Volvo has set itself an enormous task: take on the luxury establishment and beat the Swedish marque's rivals at their own game. The S90 is a bold new executive sedan with its targets set firmly on the German opposition. We travelled to Spain for our first drive of the Swedish newcomer.
The South of Spain might seem a curious place to launch a Swedish car. But set against the backdrop of earthy Spanish architecture, the latest Volvo, in an unearthly metallic blue, stands out as chiselled, confident and thoroughly modern.
“When we split from Ford in 2010 (Volvo had formed part of the multinational's Premier Automotive Group), as a company we had nothing... no chassis, no cars. We started with a clean sheet of paper, and this is the result,” says Kent Falk, the man in charge of the “90” cluster of vehicles.
The S90 benefits from the same engine technology and modular, highly flexible platform (known as SPA) that underpins the XC90. It has the same rear suspension and is also built to be hybrid-ready – South Africa will receive the potent 300 kW T8 Hybrid model in 2017. This approach is paying dividends, Volvo is able to develop and launch cars quicker than ever. In fact, in 3 years’ time, the XC90 will be the oldest car in the brand's stable!
Scandinavian design is renowned for its striking simplicity; objects should appear as if they have been carved from one solid piece of material. This S90 achieves this thanks, in part, to a strong shoulder line which runs the length of the car, connecting headlights to taillights. It is without a doubt the boldest expression yet of everything this resurgent company believes in.
The front-end design is familiar, obviously resembling the XC90. However, Volvo has successfully translated the SUV’s styling for the sedan, with an oversized grille, “Thor’s Hammer” headlight clusters and a very short front overhang. And it works. In a segment where buyers are looking to make a statement with their choice of vehicle, the S90 is genuinely distinctive.
While the looks of competitors (such as the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class) draw heavily from their siblings (C- and S-Class, in the case of the former), the Volvo S90 is very much its own car. It attracts much attention, but in an almost polite manner.
Explore the Volvo S90 exterior design with this 360-degree video:
Local model line-up
In 2017, Volvo will launch the more affordable front-wheel-drive D4 and T5 models, as well as the R-Design edition, with the T8 Hybrid to follow at a later stage.
This year will see the arrival of only two models, both of which are all-wheel driven. The T6 petrol features a 2.0-litre twin-charged engine (compressor and turbocharger) – which offers a hearty 235 kW and 400 Nm – and those are impressive outputs from an engine of that displacement. The other model that will be offered initially will be the D5 turbodiesel. This features a turbocharged 2.0-litre motor with 173 kW and 480 Nm and sees the debut of Volvo’s patented PowerPulse technology, but more on that later. The T6 and D5 were the two models that we sampled on the launch. There was an opportunity to drive the V90 Estate, but for reasons about to be explained, there was no reason to.
Strange estate of affairs
South Africans certainly like one kind of estate, the sort where you’d play a round of golf or keep a horse. But motoring consumers in this country simply do not buy station wagons, and so Volvo has seen no reason to bring the V90 Estate into the country. We think this is an enormous pity; the V90 looks elegant and offers hugely-increased practicality.
However, we will see the Cross Country version of the estate, which will feature a toughened exterior and a raised ride height. Expect this to be an even more luxurious and spacious version of the Volvo V60 Cross Country that we currently have on long-term test.
The driving experience
The S90 has a hewn-from-solid design and the theme extends to the sedan's refined driving experience.
While the XC90 has garnered much praise since its launch, it has suffered one consistent criticism: a ride quality which is “not Volvo-y” enough. I’m paraphrasing here, but the complaint is that the firmer nature of the XC90’s setup was a big departure from what most Volvos were known for: a comfortable and smooth ride quality.
It is immediately noticeable that things have changed for the S90, although it must be said that all test units on this launch were fitted with optional air suspension. The S90’s ride quality is an improvement on the XC90's. It manages to walk that tricky tight rope of offering a compliant, cloud-like ride while not wallowing in the corners. I don’t think I would describe the handling as overtly sporty, but body-roll is kept in check and enthusiastic driving is quite rewarding, especially in the powerful T6 turbopetrol model.
I posed the question to Roger Wallgren, head of suspension development for Volvo. “We’ve learnt a few things since XC90,” he says, allowing himself a slight smile. “Although many components are shared between the cars, we have worked to make the S90’s setup as bespoke as possible to the vehicle.”
He goes on to explain that sedans are easier to work with; there’s a lower centre of gravity and it is much easier to keep the car’s lateral loads under control.
Whatever the methodology, the effort on the part of the Volvo engineering team seems to have paid off. The result is a car that feels more like a GT car than a large sedan. It handles road imperfections very well and embodies the necessary characteristics to devour long journeys, replete with minimal road noise intrusion and a comfortable interior.
While it will be possible to order an S90 without air suspension (it is a R26 000 option), we would argue that it’s well worth the extra outlay. Especially for a car in this price range, the extra comfort that the system will provide throughout your years of ownership should be well worth the price.
Power from both engines runs through an 8-speed automatic gearbox, which, for the record, was the best kind of gearbox: I barely knew it was there. Shift paddles are not available.
On-road, the S90 feels more like a GT than a sedan, it's well-suited to long-distance journeys.
Volvo has upgraded their autonomous driving system to now operate at speeds up to 130 kph without a lead vehicle. The system is happiest when the road markings are clear, but on the long, winding highways of Andalucia, we found that the system worked well – and consistently – for long stretches. Combined with radar-guided cruise control, the system senses slower moving vehicles with enough time to brake gently and bring the car to a safe following distance. Once you’ve executed a lane change, the system restarts quickly.
It is a very clear indication of where this technology is headed, and the Volvo representatives freely admitted that its fully autonomous cars are in the very final stages of testing – essentially they’re ready to go, but discussions with governments around the world concerning legislation and liability are proving lengthy and in some cases difficult. Regardless, Volvo will run a fleet of 100 fully autonomous cars in Gothenberg in 2017 as a pilot project.
Debuting on the S90 D5 is a new technology from Volvo that aims to eliminate, or at least reduce, one of the more frustrating aspects of driving modern diesel engines: turbo lag. An electrically powered (not belt driven) compressor, fed by filtered air from the air intake, pumps compressed air into a 2.0-litre tank, hidden beneath the engine. When the system senses a quick depression of the accelerator pedal, either from standstill or at any speed under 100km/h, it shoots a pulse of air in the turbo’s direction. This highly pressurised air mixes with the exhaust gases which are already rushing through the turbo, helping to spin up the turbo quickly at low engine revs.
In theory, it’s brilliant, and Volvo says it is cheaper and more energy-efficient than electrically-aided turbochargers which other manufacturers are pursuing. In practice, there is a notable smoothness to the acceleration of the vehicle. In some instances it even felt naturally aspirated. From my experience, I would say the system works best while on the move, say from 60 kph, which, importantly, makes overtaking much easier and smoother. From standstill, the effect of PowerPulse is noticeable, but less so.
The super-supportive, super-comfy front seats are carried over from the XC90 into the sedan. They are a highlight: offering a wide range of adjustment and no fewer than 4 massage functions, the seats provide near-perfect lumbar support. It feels like a team of physios, rather than engineers, designed them...
The dashboard design will be familiar to anyone who has peered into or driven an XC90 – the same steering wheel, instrument binnacle and uncluttered fascia are present, as well as a slightly smaller version of the revolutionary vertically-orientated touchscreen. However, where the vast expanses of the XC90’s dash are high-quality plastic, in the S90 the same space is covered with leather, which is finely stitched at the edges and really adding to the premium feel.
The driver feels positively enveloped: the screen is angled inwards towards you and is placed a comfortable distance away. Operating the screen does not at all feel like a chore, but when on the move it becomes a little difficult to successfully jab the desired button without taking your eyes off the road. I suppose with familiarisation will become less of an issue.
Rear legroom is vast. Incredibly vast. Behind my co-driver, who was just over six-foot tall, there was an almost comical amount of legroom. I have just driven BMW’s latest 7 Series and I believe the S90 has double the rear legroom of the BMW. The boot also benefits from the suspension's design. Due to the flat transverse leaf spring arrangement, there are no suspension towers that jut into the boot area and eat into load space. The boot is deep and wide enough to easily swallow two full-size suitcases, with space above and in front to spare.
Volvo S90 pricing and South African market arrival
Volvo will be launching the S90 in South Africa in October 2016. The media was only supplied with indicative pricing for the South African market. Initially, the model range will be limited with prices ranging from “mid R600 000 to R900 000”, the firm's spokesman said.
The S90 will certainly have its work cut out for it. It faces competitors such as the Jaguar XF, Lexus GS, Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6 and BMW 5 Series. The Volvo might make some headway while we await the arrival of the new 5 Series, and in South Africa at least, smaller sales of the XF and GS should not be of huge concern. No, the S90 is definitely gunning for the new E-Class and, fortunately, we have the Benz on test right now. Meanwhile, we look forward to testing the new S90 on local roads later this year.