S90, V90: When sensible can be smart

Large cars aren’t so fashionable any more, right? Volvo’s biggest all-wheel-drive passenger product continues to demonstrate that where there’s a will, there’s a way.


For: Impressive technology, hugely comfortable, brilliant wagon.

Against: It’s four-cylinder or nothing.

AS big conventional cars with big-hearted conventional engines, the V90 and its S90 sedan counterpart on test here might seem more representative of Volvo of the past than of its future.

First of all, they appear to be orthodox large executive cars. And with the market having becoming so comprehensively SUV-centric, who wants those any more?

Also, you’ll be told they have orthodox fossil-fuelled powertrains; admittedly just 2.0-litre four-cylinders, which Volvo contends is enough in this modern world, despite many rivals still showing preference for six- and eight-cylinder mills.

But, anyway, nice as they are to sit behind, and as new to the scene as this Twin/PowerPulse technology is (launching just two years ago), aren’t the D5 turbodiesel and T6 set to dropped within two years, when Volvo goes electric?

Let’s sort that one out now. Fact is, the brand intent for every car it launches from 2019 to have an electric motor doesn’t mean it’s a Scandinavian Tesla from thereon.

Yes, Volvo intends to have five full-blown EVs out between 2019 and 2021. And, yes, every car it makes from 24 months from now will have at least a degree of electric assistance. But the latter will be plug-in hybrids and 48 Volt mild hybrids; systems that still use engines requiring fuel.

Regardless of all this, it is still interesting that Volvo has engineered a new series of the 90-series sedan and station wagon, given that these days most luxury car buyers are putting their money on SUVs.

That swing toward tall luxury fare has certainly benefited Volvo. The brand agrees that the XC90 and incoming XC60 that technology-share intensively – same powertrains, same Scalable Product Architecture, same advanced safety systems, much the same interiors - with today’s test subjects are together expected to account for more than 60 percent of all its global volume along. The remaining share will divvy between around half a dozen other products so conceivably they’re not expecting huge sales counts from these two.

Still, you can sense Volvo’s reluctance to let the S90 and V90 slide into history. Before the SUV upsurge, this brand was very much a big car specialist, with obvious expertise in large station wagons with the emphasis very much on comfort, safety and practicality above all else. 

And, anyway, the V90 in the elevated all-paw Cross Country format that comes here is basically the SUV you buy when you don’t want to buy an SUV.

The XC formula dates back 20 years and it’s incredible to think that more brands don’t follow suit. As is, Volvo and Subaru stand out as the specialists in this field. I have to admit that, as an ardent Outback owner, I was always going to have a soft spot for the even more swish Swedish equivalent.

One thing I admire about the XC station wagons is that, while they have progressively become ever more stylish and sophisticated, the fundamentals have never altered. For all the frills, these cars are foremost proposed as safe, hugely practical and massively hardy machines that could, if necessarily, be driven all the way to the North Pole. Actually, given that the Arctic is within Volvo’s home sales territory, they probably are.

Even though it has many of the same ingredients as the $106,900 wagon model, the S90 is not quite the same thing.

A $99,000 opportunity that in this instance, was representing in $114,490 form having been decked out with quite a few options (head up display, heated front seats, extra leather on the dash and doors, rear air suspension and a premium sound upgrade for the Bowers and Wilkins stereo) the sedan also runs in all-wheel-drive, but has less generous ground clearance and none of the other off-roading enhancements that come with the V-machine.

It hasn’t the same purpose, being intended to achieve a cleaner life, working to tempt hitherto loyal Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and perhaps Lexus GS customers.

That in itself is a big job, but one that is especially challenging in New Zealand, because the exec sedan sector has been hard hit by the abdication to SUV fare. With that in mind, Volvo NZ assuredly will see far less opportunity for the S90 than it perceives exists for the V90 XC, but while the rivals are still striving to play the game, then so must it.

As much as these are different cars in regard to role play, they are very much sister machines in styling, starting with the LED headlights incorporating the 'Thor's Hammer' design that has become the company's signature feature and presents such a unique on-road look. Also enhancing the appearance are the gloss black front grille with chrome inserts and some subtle chrome detailing on the sills and door handles. The standard rim size is 18 inches, but our cars rode on cost-extra 20s and looked all the smarter for it.

Proportionally, modern Volvos have a lot of presence; the brand has nailed a look that suggests its fare has been hewn from one massive billet of metal. Yet thanks to a blend of sharp, strong shoulder lines and softer more elegant C-pillars, the test cars lend a leaner appearance than the XC90.

Gorgeous interior quality is a common strength of all modern Volvos; you spend a lot of time touching surfaces and contemplating the sheer quality of it all.

Ostensibly you’re seeing the same cabin the XC90 debuted in 2015, again with a handful of textured metal controls for a clutter-free layout and design focus on the central nine-inch touchscreen that’s the access point to almost all of the control and infotainment functions in the car. It is as impressive to use as it is to look at; so too the dashboard, a 12.3-inch fully digital display which tailors to taste.

The 90-series cars have LED headlights with Active High Beam, 18-inch wheels, Rear Park Assist and Keyless Start, but the national distributor has decided only to take flagship Inscription fittings, which raises the luxury further. Nappa soft leather upholstery, electrically adjustable seats for the driver and passenger and ambient lighting throughout the cabin from the cupholders to the rear footwell are sure to impress.

Inscription models are totally loaded with tech, too, from all the expected passive and active safety aides, including an advanced version of Volvo's City Safe autonomous braking and lane keeping. My thoughts about these probably giving greatest benefit on multi-lane roads were disproved when, on a very wet late afternoon, an out of control oncoming car slid directly across the road right ahead of the wagon. The V90 system’s reactivity was astounding; I cannot say for sure if it saved my life but it certainly avoided a collision.

These models also adopt Volvo's Pilot Assist, a very advanced adaptive cruise control function that assists with steering at speeds up to 130kmh on motorways. It stops short of enabling autonomous driving, but it is one of the most impressive systems on the market today.

In respect to cabin ambience, the Volvo is quite simply up there with the very best. It is almost impossible to find any areas that look or feel cheap.

Charcoal leather and fabric was common to both and while they are not as effective as lighter materials in making the interior stand out, as well as making it feel more spacious, the darker hues are undoubtedly hardier.

The room in the rear benefits from the especially slender design of the front seats. The seat backs are almost race car thin, but don’t be put off; they offer a very high degree of comfort and support. A wide transmission tunnel does make life less comfortable for whoever is sitting in the middle rear seat, as in most cars in the segment.

So far, so similar for sedan and wagon. From thereon, though, it’s patently different. While the S90 makes a fair fist with a 500-litre boot, it loses points for having a slightly tight boot aperture for its class.

It won’t surprise that the wagon is massively better, but it might raise eyebrows to learn that it is perhaps not best in class: Just 60 litres additional seats up capacity than the sedan offers.

But, fact is, Volvo wagons are no longer boxes on wheels any more. The V90’s shape is very much a design-led proposition and while that doesn’t fatally compromise that famous load-swallowing capability, it’s fair to say that swallowing fridges and wardrobe is no longer the car’s sole focus.

Still, while the maximum 1526 litres’ load space is not as good as you get from several German wagons, it is still a massive, largely square space and well-organised. The load lip is nigh-on non-existent and the rear seats fold flat, so sliding large, heavy objects in and out should be easy. There are plenty of practical touches, with hooks, storage nets and an electric tailgate.

Also, it continues to look extra big; even longer than its nearly five metre length would suggest. Some of this is visual deception, from the wagon being such an exercise in minimalist design where less is more. All the same, it’s the one wagon I’ve driven this year whose length raised professional interest from a family friend. His job? Undertaker.

The one question about a car this big is, inevitably, why does it run with such a small engine? As much as downsizing is the done thing these days, it’s still a brave step to put complete faith in a single engine size of modest capacity. Argument showing that a 2.0-litre four is just as good, if not better, than powerplants of greater capacity and with more cylinders requires patience and good humour. Probably best not to mention it ….

Anyway, the key point is efficiency. These powerplants have high outputs that belie the capacity: The T6 generates 235kW/400Nm whereas the D5 has 165kW/470Nm, but the real point of the technology is less to achieve fast point-to-point times and sheer walloping urge than to provide effortless and effective relaxed cruising.

The T6 suits the sedan. It has smarter step off, greater flexibility and sounds good when it is asked the big questions.

Although it sounds less refined at idle, the diesel is in sych with the wagon’s easier-going nature and proves its pedigree once you tap the pedal enough to get the turbo involved.

It’s not as quick off the mark, but certainly offers some oomph because, cleverly, under full throttle starts, it pumps compressed air into the turbocharger to effectively eliminate lag.

What I really enjoyed is the massively muscular yet relaxed open road performance. There's so much torque that it rarely feels strained, which makes it a more relaxing unit for highway cruising, bodes well for hauling decent loads and means incredibly smooth interaction with the eight-speed automatic.

The diesel also burns every drop of fuel especially effectively. I was pleased enough with the indicated 6.9 litres/100km average out of a week of mixed conditions driving.

Both models run adaptive air suspension but the wagon, with 60mm extra elevation, is more doughy when the Comfort mode is selected: Guess that, quite literally, comes with the territory.

In saying that, even when the textured drive mode dial is taken to Sport, both models are clearly not tailoring for wholly spirited driving. The S90 stiffens up more than the wagon, but even then it does not evidence as a machine aching to  run rings around an Audi or beat up a BMW.

Left to its own devices, the all-wheel drive transmission is quite neutral in its setup too with neither a front nor rear bias detectable; but it can be altered to create more rear-end push. Grip never seems to be an issue even if you do strive that bit harder.

Both these cars exist in niche segments of the market, but that does not lessen their desirability. What I like about these cars is that they insulate their occupants from unpleasantness; not just in the safety sense – though Volvo’s record there is exemplary – but also in that they feel perfectly capable of shrugging off pretty much the worst Nature can throw at them.

I’m not in the S90 demographic; Volvo’s wagons have always appealed more to me, especially in the Cross Country format: It seems the ideal solution for those who want a car with some SUV ability, but don’t need an SUV and are smart enough to acknowledge it.

Several weeks ago, the area north of where I live was all but impenetrably blanketed in snow. No-one was going anywhere easily. I really wish I’d had the V90 for that period – it would have been right in its element.