What is it?
The Volvo S90 is the Swedish brand’s range-topping premium large saloon.
Stylish looks, extensive tech, strong safety package.
The Volvo S90 offers the quality the targeted clientele expects and technology that is every bit as good and in some areas more advanced than executive rivals, and wraps it in a package that is as visually pleasing as Volvos never used to be.
This car is Volvo’s most significant challenge yet to the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Volvo is on the up – and leading the Swedish brand’s global charge are its range-topping 90 series models launched in 2016.
In 2017 Volvo reported global sales increases of more than 22% – in Europe the rise was almost 12%, even considering the confidence-knocking Brexit saga. Such figures are clear evidence of the investment that has gone into the brand since Volvo was bought from Ford by Chinese giant Geely in 2010.
No cars more keenly demonstrate this progress than the 90 Series. The XC90 SUV, S90 saloon and V90 estate are pretty exclusive – pitched as range-topping executive cars, they are targeted at putting what hasn’t been previously been considered a premium brand directly against the very best from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. They may be the most exclusive Volvos, but the XC90 is the brand’s second best-selling car after the XC60, and the S90 only just behind in third.
When The Car Expert tested the S90 on its launch in 2016, we described it as an example of Volvo’s most concerted effort yet at breaking into the premium club, and suggested that the Germans should be worried. Having now spent a week with an S90 putting it through a full road test, we are ever more convinced that this is indeed a true premium contender.
For a start, it looks the part. Volvos used to have presence, but not a positive one – they were generally brick-like and bulky. The S90 is big, yes – distinctly longer and wider than the S80 it replaced. but it is also stylish with a purposeful front end and broad sweeping flanks that offer a welcome change from the over-familiar profiles of its numerous German rivals.
Buying and owning a Volvo S90
The S90 is built on the same ‘Scaleable Product Architecture’ platform as its XC90 SUV sister, and shares the same expansive wheelbase – as well as much of the mechanics. These include the Drive-E powertrains, which have revolutionised Volvo product – the much more compact engines, only of four cylinders and offered in petrol, diesel and hybrid form, allow significant weight saving alongside efficiency gains. So the S90’s larger dimensions do not make it a heavyweight.
Launching just before the UK’s anti-diesel rhetoric got into its stride, the S90 was initially offered only with a pair of diesel engines, the D4 of 190hp and the D5 of 235hp – reflecting its predicted clientele of almost entirely fleet buyers.
Not surprisingly, in November 2017 the range was extended by a 190hp T4 petrol engine, while the impressive T8 plug-in hybrid version is also available – at an eye-watering £57,705. That is almost £20,000 more the £38,760 of our version. Diesel remains a viable decision for many fleet buyers and we are driving the powertrain many will get to choose, the D4 unit with 190hp, an eight-speed auto gearbox, front-wheel drive transmission and plus 60mpg fuel economy.
Since we went to the launch, however, the two trim levels of Momentum and Inscription have been joined by another. Our car is to the mid-range R-Design trim, described as the sporty variant – it adds a changed front-end design with fog lights integrated to the spoiler, bespoke alloy wheels and interior detailing, but more importantly a sports chassis with a promise of improved road holding.
Volvo’s safety credentials have never been in question of course, and the S90’s five-star Euro NCAP rating is no surprise. The car bristles with safety tech, topped by the Pilot Assist feature. Standard on every 90 model, this takes adaptive cruise control to a new level and a long way towards autonomous driving.
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. They are expected to keep their hands loosely on the steering wheel while the system is active, and it works very well – the way it gently steered us around the curve of the link road between the M42 and M5 motorways south of Birmingham was impressive, if a little unnerving.
Inside the Volvo S90
On slipping inside the S90 one is firstly impressed by the space, whether in front, back or the 500-litre boot – curiously the S90 actually measures up slightly longer than its V90 estate sister. Then there is the sheer quality of one’s surroundings.
R-Design adds sports seats and black headlining, and while to a much darker theme, the interior is every bit as high class as the Momentum and Inscription trims we experienced on the launch. The leather is of very high quality, the fit of everything equally so.
One of the biggest revolutions to Volvo dash designs, in fact all dash designs arrived with the 90 models, the driver’s controls totally redesigned and based primarily around a vertical central touchscreen infotainment system. It soon becomes second nature and easy to use, and in navigation mode particularly falls into the area of “Why didn’t someone do this ages ago?”
This system has neatly removed much of the clutter that Volvo centre consoles, in particular, used to suffer from, and what separate controls remain are sensibly placed and fall naturally to hand. The audio is impressive too, especially if one chooses the optional Bowers & Wilkins system, British made and boasting a mere 18 speakers.
Driving the Volvo S90
Any builder of large premium cars faces a huge problem when it comes to the chassis – the BMW 5 Series. For years, the challenger from Bavaria has been regarded as the benchmark for handling prowess – its combination of efficient power plants and impeccably-tuned chassis makes that car the one model that most lives up to BMW’s ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ tag.
The S90 represents Volvo’s most concerted effort yet to challenge that dominance, and the recipe is – on paper – impressive. The car combines a double-wishbone front suspension with a high-tech new design on the rear axle, conventional coil springs making way for a transverse leaf spring formed from composite. Its compact enough to keep the boot big, while offering very fine suspension control.
So, on the road the S90 is very accomplished indeed – though even in R-Design mode, with its stiffer springs and reworked dampers, it is still not quite on the level of the BMW, a car that you feel is focused firmly on the driver first.
Volvo claims that this approach is deliberate, allowing all occupants of the S90 to travel in ‘relaxed confidence’ and yes, the S90 definitely offers that, closing up hundreds of motorway miles with barely a murmur.
The interior is hushed, the gear shifts smooth and the engine never intruding, yet this little four-cylinder unit still provides all the purposeful yet refined acceleration one needs. It’s not as potent as the D5 of course, but it doesn’t really need to be – just over eight seconds to 62mph is not exactly pedestrian. Only at idle, particularly when first starting, does the Drive-E diesel sound less refined than its German competition, and then by only a whisker.
That boost to Volvo sales offered by the S90 is less apparent in the UK. The really big sales for the car are coming from China and the US, where saloons are far more popular than over here.
In Britain, saloons only really register when one gets into the premium market. And previously, an owner who considered it quite normal to drive a booted BMW, Audi or Mercedes would not consider a Volvo as a potential rival. Now they definitely should.
The Volvo S90 offers the quality the targeted clientele expects, technology that is every bit as good as – and in some cases more advanced than – executive rivals, and wraps it up in a package that is as visually pleasing as Volvos never used to be. This is a true premium contender.