The Volvo S90 couldn’t be more proudly Swedish if it delivered you a tray of lingonberries from the the back of an Elk.
The Volvo S90 is as much a statement of intent as it is a car, a proper luxury passenger offering designed to change widely-held perceptions.
The Swedish company’s passenger sedan shoots boldly for luxury car heartland, with rivals such as the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class firmly in its sights. A Scandinavian twist on a familiar Teutonic formula.
Volvo says people are happy to accept it as a genuine luxury SUV contender with the new XC90, but admits it has its work cut out in the passenger car market. The S90 sedan and stunning V90 wagon are tasked with rectifying this situation, snabbt.
We travelled to Spain this week for the European first-drive program, ahead of the S90’s Australian launch in September this year (for the flagship T6 and D5 Inscriptions) and October (T5 and D4 Momentums). How do they stack up on first impressions?
Australia will initially get the S90 with two petrol engines and two diesels, in front- and all-wheel drive configurations, all with eight-speed automatic transmissions. The as-yet unpriced 304kW/640Nm T8 petrol-electric PHEV with about 50km of pure EV range is due early in 2017.
As you can read in the pricing and specification story for the S90, Volvo is confident enough in its product to price it against the Germans, and the Jaguar XF. Pricing for the launch range is a tick below $80,000 before on-roads, topping out at just shy of $100k.
But considering the options you can purchase, there are going to be plenty commanding a RRP in excess of $110k. Are people ready to pay that much for a Volvo sedan? Will your neighbours really be impressed? Perception doesn’t always reflect reality.
The S90 and its V90 wagon sibling have a solid foundation. They’re based on the same Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) as the seven-seater XC90, using the same chassis, engines and core technologies, plus they premiere a few others, and sport similar design cues.
It’s the area of design that grabs you first. The Volvo S90 couldn’t be more proudly Swedish if it delivered you a tray of lingonberries from the back of an elk — it even has little blue and yellow flags on its sumptuous seats.
The clean lines, concave grille (reminiscent of the P1800 for you nerds out there), Thor’s Hammer headlights and low, wide proportions offset by the small front overhang give it real road presence. Some find the tail design a little fussy, and Volvo admits it has polarised.
All that said, it’s the V90 wagon due early in 2017 that is the real stunner here.
The cabin follows the standard set by the XC90. The (easily smudged) 12.3-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen with various horizontal tiles and generally intuitive sub-menus dominates the fascia, and is supplemented by the TFT instruments that can mirror functions such as the satellite navigation in the instrument binnacle.
The lovely steering wheel, leather-lined door trims, sumptuous seats (with an optional massaging function so good you want to leave it a tip), deep-pile carpets and classical walnut trims are a point of difference. The black leather option is going to age better, though.
Much like the XC90, it’s hard to find fault with either the ambience or quality, with good materials well screwed or stitched together. Is it clinically brilliant like an Audi? Not quite. But as my colleague and I discussed, it’s in the echelons of Mercedes-Benz.
The big problem, though, is equipment. All versions will get niceties such as four-zone climate control, keyless start, an electric boot and leather seats, while the Inscription gets extras such as keyless entry, ambient cabin lighting and full Nappa leather upholstery.
But DAB+ digital radio, a 360-degree camera, head-up display (not super friendly to polarised sunglasses, as usual) and Apple CarPlay are all options, as part of the $3000 Technology Pack. Ditto the higher-end Bowers and Wilkins sound system. For a challenger brand asking $80k-plus, this sort of stuff should be standard.
To the rear. This car is actually longer than the XC90 seven-seater, though a little shorter in the wheelbase. This makes it more or less dimensionally on a par with the 5 Series and A6, though it’s shorter in the wheelbase than the former.
No issue with the legroom and headroom though, which is sufficient for someone up to two-metres tall — like me, or what appears to be the average Swede.
The boot is a competitive 500 litres, and has a wide opening thanks to clever packing of the rear suspension, though the upwards-sloping floor and a few poor material finishes are small black marks. Australian versions will get a space-saving temporary spare wheel under the floor. Of course, those wanting to carry loads should look to the V90 wagon.
We drove two versions of the car this week — the flagship $96,900 AWD D5 diesel and $98,900 AWD T6 petrol, which will arrive a month before the lower-power $82,400 FWD D4 diesel and $79,900 FWD T5 petrol, and a few months before the circa-$120k T8 PHEV.
As part of its future plan, Volvo’s Drive-E powertrain family will comprise engines with no more than four cylinders and no displacements greater than 2.0 litres, with lots of forced induction. Times are changing (look at F1), but can Volvo convince Australians that they don’t need a six-cylinder or V8? Tough ask…
The T6 is powered by a turbocharged and supercharged engine, with the latter operating at lower engine speeds. Outputs of 235kW at 5700rpm and 400Nm between 2200 and 5400 are nothing to be sneezed at, nor is the 0-100km/h sprint time of 5.9 seconds and claimed combined-cycle fuel use of just 7.2L/100km — ambitious.
The engine has sufficient punch to hustle the almost two-tonne sedan along effortlessly enough, and acceleration is more than brisk. It also has a slightly raspy hot-hatch-like exhaust note, though it lacks the guttural presence of a six or eight.
On the diesel front, the 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel engine makes 173kW/480Nm (the latter from just 1750rpm). It’s a little clattery from inside and out, but in typical fashion offers effortless torque delivery. At this price level, it’s sufficient but not spectacular.
Incidentally, the D5 has a new Volvo proprietary system called PowerPulse, in which a compressor pushes extra pressure into the exhaust side of the turbo fan to spin up the turbocharger to 130,000rpm more quickly, minimising lag. It works, feeling a little more responsive off the line than the D5 XC90 derivative (which will get PowerPulse soon).
Incidentally, entry-grade T5 Momentum and D4 Momentum models get, respectively, 187kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol and 140kW/400Nm twin-turbocharged diesel engines. We’ll have to wait to give you our thoughts there.
The eight-speed automatic linked to all versions is generally unflappable, though in its sports mode when fitted to the T6 holds onto gears for a little too long, even for an aggressive setup. That’s the downside of not fitting paddle-shifters.
Dynamically, Volvo wants the S90 to embody “relaxed confidence”. Translation, focused on comfort over BMW-style dynamism.
It fits the bill with its direct though feel-free steering that goes from light in Comfort to a little too resistant in Sport mode, a sharp nose particularly in the T6, and decent handling that has a little body roll — the trade-off for soft suspension with optional rear-only air ‘springs’ — but no overt pitch.
The front suspension comprises double wishbones, but the rear suspension has an interesting configuration. It’s a Corvette-style (or Volvo 960-style) integral axle with carbon-fibre transverse leaf spring, hydraulic shocks and a stabiliser bar, all of which assists packaging.
We didn’t test any cars without the optional rear air springs, nor did we drive the stiffer and lower S90 R-Sport. Based on our time in the XC90 locally, we’d speculated neither would be as comfortable.
Point the S90 at a sequence of corners, and you’ll find it composed, competent and comfortable, though not hugely engaging. Which feels about right. Our test roads would not have called upon the (Haldex-style) AWD system to send any torque rearwards, but on low-traction surfaces it can direct up to 50 per cent the rear axle.
Road noise and general NVH (bar the slight diesel clatter) levels are generally low, particularly with the optional double window glazing. 130km/h-plus speeds are dispatched in quietude. There's little roar from the Pirelli tyres, even on 19-inch wheels.
Being a Volvo, there’s a lot of standard safety equipment, led by autonomous low-speed braking that also recognises pedestrians, cyclists and now large animals (not kangaroos yet), blind-spot monitoring, park assist and the company’s Pilot Assist program.
This latter system combines the excellent and proactive latest-gen adaptive cruise control that can re-start the car moving in traffic, with steering and lane assist systems, at up to 130km/h, giving you partial vehicle autonomy a bit like a Tesla. It works, though requires you to rest a hand on the wheel regularly, which is often more mentally taxing than just driving.
You suspect Volvo is making this technology at the moment more for image than application, given most markets mandates that it be a supplementary system only. We’d also note that the new E-Class is loaded with very advanced partial vehicle autonomy too.
So there’s our first drive of the new S90. Will Australians part with 5 Series or E-Class money for a Volvo? Doubtful. But as a brand-builder and perception-changer, the proudly different Swedish luxury car stacks up pretty well.