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The second act in Volvo’s reinvention story has arrived in Australia. The 2017 Volvo S90 sedan is the follow up to the well-received XC90 SUV, and just the start of bigger things to come from the Swedish brand.
But launching a luxury SUV at a time when luxury SUV sales are growing is one thing. Challenging some very experienced players in the declining large luxury sedan space is quite another.
The final iteration of Volvo’s previous large sedan, the S80 was with us for ten years (ironically we passed one on the drive in the S90), and sort of fizzled away from showrooms as supply dried up. It wasn’t a dynamo for the brand, chalking up less than 120 sales over the past five years.
But things have changed, and the XC90 showed that the ‘new’ Volvo could be premium with the best of them - so maybe the new S90 would carry a bit more credibility?
In terms of visual presence, the S90 is a striking car, but also a fundamentally mature one.
The 23-vane chrome grille and ‘Thor’s Hammer’ headlights at the end of the long bonnet give off a bit of a Series-3 Jaguar XJ vibe. The chrome treatment around the air intakes that blend into the embossed ‘Inscription’ side strakes suit and help to highlight the premium nature of the S90.
Based on the same SPA (Scalable Product Architecture) platform as the XC90, at 4963mm, it is longer than the big SUV (4950mm), and in fact longer than most other cars in its class. The swooping, almost coupe-like lines make it lower than most others, too (at 1443mm). This helps make it look quite long, despite being almost three centimetres shorter between the wheels (2941mm) than a BMW 5-Series.
So then the rear end, which with a mix of flat-sides, angles, edges and lights, is not the best angle of the S90. The V O L V O lettering that tucks under the top of the boot lid feels almost awkward, almost unbalancing the wrap around LED tail lights.
It looks better on the road, though, and doesn’t really look like anything else – which is appealing in its own right.
The thirteen colours on offer (metallic attracting an $1900 premium) are all mature and conservative, but also stylish tones. The big sedan is more ‘what is that’ than ‘here I am’.
Initially, the high-specification, AWD Inscription models are on offer, with a choice of petrol or diesel power. These will be followed in November by the front-drive Momentum grade, with a different petrol and diesel option, and in early 2017 by the petrol-electric hybrid T8 R-Design.
We sampled both Inscription variants on the roads around suburban Melbourne and into the Yarra Valley.
Starting from $96,900 (before options and on-road costs) for the D5 diesel (add $2000 for the twin-charged petrol), the S90 comes loaded with luxury appointments and technical goodies.
The key, wrapped in leather that matches the car’s interior, immediately feels special and, as with the XC90, offers access to an interior that feels plucked from an industrial design textbook.
Naked wood, glass and and metal replace traditional plastics on all key touch points, making the S90’s cabin a wonderful place to spend time. The jewelled switches and highly tactile surfaces work particularly well when paired with the stitched leather dashboard ($2500 option).
Our T6 featured the textured metal trim where the D5 offered the dry, naked wood. I would opt for the timber each and every time as it makes the cabin feel particularly warm and special.
You get good storage with a key tray, large cup holders and a central arm-rest cubby, as well as the passenger glove box and neat storage net on the side of the transmission tunnel.
There are plenty of gadgets included with the S90, too - from a power operated boot, quad-zone climate control, keyless start (Inscription offers keyless entry as well), rear view camera (with 360-degree available as part of a $3000 technology pack), automatic parking, navigation and Volvo’s core suite of driver assistance and safety functions.
The best thing about the cabin, though, are the seats. Quite simply, no one does seats like Volvo.
Whether it is it the soft and supple leather, supportive bolstering, multi-way adjustment or a combination of everything that makes them work, these are some of the most comfortable seats I have ever experienced.
In the back, the comfort level is still high and the room is good, but the seat base isn’t as deep as it could be and the sloping roofline made it tight enough for the roof lining to rub on this six-foot-four writer's hair. The center seat is higher than the outer positions and the central transmission tunnel is quite pronounced, making the fifth spot not somewhere you would want to be for a long trip.
That said, the leather is wonderfully soft and the fold-down arm rest has cup holders as well as a storage cubby. There are temperature controls for each rear passenger, as well as B-pillar vents, but sadly no USB points – not even in the shared cubby. Given the modern and technical direction of the S90, this is something we think they should look to address.
There are two-stage integrated booster seats and ISOFIX points on each of the outboard seats too.
There is rich carpeting throughout and, on the move, the S90 is a near-silent runner, registering just 64dB at 100km/h on smooth touring roads.
Volvo’s main 9.0-inch portrait display gets easier and more intuitive to use each time, although it gets very smudgy, very quickly. The navigation pinch could be a little faster, and the traffic updates require your phone to be paired to work correctly, but they are our only real gripes with the system.
Apple Carplay is included with the optional technology pack, but Volvo includes support for Spotify and Pandora internet radio when your phone is paired (using its data connection) as standard. There is now a neat ‘record and send’ app that allows you to quickly dictate and send voice memos to yourself. Handy for me, at least!
The steering wheel offers easy to use D-pad buttons on each side, which control the usual volume and telephony functions, as well as activate the standard adaptive cruise control and Pilot Assist functions.
The adaptive cruise is a good system and works smoothly when other vehicles cut in front (Volvo's gonna Volvo...), so the S90 can adjust and maintain a gap. Pilot Assist takes it a step further and employs traffic queuing (power and brake) as well as a lane-keeping function that will allow about 20 seconds of semi-autonomous driving as an aid to keep you in the middle of your lane.
It is very similar to the system currently offered by Mercedes-Benz and works well, although you can feel the steering load up to attempt to keep the car in the center of the lane through a tighter bend, rather than employ a more natural movement that feels more fluid to the driver.
All the hardware is there to have the system improve over time, too, through service or over-the-air updates.
In concert with these, the S90 also has a run-off-road mitigation system that will attempt to automatically correct a car that is seen (by the car’s sensor array) to be incorrectly leaving the road. There is also the updated version of Volvo’s city-safe autonomous braking function that has been expanded from pedestrian and cyclist detect to also register large animals.
This system was designed for elk and moose, common in Volvo’s Swedish homeland, but works with other large, slow moving ‘cloven hoof’ animals like cattle, deer or camels. Kangaroos are not supported at this point, and bunyips are still a question mark. (Dropbears only come from above...)
The digital instrument display is clear and 'at a glance' information is helped by the inclusion of a head-up display (part of the technology pack) which also reads and displays the current speed limit signs.
Included on our test car was the optional ($4500) Bowers & Wilkins 1400-watt 18-speaker stereo system that we experienced in our long-term XC90. It sounds fantastic here, too, and is a worthy upgrade if listening to Paul on 3AW in a simulated Gothenburg Concert Hall is your thing.
Both cars were fitted with optional 20-inch eight-spoke diamond-cut alloy wheels ($2850) which filled the S90’s arches well and suit the smart design of the Volvo. These are as big as we would recommend, too (Volvo offer a couple of 21-inch options), or you may start impacting ride comfort.
Neither car was fitted with the optional ($3600) air suspension.
While this isn’t a traditionally price-driven segment, you may have noticed a number of options being mentioned throughout the review. To be clear, each car has about $20k worth of extras on-board, ranging from the $650 heated seats, $3000 sun roof and additional single-CD player for $160. These are arguably ‘personal’ inclusions, but, whatever the case, they push the price of the more expensive S90 T6 to around $120k plus on-roads.
Don’t be too shocked, though.
The last time Volvo offered the S90 nameplate, back in 1998, the top-specification ‘Royal’ variant rang in at $105,000 before options and on-road costs. Factor in some CPI increases - and the fact that Starship Troopers was nominated for an Oscar that year - and that works out to about $170k.
We said earlier that the ‘new’ Volvo was a capable premium player, and that now means they charge like one. You do get a big, luxurious car for your money, though. And now, rather than just being an alternative challenger, at least the S90 offers a point of difference.
But really, that $3k tech pack should be standard, so we'd suggest negotiating this at the point of purchase. Volvo learned from the XC90 that buyers expect their safety technology to be included as standard, and while that has has been addressed (MY17 XC90 models get this included too), some of this basic consumer technology should be rolled-in for a car at the S90's level.
Under the bonnet, which has an unnaturally high opening angle, you would be hard pressed to pick the petrol over the diesel. All you get is an uninspiring plastic engine cover and some tidy piping. Nothing to see here, move along.
We sampled the 235kW/400Nm twin-charged (turbo and super) 2-litre T6 first, and there’s no real sense of thumping muscle or sporting urgency with the S90 even in this, its current most powerful guise.
Power delivery is smooth and generally effortless, but even for country overtaking there is no ‘rush’ of power as you push the big Volvo to pick up speed. The supercharger helps with response at lower revs where the turbo is left to run alone above 3500rpm, which results in a ‘four that feels like a six’ rather than the hurried rush of a typical turbo-only four-cylinder. The noise, too, is a muted buzz rather than a more familiar ‘purr’ from a car of this calibre.
And yet, the T6 offers ‘enough’ for the car. It doesn’t feel particularly sporting or engaging, and is more of a quiet achiever. Highway touring is particularly easy, with no abrupt sensations of rapid acceleration under power, it does what it needs to and that is OK.
The 2.0-litre twin-turbo four-cylinder D5 engine offers 173kW and 480Nm, and debuts new PowerPulse technology to improve throttle response. With this, the engine draws air into a compressor which is then stored in a pressurised tank. Under throttle load, this compressed air is fed via the exhaust manifold to quickly spool up the turbo impeller.
This means there is essentially no lag or delay in response, allowing peak torque to be available from 1750 to 2250rpm.
On the road and particularly at low speeds, the response is hugely impressive. Here, the diesel is more enjoyable to drive than the more powerful petrol engine. Hold the car in gear and it feels almost spritely underfoot, but catch the car in a cruising gear and, despite all the whooshing air under the bonnet, there is still a delay as the eight-speed changes ratios to catch up.
You can feel the power band reach its limit when overtaking, again giving a feeling of a more relaxed cruiser than executive sports car.
The gearbox itself is an eight-speed automatic and shifting into gear is a firm, and deliberate movement. The leather and aluminium lever is somewhat resistant to move, which may be something that frees up over time.
There is no sports-automatic setting, although you can tip the gearbox into a manual mode which requires tapping up and down on the shifter to change gear, as there are no steering wheel-mounted paddles.
On our 100km-odd drive loop in each car, we saw fuel use around 11.7L/100km in the petrol and 7.5L/100km in the diesel.
All Inscription models feature a front-biased all-wheel drive system that can apply 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels if grip levels decrease. Under standing-start acceleration, the car will always push torque to the rear wheels to help with traction off the line.
Ride on both cars was comfortable and communicative without being overly intrusive to the driving experience. Even without air, the car is tuned for a softer response, and while you do feel bigger bumps and lumps through the wheel, it is more of a muted ‘thump’ than a harsh ‘crash’, even on the bigger than standard wheels.
Turn-in again feels more relaxed than sporty, the car giving a hint of its almost two-tonne bulk. It isn’t a car that begs to be driven on the edge and, as a driver, you don’t really want to.
As a relaxed, luxurious tourer, though, the S90 ticks the box.
Ownership costs are in sync with the segment, with a three-year service and maintenance plan costing $2930, or under $1000 per year. Volvo offer this program up to five years on all current models.
While the sedan has a lot of style and appeal, and certainly brings something different to the table, it still feels best suited to an older, more conservative buyer.
We think it will take the arrival of the arguably more stylish V90 Estate to give the big Volvo the push it needs to break new ground in wooing younger buyers, who want style and practicality without the stigma of an SUV.
Either way, the 2017 Volvo S90 Inscription is a solid follow-up to the excellent XC90 and leaves us eager to see what the Swedish brand next has in store.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.