2020 Volvo XC90 Review

Christian Wardlaw, Independent Expert | Aug 12, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Volvo deals!

On the strengths of the current XC90 SUV, and with the backing of its Chinese owner Zhejiang Geely Holding, Volvo has survived, thrived, and is now in the midst of a transformation to nothing but electrified powertrains by 2025.

It was the redesigned 2016 XC90 that served as Volvo’s pivot point. Exuding Scandinavian sensibility wrapped in seductive design, the XC90 introduced the automaker’s new modular platform and Drive-E powertrains to the world. Each subsequent Volvo redesign or debut has built upon the XC90’s themes, and today the company offers a full slate of luxury sedans, wagons, and crossover SUVs.

The elder of the family, the 2020 Volvo XC90, gets a handful of changes in advance of a planned redesign for 2022. The grille and wheel designs are new, fresh paint and interior colors are available, and Volvo offers an eco-conscious wool-blend upholstery for 2020. You can also get the 2020 XC90 with a new 6-passenger seating option, and the T8 plug-in hybrid powertrain has a larger battery supplying greater electric driving range. A 12.3-inch digital instrumentation display is standard, while safety upgrades include a braking function to prevent the SUV from changing lanes when another vehicle is in the blind spot.

Volvo continues to offer the XC90 in turbocharged T5, turbocharged and supercharged T6, and plug-in hybrid T8 model series with popular Momentum, sporty R-Design, or luxurious Inscription trim packages. You can buy or lease this SUV, or you can subscribe to XC90 ownership which includes insurance, registration, and the ability to switch into a different Volvo after the first year.

2020 Volvo XC90 R-Design T6 Thunder Gray Front Quarter View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an XC90 R-Design T6 AWD equipped with Thunder Gray paint, 22-inch aluminum wheels, the Advanced Package, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, an integrated rear center booster cushion, a Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system, a Four-C Adaptive Air Suspension, and Polestar powertrain optimization. The price came to $74,735, including the $995 destination charge.

What Owners Say… - Find the best Volvo deals!

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 XC90, it is helpful to understand who buys this upper midsize premium SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

According to J.D. Power data, 60% of Volvo XC90 owners are male (vs. 63% for the segment), and the median age of an XC90 owner is 46 years (vs. 56).

Owners say their favorite things about the XC90 are (in descending order) the exterior styling, feeling of safety, driving feel, interior design, and driving comfort. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank highest in comparison to the upper midsize premium SUV segment:

  • Vehicle protection
  • Operating the vehicle remotely
  • Exterior styling
  • Safety systems
  • Getting in and out of the front seats

Owners indicate their least favorite things about the XC90 are (in descending order) the process of setting up and starting, the powertrain, getting in and out, the infotainment system, and fuel economy. Specifically, these five things about the vehicle rank lowest in comparison to the upper midsize premium SUV segment:

  • Fuel economy/driving range
  • Power of engine/motor
  • Sound of engine/motor
  • Smoothness of engine/motor
  • Ability to hold personal items

In the J.D Power 2020 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the XC90 ranked 8th out of nine upper midsize premium SUVs.

What Our Expert Says… - Find the best Volvo deals!

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Volvo XC90 measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

Half a decade after it debuted, the 2020 Volvo XC90 still looks terrific. From its Thor’s Hammer LED running lights and Volvo ironmark-stamped grille to its clamp-shaped taillights that run from the roof to the bumper, the XC90 is distinctive, different, and divine.

2020 Volvo XC90 R-Design T6 Thunder Gray Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The test vehicle had new Thunder Gray metallic paint and optional 22-inch wheels. Not only does the combination look terrific, but both the paint and the wheels hide dirt exceptionally well. After a week collecting environmental and brake dust, bug splatters, and drips from morning dew, the test vehicle still looked relatively clean even though it wasn’t.

Interior

When you get into a Volvo XC90, you feel special. The minimalistic design, the attention to detail, the quality materials, even the smell all convey luxury. Better yet, for 2020, you can get the XC90 R-Design’s leather upholstery in a color other than black. Blond is now available, providing an even more upscale and high-contrast cabin ambience.

2020 Volvo XC90 R-Design T6 Blond Leather Seats Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The downside to the minimalistic look, however, is compromise in terms of control operation. You’ll need to spend more time using the portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system than you’d prefer.

Also, storage space for personal items is limited. The covered trays and cupholders in the center console get full fast, leaving you to place things in the rather small storage bin under the center armrest or the door panel bins.

Nevertheless, in spite of some form over function interior shortcomings, the look and feel of the 2020 Volvo XC90 contributes significantly to overall satisfaction with the SUV.

Getting In and Out

As a part of Volvo’s quest to maximize comfort and support, the XC90 R-Design’s front seats offer significant thigh and side bolstering, which add some effort to the entry and exit process. However, this impression could be due to my preference for driving with maximum thigh support, raising the forward portion of the bottom cushion to the top of its range of travel.

Less robustly fortified, the flatter second-row seats make it easier to get in and out of the XC90. However, the rear doors don’t open particularly wide, which could make loading young children more difficult.

Younger and more limber school-age kids will be able to climb up and into the third-row seats with little trouble, but this exercise is tough for grown-ups. Not only must you step up and into them, but clearance is tight and third-row space is cramped.

As is true of many midsize crossover SUVs, cargo space behind the third-row seat is fairly restrictive at 12.6 cubic feet. Fold the seat down for a usable 35.6 cubic feet of volume. Maximum cargo space measures 85.7 cubic feet.

Setting Up and Starting

Calibrating the Volvo XC90’s instrumentation and infotainment displays to your personal preferences is likely to require the owner’s manual. Some functions are intuitive, and some are not. And even after you’ve got the SUV set up the way you want it, sometimes things change in a truly mystifying way.

If you love to sit up high with a commanding view out of a vehicle, the Volvo XC90 R-Design offers a wide range of seat adjustments, including manual thigh support extensions. Starting the XC90 is satisfying, too, because you twist a beautifully knurled metal knob on the center console rather than push a standard start button.

However, the engine and exhaust notes from the XC90 T6’s turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder engine are not particularly gratifying, especially when you’re standing outside of the SUV.

Infotainment System

Conceptually, Volvo’s Sensus infotainment system is supposed to work like a smartphone or a tablet computer. In addition to a handy home button at the bottom of the display, the touchscreen supports opening and closing of main-menu tabs, swipe and scroll actions, and personalized arrangement of features and functions. Voice recognition is present, too, and while it works well most of the time it can be just as clueless as your device’s personal assistant can be.

But here’s the thing. Driving while using a smartphone or a tablet computer is a bad idea, and Sensus simply is not satisfying when the XC90 is moving. What’s easy and intuitive to use when you’re sprawled out on your couch and you can focus on what you’re doing is something else entirely when you’re threading through traffic and trying to find, activate, and use something in Sensus. Also, because a car doesn’t ride as motionlessly as your couch at home, it’s easy to accidentally press the wrong icon, leading to a frustrating cascade of repeated actions in an attempt to try again.

During the testing period, the XC90 picked up a nail in the left rear tire, and at 5:30 p.m. on a weekday the tire pressuring monitoring system dutifully notified me that one of the tires was losing pressure. Using Sensus, I was able to identify which tire was leaking air, but the system did not tell me to what degree the tire was softening. I had no idea how far below the recommended pressure the tire was, or how rapidly it was losing pressure.

A visual inspection of the leaking low-profile 22-inch tire showed the nail head in the tread and what I surmised to be plenty of inflation pressure to get me to a tire repair shop. But without knowledge about the rate of pressure loss over time, it was a tense scramble to find a tire store that was still open and accepting customers into the evening. If I could have monitored pressure loss while driving, in turn helping me to determine how significant the problem was, this would have added some peace of mind.

At $3,200, the optional Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system is not cheap. But, on a positive note, it utterly envelops you in sound embedding you into the experience. If you’re a true audiophile, choosing this Volvo for this option is worthy in and of itself.

Keeping You Safe

Pardon the pun, but Volvo is dead serious about eliminating collision fatalities. That must be why the XC90’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) behave in such decisive and effective fashion. 

This abruptness is not the same as a lack of refinement or accuracy. Indeed, most of the time, you can use the XC90’s ADAS without noticing it much. Rather, when the technology determines it must take corrective action, it does so with the clear intention of avoiding a collision and not just reducing the effects of one.

While this activity can still be fraught with unintended consequences, especially in relationship to how other drivers react to unexpected XC90 behavior, owners of this Volvo do report that the SUV’s feeling of safety is one of their favorite things about the vehicle.

Equipped with active bending full LED headlights that help to illuminate around curves and corners, the XC90 had no trouble picking a path through my suburban neighborhood, which lacks streetlights. These peepers are a part of the Advanced Package that also includes a headlight cleaning system, a surround-view camera system, and a head-up display that is completely invisible to a driver who wears polarized sunglasses.

When it comes to crash protection, the Volvo XC90 performs exceptionally well, earning a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and 5-star ratings in all categories except for a 4-star rollover resistance rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Powertrain

Generating 316 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, the Volvo XC90 T6’s 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that there actually is a replacement for displacement. It uses both a turbocharger and a supercharger to reach these output levels, and the test vehicle’s optional Polestar Performance Software ($1,295) added another 14 horsepower and 30 lb.-ft. of torque for totals of 330 and 325, respectively.

An 8-speed automatic transmission distributes the power to each of the XC90 T6’s wheels thanks to standard all-wheel drive. The Polestar optimization upgrade impacts transmission shifts, torque distribution, and throttle response in order to make the SUV feel more energetic and surefooted than it would normally.

With that said, the exhaust note remains dissatisfying. Also, there is a granular quality to Volvo’s Drive-E powertrains, a coarseness and lack of refinement that you can feel through the accelerator pedal. Together, the sounds and sensations of the powertrain can dampen the favorable impressions instilled by the SUV’s styling, interior, and other positive qualities.

But it sure is quick, no doubt about that.

If you don’t feel a need for speed, consider getting the XC90 T5, which has a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder good for 250 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. This engine is also offered with a choice between front-wheel and all-wheel drive. 

Or, you can upgrade to the XC90 T8 eAWD plug-in hybrid, which produces 400 horsepower and 472 lb.-ft. of torque while providing 18 miles of electric-only driving range before operating as a gas-electric hybrid vehicle. It’s a member of Volvo’s new Recharge family of electrified vehicles.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, the Volvo XC90 T6 should get 21 mpg in combined driving. The test vehicle struggled to achieve 18.6 mpg. With the 18.8-gallon fuel tank, this translates into a range of 350 miles. With a 40-mile cushion, you’ll stop for gas every 310 miles.

Driving Comfort

Volvos are known for their comfort levels, and the XC90 R-Design does not disappoint. From the wide range of front seat adjustments and the lovely leather upholstery to second-row seats providing a tall and supportive position on a 40/20/40-split bench seat, this SUV is perfect for road trips. 

Heated front seats and steering wheel, heated rear seats, and triple-zone climate control make the XC90 a haven in winter, and during summertime testing the air conditioning proved quite effective at chilling the cabin. In fact, it never even occurred to me to complain about the test vehicle’s lack of ventilated front seats.

The climate controls are located in the bottom tab on the main menu in Sensus. Fortunately, the bottom tab never changes depending on selected content. Physical defroster buttons are below the screen on the dashboard, to the left of the stereo volume and tuning controls. 

With the big 22-inch wheels and tires, you can hear road texture and thrum but there isn’t much in the way of road noise. And even on less smooth surfaces, all you need to do is crank up the volume on the Bowers & Wilkins sound system a bit.

Driving Feel

Choose the Polestar Engineered driving mode, and the test XC90’s sharpened powertrain response and standard AWD help the SUV to accelerate out of curves and corners with remarkable enthusiasm. And though the steering isn’t quite crisp, it is nevertheless accurate and properly weighted throughout the range of motion.

In addition to the Polestar-supplied performance, the test vehicle had Volvo’s Four-C Adaptive Air Suspension, an $1,800 option. In combination with the oversized wheels and 35-series tires, this upgrade gives the XC90 R-Design impressive ride and handling qualities.

When driven in urban and suburban environments in Comfort mode, occupants may still experience some vehicle rocking and head toss. But the test vehicle also traveled over sets of speed humps in my neighborhood like they weren’t even there, and demonstrated remarkable dive, squat, and roll control when hustled down local mountain roads.

Given the tires’ short sidewalls and wide contact patches, I expected far more impact harshness than the XC90 delivered. However, a fair amount of road shock did reverberate up through the SUV’s structure. 

I also noticed that the XC90’s brakes can heat up and start to rumble without much provocation. Pedal feel and modulation are not issues, but the noise and subtle vibration did not instill confidence in the driver.

Final Impressions - Find the best Volvo deals!

Though it is imperfect, I thoroughly enjoyed driving the 2020 Volvo XC90 R-Design. It looks great, it feels great, and this particular example added a Polestar performance boost and other upgrades to make the SUV dynamically more engaging. Plus, that Bowers & Wilkins audio system might make you want to live in this SUV.

In my opinion, where Volvo must improve the XC90 is with regard to the infotainment system’s user experience. Automotive UX is different, requiring a minimum of concentration and comprehension in order to be effective. The current version of Sensus, with its smartphone-style of operation, small icons, and behavior that can cause confusion, is in need of a complete redesign.

Christian Wardlaw is a veteran digital automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, his work has appeared in numerous new- and used-car buying guides, newspapers, and automotive industry trade journals.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2020 J.D. Power

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