With the second-generation XC90 came Volvo’s demand for recognition in the luxury marketplace. Before 2015, Volvo existed in a strange limbo of near luxury, kind of where Acura, Infiniti, and Lincoln live today. Their cars were nice and refined, but they didn’t reach to the level of luxurious superfluity of BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus. Then, in 2015, Volvo said enough playing around, we’re a luxury brand now. The striking XC90 lead the design language for the rest of Volvo’s lineup. Now in its sixth model year, the flagship XC90 still turns heads.
Starting just under $50,000, the 2020 Volvo XC90 ranges from elegant to opulent to downright gaudy. Have free reign with the options, and you can build a top-level T8 Inscription model for over $90,000, crystal shift knob and all. This model, the T6 R-Design, represents the XC90’s sportiest non-electrified offering. Riding on optional 22-inch wheels (rant to ensue), the R-Design also features dark accents outside and metal accents inside. T6 designates the powertrain: a supercharged and turbocharged edition of Volvo’s 2.0-liter inline-four engine. The T5 engine below this does without the supercharger, and the T8 above adds an electric motor. In this configuration, power output is 316 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. It’s plenty to move all this metal, but it won’t push you into the seat back.
In fact, it’s best just to forget about the engine when you’re in the driver’s seat of the XC90. Instead, focus on enjoying the serene cabin. Every material you can feel or touch is premium, from quality leather to real metal accents. Volvo employs a Scandinavian minimalism to their interiors, and not only does it look good, it also makes for straightforward controls.
Upon initial inspection, the XC90 is really impressive. However, after a few hours behind the wheel, it becomes more apparent that Volvo isn’t quite as familiar with luxury vehicles as some of the traditional luxury automakers. Our test T6 R-Design test vehicle rang in at $74,735, opening it to intense scrutiny—a similarly built BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz GLE-class can be had for the same money. Aside from a pretty design and quality materials, what does the XC90 provide?
Many of our complaints stem from the R-Design package. The seats were lacking in adjustability and comfort after a four-hour drive; the nonadjustable headrests are likely a safety feature but can be uncomfortable. The optional 22-inch wheels on our tester transmitted every road imperfection into the cabin thanks to the 35-profile tires. 20-inch wheels come standard with the R-Design, and those would be plenty. Road and wind noise were also louder than we’d hope for a mid-size luxury SUV.
There are also some commonplace luxury features that are entirely unavailable on any XC90. Cooled seats (even in the front row), automatic high-beams, power-folding second- and third-row seats, and a power-adjustable steering column are particularly striking omissions. If Volvo expects to be seriously considered as a Lexus or BMW alternative, it needs to offer more than just the luxury basics. It’s not like we’re asking for soft-close doors.
Another let-down is the engine. With less than 300 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter motor is always relying on its turbocharger and supercharger to move the XC90. It’s not as though the engine is struggling, it just never feels relaxed. In the sporty Polestar Engineered mode, the engine perks up and shift points are more aggressive, but nothing about the powertrain is exciting. Not only is the power uninspiring, but fuel economy is disappointing as well. On two full tanks of Shell premium fuel, we averaged 22 mpg on two separate 300-mile highway drives with an average speed of 77 mph. The EPAs highway estimate of 26 mpg doesn’t translate well to these higher speeds.
What the 2020 XC90 does provide, it does well. The upgraded Bowers and Wilkins sound system costs $3200, which is not egregious in this segment. It’s worth every penny. 19 speakers and 1400 watts provide sound recreation in satisfying resolution. With uncompressed audio formats, you’ll hear instruments come through clearly where they might be lost in lesser systems. Check out our sound-system demonstration here.
The air suspension damping on the XC90 is good—big bumps were quelled before making it into the cabin. Smaller wheels with thicker tires would likely filter the small bumps and make for a very serene ride. The infotainment display also works well. Its learning curve is smaller than most luxury systems, and it’s typically lag free. The cruise control works very well and has one of the most competent semi-autonomous systems on the market. In Pilot Assist mode, the car centers itself in a lane and follows road curves competently. It doesn’t even get tripped up by entrance ramps the way Tesla’s system often does. And, if you just want basic cruise control with no adaptation, you can easily toggle that in the center display.
Volvo really checks a lot of boxes with the XC90. With striking design both inside and out and a reputation for quality and safety, it’s hoping that an emotional appeal will lure buyers. And in a luxury market, emotion is a significant element. However, behind its facade, the XC90 leaves some features and refinement on the table. Six years into its model-run, the 2020 Volvo XC90 is still a worthy contender in the mid-size luxury crossover market, but you will have to overlook a few flaws.