2020 Volvo XC90 first drive review: An improvement worth subscribing to – Roadshow

It's only fitting that the XC90 catapulted Volvo back into relevance in 2015. After all, the first generation of the three-row crossover SUV sustained the brand through some very sparse years, back when it looked like the Swedish automaker might pack up its smörgåsbord for good. 

The second-gen XC90 was that rarest of unicorns in the automotive business: an absolute clean-sheet design. It featured a new platform, all-new powertrains, styling language, infotainment and electrical architecture. Heck, when it was introduced, lurking just offstage clutching a freshly redesigned key fob was Geely, Volvo's new corporate owners. The 2015 XC90 was as close as Sweden's automotive industry has ever come to a moonshot, and not only did it work, it did so beautifully.

Now, the company is trumpeting the updated 2020 Volvo XC90 seen here. Truth is, though, Volvo's engineers have been steadily beavering away, rendering improvements to their flagship SUV year after year. This is just the first time you might notice any differences from the outside.

Subtle visuals

Even so, you still might need a spotter's guide, so allow me to assist: For 2020, the XC90 receives a reworked, newly concave grille, updated fasciae front and rear, plus different alloy wheel patterns. In total, it's such a subtle tweak that even owners of 2019 XC90s are probably going to have to squint to notice. To me, the new front end looks slightly busier, but only just. This is still a handsome, stately SUV that's transitioning into middle age gracefully.

On the inside, the XC90's cabin remains the toast of its segment, with beautiful surfacing, high-quality materials, gorgeous low-gloss wood veneers and a minimalist Scandinavian aura that somehow avoids feeling austere. It's an interior all but unmatched by its peers five model years after its introduction. Yes, there's a posh new BMW X5 and Audi is coming with an updated-for-2020 Q7, but aesthetically, for the moment, the XC90's sleek confines still out-wows them all.

Before you ask, yes, it is possible to get other colors.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Six-seat option

Volvo seems most proud of the fact that the 2020 XC90 is finally available in a six-seat layout, a configuration that officials say US buyers have been clamoring for rather loudly. The new arrangement employs a pair of bucket seats in the second row in place of the usual bench, with a generous pass-through between them to ease access to the two-seat rear bench. This seating array is offered on T6 and T8 Momentum and Inscription models (you can't get it on the racier-looking R-Design), and it's only available in charcoal or blond finishes.

The new seating arrangement helps the second row feel more spacious, but it's also not without flaws. Second-row buckets lack center armrests (outboard armrests are on the door), and relocated cupholders mounted on the floor beneath the rear HVAC controls look like an afterthought, requiring some care to step around when using the pass-through. 

Volvo is trumpeting a new six-seat configuration. It's nice, but not without compromise.

Bruce Benedict/Volvo

Interior tweaks

Among other notable cabin changes, the entry-level XC90 Momentum drops the base 8-inch Digital Driver Display in favor of the all-digital 12.3-inch gauge cluster previously found elsewhere in the range. A new Black Ash wood inlay is available on Momentum models (Flame Birch has been nixed), and top-shelf Inscription models can now be fitted with the attractive Grey Ash Wood inlay seen in these photos. 

On the upholstery front, Slate Grey leather also joins the options list, and there's a welcome new non-leather seat option that Volvo calls Tailored Wool, available in the aforementioned Slate Gray or in Midnight Zinc on Inscription models. While Volvo didn't have any such vehicles available to drive, it did have a sample seat available, and the fabric looks to be a nicely upscale, modern alternative to leather, not unlike the Kvadrat textile offered on certain Land Rovermodels.

One more thing: The redesigned Orrefors crystal electronic gearshift lever seen here lives exclusively on T8 models. It looks and feels properly premium, but frustratingly, it also requires a quick double-tap to move between Park, Drive and Reverse. This is an annoyingly unnecessary hoop to jump through that virtually no other automaker requires, and it takes a moment to become acclimated to this lever's actuation.

The XC90's cabin is as richly serene as ever. Grey Ash Wood is a new option.

Bruce Benedict/Volvo

Sensus Connect

I mentioned Volvo's philosophy of continuous improvement, and it's worth noting that just last year, the company updated the processor in its Sensus Connect infotainment systems, including those in the XC90 family. The old system was pretty but proved to be both lag and bug prone. To the company's credit, the new hardware does seem snappier and more stable. 

For 2020, the system is essentially unchanged, so if you were a fan of it before, you'll continue to enjoy it here. I really like the tablet-style 9-inch screen and its crisp graphics, but find that some of the deeper menus are distractingly cluttered. Additionally, I wish Volvo hadn't made so many of the climate control system's functions dependent on touchscreen use -- a few more buttons would go a long way. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration come standard and a Wi-Fi hotspot is optional, but oddly for a family-minded vehicle, second- and third-row occupants are still missing USB charging ports.

Volvo upgraded Sensus Connect's processing power last year.

Volvo

Four-cylinders, three ways

As before, the Torslanda, Sweden-built XC90 range is available exclusively with 2.0-liter gas power and an eight-speed automatic. Base T5 engines are turbocharged to deliver 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and are only available with front-wheel drive. T6 models come standard with all-wheel drive, plus they add a supercharger alongside the aforementioned turbo. This twin-charged engine is good for 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet, but it's still only the mid-range powertrain. The top-shelf T8 is a plug-in hybrid model. The uniquely tuned Drive-E four puts out 313 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque by itself but is augmented by front-mounted 34-kilowatt starter motor/generator and an 87-horsepower electric motor acting on the rear axle. Total system output is quoted as 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet, a very healthy amount for a midsize SUV. 

For 2020, the T8's battery capacity has been nudged to 11.6 kilowatt hours, up from 10.4. Unfortunately, it isn't yet clear if this has a positive effect on fuel efficiency, as EPA estimates for 2020 models have yet to be released. For guidance, the 2019 XC90 T8 PHEV yielded a Miles Per Gallon Equivalent (MPGe) rating of 58 combined city/highway, and a middling 25 miles per gallon on premium fuel. The most efficient gas-only 2019 XC90, the FWD T5 Momentum, registered 21 mpg city, 29 highway and 24 combined, class-competitive (if unremarkable) numbers.

Driving the 2020 Volvo XC90 T8 through the gorgeous Canadian Rockies around Banff, Alberta revealed few surprises. Power in the T8 is predictably effortless, with a particularly strong slug of midrange torque. Shifts are unobtrusive, though the transmission can be reluctant to change down, and in the T8 Inscription, there are no paddle shifters to help plan ahead for a pass or summon additional engine braking. (Paddles come on the sportier-appearing R-Design, but should be available on all models.)

For 2020, Volvo has executed a string of blink-and-you'll-miss-them visual updates.

Bruce Benedict/Volvo

Nice ride

Early on in the second-generation XC90's life, models specced with large wheels like this Inscription model's 20-inch tires suffered from flinty ride quality with a particularly jarring response to large bumps, but Volvo evidently tuned that nasty behavior out of this SUV some time ago, at least on models equipped with air suspension. The last couple of XC90s I've driven have been much more pleasant in this regard, including this new 2020 model. 

The XC90's variable-assist electric power steering remains appropriately quick and is faithfully accurate, but it's also generally pretty tight-lipped when it comes to delivering road feel. Even with the drive mode selector set to its most aggressive Dynamic mode, weighting is still on the light side, which feels appropriate for this class.

Safety plus

One area where the XC90 T8 has improved markedly is in the stopping department. Hybrid models previously suffered from oddly non-linear braking feel. Volvo's engineers have smoothed the handoff between regenerative braking to friction braking with a new hydraulic pump, and the resulting by-wire system is indeed more predictable and traditional feeling.

While the brake system improvement may be the XC90's single-most-appreciated safety update for 2020, there are a number of other refinements to the model's already bountiful suite of safety tech. Those changes include adding a haptic feedback steering wheel to the Pilot Assist adaptive cruise control system. Additionally, there's new automatic braking support for the blind-spot with cross-traffic alert system, a change that should make backing out of parking spaces a bit safer. 

As before, Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) like lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and forward collision warning with auto brake are standard across the range. 

Overall, the XC90 is a convincing, confident steer. It's not as engaging to drive as some rivals from more performance-minded brands, but it strikes a smart comfort/handling balance.

For 2020, the racier-looking XC90 R-Design returns with new wheels and blacked-out trim.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Like and subscribe

The final big change for the 2020 XC90 isn't actually doesn't have to do with the vehicle itself -- it's related to the way you can get one. Volvo has arguably been the only automaker to gain meaningful traction with a subscription option. The company's Care By Volvo all-in-one, flat-rate subscription model launched in 2017 on the XC40 compact crossover, and it later expanded to S60 models. 

For 2020, the XC90 T6 Momentum AWD is being added to the program as an $800-a-month alternative to traditional financing or leasing. That all-in price includes insurance, maintenance, road hazard plan, and $1,000 credit toward wear and tear or mileage overage upon turn-in. This two-year agreement allows the plan-holder to switch out their XC90 for another new Volvo after the first year.

Care by Volvo has been rolling out on a state-by-state basis as local insurance and regulatory hurdles are cleared, and the program is now operating in all states except New York.

An agreeable Swede

Priced from $48,350 (plus $995 destination) for the base T5 FWD and ranging on up to (and beyond) for my $86,990-as-delivered T8 E-AWD Inscription tester, the 2020 XC90 is hardly an inexpensive proposition. Fortunately, its sleek appearance, design-magazine centerfold interior, easy performance and advanced safety features make this midsize luxury SUV a compelling offering in a crowded segment thick with talent. 

The XC90 singlehandedly kicked off Volvo's rebirth, and this model year's modest update ensures the SUV will ably carry the brand flagship's torch until the third generation debuts sometime in 2021.

This is how all morning commutes should look.

Bruce Benedict/Volvo

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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