Big safety
THE GOOD
  • Extremely pleasant, solid drive
  • Practical, luxurious interior
  • Maybe the safest un-armoured car money can buy
THE BAD
  • Not the best-looking Volvo (?)
  • Meh infotainment

Many years ago, one of the expected trade-offs of owning a three-row luxury SUV like the Volvo XC90 was abysmal fuel economy.

Technology – specifically electrification, and forced-induction like turbocharging and supercharging – changed all that, and these days you can have a big family hauler without necessarily breaking the bank at the pump. Case in point: the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge – the flagship plug-in hybrid (PHEV) version of the Swedish brand’s biggest SUV.

Boasting an official fuel efficiency rating of 8.8 L/100 km combined and 29 km of electric-only range, this greener XC90 also rewards its owners with 400 hp, an impeccably pleasant and comfortable ride, one of the nicest interiors in the industry, and a whole lot of safety technology.

Styling: 8.5/10

When it comes to styling, the bulkier Volvo XC90 doesn’t incite quite as much passion as its smaller and more svelte stablemates like the V90 Cross Country and V60 wagons or even the smaller XC60, and I wish Volvo’s designers could’ve scaled those vehicles’ sharper designs up for the XC90. It’s still an agreeable- and dignified-looking SUV, though. It looks like a Range Rover without the military influence, and what mainstream offerings like the Hyundai Palisade aspire to be.

The inside, however, is where the XC90’s aesthetic really shines. Seemingly to accommodate for its sheer size, the centre stack design is different from the one found in the admittedly copy-and-paste smaller Volvo cabins but is just as simple and pleasant to behold. Stitched leather flows gracefully over open-pore wood, while robust-looking aluminum trim, a crystal shifter that lights up at night, and wool/textile-blend cloth bring the place together in a friendly and swanky yet un-gaudy way.

Safety: 10/10

Volvo has packed the XC90 Recharge Inscription with a very healthy list of standard advanced safety features. These include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, steering-responsive LED headlights, headlight cleaners, parking sensors, front and rear collision mitigation, and its full semi-autonomous driving system with adaptive cruise control. Coming from the brand renowned for safety, these all work quite well, with the latter able to handle supervised, hands-on autonomous highway driving with great confidence and natural-feeling movements.

An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ winner, the XC90 is the biggest, beefiest vehicle on Volvo’s bench. While there are valid philosophical objections against buying a tall, hulking SUV like the XC90 for the sake of safety, the laws of physics and Volvo’s track record for building immensely safe vehicles dictate that if I were to pick one vehicle to crash head-on into a semi-truck with, it would probably be this one.

Features: 8/10

In this more expensive Inscription trim (a less pricey Inscription Expression model is available), standard features include four-zone climate control, a panoramic sunroof, tempered glass for the side and rear windows, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a power tailgate, wireless charging, and that gear selector made of crystal.

That’s not a bad list of standard equipment, but like pretty much every other luxury vehicle out there, you always have the option to pay more money for more toys. My tester in particular came packed with a head-up display and surround-view monitoring (a $1,600 bundle), a fantastic-sounding premium sound system ($3,750), an interior air cleaner ($350), and air suspension ($2,350).

User Friendliness: 8/10

Despite it looking a little different on the inside than other Volvo products, the XC90 operates pretty much the same as its smaller siblings. There’s a slight learning curve if you’re coming from pretty much any other brand, with some of the controls taking some time to get used to, but it’s fine for the most part. The wiper stalk is up-for-more, for example, while the glove box weirdly opens via a dedicated button located to the far right of the volume knob.

More positively, the infotainment system, run through a vertically oriented touchscreen, is not only canted towards the driver BMW-style but also skewed upwards to allow for a more natural position for your hand when using it. Volvo’s infotainment software is decently usable but isn’t as intuitive or sharply rendered as the best in the biz.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are, of course, onboard, while the wireless charging pad – a point of contention with the XC60 I tested earlier in the year – actually worked in this one.

Practicality: 10/10

In case its outward appearance didn’t already tip you off, the inside of this three-row is quite expansive. The middle row feels very big and very comfortable, features perfectly placed armrests, and is consistently furnished with the same high-quality materials enjoyed by the front row.

With all rear seats folded down, the XC90 boasts a whopping 1,315 L of cargo capacity, while having them up allows for 315 L of total stuff-hauling ability.

Comfort: 9.5/10

If supreme comfort could not be found in the biggest SUV made by Volvo, something would be very wrong. Thankfully, the XC90 is an extremely relaxing place to be. The optional air suspension isolates seemingly all of the bumps, the seats are ergonomically great, and the driving position is solid. It’s quiet, too – as a vehicle of this price and type should be.

The steering wheel and front seats are heated but the latter isn’t ventilated. The rear seats are heated as well. Second-row passengers have access to a sleek little touchscreen located above the vents that lets them configure their climate situation to their liking.

Power: 9/10

Powered by the same 400-hp plug-in powertrain used in all of the brand’s PHEVs, the XC90 moves extremely smoothly and capably. Low-speed electric-only driving feels as smooth as an all-electric vehicle, while the super- and turbocharged 2.0L gas motor comes in very discreetly. Even with the XC90’s heft, passing ability is good. No, that gas engine doesn’t sound very nice if you actually pay attention to it, but that’s mitigated by the fact that it just isn’t very loud and the presence of that absolutely bangin’ stereo system.

Driving Feel: 9/10

Corner carving isn’t likely the top reason one would buy a luxury SUV like this but, even so, the big Volvo corners very fluidly and pleasantly. It’s confident and luxurious in demeanour, rides comfortably but not floaty, and is just a superbly satisfying vehicle to drive in all situations. It’s reasonably easy to park and feels lighter on its feet than it really should or has to when the open road turns into a winding one. Taking into account its size, I was actually more impressed with its handling than that of the smaller XC60 and V60. Volvo very clearly invested in getting its flagship SUV right and it shows.

Fuel Economy: 8.5/10

This being a PHEV, fuel economy is admirable. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has rated the XC90 Recharge for 9.1 L/100 km in the city, 8.4 on the highway, and 8.8 combined. Observed fuel economy after about 200 km of mixed driving was a little worse than expected, with the onboard trip computer showing 10.9 L/100 km, but that’s still not egregious for an all-wheel-drive SUV of this stature. Claimed electric-only range is 29 km – just shy of the smaller and lighter XC60 PHEV’s figure.

Value: 7/10

The Inscription-grade 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge starts at $90,065 including a non-negotiable $2,015 destination charge. Throw in a laundry list of options as well as the metallic white paint, and the XC90 tested here carries a total sticker price of $101,965. Objectively, that’s not a small sum of money, but it’s pretty much par for the course in this segment.

For comparison, the plug-in hybrid BMW X5 starts at a little more than $82,000, while the more powerful and performance-oriented Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid commands at least $95,500. Like this Volvo, both of those competitors have extensive options sheets that can take their invoices quite a bit higher than those base prices.

The Verdict

If I had to pick one car on sale today to haul one (1) fellow adult and approximately 2.5 children across the country, the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge may just be the one I’d choose. (If not, it’s a top-three contender for sure.) It’s spacious, comfortable, a pleasure to be in, relatively efficient, and surprisingly good to drive. Its infotainment system could stand to get an update, and its exterior design perhaps isn’t quite as painfully pretty as other, smaller Volvos. But really, those are nitpicks and the XC90 is one of the few vehicles I’ve driven that doesn’t really have any major faults. Its biggest is that it isn’t cheap, but if you can swing the payments, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be disappointed with what you’re getting for the money.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge Inscription
Engine Cylinders Turbo- and supercharged I4 with electric motor   Base Price $88,050
Peak Horsepower 400 hp net   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 472 lb-ft @ 2,200–5,400 rpm combined   Destination Fee $2,015
Fuel Economy 9.1 / 8.4 / 8.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $101,965
Cargo Space 317 / 1,815 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$11,800 – Climate Package, $1,000; Advanced Package, $1,600; Metallic Paint, $900; Integrated, Center Booster Cushion, 2nd Row, $350; Wool/Textile Blend Upholstery Upgrade, $250; Bowers and Wilkins Premium Sound System, $3,750; Park Assist Pilot + Park Assist Front & Rear, $250; 4-Corner Air Suspension w/ Four-C Active Chassis, $2,350; Air Quality w/ Enhanced Air Cleaner, $350; 21” 8-Multi Spoke Black Diamond-cut Alloy wheel, $1,000