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Plug and Play: 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design Test Drive

Sometimes the alternative choice is the right choice, even when it’s not perfect.

Billy RehbockWriter, Photographer

Modern Volvo produces gorgeous cars with exceptional interiors, yet the marque remains an underdog in the luxury car market. This is especially the case for its sedans, which of course face stiff, established competition from the Germans. But Volvo's products are so well designed that while their pricing straddles the premium and luxury tiers, the cars do a convincing job of fighting upward rather than having to fend off more pedestrian offerings.

As the brand's flagship sedan, the Volvo S90 is a strong example of classy luxury that doesn't go over the top, and we took delivery of the midsize, four-door 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design for a test drive. Covered in Osmium Grey Metallic paint, a $645 option, this is one sleek-looking Swede. As attractive as its bodywork and interior may be, though, we wanted to test the mightiest version of the S90 to see if they hybrid's approach to providing a luxury/sport experience is a compelling alternative to more conventional gasoline-only executive cars.

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design: Balanced Performance and Efficiency

The 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design as tested does a great impression of a more conventional big-engine European sports sedan. Pop the drive mode selector into Power mode, and the four-door scoots along with gobs of torque and plenty of power. Unlike the S90's predecessor, the V-8 powered S80, this model's T8-branded powertrain consists of a supercharged and turbocharged inline four-cylinder 2.0-liter engine driving the front wheels, and an electric motor driving the rear wheels; the combination hustles the S90 off the line with reasonable authority, leading to a sub-5-second 0-60-mph time.

Under acceleration, the 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design does feel like it's working harder than a more conventional luxury car with bigger engines, like the 2017 Genesis G90 that was formerly in our Four Seasons fleet, the 2020 Lexus LS500 that's currently in our stable, or the BMW Alpina B7 xDrive with its twin-turbo V-8. Instead, it feels more akin to a hot-hatch spooling up its turbo as it prepares to bruise the ego of another unsuspecting driver on the road.

At least Volvo is honest about how its all-wheel-drive system works, as it appends the abbreviation with an "e" to signify the fact the front engine and rear motor aren't connected physically. Full-throttle launches are met with a whiff of torque steer as the S90 squats and whisks away from a standstill to 60 mph in a claimed 4.8 seconds. An eight-speed Aisin-sourced automatic transmission handles gear changes, but shift programming occasionally gets confused due to the additional factor of the rear motor.

Although this is a plug-in hybrid, the electrified drivetrain doesn't seem to do much to yield impressive fuel economy; rather, it makes impressive combined power figures without showing lousy mpg ratings on the spec sheet. The T8 system spins out a combined 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque, but that's only when both systems are working at peak efficiency. I managed to get 21-24 mpg (it fluctuated, but my trip average was 21.4) during 1,000 miles of highway driving. I likely suffered a penalty for having a mostly depleted battery and thus semi-operational electric motor.

Even when driven somewhat frugally, or perhaps even more so, the 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design blows through its 11.6-Kwh electric battery faster than I expected. Under normal driving the rear motor gets the car going by default, with the gas engine kicking in when the throttle exceeds the electric motor's capability. You'll also need four hours to recharge the battery even with a 220V outlet using the included charger, which is unfortunate because the electric range just doesn't suffice for most folks' commutes.

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design: Handling and Suspension

I found the S90's steering to be a bit vague around center, and somewhat robotic beyond that. It does, however, have an accuracy and linearity that makes the car easy to wheel around without requiring much effort. The 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design handles well under more enthusiastic driving, and I felt confident when I wanted to hustle it along. So, even though the steering isn't terribly exciting or remarkable, the S90 follows its driver's input without commotion.

The throttle, however, hesitates occasionally as the complex drivetrain system figures out how it's supposed to respond. This is worse in the normal Hybrid mode because it defaults to just using the electric motor. Then, when the driver wants more power, the gas engine needs time to start and then sync with the rest of the vehicle. That's why I preferred to drive the car in Power mode, where the engine is running all of the time. It made the driving experience feel most natural, plus Volvo's twin-charged engine sounds sweet at wide-open throttle.

Seeing as this isn't a full-blown sport sedan, there's no need for super aggressive rubber. Still, the summer tires that wrapped the 20-inch R-Design wheels ($800) performed more than adequately during hard launches and brisk sprints through sweeping mountain roads. Despite having fairly large wheels and tires, the 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design during this test drive kept road noise out of the cabin, but it didn't quite keep out wind noise. The suspension—our test car sported the standard passive setup rather than the upgraded air suspension—felt smooth over most surfaces, though consecutive imperfections tended to shake passengers in a way that seems ubiquitous across Volvo's lineup.

The S90's capacious interior and trunk swallowed a hand-me-down 65-inch TV, repacked in a box. It also successfully transported the new-to-me display without pummeling it, despite having what felt like a rougher-than-ideal ride. When I had family in the backseat instead of a television, they seemed to appreciate the massive amounts of legroom, and no one had to adjust their seat to accommodate for anyone else's comfort.

In this way, the 2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design does a great job impersonating a much more expensive luxury limo, even as its price tag is tens of thousands of dollars more affordable than its alternatives. For example, the comparable Mercedes-AMG E53 4Matic produces a similar 429 hp and 384 lb-ft before the mild hybrid's temporary gains are factored in, and it starts at $73,800. As tested, Volvo asks $69,385 for this well-equipped S90 T8 e-AWD R-Design. Despite its elegant styling, Scandinavian-designed interior, and potent performance figures, Volvo managed to also provide an impressive value proposition.

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design: Features and Amenities

Volvo offers customers a lot with the S90, as it ought to with a range-topping product. Some standout standard features include the Harman Kardon sound system, a 12.3-inch display with phone connectivity, and high-quality metal accents from the trim to the pedals thanks to the R-Design treatment. There's a little notch for cellphones in the center console, which is pretty useful for normal driving, but as soon as the roads get twisty it doesn't quite hold onto devices as well as you would like. Instead, I opted to use the mesh netting to hold my phone while it handled Android Auto duty via the USB cord.

There are some features that didn't quite tickle my fancy, like Volvo's oversensitive collision-avoidance system. This safety precaution flagged stationary cars as potential sources of danger, causing the seatbelts to snug and the car to initiate braking for a moment—until it realized it was defending me against parked vehicles. I screamed at the car in terror when this happened multiple times; it seemed to read some natural driving habits with a bit too much carefulness. Normally I'd say better safe than sorry, but the intervention feels anything but safe.

I was grateful to have the Advanced Package in this test car, mostly because it bundles in the 360-degree surround-view camera; Volvo's infotainment display is really crisp, so it's easy to see where the car is in relation to its surroundings. Other convenient or cool options in this equipment group are the high-pressure headlight cleaners, a powered trunk lid, a HUD, and full LED headlights that bend along with steering inputs. There's so much useful stuff in this package, buyers would be underserved by not ticking the order box for it.

Aside from Park Assist Pilot, which adds robo-parking help for $200, the rest of the options were cosmetic. Our car had the $245 Integrated End Pipes, which make the S90's exhaust look like it has quad tips, plus a $450 trunk-lid spoiler.

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design: Alt Rocks

We were previously let down by the 2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription because it lacked soul, but it seems like a little bit of electrification goes a long way to adding excitement to the mix. That said, the battery drains quickly and the hybrid system can be a little clunky, so the design's promise of elegance and modernity is never fully actualized. The 2020 Volvo S90 T8 e-AWD R-Design is a really good car, but it narrowly misses the mark of absolute excellence with its ambitious but overcomplicated powertrain. However, for certain buyers, this will be exactly the right car at the right price, especially if they can plug-in as needed at home.

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design Pros:

  • Super stylish inside and out
  • Plenty of power and a great road-trip car
  • Plug-in hybrid great for those with regular access to a charger

2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design Cons:

  • Suspension can feel a bit rough
  • Battery doesn't have much capacity, serves as dead weight most of the time
  • Overcomplicated drivetrain ruins the smoothness
2020 Volvo S90 T8 E-AWD R-Design Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $64,195/$69,385 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4/313 hp @ 5,700 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 2,200-5,400 rpm; electric motor, 87 hp, 177 lb-ft, 400 hp and 472 lb-ft total combined
BATTERY Li-ion/11.6 kWh
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 60 mpg-e/30 mpg (combined/combined)
EPA MAX EV RANGE 21 miles
L x W x H 200.1 x 79.5 x 57.1 in
WHEELBASE 57.1 in
WEIGHT 4,589 lb
0-60 MPH 4.8 sec
TOP SPEED 130 mph