2019 Volvo S60 T8 Review: Half-Baked Hybrid Shows Volvo Is Miles Behind Electric Car Leaders

Illusory mileage gains and glitchy hybrid system should send Volvo back to the drawing board.

Volvo

Before I beat the electric stuffing out of the plug-in hybrid version of Volvo’s new S60 sedan—as ineffective a hybrid as we’re likely to see in 2019—a disclaimer: I’ve greatly enjoyed every other S60 model that I’ve driven, along with its shapely cousin, the V60 wagon that I tested just weeks ago. 

The S60 and V60 have been a breath of fresh Scandinavian air in an often-formulaic luxury class. If real estate is all about location, the Volvos are all about design, design, design. The S60 and V60 are simply fine-looking cars, including interiors that come across like artfully staged studios in a Stockholm high-rise. The S60’s limber, confident handling has been another pleasant surprise. Among the exclusively-four-cylinder powertrains, the T6 model with standard all-wheel-drive should be your bull's-eye, with 316 horsepower from a 2.0-liter engine with the dual threats of a turbocharger and supercharger. That S60 T6 AWD starts from $41,295; if you want to go cheaper, prices start at $36,795 for the T5 with front-wheel-drive and a 250-hp turbo four. All good so far, all fairly priced for this level of style, luxury and Volvo safety.

My recent misfortune was to test the Volvo S60 that, on paper, might seem the pick of the litter: The plug-in hybrid T8 Twin Engine that brings a combined 400 gas and electric horsepower, or 415 horsepower for the rare “T8 Polestar Engineered” model that I drove. (Apparently, Volvo will vie with BMW for the title of Clunkiest Model Names). 

The T8 Twin Engine will start from $55,395 when it hits showrooms later this year—about $7,000 beyond a comparably stuffed T6 AWD model, and $14,000 above a base S60 T6. As for the Polestar Engineered version, Volvo is bringing just 23 copies to America for 2019, all pre-"sold" exclusively through its Care by Volvo subscription program at $1,100 per month. Whether buying or leasing, I’d recommend putting your money on any other S60: The T8 is one of those overpriced, neither-nor “performance” hybrids—think the old Lexus LS 600h—that don’t save fuel in any compelling way. Worse, Volvo’s Twin Engine hybrid system—also seen in the XC90 SUV’s electrified version—is an electric monkey wrench that fouls up what should be a luxury experience.

Volvo

On the plus side, the my T8 Polestar looked fantastic with its “Black Stone” paint and blacked-out trim, the starkness of which highlighted the yellow-orange, six-piston Brembo brake calipers and 20-inch forged wheels. (That maize-like caliper color also showed up on the seatbelts.) Sophisticated Öhlins dampers and a front strut brace further suggest a hybrid ass-kicker that might take on a Tesla Model 3, or conventional sport sedans like Mercedes-AMG's C43 or BMW’s ferocious new M340i. The teasing continues with satisfyingly firm steering, oodles of tire grip, and an eager attitude in curves, despite the additional 440-pound, 10 kilowatt-hour battery that runs along the Volvo’s center spine. Nor is one left wanting for power...though its on-time delivery was sometimes in question.

Volvo

Fed by both a supercharger and turbocharger, the Polestar’s 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine sends 328 horsepower to the front wheels (or 313 horses in the standard T8) through an eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission. Add an 87-hp boost to the rear axle from a pair of synchronous electric motors, and you’ve reached that combined gas-electric peak of 415 horsepower, or 15 less for the T8 Twin Engine. Volvo claims the Twin Engine will surge to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, or 4.3 seconds for the Polestar, only about 0.2-0.3 seconds behind the M340i or AMG C43. 

But this isn’t an AWD car in the conventional sense: There’s no driveline connection between the front and rear wheels. When you’re operating in all-electric mode, which happens all too rarely, this S60 is exclusively rear-driven. Volvo figures you can travel 21 miles on electricity alone after a full plug-in charge, while using energy at a rate of roughly 72 mpg-e. For the most part, the T8 operates as a front-drive hybrid, and occasionally overburdens those front wheels until the rears come to the rescue with a burst of electric boost. With the throttle pinned on the open road, the Volvo’s power delivery was often intoxicating. But the Volvo just as often got caught flat-footed in traffic, a push of the throttle answered by digital dithering until the dual power sources got together to generate real thrust. Ultimately, this S60 rarely felt like a 415-horsepower car. 

Volvo

A bigger issue is that—as in the hybrid XC90—the Volvo’s claimed fuel-efficiency numbers seem like something from Fantasyland, and not in a good way. The EPA hasn’t certified Volvo's self-reported numbers yet, but Volvo is figuring 27 mpg city, 34 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined. In fact, once the T8's electric miles were depleted—and this weighty, roughly-4,300-pound Volvo was forced to lean hard on its four-cylinder engine, which also highlighted the motor's mediocre sound and vibration dampening—my mileage plunged like a base jumper with a death wish. I struggled to keep the Volvo at even 25 mpg in overall driving, 5 mpg below the claimed efficiency. 

Doing my best Auntie Prius impression—coasting like mad, never topping 60 mph—I did manage to eke out 32 highway mpg on one run, still 2 mpg below the claimed figure. But however or wherever I drove it, the Volvo's mileage was a rank disappointment, no better than many non-hybrid luxury sedans I’ve tested. Versus BMW’s plug-in 3 Series and 5 Series sedans, forget it: The 330e isn’t as fast as the Volvo, with just 248 horses and a 5.3-second 0-60 mph run, but it's still plenty quick and delivers on its hybrid promise:.I saw as much as 39 highway mpg in the BMW, and 32 mpg combined, versus a respective 32 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined (on my best behavior) in the Volvo. 

Volvo

Worse, my T8 displayed the flat-out-worst brakes I’ve experienced in a hybrid car in some time, making it all but impossible to make smooth or precise stops. The tuning of the by-wire brake pedal is the obvious culprit, with a fatal lack of predictable, linear transitions from the regenerative stoppers connected to mechanical friction brakes. And whenever I stepped off the pedal to resume forward progress, the brakes groaned. This arthritic creak didn’t happen just a few times. It happened every time I stepped off the brake, whether the car was cold or warm, hundreds of times over a week of driving. City operation became a wearying chore. Add the Polestar’s flinty ride, and the experience wasn’t at all luxurious.

It’s a shame, too, because the S60 had its usual good things going for it: The front Contour seats (optional on most S60 models) are some of most beautiful, most cosseting around, wrapping front passengers in a firm-yet-comfy embrace.  The Volvo’s semi-autonomous driving systems, including hands-on steering assist in select conditions, are solid, though still behind the hands-off standards of Tesla's Autopilot and Cadillac’s SuperCruise. High points include City Safety, which can automatically brake for not only cars, pedestrians and bicycles, but large animals such as deer, horses or moose. (Whether in Maine or Gothenburg, Bullwinkle will thank you). 

I also loved the Volvo’s digital gauge cluster, including the hybrid’s nifty, dual-needle indicator that shows exactly how much power you can apply without triggering the gas engine. But the striking, tablet-style Sensus touchscreen remains one example of form over function: the screen's responses are fitful, and cumbersome menus require too much eyes-off-the-road time, especially for a safety-first brand like Volvo.

Volvo

If it seems I’m being hard on Volvo, there’s a reason. No automaker has done less to advance the cause of electrification, while taking more credit for supposed “leadership,” than Volvo. Millions of Americans—and seemingly hundreds of journalists—were taken in by Volvo’s cynical proclamation that it would become an “all-electric” manufacturer in the near future. Volvo must have known how its weasel-worded press release would be received by a half-gullible, half-complicit media that’s desperate for clickbait on electric vehicles: The layperson's takeaway was that Volvo would soon stop building fossil-fueled cars entirely and sell nothing but EVs. I know this because everyone from my neighbors to my family to random people in the street ask me about it whenever Volvo's name comes up, all in a tizzy over Volvo's progressive ideals. Whoops: What Volvo actually meant was that every all-new model in its future lineup will be electrified, offering either a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or EV version. (It has further pledged that 50 percent of its cars will be fully electric by 2025.) 

Essentially, it sounds like the same vague, easily dodged (or forgotten) promises that every other car company is making, all the way up to Ferrari. So let’s step back and consider who's really leading the electric race, here in 2019. Unlike Tesla, General Motors, BMW, Nissan, Ford, Toyota or Volkswagen, Volvo has yet to put a single electric car in showrooms, or to build a hybrid of any note. 

Listen, Volvo isn’t the first automaker to find it more profitable to talk about electrified cars than to actually build them. But after driving the S60 T8, I’ve got one reaction: Volvo, if this is the kind of "electric" car you have in mind, then it's time to stop talking and get back to the drawing board.

 Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com