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story.lead_photo.caption XC60 Inscription, in Pine Grey metallic

TALIHINA, Okla. — And there it was.

We'd spent much of the day seeking fall in the Kiamichi Mountains of southeast Oklahoma when we topped a small ridge and were confronted with a towering wall of shimmering crimsons, brilliant yellows, and a splash of crisp orange dappled into an evergreen mountainside.

The view topped on a day filled with exploring a small-town fall festival, climbing post-card mountain highways, and exploring hidden Forest Service roads all in the luxurious, powerful, and competent lap of a 2021 Volvo XC60 Recharge T8 inscription.

Starting around $43,000, the XC60 is Volvo's best-selling model. It competes in a crowded luxury small SUV segment and has some of the best characteristics of its major European rivals. It isolates the cabin like a Mercedes-Benz, has the athleticism of a BMW, nearly the punch of a Porsche, and the attention to detail of an Audi.

The Porsche Macan, starting around $63,000, is the consensus king of this hill, but the list of worthy competitors is long: Lexus RX, BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLC, Infiniti QX50.

The XC60 holds its own with all of these but doesn't outshine any. Prices, features, and ride-and-drive characteristics differ, but one would suspect a high degree of driver satisfaction with any of the top models in this class.

We were impressed with styling inside and out, a high grade of materials throughout, near-perfect fit-and-finish, a mind-boggling sound system, the attention paid to safety, the purposeful use of technology, and handling on- and off-road.

On the downside, we thought the engine occasionally sounded rough and the hybrid system, though effective, needs more development.

Price, value climb quickly

The base price of a XC Recharge Inscription is $61,000. Recharge means it has a plug-in adapter that will give it 19 miles on pure electric power. Inscription means a long list of luxury features, such as Nappa leather, wood inlays, seat extenders, heated and ventilated front seats, a Nav system to go with a 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen that operates like a tablet.

Our tester had $10,000 in desirable upgrades, including a $750 climate package with heated steering wheel and wiper blades, and a concert-hall quality Bowers and Wilkins sound system ($3,200).

A must-have is the advanced package ($1,900) that offers a head-up display, Volvo's Pilot Assist semiautonomous driving system, adaptive cruise control, and 360-degree cameras.

The 4-corner air suspension ($1,800) seems a smart option box to tick. An electronically controlled damping system replaces springs and shock absorbers. The air suspension keeps the car at a constant height and level, giving it that Mercedes feel. Above 75 mph, it lowers the car by 0.4 inches; above 112 it drops it another 0.4 inches.

When the car is turned off, the car lowers itself 1.6 inches, but only if all doors are shut. It raises itself back up the next time the engine is started.

At $71,340, our tester seemed pricey but if you've reached a point in life where you think you deserve some finer things, it's probably a good value.

Plug-in economy

The Recharge's 19-mile all-electric range isn't that great compared to the Chevrolet Volt's 53 miles, but the XC60 is larger, roomier, and better equipped. A long charger cable that can plug into either a 110- or 220-volt outlet stows under the rear floor.

The first four days we had the car we kept it plugged in at night. In about 100 miles of in-town errands and test-driving, the car averaged 106.7 mpg. Most of our fuel consumption came under hard acceleration, like merging into Interstate traffic, when the gas engine kicks in.

On our grand tour of the mountains, the hybrid system delivered 28.7 mpg, which is slightly better than the Audi Q5. A Toyota Highlander Hybrid, however, can average 36 mpg in combined driving. With the plug-in component factored in, the EPA estimates the average XC60 driver will get 57 mpg, but everybody's driving habits and routines differ.

Under all conditions, the XC60 hybrid system is smooth and powerful. It combines a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-L 4-cylinder engine with an 87-hp rear electric motor. A crankshaft-mounted 34 kW starter motor handles transitions between gas and electric power and coordinates with the turbo and supercharger to pour in an extra 111 lb.-ft. of torque. In all, the system cranks out 400 hp and 472 lb.-ft. of torque.

The ability to vector torque makes for a significant handling advantage. Drop into the apex of a winding mountain curve and one can feel the car apply power, usually to the front inside wheel, to pull itself through a curve.

The Bride found this knowledge comforting.

To make a long story short, if one needs to shoot past a clump of slow-moving traffic in a brief opening, the XC60 does it quickly and safely enough to avoid admonitions from Beautiful Blonde. Clearly, this car was built to run comfortably on the Autobahn.

Our only nit to pick is that under heavy load one can hear and feel that starter motor kicking in. That doesn't happen with the Lexus 450h, but then again, Toyota has been building electrics for more than two decades.

On the other hand, we found the system's driver modes exceptionally helpful. When we ducked out of traffic to explore a rocky service road, we found ourselves heading right down the mountain. Off-road mode activated hill descent control to keep the speed steady. I set power distribution front/rear at 50/50 and the electronic stability control to provide optimum traction.

Despite a cliff on her side, Blonde Bride felt perfectly safe, as did I.

Safety first

Volvo is known for safety and the company's emphasis on this is seen throughout the vehicle. The cabin is built with ultra-high-strength steel with extra-high strength steel cross members and engine cradles. The very front and edges are built of energy-absorbing steel and aluminum.

The list of active and passive safety technologies is long, from roll stability control, things to keep the vehicle in its lane, pedestrian and animal monitoring with auto braking, to intersection auto brake.

We enjoyed the Pilot Assist system, which keeps the vehicle at a safe following distance and in its lane. The driver is required to keep hands on the wheel, but it is a stress reliever and probably helps avoid accidents.

The head-up display, which shows speed limit, current speed, cruise control setting, and highway signs helps keep the eyes rested on focused on the road ahead.

Bottom line: What a privilege it is to drive such a well-sorted automobile.

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