In recent times, the market for large executive saloons has come to be dominated by the German Trio of BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E Class and Audi A6. And whilst all three are supremely competent cars, the selection of any of which would be unlikely to lead to the purchaser feeling disappointed, there are of course a number of other choices. Fewer than there were, with the French having given up trying to compete, Saab and Rover having gone out of business, and a gap in the Italian offerings that means you have go to one size smaller or larger for one of their offerings, and Ford and Vauxhall/Opel having accepted that without a premium badge, the chance of success is now approximately zero regardless of the quality of your product. But the likes of Lexus, Jaguar and the subject of this test, Volvo, do still have products that fit neatly into this market segment. Wisely, Volvo has never tried to build a car with exactly the same priorities as the Germans, instead focusing on those attributes which helped the Swedish marque achieve success over the years, which means a combination of safety, comfort and a very Swedish sense of design and luxury. Whilst the estate cars have traditionally been the models many will first think of when Volvo is mentioned, during the twentyfirst century the Volvo range has expanded to encompass SUV/Crossover style vehicles, as well as the traditional saloon and estate for the larger models and hatchback for the smallest. The name and numbering system adopted in the mid 90s, which persists to this day, now clearly differentiates three model families, with 90 being reserved for the top of the range models. That means that the top saloon is – once again – called the S90. The latest version was launched at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2016 and visually it was quite a departure from the two more similar looking S80 saloon models which had preceded it. The car received favourable reviews at launch, but sales have been what you might call steady rather than impressive, so it remains quite a rare sighting in Europe. And the same is true in America, where the S90 went on sale as a 2017 model year car. Hertz seemingly bought their first batch of them in late summer 2017, as2018 model year cars, so I was quite keen to sample one, and ended up getting the opportunity as the last rental car of my November 2017 trip. Thanks to an unexpected dump of snow in the UK on the day I was due to return, which delayed my return flight by several hours, I had a second full day to experience the S90. Here is what I found.
Like many of the latest cars, there is no need to insert the key anywhere to start the car. Instead there is a twist knob in the centre console which does the job. Right from the outset you can tell that this is going to be a refined car rather than one with sporty pretensions, as the noise on start up is somewhat muted, and that’s how it remains, no matter what you are asking of the engine. All S90 models come with a four cylinder engine these days, the characterful 5 and 6 cylinders having been consigned to history. The test car was the T5 model, which means a 2.0 litre turbocharged 4 cylinder petrol engine, developing 250 bhp. It is more than enough to endow the S90 with brisk performance. Because it is so refined, you sometimes do not realise just what speed you are doing, and I can advise (though given the prevailing speed limits in the valley north of Palmdale, perhaps I should not) that at 80 mph, it is doing just 2100 rpm. Noise levels from the engine are low and there is little interference from road or wind, either. But should acceleration be needed, the merest of depressions of the accelerator pedal was seemingly enough for the 8-speed gearbox almost imperceptibly to drop down a ratio or two and for speed to build up. There are three driving modes: Eco, Dynamic and Comfort, and these do what you would expect in terms of altering the change up points and stiffening (slightly) the steering, though the differences seemed quite subtle to me. One advantage of having the car for longer, and indeed doing a lot of miles in it – 841 of them over 2 days – is that I got a better picture of fuel economy. Granted the majority of those miles were on very empty roads, cruising at a steady speed, but I was impressed to discover that on the first day I averaged 29.0 mpg US and on the second even better at 29.6 mpg.
Generally, the other driving dynamics were good, though I did think that the steering felt slightly sticky just off-centre, but this sensation disappeared the more you turned the wheel. Even with this trait, it did not feel unduly over-assisted and vague (in this class you need a Lexus if that’s what you want!) so there was a clear idea of what the front steered wheels would do as you turned the wheel. The handling is tidy, with good levels of grip and not much in the way of understeer evident on the public road. With comfort a priority, it was no surprise to find that even suspended on the relatively low profile 245/45 R18 wheels, the Volvo rode with a suppleness which dealt with the often poor road surfaces of the LA County’s roads. The brakes were powerful and needed only modest pressure to bring the car to a halt. There is an electronic handbrake in the centre console. All round visibility was generally pretty good by today’s standards, and the blind spot monitor in the door mirrors was useful on those occasions when something was alongside you. Rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera helped to judge the back of the car, which proved useful as you could not otherwise see exactly where it might be. These all form part of a long list of safety features which are standard in all models. Others include: adaptive cruise control; lane keep assist and lane departure warning; forward and rear collision warning; automatic emergency braking; driver attention monitor; road sign information; automatic high beams; run-off road assist and rear cross traffic alert.
Current Volvo models have a reputation for having among the best interior designs of any car in their class, and this one was no exception. However, I do have to report – as the observant among you will spot it in the photos – that there had clearly been a quality control failure which had allowed a different type of wood inlay to be used on the door casing’s on the driver’s side from those on the passenger side doors and dash. I can’t believe this was intentional. If it was my choice I would have gone for the one on the driver’s door, as it was a nice matt finish, whereas the others were a very shiny type beloved of Americans but which to my eyes never look convincingly like a tree was ever involved. That apart, you get a beautifully finished interior, made of quality materials, which all fit together well, are pleasant to look at and to touch, and with a refreshing simplicity to the design. There is a leather wrapped wheel of just the right thickness which was pleasant to hold. The dials are digital, and very clearly marked so easy to read, with two larger ones for speed and revs and a smaller fuel level gauge inset in the lower portion of the rev counter. Odometer and other trip computer displays sit in a row across the bottom of the instrument display. Twin column stalks operate indicators and wipers. The centre of the dash features a vertically set (portrait style) 9″ touch-sensitive display screen for the infotainment system, with air vents to either side. Like many, Volvo have moved a lot of functions to this unit that previously would have been on buttons and switches. It is not entirely successful, as you have to use the unit to change temperature settings for the dual zone climate control, for instance, which is not as easy as doing it the old-style way. It also seemed necessary to resort to the repeater buttons on the steering wheel hub to change radio waveband, which was not exactly obvious. Doubtless familiarity would help and the unit was quite responsive, but I felt that the button reduction had gone too far, as all that remain under it are the switches for the hazard warning lights, heated rear window and radio on/off. The audio qualities of the unit, and the associated 10 speakers proved to be excellent, something you generally expect with any Volvo. Android Auto and Apple car play feature, as does XM Satellite radio, and of course the unit has a navigation system which proved easy to use and with clear graphics on the maps.
The cabin of the S90 is light and airy, helped by the large electric sunroof that is a standard feature of the car. Getting the seat to the right position was easy, with 10-way electric adjustment, including lumbar support, and there is a telescoping wheel which goes in/out and up/down. The seats lived up to Volvo reputation of being supremely comfortable, something I can attest to having sat on them for many hours given the extended distance of the testing, and the leather that covered them was not just nice to look at, but also good to the touch.
When I opened the rear doors the first time I could not believe just how much space there is. Even with the front seats set well back there is more legroom here than you would find in any of its rivals, and if you set them for my driving position, then a passenger could almost lie down, such is the room. It turns out that the reason for this is that 2018 model year US market S90s have the long wheelbase body which has an extra 5″ in it, all of which goes here. Even the middle seat occupant is going to find things spacious, despite the fact that the centre console extends well back and that there is a modest central tunnel. What is not so abundant is headroom, and I found that my head only just cleared the roof. Even so occupants here should be happy to spend prolonged time without feeling at all cramped. They get a drop-down central armrest, and there are air vents on the B pillars and the rear face of the centre console, and can stow their odds and ends in the door bins or the map pockets on the back of the front seats.
The boot is a reasonable size. It is long from front to back and quite wide, but not that tall, so if your luggage was the right shape, a lot would fit in. There is a space saver underneath the boot floor, with a bit of space to tuck a few items around it. More length space can be created by using the ski flap, and the rear seat backrests can also be folded down. A convenience feature is the electrically assisted close feature of the boot lid. Inside the cabin, there is a decent glovebox, a pair of lidded cupholders in the console in front of the armrest cubby and there are door bins and a net on the passenger side of the centre console, which in combination should prove more than sufficient for most people.
For the US market, the 2018 Volvo S90 is available in two trims: Momentum and Inscription. Whilst in Europe there are more options, for the US there are three powertrain configurations: T5, T6, and T8. The T5 model features a turbocharged 250-bhp engine and front-wheel drive, while T6 models feature a turbo- and supercharged 316 bhp and all-wheel drive. The T8 model is a plug-in hybrid with a turbo- and supercharged engine and an electric motor that make 400 bhp. The standard S90 T5 Momentum is an excellent choice for most shoppers. It comes loaded with standard features, and its engine delivers plenty of power. The base S90 Momentum trim comes with leather seats, a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a panoramic moonroof, remote start, and dual-zone automatic climate control. The standard infotainment system features a 9-inch touch screen, 10 speakers, navigation, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay. The Momentum also comes with many safety features, including the Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system (includes adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist), blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, driver attention monitor, road sign information, automatic high beams, lane departure warning, run-off road mitigation, rearview camera, rear parking sensors, forward and rear collision warning, and automatic emergency braking. The S90 Inscription trim has a stronger 316 bhp engine, sunshades for the rear windows, quad-zone automatic climate control, adaptive headlights, and a 12.3-inch driver display. It also features Nappa leather upholstery and upgraded front seats with heat, ventilation, and power-adjustable cushion extenders. The S90 Plug-In Hybrid features a supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine with an electric motor that make a combined 400 bhp and is available in Momentum and Inscription trims.
I liked this S90. And anyone who selects one, expecting to get a beautifully finished, comfortable and safe executive saloon should think the same. More performance and even more luxury is available by selecting a car higher up the range, but even in this guise, it ticks all the boxes. So why does it not sell in greater numbers? I don’t think there’s any particularly rational answer to that, though it is probably the case that the dealers of those German brands will leverage their huge sales volumes by offering cut-throat finance deals, which will be the clincher for some. All else being equal, then not at least trying the S90 is a mistake that many will continue to make. Maybe the owners of this Volvo, and indeed any Volvo, will continue to smile a wry smile, knowing that they made an intelligent choice and have got an excellent car that retains an element of exclusivity that no volume-selling BMW, Mercedes or Audi is ever going to have. Let’s just hope that Volvo management see it that way, too, and carry on building cars like this one rather than following so many other once famous names in exiting the sector.