What is it?
It’s said that when you’re buying a house, you know within moments of stepping through the front door whether you want it or not. I reckon cars evoke an even more instantaneous reaction. After all, plenty of buyers these days don’t even sit in the model they’re considering before making the final decision.
This brings us to the new Volvo S90. More than any of its less distinct rivals, this is a car that is likely to have won a huge swathe of buyers the moment its lantern-jawed fascia appeared under Detroit’s show lights.
It’s a car that wears its heart on the metaphorical sleeve of its fine-knit angora sweater, and you just know it’s going to suit you before you’ve even sampled the faultlessly ergonomic sofa in your local Volvo dealership.
What's it like?
The good news is that, if you’re taken with the S90’s sophisticated yet somehow unpretentious ambience just from the pictures, the reality will be a delight.
Fractionally longer than a BMW 5 Series, the bluff-edged, high-waistline styling of the S90 makes it look like a big car – even with the camouflage of our prototype test cars - and it feels big when you slide into the cabin, too. Airy and wide-bodied, just as you’d hope.
The cushy, armchair-like seats are supremely comfortable (they’re the same as those in the XC90), and are a great place from which to enjoy the compelling interior. Granted, our test cars were high-spec, but the combination of textures and the logical, uncluttered layout combines to create that expensive-yet-simple feeling that often characterises really top-notch design.
Dominating the cabin is the large colour touchscreen, which is standard complete with sat-nav on every S90. It’s quick to respond, easy to navigate and feels appropriately high-end, and will also come with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Some people may prefer it to be set higher in the cabin, but Volvo offers a head-up display that will help alleviate that problem.
Another selling point will be the rear accommodation, which is more spacious than you’ll get in the key rivals; there's masses of room all round, with a laid-back backrest and deep squab for impressive lounge-ability. The 500-litre boot looks to be roughly on a par with the competition, and the golf clubs or big suitcases will fit no problem.
We drove the 232bhp D5, which comes with four-wheel drive and is the higher-powered of two four-pot diesels on offer. The front-wheel drive 188bhp D4 is likely to be the biggest seller and will go head-to-head with the might of the BMW 520d in the company car stakes. The only other engine on offer is the T8 – a 402bhp plug-in hybrid, which uses a 2.0-litre petrol engine and electric motor to achieve just 44g/km of CO2. One for the CEO, perhaps.
All come with Volvo's eight-speed auto as standard, and a full suite of active safety aids including adaptive cruise, lane-keep assist and automatic emergency braking (which now senses pedestrians, cyclists, deer and oncoming traffic at intersections). It’s the most standard safety equipment you’ll find in the class, which isn’t to be sneered at.
Set off in the D5 and it’s immediately obvious that refinement is one of its chief talents. There’s none of the gritty-sounding engine dirge common to many four-cylinder diesels; the engine revs smoothly and, provided you don’t push it to unnecessarily peaky revs, remains remarkably quiet. We’d go so far as to say it’s about the most hushed in this class, even more so than the seriously quiet Audi A6 Ultra.
Wind also slides calmly and quietly over the Volvo’s A-pillars, and while it’s hard to comment on tyre noise given the unusual conditions of our test drive, the S90 D5 certainly clearly offers refinement levels more akin to the class above.
Performance is full of hearty mid-range response; the S90 responds keenly to a prod of the throttle even from basement revs. You can thank something called PowerPulse, for that, which might sound like a next-gen defibrillator, but is actually a compressed air system fitted only to the D5, which spins the turbo up before the exhaust gases can get to work, reducing lag. It’s subtle, but it pays off in very sprightly initial throttle response. You don’t get any uneven surges in power as you build revs, either.
On top of all that, the eight-speed auto shifts near-imperceptibly just when you’d want it to, completing the sense that this is a car to sit back in and enjoy the calm, rather than to work hard. Sure, Volvo will tell you that the S90 offers a dynamic edge, not least thanks to the variable drive modes that are standard if you add the optional air suspension that was fitted to our test car.
However, with steering that has good weighting and a soft-edged response on turn-in, but little real sense of directness, it has the distinct feel of being a car that’s best off in that satisfying ‘serene-yet-making progress’ state.
Certainly, with the active all-wheel drive serving up secure handling even on compressed snow, you’ll be able to thread the D5 down a B-road with serious verve and no qualms about whether it’ll grip predictably through that switchback. But will it handle with the flair of a BMW 5 Series? No, we’d say not.
Will it ride better? Well there’s the killer question, and the answer slightly spoils the otherwise joyous sense of relaxation you get in the S90. In any setting, the air suspension does well over high-frequency patina and undulations; this is stacking up to be a flawlessly brilliant motorway cruiser.
But, hit a bigger dip or sharper-edged intrusion and you get quite a bit of pitch and dive from the body and a surprisingly heavy thunk through the suspension that suggests a firmer set-up than you might want over the UK’s patchwork roads.
Should I buy one?
Overall the S90 really impressed on this early encounter; between the lovely cabin, outstanding refinement and unflappable dynamics, there’s a lot to like. We can hope that the ride comfort in the UK might be better than we experienced on this test track because that could be the main fly in some otherwise excellent ointment.
In time, and with experience of the standard suspension as well, we’ll find out. Until then, the Volvo S90 looks highly recommendable on all sorts of levels, and another of the bridges towards what looks to be a very bright future for this characterful-as-ever company.
Volvo S90 D5 AWD
Location: Sweden; On sale: 01/07/2016; Price £36,000 (est); Engine 4 cyls, 1969cc, diesel; Power 232bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 354lb ft at 1750-2250rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1900kg (est); Top speed 149mph; 0 62mph 7.0sec; Economy 58.9mpg; CO2 rating & BIK tax band 127g/km / 23%