2020 Volvo XC90 T8 E-AWD Inscription: A run-up to bigger things?

Price: $86,990 as tested. A $6,300 Inscription Package features a lot of things listed in other packages below, but ventilates the front seats and adds walnut trim and more. Still, confusing.

Marketer’s pitch: “First-class comfort. World-class safety.”

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes the “sleek exterior, chic cabin, a plethora of standard driver-assistance features,” but not the “unrefined engine sounds, flinty ride, laggy infotainment response upon startup.”

Reality: Plenty nice, somewhat economical, but one big concern.

High end: We’re going to spend the next three weeks in increasingly high-end SUVs, starting here, moving on to a BMW costing an eighth of a mil, and then kicking in just a few more grand for a Mercedes. Do you get what you pay for?

What’s new: Last updated for the 2016 model year, the XC90 started out so advanced that it’s holding its own even four years in.

Up to speed: The XC90 is no slouch, just as it always was.

The supercharged, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder combined with an 87-horsepower electric motor creates 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque, so the three-row SUV has plenty of oomph. It gets to 60 mph in 5 seconds, according to Motor Trend’s review of a 2017 model.

Shifty: The 8-speed transmission works so seamlessly that I thought it was a CVT for several days, until I was looking over the window sticker. And the crystal gear shifter is a lovely touch.

There was a one-time hesitation while entering a highway, but never again.

On the road: The Volvo handles pretty much as a Volvo might. The vehicle is tall, so slow down on the curves. It’s still kind of fun, or at least nice, but sportiness is not there, even in Sport mode.

Worse, the vehicle is also a little rough on the highway. I found the XC90 liked to wander a lot at high speeds, and I rarely felt at ease changing the stereo or other functions while in motion.

Highway seams and bumps are also pretty brutal.

The interior of the 2020 Volvo XC90 doesn't look the least bit dated in its fifth season.
The interior of the 2020 Volvo XC90 doesn't look the least bit dated in its fifth season.

Driver’s Seat: It’s hard to complain about all these things when you’re getting a nice back massage (part of the $3,100 Luxury Package, also adding heated rear seats and covering everything in dead cow), but those are the kinds of distractions that a highly trained professional like myself must work through.

The seat was comfortable but the seat wings a little on the narrow side, without adjustment (the lumbar wings do adjust). And, come to think of it, Ford offers a more thorough seat massage; the Volvo’s just doesn’t press all my buttons.

Volvo’s speedometer graphics and other touches are pleasing and inviting, and menus easy to access.

Friends and stuff: The three-row Volvo SUV is the biggest Volvo you’re going to get. From the rear, the XC90 feels a lot like the 240DL of the 1980s, except with the way, way back facing forward. The third row is small, with a pair of small seats that rest low to the floor, and they’re slim and snug. Mr. Driver’s Seat’s head rests against the ceiling.

The only way to make a reasonably comfortable space back there is to cramp up the second row, but that seat becomes pretty unworkable, without foot room at all.

The middle row came with captain’s chairs, so only six could fit in the test model.

Play some tunes: Volvo stays with its attractive 9.3-inch vertical screen, but functionality remains only OK. Whenever I’m scrolling, I seem to hit it too hard and land somewhere I don’t want to be. The harsh ride also contributes to these errors.

But the close tab/open tab function makes getting to other parts of the system easy, and having additional functions just a swipe away also works.

Sound from the 19-speaker, 1,400-watt Bowers & Wilkins premium sound ($3,200) is rich and nice, with stage, studio, and concert hall settings. Bass-treble settings lurk until you swipe the screen downward, a Volvo rep tells me. I’d say a B+/A-.

Keeping warm and cool: We’re headed back into the touchscreen for this as well. Honestly, if you’re feeling too hot or too cold, pull over to make adjustments if you’re alone.

Night shift: The bendy LED headlights (part of the $2,450 Advanced Package, also adding 360 camera and more) illuminate the road well, not too high or too low, and the interior lights are subtle and don’t interfere.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 23.5 mpg in a fun pre-COVID round of driving on highways and back roads, and I was able to plug in every night for the full 20 miles of electric range. Feed the XC90 premium.

Where it’s built: Gothenburg, Sweden.

How it’s built: Consumer Reports gives the XC90 a predicted reliability of 1 out of 5.

In the end: Nice vehicle, but that reliability makes me cry ouch, especially with this level of complexity.

Next week: 2020 BMW X5M Competition.