Does a plug-in hybrid like the Volvo XC60 deliver the best of both worlds?

Volvo XC60 XC60 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid T8 AWD R-Design on long-term test - with James Foxall
Let's find out how an SUV measures up against a traditional estate Credit: Christopher Pledger

Volvo says its XC60 has style, prestige and presence. At the end of three months of hard use, does the plug-in hybrid version of the mid-sized Swedish SUV live up to the star billing?

  • Our car: XC60 Recharge T8 AWD R-Design
  • List price when new: £55,005 OTR
  • Price as tested: £59,305
  • Official fuel economy: 94.2-117.5mpg (WLTP Combined)

With our latest long-term test car, we’ve stuck with the Volvo theme but moved things on a notch. Like an increasing number of drivers, we’ve rejected diesel power and plumped for a petrol plug-in hybrid (or PHEV). Again, like ever more buyers, we’ve moved from a traditional estate to the loftier perch of an SUV body shape.

In our case, that’s the XC60 T8 Twin Engine All-Wheel Drive. Initial impressions are of a car that’s very handsome indeed. We chose ours in Bursting Blue, a £975 optional extra, and I think it suits the XC60’s shape well. It’s all nicely set off by the R-Design 19” Diamond Cut/Matt Black five double spoke alloys, black door mirrors and black roof rails. 

I liked the look of the previous V90 Cross Country a lot but the XC60 is more handsome still. It’s sportier looking, which will undoubtedly appeal to a younger audience, and it’s purposeful without being overly ‘look-at-me’ aggressive. 

Volvos these days are very well-equipped cars and our XC60 is no different. As standard, it comes with all the goodies you’d expect from a premium model including cruise control, keyless start, a power-operated tailgate, heated front seats and a 9” touchscreen with 12.3” driver’s instrument panel. To the standard specification we’ve added the £800 Xenium Pack which gives us the 360° Surround View camera plus Park Assist Pilot. It is fitted with the £525 Winter Pack which means headlight washers, heated front screen and steering wheel and heated aqua blades that cover the screen in water from the wiper blade itself rather than nozzles. 

The equipment is good, although the car's age shows in some of the plastics and the grey interior option can feel rather gloomy when the blind of the full-length sunroof is closed Credit: Christopher Pledger

It has the £850 Harmon Kardon sound system which includes Bluetooth smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. We’ve also specified the £600 electric driver’s seat with memory function as we figured it would be a valuable option when it comes to moving the car on.

The interior is smart in Slate/Open Grey, although it is a little gloomy when the panoramic roof’s blind is closed. One thing that immediately struck us is that the plastics on show, particularly those on the dashboard, aren’t quite the sort of quality we’ve come to expect from a £60,000 car. 

But the real jewel in ‘our’ XC60’s crown is the plug-in hybrid power plant, mustering no less than 385bhp. The 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine produces 303hp which would be healthy enough on its own. However, an 87 horsepower battery motor supplements it. It means a claimed electric-only range of 25 miles, although the readout on the screen has only told me that once; it seems to spend most of its time, even immediately after charging, showing 21 miles.

First impressions are good, with the hybrid drivetrain slipping seamlessly between petrol and electric propulsion Credit: Christopher Pledger

That formidable power is delivered to the all-wheel drive system via an eight-speed automatic transmission. Initial impressions are that it certainly lives up to its 5.2 second claimed 0-60mph time. The petrol engine seems very quiet and refined, to the point where it’s difficult to tell if you’re being powered by internal combustion or electricity. 

Most of our trips so far have been local. In hybrid mode, this means that I suspect battery power alone has been able to take care of things. But whichever mode the car is in, it’s very swift. And that makes me excited for the months to come.

What it’s like on the road?

The XC60 looks like a shrunken XC90, which is no bad thing. And it shares that car’s powerplants too. Again, no bad thing. All engines are 2.0-litre four cylinder units but there’s a choice between mild hybrid diesel, turbocharged petrol and petrol plug-in hybrid. The power ranges from 197hp to our 390hp performance SUV.

To achieve this, the engine in our car is supercharged and turbocharged, giving the front wheels 303hp. The 87hp electric motor powers the rear wheels. The 295lb ft of torque from the petrol engine is accessed between 2,200 and 4,800rpm. And there’s a further 177lb ft of heft from the electric motor that’s all on tap from standstill.

The power’s there then. How does the chassis handle it? In a straight line, very well indeed. The all-wheel-drive set-up and quiet, refined capability of the turbo petrol engine means you’re fired forwards efficiently and with little in the way of drama.

Sure, it'll corner at speed but the XC60 isn't the type of car in which you'd tackle a challenging road just for the hell of it Credit: Christopher Pledger

The rest of the driving experience is equally undramatic, which won’t necessarily appeal to keen drivers. The numb and overly assisted steering makes driving the XC60 a remote experience. R-Design models like ours have 30 per cent stiffer springs and anti-roll bars that are 1mm thicker front and rear, plus faster-acting dampers. The result, Volvo claims, is sportier, more responsive handling.

That might be the case compared with other XC60s but if you’re looking for a dynamically involving car to put a smile on your face, we’d advise you choose something else.

The XC60 is a fast, refined and comfortable tourer; fun it is not. And that’s hardly a surprise when you understand that Volvo has tuned the XC60’s dynamics to be controllable, predictable and comfortable. It’s something we suspect will be bang on the nail with the kind of audience Volvo wants this car to appeal to.

Economy promise

Efficiency is another thing. Volvo claims between 94.2 and 117.5mpg. We haven’t driven it over sufficient distance to test this claim. However, Volvo says the batteries should be good for 28 miles of electric-only driving. We’ve never seen more than 25 on the readout and 21 miles is more usual. What’s more, those miles seem to disappear disproportionately quickly.

The supercharged and turbocharged petrol engine drives the front wheels, with an electric motor taking care of propulsion to the rear Credit: Christopher Pledger

In hybrid mode, which we usually have it in, the electric motor is used primarily until the batteries’ range has disappeared. The petrol motor simply steps in to do some heavy lifting during acceleration. Then, once the batteries are depleted, the petrol does all the work. Using the central screen, you can press ‘Hold’ which prompts the car to use only the petrol engine, keeping electric power until you really need it around town.

Charging set-up

There’s a charge function, too, enabling you to use the petrol engine as a generator to charge the batteries. But that rather seems to defeat the object of a plug-in hybrid, which to our eyes is to benefit from cheaper mains electricity.

Volvo claims the battery can be recharged in two and a half hours using the optional 16-amp fast charging cable. Using a domestic socket it's best done overnight Credit: Christopher Pledger

Volvo claims the 10.4kWh battery pack can be charged in just two and a half hours using the optional 16-amp fast charging cable. I specified one of these and I’m currently enjoying getting free electricity whenever I go to the supermarket.

However, I mainly recharge using the three-pin plug socket in my garage. This is a more leisurely affair but seems to be easily accomplished overnight.

Good looks add to the appeal

The XC60 has always been a good-looking thing. The previous version was perhaps more instantly identifiable as a Volvo in a car park crowded with SUVs, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with its successor.

For our model, we specified Bursting Blue and we’ve had plenty of compliments about it. It’s not a colour you see many Volvos in but it’s light, bright and we think looks sportier than the apparently more popular darker colours. As importantly, it doesn’t show the dirt as much as white so in our eyes it’s an all-round winner.

Our Volvo XC60 looks great. In the Bursting Blue paint it attracts lots of compliments and also hides the dirt well.  Credit: Christopher Pledger

Shape-wise, the XC60 is more like a shrunken XC90 than an overgrown XC40, which is no bad thing. In profile it’s a familiar, well-proportioned shape which is spiced up by the heavily sculpted lower sections of the doors. This has enabled Volvo’s designers to make doors that overlap the sills, significantly reducing the chances of getting dirty legs on entry and exit.

Our car sits on R-Design 19-inch wheels although astonishingly you could specify the XC60 on 22-inch rims, should you wish to destroy its ride quality and upset those nicely balanced proportions.

From the front, the T-shaped headlights give it the distinctive and attractive new Volvo look. The area below the bluff black grille with its chrome surround is a bit fussy for my liking but doesn’t detract from the overall appeal. And at the rear, you can see twin exhaust pipes set inside the rectangular chromed outlets, proving to those who care about such things that this XC60 isn’t all mouth and no trousers.

The distinctive, horizontal T-bar light that bi-sects Volvo light clusters is - apparently - inspired by Thor's hammer... What, you couldn't tell? 

The illusion of the long bonnet, helped by short front and rear overhangs, gives a sporty cabin-to-the-rear stance. It’s definitely been designed to appeal to a younger audience. And while I might not quite be in that demographic, I can tell you giving a car a more youthful appearance doesn’t do any harm with slightly older potential owners.

Size wise, the XC60 might not have the commodious boot that Volvos of old were famous for. But the brand has changed, and for the better. It’s more about minimalist Scandi-cool these days. The interior is appealing to look at and comfortable to spend time in, too. I recently put in an almost four-hour stint (with a brief comfort break) and arrived as fresh as when I started.

There’s room in the rear seats for a family of four in comfort. And while the luggage area might not be as big as some rivals, there are still 468 litres (1395 with the rear seats folded). The result is a fine if arguably rather conservative-looking car that boasts both functionality and overall, rather alluring form.

It’s a Volvo, of course it’s safe!

If you’re looking for a car that’s super safe, you won’t go far wrong with the XC60. That’s according to independent safety rating organisation Euro NCAP. It awarded ‘our’ SUV 98 per cent for adult occupant protection and 87 per cent for child protection. Whatever Euro NCAP tested it for in terms of occupant protection, it was never judged anything less than ‘adequate’. The majority of the ratings were in the highest possible ‘good’ category.

Euro NCAP also rates the XC60’s Autonomous Emergency Braking system as 95 per cent. Included in the car’s full suite of safety systems are three technologies that Volvo says this model introduced.

These include Steering Support which automatically provides steering inputs in an emergency to try to avoid potential collisions. It uses radar and a forward-facing camera to analyse objects in the road in front of the car. When the car detects the driver steering away from something at between 31 and 62mph, it will add steering input and brake individual wheels to maximise collision avoidance while helping the driver to keep control.

Oncoming Lane Mitigation has been designed to reduce the chances of a head-on crash. It operates between 37 and 87mph and uses the steering to pull the car back into its lane if it detects a vehicle approaching in the opposite direction.

The third of the new technologies is the Blind Spot Information System with Steer Assist. This again works at between 37 and 87mph and pulls the car back into its own lane if it detects something in the blind spot that the driver possibly hasn’t seen.

Thankfully, I haven’t needed any of these systems. Neither have I required the standard Run-off Road Mitigation or Run-off Road Protection which try to prevent and/or limit the damage of leaving the road. City Safety with Steering Support is also a standard feature and unlike on some other cars, it doesn’t seem too intrusive or overly paranoid that you’re about to have a crash when you aren’t.

The forward-facing Citi Braking set-up isd effective but not too quick to intervene, unlike some systems Credit: Christopher Pledger

The Rear Collision Mitigation system and Cross Traffic Alert with Autobrake warn of vehicles or people crossing behind the car when it’s in reverse gear. It will even apply the brake if need be. While it doesn’t take away the need to look when you’re reversing, it’s handy to have as a belt and braces.

Our £800 Xenium Pack includes cameras in the mirrors and front and rear to give a 360° bird’s eye view. It means no more opening the door to see where you are in parking bays.

We didn’t specify Pilot Assist which is Volvo’s driver-assistance system. Instead our XC60 has good ‘old-fashioned’ cruise control which we find absolutely fine for the vast majority of situations.

How does it compare with its big rival?

If you’re considering buying a Volvo XC60, you’re probably researching alternatives and among its premium SUV rivals, the most obvious is arguably the Audi Q5. The German firm’s competition to our XC60 T8 is the Q5 TFSI e.

Both cars have a 2.0-litre petrol engine. And with electric assistance, both employ turbochargers (plus a supercharger in the Volvo’s case) to boast an almost indecent amount of power: 367hp for the Audi, 390hp for the XC60. Despite this the Audi is less than an eye blink quicker from 0-62mph, its 5.3 second charge implying it uses its power more efficiently.

The full-length sunroof is a boon now that autumn has arrived and there's less ambient light Credit: Christopher Pledger

Both cars also claim to cover 26 miles using electric-only power. In real life, our Volvo only manages around 21 miles although that’s still plenty for local trips. Interestingly, while the Audi has a 14.1kWh battery, the Volvo’s is only 10.4kWh. Contrary to how they use their power, this implies the Swedish car is more efficient. I suspect, they’re both pretty similar.

The Audi’s on-road price of £50,410 compares very favourably with the Volvo’s £50,695. Specification-wise, Audi’s S Line Competition trim seems to approximate our Volvo’s R-Design spec. Both cars sell for the £55,000 mark, the Audi around £500 more expensive.

Audi and Volvo come with standard niceties such as heated seats, powered tailgates, electronic climate control and auto dimming rear view mirrors. The Audi’s 8.3-inch touchscreen is marginally trumped by the Volvo’s 9-inch item. But size isn’t everything and the Audi’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connections are standard, while you have to  pay extra for them with the Volvo. But both cars have fully digital driver’s instrumentation.

The Volvo's boot is marginally larger than that of its main rival, the Audi Q5 Credit: Christopher Pledger

As with performance and price, in practical terms, there’s not much to separate the two models. The Volvo has a marginally larger boot. But as it’s only by 18 litres (465 to 483) there’s barely a fag paper’s difference between them.

Looks wise, both cars follow the ‘mini me’ approach by taking the basic shape of their big brothers and replicating it in a smaller model. It’s clearly a successful formula as, to my eyes, both cars are more handsome than their larger siblings.

Which do I prefer? I think the bluffer, less curvy front end to the Volvo combined with its longer bonnet and cab-back, more poised appearance looks sportier than the slightly more mumsy Audi. But, saying that, both Q5 and XC60 are highly desirable motors that will doubtless bring their owners many happy miles of premium plug-in hybrid motoring.

Practicality is Volvo’s thing

If the advertising is to be believed, Volvos are ‘for life’. That is, they’re all about making your everyday life easier. Covering the basics then, a Volvo should have a big square boot, a versatile interior and be easy to drive, park and generally live with.

First thing’s first, its boot is certainly nicely squared off. And it has plenty of hooks to tether errant articles to. The floor is flat to the sill as well which makes sliding things in a cinch. However, unlike similarly sized cars, there’s no space for storing stuff beneath the floor. That area is taken up by polystyrene, the 12-volt battery and a compressor should you need to repair a puncture.

The result is a boot that isn’t the biggest in its class but 468 litres is more than enough for the Foxall family’s luggage. Fold the seat backs down and there’s 1,395 litres of flat space. The rear seat backs split fold too. Handy for when we relocated the daughter back to London with a flat’s worth of clobber following a long lockdown summer at home. And although there’s no seat-folding lever in the boot as with some much cheaper cars, buttons on top of the seats collapse the head rests and release the seats for folding. These are easy to reach through the back door.

The tailgate is power operated as standard and you can specify hands-free opening, but the latter is an option that I didn’t choose as I’ve never found the system to be particularly reliable. More important is that the high voltage battery for the electric motor is situated between the seats. Aside from the benefits this has to handling by keeping the centre of gravity low, it also means there’s really decent leg room in the rear.

As well as being comfortable, the rear seats have a storage space underneath that’s big enough for phones, tablets and wallets. Thoughtful. Not so clever are rear door pockets that aren’t big enough to take a water bottle. And there’s no cupholder in the front seat back or the central arm rest, all of which seems a bit of an oversight.

As far as seeing out goes, I’ve had no problems although, as with all cars nowadays, the windscreen pillar is thick enough to obscure other road users if you don’t check carefully. That said, the parking sensors and surround-view camera are great, making squeezing into spaces simple. Is the XC60 a practical beast to live with? I’d say it’s got pretty much every box ticked.

Cost of living

It’s taken me a bit of time to get used to it but I’ve finally got the hang of life with a plug-in hybrid. The XC60 T8 has a claimed electric-only range of 21 miles. That’s accurately reflected in real miles in my experience and it’s certainly sufficient for me to do much of my local running around: to the village, the station, the local town and back, and so on.

What’s taken me the time to get my head around is that there’s no need to save electric miles when I’m out and about. In fact, it’s cheaper to use as many of them as possible That’s because the current price of fuel makes using petrol more than twice as expensive as electricity. And of course now we’re not allowed to go anywhere, the vast majority of my motoring is just short trips.

Plugging in as half the price of running on petrol Credit: Christopher Pledger

Now I’m into the rhythm of plugging in when I park in the garage. And that last word is an important one. I am lucky enough to have a garage so I don’t have to worry about trailing an extension lead out into the driveway. But neither do I have a proper charging point installed. Yet. The more plug-in hybrid and eventually full electric cars I have, the more compelling the argument will be for a faster charger to become a part of Foxall life.

Convenience of charging aside, I’ve also discovered one of the real benefits of electric motoring is that you really can get something for nothing. My local Sainsbury’s has a Pod Point fast charging station. I can drive there on electric, plug the Volvo into charge and by the time I’ve done my weekly shop, the batteries will be sufficiently juiced for my journey there and back to have cost me nothing in fuel. Result.

Due to the unfathomable way electricity bills are calculated, I’m afraid I can’t tell you how much I’ve spent charging the XC60. However, over the couple of thousand miles the Volvo and I have covered, I’ve only filled up at a petrol pump five times. According to my calculations, despite the battery miles completed, I’m still only averaging 38.5mpg. The car is more optimistic, putting that at 39.2.

Partial electric propulsion means only five fill-ups over several thousand miles Credit: Christopher Pledger

Bearing in mind this is a car packing a punchy 390hp, I actually think that’s pretty reasonable. Or at least I would if I didn’t know that the official WLTP combined cycle for the car is 94.2-117.5mpg. Now I just feel slightly cheated!

Supermarket aside, I haven’t made use of any other public charging point, primarily because I haven’t had to. However, I have paid a lot more attention to where public charging points are, in the interests of research. It strikes me the government needs to pull its finger out if we’re all going to be buying new electric cars from 2030.

It might sound like nit-picking but…

I haven’t had much to grumble about during my time with the XC60. And the things that have got on my nerves are tiny in the greater scheme of things. Perhaps the most important is the blue main beam warning light. It’s so tiny and such a pale blue that it goes missing on the instrument panel. The result? I’ve unintentionally blinded a few oncoming drivers after forgetting I had main beam on.

The boot’s luggage cover is also a bit irritating, but only because I’m used to a little more luxury. On the V90 Cross Country I tested previously, the parcel shelf lifted automatically to facilitate access when you opened the boot. It then dropped down again by itself when you shut the boot.

A few niggles persist with the instrumentation. Nothing major, but little details can combine to ruin a £60,000 car for the owner Credit: Christopher Pledger

On our XC60, the parcel shelf is manual. I move it up to make it easier to put stuff in the boot, close the boot then only remember I haven’t re-lowered the luggage cover when I can’t see out of the rear window. Cue some swearing and having to pull over to rectify things. In mitigation, this is a £59,000 car, I wouldn’t have thought an electric luggage cover was too much to ask.

As with the previous Volvo, I’m still struggling with the infotainment screen. After initially behaving brilliantly, it now has a fairly random attitude towards co-operation with my phone. It can see my phone as a phone but doesn’t always recognise it as a media player, which makes the ability to listen to podcasts a bit limiting.

I’m also a bit sceptical about the touchscreen’s reactions. Trying to prod the correct button when you’re going along a bumpy road can be a hit or miss affair. That was illustrated when the traffic sign recognition stopped appearing on the instruments after I inadvertently switched it off. I have no idea when I did that.

Pedant's corner.... Credit: Christopher Pledger

More fundamentally, Volvo prides itself on being a human-centric brand, yet there are no cupholders in the back. And the rear door pockets are too narrow to take a water bottle. Thankfully, as the driver, that doesn’t affect me but it’s not brilliant attention to detail from the design team.

And talking of managing the details, Volvo calls this (and all its other hybrids) a Twin Engine. Call me a pedant, but this car doesn’t have two engines. Although I get that “One engine and an electric motor” doesn’t trip off the tongue as easily on a badge.

The Telegraph verdict

Our time with the XC60 T8 has been overshadowed by the pandemic and a consequent reduction in the number of miles we’d otherwise cover. Even so, we’ve had plenty of chances to get to know Volvo’s mid-size SUV. 

The overall impression is of a very likeable car that’s incredibly easy to live with. It’s good looking, practical, comfortable and rapid. Very rapid. Accelerate hard and the 2.0-litre petrol engine emits an attractive warble that is reminiscent of the great five-cylinder Volvos of days gone by. It’s supported by a turn of speed (0-60mph in 5.2 seconds) that feels indecently incongruous with day-to-day XC60 life.

It doesn’t take long behind the wheel to figure out that this car has been designed to prioritise comfort over dynamism.

Comfort clearly takes precedence over sharp driving dynamics Credit: Christopher Pledger

The steering feels rather numb and combines with soft suspension to remove the appeal of twisting roads. But the majority of XC60 customers won’t be interested in that. They’ll buy this car for its image, practicality and above all comfort. They won’t be disappointed. The seats are as cosseting as any of the best Volvo chairs I can remember. The driving position too is excellent and there’s plenty of room in the back. It will also munch motorway miles impressively quietly all day long.

We specified our car with the Xenium Pack which includes the parking camera and Park Assist Pilot. The first of those I’ve used all the time and the bird’s eye view function is brilliant for seeing exactly where the car sits within a parking bay.

Park Assist, on the other hand, remains untouched. I didn’t want to try it out ‘live’ in a street or car park with drivers waiting behind me. And finding the time to practice somewhere quiet never really happened.

The Winter Pack was more of a hit, with the heated steering wheel proving to be one of those extras you never knew you needed. And the heated screen was a bonus on a couple of very cold mornings.

The optional sound system is top-notch Credit: Christopher Pledger

We also specified the Harman Kardon option which includes smartphone integration. Initially, I didn’t use this as my phone paired seamlessly with the car. But when the system started recognising my iphone as just a phone and not a media player as well, I resorted to Apple CarPlay which made connecting much more reliable.

Finally, we spent £600 on a powered driver’s seat with memory for the seat and mirrors. It was a nice touch and gave the car a certain premium ambience.

Despite that, this never really felt like a £60,000 car to me. I loved the plug-in hybrid technology because choosing the power source helped me to feel more engaged with the driving process. And I really enjoyed having nearly 400hp beneath my right foot.

Yet if I was spending my own money on an XC60 I’d go for the non-hybrid option. And I’d wager anyone who does will be very happy indeed with their choice.

It's premium, although perhaps lacking the overall feel of a £60,000 car Credit: Christopher Pledger

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