The market is saturated with luxury SUVs but there are very few plug-in hybrid luxury SUVs. The 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 was among the first to the market but now the BMW X5 45e is the latest contender. So how do they stack up against each other?
Engine – Starting with the familiar one first, the 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 was designed to have both a gasoline only & hybrid powertrain from when it was first designed back in 2016. The hybrid powertrain produces 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque (298 kW / 640 Nm) from a 2.0L turbocharged & supercharged 4-cylinder engine. While on paper the Volvo XC90 Recharge is the more powerful of the two, it doesn’t feel that way from behind the steering wheel. Sure, the 0-60 mph (96 km/h) time is a claimed 5.3 seconds but Volvo likes to add the peak engine power and the peak electric motor power together. That’s something that you can’t really do with hybrid powertrains because they develop their peak powers at different rpms.
On the other hand, the 2021 BMW X5 45e is less powerful on paper with 389 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque (290 kW / 600 Nm) from a 3.0L turbocharged inline-6. But behind the steering wheel, it’s the one that feels faster. It feels as though it takes less effort for the engine to get the big SUV up to speed. Whereas in the XC90, it always feels like the little 2.0L engine is struggling and straining to get up to speed. In reality, both SUVs have the same 0-60 mph (96 km/h) time of 5.3 seconds despite the BMW being heavier at 2,561 kg (5,646 lbs) vs 2,314 kg (5,101 lbs) for the XC90. The BMW’s electric motor is between the engine & transmission so the SUV has a more traditional powertrain system with a driveshaft delivering power to the rear wheels.
With the Volvo having a smaller engine and weighing less, it has a better overall fuel efficiency rating. In a city it is rated for 9.1 L/100km (25.8 MPG) and on a highway, it’s 8.4 L/100km (28 MPG). By comparison the 2021 BMW X5 45e can achieve 12.2 L/100km (19.3 MPG) in a city and 10.6 L/100km (22.2 MPG) on a highway. But the story changes when the SUVs are being driven on electricity.
Range & Charging – The 2021 BMW X5 45e has an all-electric range of approximately 50 km (31 miles). The 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge is rated for 29 km (18 miles) of all-electric range. During my time with both vehicles, I managed to squeeze 52 km (33 miles) of all-electric driving out of the BMW and 32 km (20 miles) of electric driving out of the XC90. Of course these numbers will vary based on a lot of different variables. For example how warm or cold it is outside, whether or not you use climate control or how much regen braking you use. So the numbers could be different for you.
Because the battery in the Volvo is smaller, it takes less time to recharge… pun intended. From a level 2 charger, it can be done in approximately 3 hours. From a regular household wall socket, it’s around 7 hours. The BMW on the other hand takes a while longer. Approximately 5.5 hours from a level 2 charger and upwards of 15 hours from a household wall outlet.
One could make the argument that because the Volvo takes less time to charge, it has a better overall electric range. But the average commute from a suburb to a city center is around the 30 km mark, maybe less, so the BMW wouldn’t be completely empty of charge. So plug it into a level 2 charger while at work and it would most likely take just as long as it would to charge the XC90 from flat.
Transmission – Both luxury SUVs use 8-speed automatic transmissions. But while they have the same number of gears, they are very different. The transmission in the BMW X5 45e is pretty much perfect with the shifts being quick and nearly seamless. In hybrid mode, the transmission makes things easier for the electric motor when it’s the only thing that propels the X5. When the engine kicks in, it’s the same story. Switch the car into Sport mode and the shifts are more noticeable but the gear swaps are quick even if you decide to take over the controls.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the 8-speed in the XC90. The shifts are slow – relatively speaking – between the gears when you’re in Dynamic mode; Volvo’s version of Sport mode. When the SUV is in normal Hybrid mode, the shifts are smooth but still relatively slow compared to those of the X5.
Braking – Both SUVs use regenerative braking to not only recharge the batteries slightly but to also slow themselves down. In the BMW, it has a stronger regen braking mode by default. In other words, you can modulate the accelerator pedal more before needing to use the actual brake pedal. It’s not quite one pedal driving but you do slow down quite a bit. In the Volvo, it has less regen braking by default. However, you can switch the gear selector to “B” which enables a stronger regen braking mode just like in the X5.
As for the brakes themselves, the BMW has a bit of an advantage because this particular demo vehicle came equipped with the optional M-Sport brake calipers. The 4-piston fixed front calipers provide a firmer feeling brake pedal than the floating caliper design of the XC90. Despite the extra weight of the BMW, it felt better under braking than the Volvo.
Handling – The 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge has a non-traditional powertrain layout. The engine drives the front wheels while an electric motor powers the rear wheels with a battery pack situated where the driveshaft would normally be in the center tunnel. So when driving on electricity alone, the XC90 is technically a RWD SUV. While there is no physical connection between the front and rear wheels, the ECU will always maintain a small charge in the battery to ensure that the back wheels can always be powered if need be. For example when in Constant AWD mode. But even with all the power of the electric motor and gasoline engine powering the wheels, the Volvo doesn’t feel as engaging to drive as the BMW. It still feels very much like a FWD biased SUV. The steering feel is lacking a bit when compared to more sporty SUVs like the X5 or even the Polestar Engineered XC60. Then again, this XC90 wasn’t really meant to be a sporty SUV.
By Comparison, the BMW X5 45e was meant to offer more sporty handling characteristics. It has a more traditional powertrain layout with the electric motor sandwiched between the engine & transmission with a driveshaft connecting the front & back wheels. This is a RWD biased xDrive AWD system and it feels that way from behind the steering wheel. There’s a bit more feel at your fingertips and the steering weight is a bit heavier than that of the Volvo. Taking the BMW X5 45e on a twisty road is more engaging than the XC90. The SUV feels more planted and eager to go around corners than the Volvo. It still feels like how a BMW should feel on a winding road.
Ride Comfort – Both of these luxury SUV demo vehicles came equipped with air suspension. It is standard on the BMW but optional on the Volvo. Both also came equipped with optional 21-inch wheels. Between them, it’s really hard to differentiate the ride quality because both are fabulous. Potholes, manhole covers, bumps, ruts, you name it, both vehicles can absorb the road imperfections with ease. There is a difference though in how the air suspension can be operated by the driver. The BMW has controls for raising or lowering at any time that the driver chooses. The Volvo’s air ride, however, is tied to the drive mode. So to lower the suspension, you have to be in the Dynamic mode and in off-road mode if you want to raise it.
However, where these vehicles have a noticeable differentiation on comfort is with the seats. The BMW’s seats have lumbar, bolster, and thigh adjustments – just like the Volvo – but the XC90’s seats are a little bit more plush and better contoured to the human body. As well, this particular XC90 had the optional massaging front seats for added relaxation. The BMW is also available with massaging seats but they were not equipped on this demo vehicle. Overall though, for frequently long drives, it’s the Volvo that offers more comfortable seats.
Interior Space – In the front seats, both SUVs offer plenty of leg and head room for adults of any height. Both also offer a high driving position making it easier to see over smaller vehicles. In the second row, the BMW has more legroom on paper but in reality, they both feel very similar. The Mercedes-Benz GLE has more second row legroom than both if that is more important to you. But the Volvo has an ace up its sleeve because not only do all three positions slide and recline (the BMW’s don’t), the center seat doubles as a child booster seat. This is an optional extra. As for the third row, in the Volvo it’s very tight for an adult so those seats should be reserved for small kids only. In the BMW, you’re sharing a space with the groceries because the X5 45e doesn’t have a 3rd row option. This is due to the batteries taking up the space of the seats.
Speaking of batteries taking up space, the X5’s trunk is also a little bit smaller than the gasoline-only X5 variants. It’s about 22.5 L (0.8 cu-ft) less cargo space in the back of the 45e vs the 40i. Overall cargo capacity in the X5 45e is 937 L (33.1 cu-ft) with the seats up and 2,016 L (71.2 cu-ft) with the seats down. The Volvo however has more cargo capacity. Behind the 3rd row, it’s 447 L (15.8 cu-ft). Behind the 2nd row, it’s 1,183 L (41.8 cu-ft). Finally behind the 1st row, it’s 2,426 L (85.7 cu-ft). So overall the Volvo can carry more cargo than the X5.
Noise, Vibration, & Harshness – As both SUVs will most likely be driven mostly on electricity alone, majority of the noises that can be heard in the cabin are wind and tire related. Both are very good at isolating the cabin from the outside noises. At highway speeds, neither is louder than the other with just a tiny bit of road and wind noise intruding into the cabin. However, when the engines kick in, that’s when you can differentiate between the two. The Volvo’s engine is the louder of the two and it doesn’t sound particularly interesting. It sounds like a boring 4-cylinder and not at all what you’d expect from a luxury SUV. The BMW on the other hand is quieter and smoother than the XC90’s engine. It’s only when the straight 6 goes past 4,000 rpms do you start to hear it and even then, it sounds powerful & as how an engine should sound in a luxury SUV.
Odds and Ends
Gadgets – Both of these luxury SUVs can be similarly equipped. Features such as navigation, heated & ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, panoramic sunroof, air suspension, adaptive cruise control with lane centering, Apple CarPlay & Android Auto, soft leather upholstery, premium audio systems, head-up display, and so on can be equipped with both vehicles. There are a few differences, however, but most likely they are not going to be deal breakers for 99% of shoppers. Some of the differences include heated & chilled cup holders in the BMW, wireless CarPlay & Android Auto in the BMW, and an integrated child booster seat in the Volvo.
But the biggest difference between the two when it comes down to selecting options, is the price you’ll have to pay for said options. The 2021 BMW X5 45e xDrive starts at $83,500 CAD ($65,400 USD) while the 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge starts at $77,600 CAD ($63,450 USD) for the Expression trim. This Inscription starts at $88,050 CAD ($69,750 USD). As these demo vehicles are equipped, they cost the same at $101,000 CAD ($76,500 USD) – give or take a few hundred dollars. But fully loaded, the X5 can cost up to $108,000 CAD ($83,000 USD) while the Volvo can cost up to $102,500 CAD ($81,165 USD). Of course it’s worth noting that prices and package features differ between Canada & the United States.
If you’re thinking that you’ll be getting rebates to offset that cost a bit, think again if you’re in Canada. These are over the $55,000 CAD EV cap limit that is in place at the federal level. However, in the United States the BMW is eligible for $7,500 USD in rebates while the Volvo is eligible for $5,500 USD in rebates. Less for the Volvo because it has a smaller battery.
Interior Design – While the BMW’s interior may look a bit more cluttered due to the amount of buttons it has compared to the Volvo, the buttons do make it easier to control different features quickly. Most of the controls for the radio, climate, and so on are buried inside the infotainment system in the Volvo XC90. But because there are fewer buttons cluttering the dashboard and center console, the XC90’s interior looks elegant. Especially with the white leather, it looks as a 6-figure luxury SUV should look. By contrast, the BMW’s interior is a bit bland and dark with the black on black seats & headliner. But the X5 45e does stand out more at night with its ambient lighting system. The Volvo XC90 also has an ambient lighting system but it’s nowhere near as intriguing to look at.
Exterior Design – The stark contrast between the two SUVs extends to the outside as well with the Volvo XC90 looking more subtle and elegant whereas the BMW X5 looks more sporty & brutish. The wide rear tires on the BMW give it a planted look and as though it’s ready to tackle some twisty roads. Whereas the Volvo looks like an SUV you’d rather be driven around in rather than you driving it.
Warranty – Both SUVs have a 4 year / 80,000 km new vehicle & powertrain warranties. But where they differ is with the roadside assistance. The BMW X5 45e only has a 4 year / unlimited km roadside assistance whereas the Volvo XC90 comes with a 5 year / unlimited km roadside assistance.
So in the end, which SUV is better? As a family SUV, the 2021 Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge is the clear winner. It has 7-seats, better overall fuel economy, more interior space, and costs less. However, the 2021 BMW X5 45e should not be thrown out of the equation. While it is not available with 7 seats, it’s the better driving of the two, has a longer EV range, and with rebates in the U.S., it can be competitively priced against the Volvo. For those that still enjoy the excitement of driving, like myself, the X5 is a better bet.
Thank you to Volvo Canada for providing the XC90 T8 Recharge. www.VolvoCars.com/ca
Thank you to BMW Canada for providing the X5 45e. www.BMW.ca