicles such as the Acura MDX, Audi Q7, BMW X5, Genesis GV80, Land Rover Discovery, Lexus RX350, Lincoln Aviator, Infiniti QX60 and Mercedes-Benz GLE.

The XC90 boasts a very handsome and striking design. The lines are crisp, clean, and luxurious. In my opinion, when the XC90 debuted in 2015 it was the start of a new design era for Volvo vehicles. All of the models now feature the signature LED headlight daytime running lights (DRLs) known as "Thor's Hammer." The front grille design was updated to be more concave, front and rear bumpers were restyled, and new wheel designs were introduced to give the XC90 a very subtle, but refreshed look. It sports a very prominent stance with a longer front nose, a well-proportioned wheelbase, and subtle accents all-around the vehicle to add touches of refinement. This crossover was well-designed to both stand-out and blend-in.

Under the hood are three powertrain options. The base models are designated T5 and come with a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder that nets 250 horsepower and 258 lb.-f.t of torque. Step up to the T6 designation and those models have a 2.0L turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder with 316 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. The most powerful (and most fuel-efficient) XC90 is the T8 Recharge which pairs two electric motors with the turbocharged and supercharged 2.0L 4-cylinder engine to deliver a combined 400 horsepower and 472 lb.-ft. of torque. As previously mentioned, all are mated to an 8-speed automatic and AWD standard, except for the base T5 Momentum which is FWD.

For the purpose of this review, my test vehicle was the XC90 Recharge T8 Inscription. In full transparency, this was the first plug-in hybrid model I've spent extended time in and it was a positive experience. When the tank is full and the vehicle is fully charged, you can expect a range of around 520 miles. EPA ratings are a combined 55MPGe with 18 miles of electric range. These numbers will fluctuate based on many conditions including outside temperatures (colder weather will reduce the battery charge), interior electronic usage, climate controls, and speed. The rating of 18 seems to be an appropriate average although there were several trips that I exceeded 20 miles of electric range.

The vehicle can be plugged into a standard 120V outlet, but expect a full charge to take around nine hours. Pop in to a 240V quick charge station and that charge time is drastically reduced to around three hours for a full charge.  One thing I learned while driving the plug-in hybrid is how much fluctuation there is on the "remaining miles" numbers within the instrument cluster. Clearly, the battery charge will increase the number but it also seemed to drop in increments of 10 miles or more so it could prove to be a challenge for drivers who prefer to use up every last mile before filling up. There is a vehicle Charge setting that can be turned on to have the engine recharge the battery while driving as well, this proved beneficial for highway drivers although it needed to be turned on each time, it is not an automatic setting. Also available is a Hold button in the center display that will keep the battery's current charge for a later use.

I was beyond impressed with how the XC90 drove in every available mode. The XC90 offers five driving modes, but he most common mode was the hybrid mode in which power seamlessly transitioned from electric to gas and back without any hesitations. The ride was incredibly smooth and quiet on city streets and the highway. The electric motor provides additional torque to propel the vehicle quickly from a stop. The test vehicle also came equipped with an air suspension that absorbed road imperfections to help create that smooth ride. The XC90 handled turns and lane-changes with minimal roll and always felt grounded to the pavement.

The Recharge T8 came with five drive modes known as constant AWD, hybrid, pure, power, and off-road. As mentioned, I utilized hybrid the most for everyday driving. The other two modes that I found myself drawn to were pure and power. In pure mode, the XC90 will only run on electric and is most suitable for around town driving and is the most eco-friendly. With an electric range of only 18-20 miles though, this can get used up fairly quick. Select power mode for the most athletic drive and crisper handling. When equipped with the air suspension, the XC90 will lower its height in power mode to get closer to the pavement. In this mode you can really appreciate the 400 horsepower and high torque. Constant AWD would be useful during a winter snow storm and Off-road should you decide to venture off the pavement and do some overlanding, neither of these were put to use during my time with the XC90.

Inside, the XC90 is exquisite with an understated elegance, high-quality materials, and luxury amenities. Regardless of trim level, all XC90s take the same minimalist approach to the interior design. Drivers face a 12.3" digital drive display behind the steering wheel with a center screen dedicated to information such as speed, navigation, audio, and more. An available head up display showcases speed, navigation, and more in an unobtrusive but clear projection to the windshield. At the center of the dash is a 9" vertical touchscreen that integrates with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. At one point a few years ago, this was among the biggest screens in the industry but now it's starting to look smaller in comparison to some 12" screens that are out there (note that the 9" screen is still plenty big). Nearly everything can be controlled through the touchscreen and the interface is user friendly. Favorite apps can be saved to the home screen for quick discovery and climate/comfort controls are always at the bottom of the screen.

Below the screen are a few buttons for the hazard lights, defrost, volume knob, and forward/back controls. Either side of the screen is flanked by air vents (an available air quality system utilizes advanced air filters) which are collectively surrounded in a chrome trim. Volvo places its keyless start knob in the center stack below the gearshift and the button must be turned to activate the car. An illuminated Orrefors Crystal gearshift is available on the Recharge Inscription model which complements the rest of the high-quality suede, leather, and wood trimmings. Next to the gear shift is a wireless charging tray for your mobile device.

Music and sound quality are important to many drivers and the XC90 delivers. The Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system (a $3,200 option) produces a very realistic, immersive sound experience with an amazing clarity. Preset configurations include 'concert hall' which recreates an acoustic experience of the world-famous Gothenburg Concert Hall. What this means to the everyday person is that cranking up the volume will immerse you in the music rather than just listening and when you turn it off, there's an echo tone that you get when a band plays their last note. Other settings include jazz club, individual stage, and studio. Sound can also be customized to personal tastes.

With the sound and technology in place, Volvo ties it all together with comfortable seating for six or seven in the XC90. 10-way power front seats are available in a tailored wool blend or Nappa leather. The first two rows offer plenty of room for passengers and the 4-zone climate system ensures everyone's comfortability. For 2020, Volvo added the option of six-passenger seating with captain's chairs in the second row. The third row is suitable for kids but the tall seats in the second row will block the view of smaller kids in the way back. We could barely see my five-year-old in his car seat in the third row, hence why I think the captain's chairs are a nice addition to the offering.  Also available for front passengers are heated, cooled, and massaging seats (a very nice feature for the end-of-the-day drive home). Finally, above all passengers is a full length open and tilt panoramic roof that brings in fresh air and a view of the outdoors above.

The XC90 offers solid cargo volume with 85.7 cubic feet in total when all of the rear seats are folded down. This marks it among class leaders in regards to total cargo volume. Behind the second row is 41.8 cu. ft. and behind the third row is 15.8 cu. ft. The third row also splits 50/50 making the configurations flexible for a variety of needs. Also available with the air suspension is the ability to lower or raise the vehicle at the touch of a button in the rear cargo area to assist with load-in height.

Volvo and Safety have always gone hand in hand, afterall they are the brand that invented seat belts back in 1959. The XC90 comes with a long list of standard safety features that include things such as lane keep assist, distracted driver alert, blind spot monitoring, pedestrian detection, forward collision warning and more. One of those standard features is steer assist which has multiple functions. Most commonly, it aids in keeping the driver in their lane, but it also detects pedestrians, animals and cyclists which is very useful in urban settings. The vehicle will help the driver safely sway to avoid collisions and will also automatically add braking to the wheels if needed to stabilize the car.

Another standard feature that stands out is the pilot assist driver assistance system. It is a very advanced cruise control system that falls just short of autonomous driving. Hands are required on the steering wheel for monitoring but the XC90 does all of the work. The system operates at highways speeds and will maintain the vehicles position in between the lines and also distances behind the vehicle in front of you. The intuitive system operates smoothly and quickly accommodates the unexpected driver who merges in front of you.

Every once in awhile a vehicle unexpectedly surprises me with a unique feature or styling cue, but the XC90 did it with its fully immersive experience. Starting with the plug-in hybrid powertrain, I'm impressed with how quietly powerful this crossover is. The variety of drive modes each provide noticeable handling differences for all driving situations. Inside, the elegant and comfortable interior caters to passengers while the premium sound system fills the vehicle with crisp audio. The boxy design of the exterior matched with signature LED lighting, new wheel designs and impactfully subdued paint colors round out the XC90. This is truly a vehicle to see, feel, and hear... or not hear in the case of the Recharge!

First Impression Summary:

Test Vehicle: 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge T8 Inscription
Exterior Color: Saville Gray Metallic
Notable Options: Lounge Package ($1,700), Climate Package ($750), Advanced Package ($1,500), Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound ($3,200), 4-corner air suspension ($1,800), and 21" Alloy Wheels ($900)
Price as tested: $81,690

Jim OBrill

Jim is Director of Marketing for the Chicago Automobile Trade Association and Chicago Auto Show and a co-host of Drive Chicago Radio on WLS 890 AM Chicago. His passion for cars started young and he’s often referred to as the ‘car-guy’ among family and friends. As a former auto detailer, he has an eye for identifying solid used cars and tags along on many car buying adventures. Early in his career he worked at several car dealerships in various areas of the business. As a co-host on Drive Chicago and member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, Jim has had opportunities to attend track school and drive vehicles on multiple circuits such as Road America and Gingerman Raceway. With a background in photography, taking pictures of vehicles has always been a hobby.

Jim also enjoys the trails and taking trucks like his 4Runner off road. He has a special appreciation for older cars and can often be found spending free time at cruise nights or home washing one his four vehicles. Jim resides in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three kids. Follow Jim on Instagram at @jpcars22 for new vehicle content or @forgotten_survivors.312 for shots of older cars still on the streets of Chicagoland.