With the ever-increasing popularity of the Crossover, many manufacturers have abandoned traditional market sectors that were the core of their sales proposition not many years ago. The executive saloon, sometimes referred to as the E-Segment has not been immune to this, sales having already been weakened as executive estate cars had come to be seen as luxurious and hence desirable rather than utilitarian. This segment of the market is dominated, at least in Europe, by the German trio of Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E Class, but there are still alternatives. One of those comes from Swedish brand Volvo, who have a long history in offering cars in this sector which goes back to the 6 cylinder 164 saloon of 1969. The latest model that Volvo offers in this class is called the S90 and the car was previewed at the very end of 2015 in advance of a formal reveal at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 2016, going on sale across Europe a few months later. A closely related V90 estate model appeared a few months after that but these days neither of them sell as strongly as the XC60 and XC90 crossovers, so Volvo has the double whammy challenge of getting buyers not to just to consider this marque rather than the Germans (or the handful of other rivals from Jaguar and Lexus) but then to realise that maybe they don’t need the bulkier Crossover and to look at a classic saloon or estate model. Not surprisingly, given Volvo’s track record of selling desirable luxury estate cars, the V90 outsells the S90 by a factor of around 3:1, but much to Volvo’s credit, they have not given up on this sector of the market with the S90 offered across Europe and the USA with all the latest safety and technology features that buyers expect and the latest in Volvo design thinking which most people, me included, find rather attractive. Not much has changed since the car’s launch. I got my first experience of the S90 in California at the end of 2017 and was favourably impressed by the car which I drove for a couple of days and around 850 miles. So when Hertz at Brussels airport allocated an S90 (as quite an upgrade from what I had booked) to me for a winter weekend where I would also be making a relatively long trip, I was more than happy. I knew that there were a couple of significant differences between the US test car and this one. For one thing, the American market cars use the long wheelbase body, but also buyers in that market only get a choice of two petrol engines whereas in Europe, even in the post-Dieselgate era, diesel is still an important part of the product for most cars in this class, and indeed the test car would turn out to be diesel powered. I enthusiastically completed the paperwork process and headed over to the parking area where the car was to be found, pleased to see that it was painted in what Volvo call Bright Silver, which would make the photographic challenge a bit easier in what was forecast to be a rather wet and gloomy weekend.
No key is required to start the S90, instead there is a twist knob that is used to fire the engine. In the case of the test car that engine was the least powerful of the available diesel engines available, badged as the D3. More potent D4 and D5 cars are offered and these have the same 2 litre 4 cylinder engine, with the more powerful cars getting a twin turbocharger to generate the extra power. The D3 generates 148 bhp. This engine is coupled to a 6 speed automatic gearbox and in this version, the car comes with front wheel drive. The focus here is more on smoothness and refinement than absolute speed and that regard this Volvo succeeds brilliantly. The S90 is a large and heavy car, so you might wonder whether 148 bhp is sufficient, and I can report that it is. It does not make the car fast in absolute terms, but there is ample acceleration to keep up with traffic flows and when you are in Brussels where all the drivers seem somewhat desperate, you really do need that. The gearbox really did make what were imperceptible changes between the ratios and the car did always seem to be ready for action. The diesel noise is well suppressed at all times, with just a fain growl evident on acceleration, but once at motorway speed, noise levels are very low indeed. Wind and road noise are also well suppressed, so this proved to be a very refined car to take on the trip from Brussels to Maastricht on a very wet and soggy day. That long trip also showed that at cruising speed the S90 is economical, I needed to put 21.6 litres in the car at the end of the rental, having covered 350 km, which computes to a very impressive 45.9 mpg. Apart from a few miles headed into the suburbs of Brussels, there was little in the way of traffic for the Stop/Start system to make much of an impact on that figure.
There is a chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel to hold. The steering is a bit on the light side, and there is not a huge amount of feel, but even so I felt confident driving this car on what turned out to be a very wet day with some sodden Belgian and Dutch motorways to contend with. I did not do a lot of driving on rural roads so the ultimate handling and grip were not things I could test out. What mattered more was the ride comfort and I can report that this was good with the combination of 17″ wheels and relatively soft suspension, coping with the mix of surfaces, many of which were not what you would call good. I found the car to be sure-footed and felt as safe as anyone could in the conditions. The brakes inspired confidence though thankfully I did not need to put then to the ultimate test. There is an electronic handbrake operated by a button in the centre console. Visibility was good, with the door mirrors providing a clear view of what was around the car and the parking camera helped in judging where the back of the car was, which was useful in confined spaces such as the rental car garage where I collected and returned the car. Volvo has a well-deserved reputation for safety, having invented the likes of the three-point seatbelt, the rear-facing child seat and side-impact protection systems. It therefore comes as no surprise that the S90 is one of the safest cars on the road, with a five-star Euro NCAP crash testing rating and a 95% adult occupant protection score. As well as crash protection features such as airbags, there are also numerous collision prevention (known as active safety) devices, including a large animal detection system, which warns the driver when deer are approaching from the side of a dark road, and Pilot Assist, a semi-autonomous driving aid, using existing technology such as adaptive cruise control, which can take care of acceleration, braking and keeping the car in its lane, all at speeds of up to 80mph. It was reassuring to know that these were there, but pleasingly none of them intruded on the driving experience, which is not always the case these days with some of the latest features.
When you open the door of the S90 and look inside for the first time, you will have no doubt that this is a genuinely premium product. With the possible exception of Audi, no-one in this part of the market does interiors as well as Volvo, in my opinion. The materials are all of superlative quality and the design is neat and co-ordinated, and the very antithesis of the flashy blingy sort of thing you get in a modern Mercedes. There’s a lot of leather in use not just on the seats but also the dash and the door casings and the inlays of the test car, made from real wood as opposed to the plastic you often see really do lift the cabin to the next level, with a nice matt finish which looks far better than the overly shiny gloss you sometimes come across in other cars. Everything you need is here and nothing more, so the design does not appear overwrought or fussy (again, Mercedes, take note!) and it is easy to use (with one exception!). The instrument cluster is simple with two large 8″ TFT digital dials for speedo and rev counter with a fuel gauge inset in the lower part of the rev counter and that is it. The dials are clear and easy to read. Two chunky column stalks operate the indicators, wipers and lights. Small buttons on the steering wheel spokes are used for cruise control and audio repeaters. The centre of the dash contains a large 9″ tablet-style colour touch screen, presented in portrait mode with air vents to either side of the screen. The system is called Sensus and the functions offered are split into tabs and the idea is that when you select one of them, the tab enlarges on the screen, making it easier to use. As almost all the buttons have gone, this is the only way of accessing most of the functions offered here. I was slightly surprised to find that when I selected the navigation function, it declared that the service was not enabled, so I had to resort to my phone to find my way around the suburbs of Brussels. Everything I have read suggests that navigation is a standard feature, so I remain puzzled by this. The screen is used for the automated climate control and this is the one thing which is perhaps not ergonomically ideal, but this does mean that the centre of the dash appears nicely uncluttered with no surfeit of buttons like you find in some rivals. As ever, the quality of the audio system was superlative with high quality sound from the 10 speakers, 330W system which as standard also includes a DAB tuner and Bluetooth connectivity. USB ports, though, are limited to just the one. The unit includes Android Auto and Apple Car Play, as you would expect.
There is full electric adjustment for both front seats and once you have found your perfect driving position there is a two position memory to store the setting. The steering column telescopes in and out and up and down. Volvo has a reputation for among the orthopoedically best seats and those in the S90 certainly proved extremely comfortable, which I was able to test out on a long-ish trip on the first day I had the car. Couple this with the ease of use of the cockpit, and the low noise levels and this is indeed a very pleasant place in which to spend time. Those in the back are likely to be equally happy. When I tested an S90 in the US, I discovered that the cars there have the long wheelbase which was why there was quite so much space in the back seats but even in this car with the regular length wheelbase there is more than enough legroom even if the front seats are set well back. There is ample width across the car for three adults and headroom is also plentiful. There is a drop-down central armrest. Provision for odds and ends includes pockets on the doors and map pockets on the back of the front seats. There is a generously sized boot, too. It is a nice regular shape, long from foot to back, and nicely wide and quite deep from floor to boot lid, so although the numbers say it is a bit smaller than that in rivals such as the Audi A6, it is likely to prove large enough for most needs. The asymmetrically split rear seat backs can be dropped down for a much longer load bay. Inside the cabin there is a good-sized glovebox, pockets on the doors, a cubby under the central armrest and cupholders under a sliding cover in the centre console as well as a net on the passenger’s side of the centre console.
European buyers can choose diesel or petrol engines for their S90, all of them 4 cylinder 2.0 litre units. The petrols come in T4 (190 bhp), T5 (235 bhp) and T6 (258 bhp) guises, as well as an intriguing T8 twin-charger petrol-electric plug-in hybrid model with a total of 400 bhp, whilst the diesels are D3 (148 bhp), D4 (190 bhp) and D5 (235 bhp). A 6 speed manual is a rarely specified feature, most have either a 6 or in the case of the most potent, an 8 speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is an option on the more powerful models, but not the D3 I was testing. Trim levels start with the Momentum, as per the test car. This gets you LED headlights, heated leather seats, sat-nav, Bluetooth and a DAB radio. On top of that, there’s a powered bootlid, keyless start and rear parking sensors. Stepping up to Inscription brings extra interior lighting, Nappa leather seats and a larger 12.3in digital instrument cluster, as well as bigger 18″ diamond-cut alloys and electric front seats. R-Design aims to inject a more sporting aura to the S90 with features such as a unique grille and piano black trim on the front and rear of the cars’ exterior, alloy wheels, plus interior styling cues including trim, pedals, mats, sports seats and special steering wheel and there is a different suspension set-up that makes the ride harsher.
I really rather liked this S90. I did wonder if the D3 engine would be up to the job, both as a four cylinder compared to the six that buyers of cars in this class expect (but do not always get any more!) and in terms of available power, especially as this engine is not offered to UK buyers, but my apprehensions were ill-founded, as it worked well and the car was commendably economical. Whilst not what you would call exciting – but then very few Volvos are, or ever have been! – this S90 was so refined and comfortable and with no surprises in the way it drove, I just found it to be a pleasant machine to drive around in. Now factor in that superlative quality interior and the roominess and you have to wonder why so many people just default to one of the German trio without giving the Volvo a second thought. They certainly should. The relatively small number of people who do choose to go Volvo are getting an excellent car and one that is defiantly different from those German rivals and all the better for it. Now, if only I could find one of the T8 models to test!