GOTHENBURG, Sweden—Volvo is growing so quickly its website can’t keep up. If you want to price out one of the new XC90 SUVs or design your own V90 wagon, it doesn’t always work. You don’t see all the available options or trim levels.

This top-of-the-line XC90 T8 R-Design, for example, was impossible to build on the website when I tried.

And that’s a shame. Because the XC90 – especially the T8 – is an incredible automobile. It’s been available for roughly two years now, and it’s pushing Volvo sales up to heights the Swedish company hasn’t seen in years. For now, the XC90 is singlehandedly spearheading Volvo’s resurrection.

The T8 R-Design model is as luxurious as a Range Rover Sport Supercharged; has three-rows of seats; and – thanks to one the most innovative powertrains in any new SUV – can average under 10 L/100 km.

We drove this amazing machine across the country that made it: Sweden.

Northern Sweden in January is an unforgiving place. The roads are often pure ice, like a skating rink. The temperature while we were there hovered around -10 Celsius.

The bright blue XC90 stood in stark contrast to the pure white snow, grey skies, and trees covered in a thick layer of sparking ice. “R-Design” is a trim level that adds sportier styling details like a new lower front grille and rear spoiler, and minor performance upgrades. It’s now available as an option on the XC90, and will be available on the V90 and likely future models as well.

“Award-Winning Scandinavian Design” advertises Volvo’s website. The XC90 isn’t as aggressive-looking as the Range Rover or other luxury SUVs. It’s a refreshingly simple, handsome design, with big windows and a massive all-glass roof which combine to let the spectacular scenery into the cabin.


Inside, the R-Design trim gives you a pair of super-comfy sport seats. The deep side bolsters extend to the adjustable thigh support, a detail we’ve never seen before. You also get perforated leather on the seats and steering wheel.

The carbon-fibre trim is a little predictable. Aren’t we over carbon-fibre yet? The wood trim – not available with the R-Design package, as far as I can tell – looks better and would be more in keeping with the whole “Scandinavian Design” thing.

The rest of the cabin is simple, clean. The big vertical touchscreen dominates the centre of the dash, like a Tesla.

The touchscreen interface is worth mentioning for two reasons: its beautiful graphic design; and its steep learning curve. Some functions are immediately intuitive—pinch-to-zoom, swipe left and right, just like an iPad. But it can be difficult to find other commonly-used functions like how to switch the audio source to Bluetooth or USB.

Using it while driving can be very distracting, as with all touchscreens. The infotainment system is still in its first generation though, and with a few tweaks it could be among the best in the business.


The main screen is lovely and simple, offering a big map – mirrored also in the instrument cluster, if you like – and audio info as well as an app of your choice. We had the weather app going, to show us just how cold it was going to be when we stepped out of the warm cabin.

A 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine does not, on paper, seem like it would be enough to power this big SUV. But this motor is turbo- and supercharged, and it is supplemented by an electric motor.

The XC90 T8 is a plug-in hybrid with a very healthy 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. It’ll sprint to 100 km/h in 5.6 seconds. To put that performance in perspective, the Range Rover Sport Supercharged does the same sprint only 0.3 seconds faster, despite having 500 horsepower and a big V-8 engine.

The R-Design trim lowers the ride a tad and provides stiffer anti-roll bars. However, the difference in handling is minimal and the main reason you’d opt for the R-Design pack is styling.

There’s a big battery in the XC90’s transmission tunnel, where a driveshaft would normally go. The XC90 is all-wheel drive but does away with the driveshaft by having an electric connection instead. An electric motor turns the rear wheels, powered by the batteries or an electric charge generated by the gas engine.

On electricity alone, you can expect around 30 kilometres of range in real-world driving.

Our test-car was fitted with lightly studded tires to cope with driving on pure ice. In the north of Sweden, studded tires are all but necessary.

The hybrid gas/electric all-wheel drive system worked seamlessly. Driving on a frozen lake, we could feel the brakes grabbing at individual wheels to keep this huge machine pointed where we wanted it to go. Turn the stability control system to “Sport” and the XC90 will happily drift around cones on the ice all day.

Even in this mode though there’s still a safety net to help you should the drift angle go over 90 degrees, or if you’re simply not quick or smooth enough with the counter-steer. But: don’t try to experience this on anything but a well-frozen ice track under the guidance of expert Swedish ice-racers.


The XC90 T8 starts at $78,450 in Canada; with R-Design it’s about $80,000 with bright blue paint, sport seats and carbon-fibre trim. Again, for comparison, the Range Rover Sport Supercharged starts at $94,000. That makes the Volvo XC90 a bit of bargain in the luxury SUV market, actually.

Personally, the V90 wagon or V90 CrossCountry is more my style. But if I wanted a seven-seat SUV and could afford to spend $100,000, the XC90 T8 would be my choice. The R-Design package, however, I could happily do without. It’s so much cheaper than the benchmark Range Rover, and a much more interesting vehicle.

The XC90 T8’s mix of performance, great design, luxury and fuel economy – not to mention an electric-only driving mode – simply isn’t available anywhere else.


Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.