For the Volvo Enthusiast

First Drive: The XC60 T8 Will Never “Crush” the Nurburgring, and that’s a Good Thing

Here’s a little inside baseball. Before journalists go on a press trip to drive a new car—say, a Volvo XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid like the one I just came back from Denver to drive—press agencies are out there trying to find the best hotels to stay at, the best restaurants to eat at, and, crucially, the best roads to drive. These, invariably, are twisty, winding, ribbons of tarmac that conform to all the stereotypes of great driving that you’d expect: Beautiful vistas, lots of altitudinal variations, diamond-shaped yellow signs with squiggles in the middle, etc. These work well for 90% of cars, but in the case of my last trip, the XC60 first drive, I’m not so sure that it did.

That’s evidence of the trouble that Volvo will have with its singular mission. Not everyone will get what you’re trying to do when you aren’t trying to do what everyone else is doing. When people read that the XC60 T8 has the same drivetrain as its big sister, the XC90, and that Volvo’s hasn’t bothered turning down the dial on the power, and that that opens it up to an amount of horsepower (400 combined) that only the Porsche Macan can match in its class, they’re likely to think that it’s some sort of wild semi-Polestar hooligan. I certainly did.

And yet that’s not what you get when you sit behind the steering wheel. Sure, it’ll accelerate to 60 mph in just 4.9, but it really doesn’t feel that way. Volvo says that this is to promote smoothness and comfort, but the result is a car that will get to highway speed quickly but is a little disappointing when measured against the neck-snapping acceleration of other powerful cars. That said, with its super-and-turbo charger combination as well as an electric motor propelling you forward, it does do well in the Colorado Rockies, not far from Pike’s Peak where the altitude defying properties of forced induction (and more recently electrification) were first proven.

Speaking hill climbs, Volvo’s group of route finders found us a corker. All switchbacks and topography, the roads were perfect for testing out something with the power to beat Porsche. But again the XC60 fell down. Although it’s been designed to maintain control through long corners and to have diagonal stiffness to allow for early acceleration, the weight of the two motors and the batteries that power the electric one made it very rolly-polly through the corners. Combined with the staid sensation of the acceleration, and the result is a car whose forte clearly isn’t performance. And that may be this car’s greatest strength.

Confusingly, to make my point I need to talk about the Mustang. The original one, not the new one. Everyone, in the ‘60s and now, wanted the V8. More cylinders, more power, more respect. But Jay Leno, the denim-clad savant, once said that the 6 cylinders were actually nicer to drive. With less weight over the front wheels they handled better, but nobody cared because the Mustang V8 isn’t really about performance. In the same way, the T6, although it’s less powerful, is the better car for hill climbs. It’s lighter and more chuckable and feels better through the corners. But I don’t think you should care because the XC60 T8 isn’t really about performance.

To judge the XC60 T8 on its ability to handle a twisting mountain road, I think, is a bit like judging a panda on its ability to bake a flan. That’s because this isn’t a sports car. It’s a luxury SUV, and at being that it’s very good indeed.

Volvo has stated that the three pillars of its automotive mission are emissions, congestion, and safety. Notice how performance is omitted? And that’s how it should be, at least here. On top of having the very powerful drivetrain from its big sister, it’s also been endowed with all the sumptuous elegance of the XC90. With gorgeous materials, comfortable seats, and a ride to die for (with the air suspension that I tested) the XC60 clearly wants to cosset you, not wrestle you. While I freely admit that wrestling is fun, wrestling your masseuse is less fun. I was trying to wrestle the masseuse when it really wanted to massage me (literally it has those massaging beads in the seats). With a suite of semi-autonomous driver aids, a nice—albeit not exceedingly so—sound system, and an easy quiet drive, the XC60 is genuinely about as nice a place as I can think of to spend rush hour.

It’s also an exceedingly quiet place to be, which helps to solve both the issues of congestion and emissions. The quietude of the T8 is helped along by its electric motor. Unfortunately, we don’t quite know how far you can go on purely electric power (the EPA hasn’t figured that out yet), but the answer will undoubtedly sound smaller than it is. The XC90, which weighs a considerable sum more than its little sister, is supposed to be good for 14 miles of pure-electric drive. That said, when I drove it earlier this year, I could make it work and back without consuming a drop of fuel. Admittedly, I don’t live very far from work, but distance is somewhat irrelevant in traffic. The result of my electric driving was that I’d saved an hour’s worth of fuel per day. So that’s emissions taken care of.

And finally, of course, there’s safety. Need I go into detail about the standard passive safety features, the newly redesigned seats that have crumple zones, the active safety features like lane departure warnings, the oncoming traffic alerts, the virtual wall that keeps you out of the ditch, and the many types of steel that make up the construction of the XC60’s chassis to create a vehicle that crumples intelligently to take the force of the impact, and the many other safety features that embolden Volvo’s directorship to claim that no one will die or be seriously injured in one of its cars after 2020? I think not.

The result of those three pillars, achieved as they are, is a car that gives up on any pretense of performance to offer you something different, but no less desirable and decidedly more relevant to your daily activities. It’s not perfect—the seats are comfortable, but I would still prefer softer cushioning; the steering wheel only adjusts manually, but apparently, that’s a safety thing; and the fold on the thigh-extending cushions goes down forming what can only be described as a crumb catcher—but it is good. It’s a testament to what can be achieved when a company knows itself and knows what it wants to achieve. I’m still at a point in my life where my lack of responsibilities and the minimal space I require mean that I want something small and sporty. But even I’m tempted by the promises of pampering offered by the XC60 T8.