2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge Review: The Ultimate Road Trip SUV?

Elegant and likeable, the XC90 is still a pricey proposition

✓ Still looks great, even though it’s a few years oldNot remotely sporty
✓ Comfortable, quiet ride So-so fuel economy (even as a PHEV)
✓ Safety (naturally) Poor all-electric range
✓ Solid tech, even if the infotainment system
is showing its age
Expensive, especially when optioned up

2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge: Overview

It’s been half a decade since the current-generation Volvo XC90 went on sale, centered around the brand’s then-new “Scalable Product Architecture” and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The T8 plug-in hybrid sits atop the range, offering buyers a turbocharged, supercharged and electrified powertrain all in one package. Now, that “Twin Engine” design has a new name — Recharge — and some minor updates for the 2021 model year. The world’s changed dramatically in the past five years, though, so how does Volvo’s flagship still stack up among the luxury competition?

Make no mistake, the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge can still hold its own, if you’re a certain kind of buyer. It’s as elegant, minimalistic and laser-focused on safety as you’d expect. One thing it isn’t, though, is a sports car. That wasn’t as important a few years ago, but since automakers insist “sporty” and “crossover” can be a thing, it’s important to keep your expectations in check. So the challenge I’m tasking the XC90 with goes like this: How well can the car keep me comfortable and entertained on a road trip?

Svelte, Swedish styling

One area that’s always endeared me to Volvo is the design. This look is over six years old, and yet it still looks stunning. The concave waterfall grille and new wheel designs are the only subtle changes in the past couple years, but the XC90 is no weaker for it. In a world where SUVs are just getting larger, more aggressive faces, I find this more restrained approach soothing. It’s just a nice car to look at. If you are looking for a sportier aesthetic, Volvo does offer an R-Design option for the Recharge T8.

That theme carries on to the interior, which if anything is even better. Soft-toned amber leather everywhere, black ash wood inlays and contrast stitching create one harmonious environment. In this Inscription model, you even get an Orrefors “Crystal Eye” gear selector. It’s one of the few areas where I thought, “That’s completely unnecessary,” but the handmade crystal glass unit is a posh touch that helps the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge keep its posh status without being too flashy. The $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system also has that effect, with a tweeter sitting atop the dash.

2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge Inscription

Comfort, convenience and safety

Set out for a trip into the Colorado plains, as I did, and one element bubbles to the surface: the ride. On highways, at least, the $1,600 four-corner air suspension offered a near-faultless experience. It’s definitely tuned toward luxury — even in “Power” mode. Sure, you can choose that option among the XC90’s different drive modes, but don’t expect it to react with verve when you hurl its 5,100 pound mass into the corners. For the most part, the standard “Hybrid” mode will do you just fine. Volvo also includes a “Constant AWD” mode for more surefooted driving in slippery conditions, and an “Off-Road” setting for slightly tougher terrain. For this journey, I mostly stuck to the pavement or the occasional dirt road.

On its face, the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge has all the technology you need. Functions for the safety and hybrid systems, climate controls, navigation and media (including Apple CarPlay) are available through the updated Sensus infotainment system. Now, Volvo has rightly seen some knocks against it in the past few years for its now-dated infotainment system. It was temperamental and slow, and you were forced to use it. Thanks to Volvo’s minimalist design, you can’t get to the heated seats or steering wheel just through buttons.

That’s still the case these days, but now at least the system is responsive enough to quickly handle your inputs. However, the 9.0-inch screen is a bit small by modern standards. It’s also not as crisp or feature-rich as other modern infotainment systems, especially those with gesture controls or natural language processing capability. That tablet-like design was cutting edge five years ago, but its age is starting to show. Unlike newer systems, you don’t get much flexibility to personalize what information you want within easy reach, and that’s equally true for the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster.

On the flip side, though, you do get massaging front seats as part of the $1,700 Lounge Package. The $1,500 Advanced Package also offers a useful head-up display and a 360-degree surround view camera system. For their part, the heated steering wheel, rear seats and windscreen washers come as part of the $750 Climate Package.

Volvo’s Pilot Assist suite still works great, even years on

If you’re shopping a 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge, then the brand’s sterling safety reputation is likely near the front of your mind. The automaker’s Pilot Assist system was one of the earlier examples, and it still works off a single button. Set the cruise control, hit an arrow button on the left side of the steering wheel, and the steering assist engages or disengages. There are some signs of aging, though. You can’t infinitely set the speed, for example. Apart from when you first set it, you can only adjust the system in increments of 5 mph. Update: I stand corrected — you can actually adjust the cruise control in smaller increments by long-pressing the up or down buttons. Short presses increase or decrease the speed by 5 mph. For better or worse, Pilot Assist is a hands-on system, so it will warn you if you try to go hands-free for too long.

Beyond the usual safety systems you’d expect, the 2021 Volvo XC90 is also extremely well-equipped to handle accidents once they happen. This model is a 2020 IIHS Top Safety Pick+, though it’s worth noting it isn’t the only model in its class with that distinction.

Performance: It’s quick, but also noisy under acceleration

On its face, the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge T8 is a strong contender. That 2.0-liter “Twin Engine” setup manages 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. Power can route its way to all four wheels through an 8-speed automatic transmission, so there’s no weirdness to contend with here. In fact, “no weirdness” is a fairly succinct way to describe the whole driving experience. You don’t feel any lurching between the twin-charged engine and the electric motor in normal driving conditions. On the other hand, it does lag when you stamp on the accelerator. If you have that many pieces to the puzzle — turbocharger, supercharger, electric motor and automatic gearbox — it does take a moment to actually see some results. There’s not as much urgency as, say, a Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring or the fully-electric Tesla Model X.

While it feels fine in normal circumstances, it’s not as efficient as I’d hoped on a road trip. The all-electric range, per Volvo, stands at 18 miles. That’s all the 11.6-kWh battery can muster, and it’s slightly better than the original version from five years ago. Good for a short commute, but it’s more or less inconsequential at highway speeds for any notable distance. What’s more, the EPA says you can expect 27 mpg on the gasoline motor alone. At higher speeds, I couldn’t match that figure according to the trip computer. In about 280 miles, I managed between 25 and 26 mpg.

Verdict: The 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge is a solid road trip SUV, but…

All in all, the 2021 Volvo XC90 Recharge kept me comfortable and entertained. On what otherwise would have been a dull, mundane journey, I wasn’t tired or annoyed when I arrived back home. I did face a conundrum, though: Would I buy a Volvo XC90 these days?

It proved itself as a road trip car, but that question requires some unpacking. In the PHEV space, the Swedes have two chief rivals. There’s the Lincoln Aviator Grand Touring, and the Range Rover P400e. The American option nets you way more power (494 horsepower) and torque (630 lb-ft). It’s a bit more blinged out than the Volvo — surprise, surprise — but it also brings better value to the table. “Posh” defines the Range Rover, but it’s way more expensive, starting over $90,000.

Remember all those options I mentioned? Pick all those features, and our XC90 tester costs an eye-watering $81,840. Even though it is a comfortable, decently efficient cruiser, it’s difficult to justify spending that kind of cash. Mind you, you can get a $5,419 tax credit since it is a PHEV. Nevertheless, pricing for a base, front-wheel drive T5 (non-hybrid) model starts at a much more reasonable $49,695. Then there are a few mid-tier options that offer most of the style and tech without the hefty price tag. The disappointing all-electric range makes the Recharge hard to recommend, and the relative fuel economy of the less powerful gas models strikes a better compromise on value. Step a couple tiers down the ladder, and the XC90 becomes a much more appealing cross-country companion, in my opinion.

We have a video review coming to our TFLnow channel, so stay tuned for more updates!