Test drive: Volvo S90 T8 Twin Engine

Petrol-powered front wheels, electric-driven in the back. What can possibly go wrong?

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From twin carbs to twin turbos, car components that come in pairs are always laced with the promise of better performance. So when Volvo announced the T8 Twin Engine branding for its plugin-hybrid powertrain, expectations naturally hit the roof.

The T5 and T6 variants of the Volvo S90 were already compelling – their packaging of petrol-derived performance, presence and prestige already sufficient to put the German status quo on alert. So how is an electric motor supposed to propel the Swedish flagship sedan to greater heights?

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Well, sometimes, you need to reach down to rise up. This is especially true for the Malaysian market, where a luxury car is often cheapest in its most lavish specification due to tax incentives that favour locally assembled hybrids, plugin or not. For this reason, the new S90 T8 Twin Engine is priced from RM368,888, a full RM20k less than its T5 counterpart. But the T8 is, in essence, an electrified T6. And that costs a full RM85k more, inclusive of Volvo’s neat R-Design kit of course.

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On top of having the T6’s output of 320bhp and 400Nm at its disposal, the T8’s two-litre twin-charged Drive-E engine is aided by a 65kW electric motor which bumps the total system output up to a mouth-watering 407bhp and 640Nm. Like the T6, there’s an 8-speed Aisin transmission and AWD on board. But while the T6 is a proper all-wheeler that distributes torque to both ends of the car via a Borg Warner system, the T8’s engine only feeds the front wheels while the rear axle is purely electric driven. If this architecture sounds familiar, it’s because it already exists in the XC90 T8 Twin Engine.

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Having two axles independently mobilised by their own power source is a tough balancing act which Volvo pulls off well, but not without an oddly calming sense of caution. So while 407bhp and a resulting 4.8-second century sprint might sound exhilarating, there’s a greater sense of measured enthusiasm in the way the T8 unloads its power onto the road. The end result is a smooth-sailing saloon which personifies its luxury tag better than the haste its spec sheet suggests. It’s an exhibition of maturity from the most gifted variant of the S90 that’s bound to please its typical suitor.

Unfortunately, this level-headedness takes a slight hit when the T8’s hybrid battery runs out of juice. Ideally, this shouldn’t occur during weekday commutes to work and back. But longer hauls and spirited drives can take the wind out of the 10.4kWh battery, which supplies a claimed 50km full-electric range, quicker than you think. In such an event, the Drive-E mill multitasks between propelling the front axle and recharging the battery. The extra workload can clearly be heard from inside the cabin, and it puts a small dent in the S90’s otherwise stellar NVH scoresheet.

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Of course, you could attempt to drown the engine noise out with music – a strategy still employed by shady car salesmen today. And you’ll easily succeed if you opt for the pricier Inscription Plus package which adds on a Premium Sound by Bowers & Wilkins system made up of 19 speakers, a 1,400-watt, 12-channel amplifier and even audio settings sampled from the Gothenburg Concert Hall, all for the price of RM20k.

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Sure, you could buy a used, first-gen Volvo S80 with the same amount of dough. But we’ve gone through enough overpriced options list to deduce that RM20k is a small price to pay for top-notch audio and a pair of air dampers. Yes, the Inscription Plus package also adds on air suspension. Even though it only props up the rear, the T8’s ride is notably improved over the T5 and T6 R Design variants we tested earlier last year. You’d be hard pressed to find a comfier car teetering on 19-inch footwear.

To this day, a Volvo review feels incomplete without an emphasis on safety, which the S90 delivers via a wealth of cutting-edge technology. Like most modern cars, it has ESC and more airbags than seats. But it’s the S90’s Intellisafe suite of driver aids that makes the difference, particularly its Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system which now operates up to speeds of 130kph – the XC90’s system used to cut off at an anti-climactic 50kph.

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If you’re into ‘smart homes’ that have all their electronics governed by an invisible woman named Alexa and are designed by Scandinavian chaps wearing horn-rimmed glasses and primly hedged beards, then this just might be your idea of a perfect motorhome. But there’s an appeal to traditionalists as well. No Volvo sedan has ever felt like it was playing by the luxurious rules set by the Mercedes-Benz E-Class while shadowing the BMW 5-Series dynamically at the same time. It’s not necessarily the better car in either discipline, but the S90 T8 Twin Engine is an expert of balancing acts after all.

Engine: 1,969cc, 4-cylinder twin-charged, 65kW electric motor, 407bhp, 640Nm total output
Price: RM368,888
Economy: 2.0L/100km, 46g/km CO2
Performance: 0-100kph in 4.8 secs, 250kph
Weight: 2,069kg

Possibly the cleverest car you can get for under RM400k that’ll resonate with wealthy conservationists and avid drivers alike

Author: Daryl Loy