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Driving a hybrid car for the first time does require one or two bits of advice – a crash course, if you will – and not least because starting the thing in hybrid mode means it makes no noise whatsoever and you might just be sitting there in the parking lot pressing Volvo XC90 T8 Recharge buttons for an hour while the vehicle waits for you to put it into gear.

It may be because now the car assumes you are a bit thick that it offers different driving modes, some of which require you to do considerably less as you sit behind the wheel. In One-Pedal Drive mode, where the electric battery is charged during braking, the car slows down the moment you take your foot off the accelerator. This makes you think that you now don’t really need to brake as you drive, which in turn doesn’t give the Volvo any greater confidence in your abilities.

Ease of operation

As you press the start button, the XC90 begins in hybrid mode by default, useful for general day-to-day short distances that won’t wear out the system’s battery. To get some gratifying engine noise, charge the hybrid battery and, well, go faster, you do need to go into the settings on the Google-powered Android system and press buttons – one of the very few features that don’t make Swedish efficiency a synonym for convenience.

After that, though, it’s back to relaxing and letting the car do the work. Just speak – “Google, how do I get to …?” – and Google Maps, via Google Assistant, will throw up a route on both the big digital touchscreen and directly in front of the driver, alongside the speedometer. Out on the open road, cruise control adds its influence to the steering as well as the automatic braking. It’s not legal to let go of the steering wheel (and you’ll get scolded by dashboard lights should you do so), but radar and cameras noting following distances and road markings give you a lot of help. Leaving the system on even when approaching sharp curves makes for slightly more adventurous escapades, as the car ahead of you vanishing around a hairpin tells the radar that there’s space to accelerate into when your heart rate tells you to slow right down. In other words, your brain still outranks the technology, smart as it is.

A space to stay

A test drive in the Cape Winelands can make any car feel like a good place to be, but for all of the XC90’s fantastic features – and do be careful when ordering, as the prices for extras add up quickly – this is just a car that’s a pleasure to drive and to be surrounded by. Cruising down the Franschhoek valley, the sunroof lets in more of the filtered light and allows a greater appreciation of the trees and, further back, the encircling mountains. Parked under the vines in a wine farm’s scenic parking lot, the Volvo looks the part, its standard ‘Vapour Grey’ colouring recalling the rich fabric of a suit one might wear while sipping a cabernet at an event in one of the nearby manor homes. Which makes a change from one of the usual interpretations of ‘grey’, which is ‘middling; unable to stand out’.

That is patently not the case for the XC90, which, for starters, takes up a solid chunk of space at more than 2.5 tonnes, will streak past just about any car on the road (including the Franschhoek Ferraris – they’re not built to take speed bumps and railway crossings in their stride) and can also leave the tar for a cross-country shortcut, with a mixture of power and cushioned grace. The hybrid technology helps to keep the petrol consumption of such a large unit down, whatever you’re using the car for that day, which helps to further contribute to a headspace in which needing to go somewhere in the XC90 never feels like a chore. Your lazy friend doesn’t want to meet you for coffee halfway between your homes? No matter – immerse yourself in the vehicle’s lavishness all the way there and make the blighter pay for the coffee. Park in a gorgeous nature spot, take a walk and come back to the blessed coolness of the climate control. Or perhaps just ask the GPS to surprise you and see what happens – you’ll be in good hands.

Text | Bruce Dennill Photography | Bruce Dennill and Supplied

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