By the end of this year, there will be several luxury SUV models offered in the U.S. with plug-in hybrid powertrains that let them run 12 to 20 miles on electricity alone.
We've now driven one of them, the 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 "Twin Engine" model, which will go on sale this fall.
And based on our impressions of a pre-production prototype driven 96 miles through the Spanish countryside southwest of Barcelona, we think buyers will be pleased.
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The plug-in XC90's most immediate competitors will be plug-in hybrid versions of the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE (nee ML) luxury crossover utility vehicles.
The big Volvo plug-in has one advantage over its near-term electrified competitors, though: It's the only vehicle that was designed from scratch with a plug-in hybrid powertrain envisioned.
That allowed Volvo to put the battery pack not under the load bay, as the BMW and Mercedes do, but in the tunnel between the front passenger seats--meaning cargo capacity remains exactly the same as in the gasoline-only version.
That also makes it the world's sole seven-seat plug-in hybrid SUV; the German models and also the Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-In Hybrid all have only two rows and five seats apiece.
The lithium-ion battery pack itself has a capacity specified at 9.2 kilowatt-hours, of which 6.5 kWh is used to power the vehicle. Volvo quotes a range of 40 km (25 miles), but that's on the European NEDC cycle. We estimate that the comparable EPA number is likely to be between 18 and 21 miles.
The complete powertrain of the XC90 T8 comprises Volvo's 316-horsepower 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine powering the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, with a 60-kilowatt (80-hp) electric motor driving the rear wheels.
There’s also a 34-kW (46-hp) starter-generator motor between the engine and transmission, which recharges the battery during regenerative braking or engine overrun, and can also provide additional torque to the transmission when maximum power is required.
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The battery and both electric motors are liquid-cooled, and the battery coolant can also be refrigerated if additional heat must be shed.
Volvo quotes a combined power output of "about 400 horsepower," but a precise torque figure of 472 lb-ft (compared to the 295 lb-ft produced by the non-hybrid version).
The onboard charger operates at 3.5 kilowatts and will have a North American standard J-1772 socket, though maximum amperage for the charger was quoted at 16 amps--a figure we're double-checking with Volvo.
The company quotes a recharging time of 2.5 hours at 240 volts and 16 amps.
Powertrain of 2016 Volvo XC90 T8 'Twin Engine' plug-in hybrid, Spain, Feb 2015Enlarge Photo
The new XC90 range is the first redesign of Volvo's largest vehicle since 2002. It uses a new Scalable Product Architecture platform that will underpin most of Volvo's new models from now on.
While the 2016 XC90 is longer, wider, and taller than the previous generation--and has seven seats, including two third-row positions into which adults can fit, albeit tightly--it is roughly 200 pounds lighter.
The plug-in T8 model is by far the heaviest version, due to the additional weight of its battery pack, power electronics, and the rear electric motor that provides all-wheel drive when needed. (The non-electrified T6 model uses conventional mechanical all-wheel drive.)
On the road, our prototype XC90 T8 moved out smartly under electric power once we set it in "Pure" mode, which maximizes electric operation.
It's one of no fewer than seven different drive modes on the plug-in hybrid.
The others are All-Wheel-Drive, Save (which conserves battery charge or uses the engine to recharge the pack up to 42 percent of capacity), Hybrid (the standard operating mode), Power (which remaps the throttle, transmission, and powertrain control software for faster acceleration), Off-Road (a low-speed mode for rough or slippery terrain), and Individual, which lets the drive customize the powertrain operating settings.
Our test T8 would operate under electric-only power at speeds as high as 80 kph (50 mph), though accelerating to that speed at a pace that kept up with swift-moving Spanish traffic inevitably kicked on the engine between 20 and 30 mph.
The Power mode was by far the most fun to drive, giving the big SUV a surge of power at virtually any speed--though as expected with so many gears in the transmission, one or two downshifts were inevitably required to get the engine up to its maximum power from its standard cruising speed of perhaps 1400 rpm.
We didn't attempt to calculate any kind of gas mileage, given our frequent switching among different drive modes, not to mention multiple tests of full-throttle acceleration, hard braking, and the like. That will have to wait until we get a production T8 model to put through our usual test route.
In general, the new 2016 Volvo XC90 appears smaller--both from the outside and as a passenger--than it actually is, considering its generous interior volume and enormous load bay with the third row folded down. Think of it as the anti-Escalade, perhaps.
The interior is calmly luxurious, with a delightful smell of Nappa leather from the seats (in the top-of-the-line Inscription model we drove) and metal and leather surfaces for the dashboard, console, and door panels.
One particularly nice touch is the illuminated shift lever, which is genuine Orrefors crystal--the first time, to our knowledge, that any automaker has managed to use real crystal glass in a production car.
The cabin is particularly light and airy, courtesy of large side windows and the two-panel panoramic sunroof, and rear vision is good for an SUV of this size--aided by the standard rear-view camera.