What is it? The Volvo S90 and V90 are range-topping large saloon and estate models.
Key features: Stylish looks, extensive technology.
Our View: The S90 and V90 models complete a range-topping large trio for Volvo to take on the Germans
Type of review: First drive
Traditionally, Volvo has had an image problem. The Swedish brand sits comfortably above the mainstream, but really wants to be considered a viable alternative to the upmarket German behemoths of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Yet while customers have always associated Volvo with large estate cars, a staple of the premium market, the Swedish ones were always seen as boxy vehicles without the cachet of their German rivals.
The Volvo V90, and its sister the saloon S90, aim to change all that. According to Stefan Sällqvist, senior product manager at Volvo’s Gothenburg design team, these are the cars that most obviously illustrate the reinvention of the brand, a programme that dates back to 2010 when the company was bought by Chinese manufacturer Geely from Ford.
We’re told that the Volvo design team really did start with a clean sheet of paper, and it shows. To challenge the Germans, the cars needed handling prowess, loads of technology, a sense of quality, but also a design to attract.
While the tech in particular has been taking all the headlines, Sällqvist argues that the design was the most important priority in the creation of these cars. The new look was first seen on the Volvo Concept Coupe and Estate unveiled at the 2013 Frankfurt and 2014 Geneva shows. In production form it has resulted in a purposeful looking profile whether in saloon or estate, good enough for a panel of global car designers to name the Volvo S90 as their Production Car Design of the Year in 2015 – high praise indeed.
The cars certainly have presence – from their smooth exterior proportions, uncluttered by too many lines and creases, to the details, most notably the ‘Thor’s hammer’ headlight signatures and the signature concave grille in chrome or gloss black depending on model. One could quibble at the slightly unnecessary chrome door mouldings on Inscription models, and personally we found the large crease in the saloon’s boot slightly jarring, but overall it’s an impressive visual effect.
Technically, much about the S90 and V90 is familiar – the two complete a range-topping trio for Volvo alongside the XC90 SUV, a car that launched in 2015 and which has been very well received.
The three are built on Volvo’s new SPA (Scaleable Product Architecture) platform, a versatile unit in which the only fixed measurement is between the front axle and the dashboard. The S90 and V90 share a generous 2941mm wheelbase, and curiously the saloon is very slightly longer than the estate, at 4963 to 4936mm.
Slip inside, and one is seriously impressed, firstly at the quality of fit and finish. The leather upholstery, the surfacing, especially the open-pore wood, is all to the highest standard.
The driver’s surroundings have clearly been thought through very carefully indeed. Everything comes naturally to hand, the controls are intuitive, and the nine-inch touchscreen Sensus Connect and Navigation system in the centre console, with its portrait format, must be the most significant development in infotainment for some time.
The car is roomy too, both in front and back, the saloon also offering a 500-litre boot, while the estate has 723 litres.
Overall the interior offers everything the German opposition can, including audio entertainment – if money allows, go for the optional Bowers & Wilkins system. British made, it produces a very fine sound indeed through 18 speakers.
Many recent headlines concerning Volvo have surrounded the brand’s bold decision to only use smaller capacity engines of four cylinders or less – three-cylinder versions of the new Drive-E range are due before long. The S90 and V90 are on sale with two petrol and two diesel versions of the Drive-E, but only the two 2-litre diesels will be available to UK buyers.
The D4 offers 190hp alongside 400Nm of torque, the D5 235hp and 480Nm, both matched to an eight-speed auto gearbox with a manual shift option and the D5 also having an all-wheel-drive transmission.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the D5 is the more impressive powerplant. It has noticeably more punch than the D4 while cruising with just as much plentiful refinement.
A notable extra on the D5, however, is PowerPulse, a compressor that injects compressed air into the turbo manifold, spooling it up and cutting out turbo lag. As a result the D5 is very quick to get going from a standstill, leaping away from traffic lights with alacrity.
More powertrain options are to come next year, in the form of a plug-in hybrid T8 TwinEngine model. Volvo is big into electrification, the SPA platform was designed specifically for such a drivetrain, and the XC90 plug-in hybrid is already available, taking a bigger slice of sales than expected.
In terms of chassis are Volvo’s 90 models as accomplished as that benchmark the BMW 5 Series? Well no, not quite. The recipe is good, a double-wishbone front suspension married to a clever rear axle that dumps conventional coil springs in favour of a transverse leaf spring made from composite. A format that only Corvette also currently uses, it offers fine control while also not intruding into the boot space.
All of which results in the car producing an accomplished handling and ride performance, while not feeling as overtly driver-focused as say the BMW. In fairness, Volvo says it was built this way. “We are not going after the German brands in terms of driving dynamics,” Sällqvist says. “We want people in our cars to travel in relaxed confidence.”
Self-levelling air suspension is an option, and perhaps the forthcoming R-Design trim, which will have stiffer springs and reworked dampers, will offer more overtly sporty handling.
Volvo’s major push is of course on safety technology – the brand is putting major investment to develop self-driving autonomous cars, and the benefits of some of that research is most pertinently seen in the Pilot Assist feature, that comes as standard on every 90 model.
An advance on adaptive cruise control, Pilot Assist now adds small steering movements to keep the car in the centre of a motorway lane while on the move, as well as allowing stop-start progress in a queue without input from the driver.
It’s unnerving at first, but effective, while Volvo insists that it does not create a self-driving car – the driver is expected to keep their hands on the steering wheel while the system is active. And all the 90 models also boast another new safety system which uses steering inputs, preventing one from running off the side of the road.
There are two current trim levels, Momentum and the top-level Inscription – the R-Design models on sale next year will fit between the two. Prices for the S90 start from £32,500, the V90 costing £2,000 more, and while that might sound pricey, even entry-level Momentum versions offer a long standard equipment list, including such delights as the Sensus infotainment system, Pilot Assist, LED headlights and leather surfacing on the upholstery.
Overall these two cars are Volvo’s most concerted effort yet at breaking into the premium club. If the S90 and V90 are typical of future Volvo product, the Germans should be worried…
Volvo S90 and V90 – key specification
Models Tested: Volvo S90 D4 Momentum, Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD Inscription
On Sale: September 2016
Range price: S90 £32,500-£42,000, V90 £34,500-£44,000
Insurance groups: TBA.
Engines: 2.0 diesel x 2.
Power (hp): 190, 235.
Torque (Nm): 400, 480.
0-62mph (sec): S90 8.2, 7.0. V90 8.5, 7.2.
Top speed (mph): 140, 145.
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): S90 64.2, 58.9. V90 62.8, 57.6.
CO2 emissions (g/km): S90 116, 127. V90119, 129.
Key rivals: Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class.
Test Date: September 2016.