Volvo has always liked to do things differently according to their bigwigs, but in the past, different often seemed to mean cars that could be best described as safe, practical and dependable. Not bad qualities in fairness, but thanks to some hefty investment from Volvo’s Chinese parent, Geely, their latest flagship S90 (saloon) and V90 (estate) now offer additional terms of endearment like sleek, handsome and modern. This level of progress continues inside too with the offer of suitably futuristic technology like ‘Pilot Assist’, ‘Large Animal Mitigation’ and ‘Sensus Connect’ to name a few. We were invited to come down to the UK launch to test both the S90 and V90 models and test we certainly did.
Think of these new S90/V90 models as Volvo’s executive answer to the equivalent from Jaguar, Mercedes, BMW and Audi. Membership to this Swedish luxury club starts at £32,555 for the S90, but for those of us who are more load lugger than lounge lizard, the V90 estate version is available from a touch more at £34,555. Initially from launch there is a choice of two 4-cylinder diesel engines, both with 8-speed automatic gearboxes offering either 190 horsepower in the case of the D4 or 235 horsepower for the all-wheel drive D5. Volvo say they will not offer bigger engines than these as it better fits with their philosophy of maximising economy and lowering emissions. Linked to this, fuel consumption is up to 65 miles per gallon (63 for V90 estate) and CO2 emissions are as low as 116 g/km (119 g/km for V90 estate). Later next year, a plug-in hybrid version will be offered which will see the CO2 emissions plummet to 44g/km for the S90 and 47g/km for the V90.
Look up the term ‘Estate’ in a dictionary and it could well say “See under: Volvo” such is the company’s association with this particular body style. Except previously, no one would have given a big Volvo estate a second glance, until now. The new V90 is not just good looking for an estate, it is good looking full stop. Still unmistakably a Volvo estate, but now with a sleeker roof design and a steeply angled rear tailgate that makes it positively daring when compared to the designs that came before.
At the front there is a pair of T-shaped daytime running lights that sit either side of a new concave chrome grille which Volvo unofficially say were modelled on the shape of ‘Thor’s Hammer’. When Volvo are looking to the ancient God of Thunder for design inspiration, you know they are serious about changing perceptions.
Step inside and all feels well with the world thanks to a wonderful cabin ambience that makes use of some beautiful materials. From generous helpings of open-pore wood that reminds you of expensive Swedish furniture mixed with sophisticated chrome highlights, through to high quality Nappa leather that begs to be stroked and smelt in equal measure. The interior is also bathed in natural light thanks to large glass areas and an optional glass panoramic roof which makes the interior feel spacious. Switch on the outstanding Bowers & Wilkins sound system (extra cost) and you may well not want to leave the cocoon of your surroundings.
Interaction with both the V90 and S90 models takes place through the 9-inch (portrait orientated) touchscreen which gives a clean minimalist look to the dashboard and unlike many touchscreens it works well by being ultra-responsive, offering finger swipe and pinch/pull to zoom functionality. However, for basic functions like seat heating, an old fashioned button would still be preferable to save prodding away whilst on the move.
Out on the road it is clear that both the V90 and S90 focus less on sheer driving thrills but rather on, to quote a recent Ikea ad campaign, “the wonderful everyday”. On standard and even with the optional air suspension, both models will cosset and soothe on your daily drive. Show each derivative a clean pair of bends and they handle well, helped in no small part by a rear suspension that has the same setup as you would get in the all-American supercar, the Corvette. The first and possibly the last time you will ever see the mention of Corvette and Volvo in the same sentence. Special mention must also go to the sweet steering which allows you to place the car on the road accurately, making for a confident drive right from the get-go.
The only disappointment is that both diesel engines are a little too vocal on start-up or under hard acceleration. Certainly not God of Thunder levels, but it is a surprise given that the rest of the car is so refined. Nevertheless, both engines offer plenty of thrust, especially in the case of the larger D5 engine which utilises ‘PowerPulse’ technology to remove turbo lag. This being the delay you experience in a turbo-engined car between foot down and power up. Volvo’s answer to this age old problem is to use compressed air stored in a small tank in the engine to effectively blow on the turbo and get the turbo spinning in an instant. This wizardry gives better performance and greater efficiency too. In practice, this meant that under harsh but fair treatment, we still managed a respectful 46 miles per gallon.
To further improve the car’s and the driver’s own efficiency, Volvo offers ‘Pilot Assist’ as standard on the V90 and S90 range. This semi-autonomous driving feature allows you to drive feet and loosely hands-free up to 80 mph, with the car taking care of the accelerator, brake and steering to maintain your nominated speed and to keep you in the middle of your selected lane. It works well and combined with the best front seats in the business, allows you to ponder what is to come as we gradually hand over control to the machines! Dependent upon your point of view, this will either scare you into reaching for the off-switch or provide you with a ‘Radox’ moment on your daily commute.
Both cars are suitably practical. However, if it is space you are looking for the V90 derivative aces it with a whopping 1,526 litres of boot space with the rear seats folded. With the seats up to do chauffeuring duty, boot space is an ample 560 litres but what is perhaps more surprising is that the S90 is not far behind in offering 500 litres. It could be argued that the boot space on the V90 could have been bigger were it not for that seductive raked rear screen, but sacrificing some junk in the trunk for some proper style is a worthy one in our opinion.
There is plenty of room for those in the back as well as nice thoughtful touches with both models too, from rear headrests that fold away at the touch of button to give an unobstructed view when reversing, to an electronic tailgate that can be summoned to open by the command of a leg shake under the rear bumper. A word of warning though, this feature is an upgraded option so do make sure you buy before you try, as shaking one’s leg behind a car in increasing desperation for something to happen is never a good look, as we found out to our cost on launch day.
Safety is a huge deal for Volvo to the extent that they have promised by 2020 that nobody will be seriously injured or killed in one of their new cars. That is some statement, but their confidence is backed up by the plethora of safety kit that can be found on both of these cars today. Two systems are actually world firsts and sound suitably scientific: Large animal detection and run-off road mitigation. The first uses an integrated radar and camera system to detect any objects looming large in front of the car and assuming you do not see said beast, maximum braking force is then applied to avert some serious road kill or worse. The second system uses the same camera to detect if you drifting towards the end of the road, if it looks like you are about to go off-piste you will be gently steered back into position. Combine these systems with the standard lane-keeping aid, active LED-headlights, automatic emergency braking and Volvo may well make good on their promise early.
Volvo also believe in making your life simpler through ‘Sensus’, an umbrella term that Volvo uses to describe its ability to be all things connected. There is a WiFi interior hotspot which means you can connect devices but also download apps (weather, news, etc.) to the central touchscreen. If you have a Spotify account, you can be a dancing queen and waltz up to the car headphones firmly attached, only to then climb on-board and find that your secret Abba crush is broadcast to all the other occupants of the car through the interior speakers at the exact same point in the song, cue red faces all round.
For Apple fans, there is the optional ‘CarPlay’ which lets you access your iPhone’s functions from the central touchscreen by effectively mirroring the device which is really useful. And finally, ‘Volvo On Call’ allows you to respond to someone who has just asked you sarcastically whether your new smartphone can make the dinner and put the kettle on to reply: “nope, but it does help me find my car in a dark dingy multi-storey, locks/unlocks my car for me and will also alert me if someone has broken in to it”, which should nicely put them in their place.
With most rivals in the executive class forever trying to out-do one another, it is refreshing that these new S90/V90 models really deliver on Volvo’s claim of being different. And that by the way, is different in a very good way indeed.