2017 Volvo S90 review: We spent a week racking up the miles in the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class rival to see if going Swedish makes any sense.
Buying a saloon makes it nigh-on impossible to ignore the Germans. But what if you want something that lacks an Audi, BMW and Mercedes badge? Well, there is an alternative to the Jaguar XF that ticks numerous boxes – providing you can leave your badge snobbery at the door.
It is called the Volvo S90 and it is largely similar to the V90. Well, apart from the fact the S90 is an executive saloon and the V90 is an estate, but both share the same platform, interior and many other bits and bobs.
We had high hopes about the S90, given how great the XC90 is. The question is whether Volvo has done enough to make it a dominant force and is it worth going against the grain to own one?
Volvo S90: What do I need to know?
The Volvo S90 comes with a choice of two diesel engines, both of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder displacement, and can be had in three trim levels. The budget choice is Momentum, then the sporty R-Design. Atop the range is the posh Inscription, which is what we had on test.
Even at the lowest rung, thestandard equipment list is strong. Each S90 has, for example, an eight-speed automatic gearbox, a clever infotainment system with a touchscreen and an array of safety features and practical touches you would expect from such a design-oriented manufacturer.
Our S90 D4 Inscription test car came in at £43,730. Extras included the £1,000 metallic paint, £1,800 Xenium pack (sunroof, surround-view parking camera and Park Assist Pilot) and the £525 Winter pack (heated steering wheel, heated washer nozzles, headlight cleaning system and heated windecreen).
Volvo S90: Is it nice to drive?
The Volvo S90 is a wonderfully smooth car that glides along in near-silence. The torque and horsepower of the twin-turbo D4 engine allows you to make swift progress without having to endure the unpleasantly revvy top-end, while road and wind noise are virtually non-existent at 70mph.
There is an assured softness to the S90 that makes it remarkably smooth, especially on the adaptive suspension. Glide is the best way to describe how it moves, yet the lack of body roll and level of agility means it can also prove involving if you speed up.
It helps, too, that the four-cylinder diesels offer good quality pace to the point where it starts to nudge into 530d territory in the real-world. 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds with the 232bhp D5 is more than ample, as is the 331lb/ft (450Nm) dose of torque delivered through an all-wheel drive system.
The 187bhp D4 comes in front-wheel drive-only and manages 0-62mph in around 8.2 seconds, which means it is still no slouch. A mere 116g of CO2 comes out of the exhaust per kilometre so you get a strong balance of pace and efficiency, although you may struggle to see the claimed 64.2mpg.
The Tesla Model S-esque ride quality nestles somewhere between the muted but sure-footed Audi A6 and the sportier, more precise 5 Series (more on this later). For motorway cruising, it is an absolute joy.
Unless you get stuck in traffic, that is. You see, the Volvo S90 has an annoying flaw – two if you include the lack of steering feel – and that is the fact the brakes are overly sensitive. It would take less effort to become a Master of Wine than bring it to a gentle halt.
Coming back in London traffic after a three-hour trip and the only thing snappier than the brakes was our temperament. There is nothing wrong with having plenty of bite, but the 1mm gap between partial braking and emergency stop is too little and it makes driving efficiently much harder.
That is not to say the Volvo S90 is annoying to drive overall, especially as the Pilot Assist autonomous driving mode can handle the steering, acceleration and braking if there are white lines either side and you stick below 80mph. A green steering wheel symbol indicates when it takes over control.
The system is less reliable than Tesla’s offering, it must be said, and you have to keep touching the steering wheel every 15 seconds otherwise it turns off but that only encourages you to lightly grip the wheel as you should.
We found the eight-speed automatic gearbox changed gear without a song and dance although, like a lot of automatics, it proves just a tad hesitant for those moments you need an instant change in pace.
Volvo S90: How practical is it?
The 500-litre boot space is generous but a little behind key rivals, although it has Lexus beat. As for passenger space, it can accommodate four six-footers with ease and just about a fifth adult if you can put up with touching elbows.
The inside storage areas provide room for all your essentials. The sizable lip of the boot will be a pain for loading heavier loads, but then that is an issue with saloons in general.
Throughout the car are various neat touches. The window wipers have the jets built into them. Not only does this stop you from spraying other road users, it means there is never that moment where the water and cleaner block your view.
Then there is the button for the rear seats, which drops them down instantly without the need to exert any physical effort. Hardly earth-shattering extras, but you would miss them if they were gone.
The vertical vents (linked up to a ‘Cleanzone’ air-quality system) are also a nice touch and we appreciate all the safety systems designed to keep you out of trouble such as autonomous emergency braking. Like the XC90 SUV, the S90 should do well in the event of a crash.
Volvo S90: Is the infotainment stuff any good?
Yes and no. Apple CarPlay is available for an extra £300 if you want to make more use of your iPhone in the car. For that, you also get two USB ports for charging your gadgets on the go and the AUX input lets you play music from an MP3 or device with a 3.5mm port.
Meanwhile a nine-inch display comes part of the standard Sensus infotainment system that is clearly yet another nod to the Tesla. Its centrally-located position makes it easy to reach and it manages to hide most finger smudges.
The touchscreen is intuitive to use and takes little effort to master, but the on-screen buttons are a bit small and fiddly. The functionality is useful – we particularly like all the audio settings on the fancy and very competent £3,000 Bowers & Wilkins sound system – it just takes more concentration to use.
Adjusting the in-car temperature requires you to slide a small bar up and down, for instance, which looks great and adds to the air of sophistication until you have to do it on a bumpy road. By the third miss-press you wish you had physical buttons to prod instead.
Volvo S90: Is it a worthy BMW 5 Series rival?
The latest BMW 5 Series is our number one executive cruiser right now, but the Volvo S90’s different characteristics make them a bit apples and oranges. The 5 Series has a sportier edge but that comes at the expense of being as smooth as the S90.
If you want to soak up motorway miles and feel relaxed, the S90 is better. But for those who appreciate snappier driving dynamics and involvement, the 5 Series makes more sense.
As for the interior, the 5 Series is much closer to the 7 Series and that is a very good thing, but that only helps it compete with the high-quality S90 offering. Honestly, you need to spend serious money to better what Volvo can do in a cabin.
To look at, the S90 is a pretty car that – by virtue of its rarity compared with rivals – gets more attention than you would imagine. Some may have an issue with the quirky back-end, though. The 5 Series, meanwhile, is more flamboyant and less stately.
Volvo S90: Why would I buy one?
It would be a shame to give the Volvo S90 a miss because it is a predominantly satisfying car to live with that can forgo most options and still instil an impressive sense of luxury. Prestige is an issue, but then the tasteful design makes it stand out.
You may get the odd confused look if you tell people you bought a Volvo, but anyone who rides in the S90 will quickly realise why. The Swedes have got the S90 very right and, in doing so, prove to the world you can and should dare to be different when it comes to a family-friendly saloon.