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STELLENBOSCH, Western Cape – Considering it’s 2019 and alternative propulsion tech is all the rage, it’s surprising how few rivals the Volvo XC90 T8 has at its price point. In fact, there’s only one: Lexus’ RX450h. Range Rover’s Sport P400e is nearly R400 000 more expensive and the Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid another couple of grand on top. BMW and Mercedes-Benz will add their X5 and GLE equivalents in the coming months but, judging by pricing for their conventionally driven models, they’ll struggle to match the Swede’s competitiveness.

But what of the conventional diesels and petrols, you may ask. Certainly, scratch a supplementary electric motor from your list of requirements and the field of contenders widens significantly, with Volvo itself offering a D5, T5 and T6 at quite a bit less than it charges (hey!) for the T8 plug-in hybrid.

I had a chance to drive three derivatives on the local launch of the facelifted range (missing was the T5) and, as always, consider the D5 Inscription the XC90 of choice (there’s a cheaper Momentum option, too, but it’s stripped of some desirable spec items). At R1 122 669, it undercuts the T8 by a substantial R150k-plus and will barely use more fuel in day-to-day running should your commute include highway driving.

The T8 in its element

Of course, it’s in urban environments where the T8 makes most sense and, leaving the launch venue of Hazendal Wine Estate heading in the direction of Stellenbosch, my co-driver and I marvelled at the drivetrain’s ability to continue in electric mode for a range of up to 43 km, the silence adding to the XC90’s stellar overall refinement.

Overtaking punch is considerable, too (we tested a T8 in 2016 and recorded a 80-120 km/h sprint time of just 3,83 seconds, plus a 0-100 km/h figure of 5,66 seconds), but accompanied by a subdued yet notable racket from the turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine under the bonnet. If, ironically, you want the punchiest XC90 there is, the eco-conscious T8 is the one to go for, but don’t be surprised if your fuel consumption rockets to above 10,0 L/100 km when the 9,2 kWh battery is depleted (it takes about three hours to recharge via a conventional domestic wall socket).

So, what’s new on the XC90? Not much, really. There’s a new grille design; a range of fresh alloy wheels up to 22 inches in size; the option of six seats instead of seven; and additional paint colours. Arguably, Volvo hasn’t needed to update the exterior design – the XC90 remains one of the market’s most stylish large SUVs – but a new R-Design package does augment those understated lines, adding 20-inch diamond-cut alloys, black mirror housings to complement the darkened grille, sports seats and a perforated-leather steering wheel with gearshift paddles.

Seven into six

The cockpit is as exquisitely trimmed as always, and as spacious, which is why I’m not convinced the six-seater option is worthwhile. By keeping the outer two second-row seats in their original place, access through the central tunnel to the third row is easy, certainly, but why take a large, family SUV and make it less practical? Then again, why do people buy BMW X4s over X3s?

The T8 variant we drove featured Bowers & Wilkins’ 1 476 W, 19-speaker audio system and it’s an option box I’d tick without hesitation. Considering the incredible clarity and punch it offers, at R42 750 it’s great value against rival brands’ top-end systems. 

Volvo says it hasn’t fiddled with the suspension tuning but I suspect that, through continued development since the XC90’s launch in 2015, the ride has improved. Slightly fidgety before, the facelifted XC90 now handles broken surfaces with impressive composure. Coupled with a consistency in response from the steering system and pedals, the large SUV is surprisingly easy to thread through traffic.

While I’d pick the D5 over the T8, as supplemented drivetrains go, the latter’s petrol engine/electric motor pairing is one of the market’s best. Offering a compelling combination of hot-hatch performance and frugal running in ideal conditions, the T8 complements the revised XC90’s myriad fine attributes.


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