The S90 follows the XC90 by being ‘sophisticated’ - although Volvo splits the saloon and SUV by sub-branding them ‘elegant’ and ‘refined strength’ respectively. The forthcoming V90 estate variant will add a further sub-character: ‘elegant and functional’.
However, there is still potential for the new car to possess sporting intent, with S90 Polestar and V90 Polestar high-performance versions confirmed by company chiefs.
The S90’s styling moves away from the chunky, heavy-shouldered Volvo saloons of recent years to deliver a more elegant look. Its front, while the side profile reveals an extremely short front overhang.
The Volvo S90 and V90 are offered with the same choice of powertrains as the XC90, with the UK market focusing on the 394bhp T8 ‘Twin Engine’ plug-in hybrid and the D4 and D5 diesel engines. The T8 version should improve on the XC90’s efficiency figure, with CO2 emissions of 44g/km, while the front-wheel-drive D4 manual edition should emit 109g/km.
The S90’s cabin has cues taken from the XC90, with extensive use of natural materials, including a slab of wood that forms a large part of the fascia. The dashboard is again dominated by the portrait-layout infotainment screen, which incorporates satellite navigation and audio, along with controls for several of the car’s systems, including heating and ventilation.
Other XC90 technologies will also feature on the S90. The saloon gets the SUV’s Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving functionality, which keeps the car aligned between motorway road markings at speeds of up to 80mph. It also adds a new feature to Volvo’s City Safety system: large animal detection, which can detect creatures like elk, horses and moose during the day or night, and either warns the driver or primes the brakes to help avoid a collision.
“Our idea was to bring something entirely new to this rather conservative segment and deliver a visual expression that exudes leadership and confidence on the exterior," said Thomas Ingenlath, Senior Vice President Design at Volvo Car Group. "On the inside, we have taken the S90 to the next level, delivering a high-end luxury experience that promises comfort and control."
Dr Peter Mertens, Senior Vice President, Research & Development at Volvo Car Group, said: “The S90 has taken a big stride forwards in terms of driving dynamics, performance and ride. We have completely redesigned the Volvo driving experience from the ground up to deliver a sense of precision, engaging control and comfort.”
Peter Mertens said the S90 and its V90 estate sibling were a "step beyond" what had been achieved with the XC90. “The styling and the interior design will take a substantial step over the
XC90. We have made a bigger effort for the sedan,” he said. “You might say that people expect a great XC90 because the first-generation car was so highly regarded. But perhaps people are not expecting a fantastic new sedan from Volvo. It is a market where we have to catch up.”
Volvo UK managing director Nick Connor added that the new S90 would also continue to push Volvo down its own, independent path. "Volvo now has the self-confidence to go its own way - we have no interest in copying the German brands," he said. "There is no point in trying to outhandle the 3 Series. We have our own values around exterior and interior design, safety, comfort and powertrain advancements that stand out for their own qualities.
"The S90 clearly demonstrates the transition we are going through. I actually think people will be even more surprised when they see it than they were when they saw the new XC90. It really is quite impactful; a car that your eye just keeps getting drawn to. The design and dimensions make it a far more premium-looking car than the S80, the interior is an evolution of the XC90's, but a step up again, and it has a real distinction about it."
Speaking to Autocar earlier this year, Volvo's vice-president of product strategy, Lex Kerssemakers, admitted that the large saloon market was contracting, but said the market was still too big and too important for a car company’s image among buyers to ignore. “The opportunities are getting smaller, but the market is still big enough to give us a strong business case,” he said.
“Demand in China and the US remains strong, and we believe we have a package of assets from the powertrain to the interior to the design that means we have no excuses not to fight with the very best for sales in the sector.”
Volvo is targeting S90 sales of around 2000 units per year in the UK - just under a fifth of the number of BMW 5 Series sold annually in the same area. “We are not doing this to drive volume,” said UK boss Connor. “It won’t make the difference between success or failure; we can treat the S90 as a proper halo model. It can be a price-led segment but we won’t play that game. I can honestly say we have no volume aspirations; there’s no pressure to sell thousands, and we’ll supply only what the market wants.”
The S90 is unlikely to remain the largest Volvo saloon; the company’s Chinese owner is keen for an even bigger model to be spun off the SPA platform, which can extend to over five metres in length. That could give Volvo the basis for a hybrid limousine - although privately, company sources admit that brand equity will need to be strengthened by the S90 itself before it can support a £100,000-plus model.
The cars the S90 must beat
Next-gen BMW 5 Series: Due before the end of 2016, the next generation of 5 Series gets an all-new platform and BMW’s range of four-cylinder and six-cylinder diesel engines - plus a petrol-electric hybrid that should match the S90’s CO2 emissions. Expect elements of the carbonfibre construction tech from the latest 7 Series to help cut the 5’s weight. Touring and GT versions will follow.
Jaguar XF: Recently refreshed exec saloon uses a switch to an aluminium platform to deliver significant weight savings, and strong CO2 emissions of as little as 104g/km. The all-new chassis brings even crisper handling, too - and a successor to the previous generation’s Sportbrake estate is also in the pipeline.
Next-gen Mercedes E-Class: Merc’s mid-range executive saloon will do battle with the S90 for headlines in Detroit, where it’s also scheduled to make its debut. Codenamed W213, the new E-Class switches to the same modular MRA platform as the latest C-Class and S-Class. Sources are promising a “two-generation leap” in the car’s interior quality, and major gains in refinement delivered by new petrol and diesel engines. An E350e petrol-electric hybrid is also planned.
Next-gen Audi A6: The next A6 is due in early 2017. Expect a switch to the second generation of the VW Group’s longitudinal-engine MLB platform, bringing a slight increase in wheelbase but shorter front and rear overhangs for a larger cabin. The new A6 will continue to offer four-cylinder diesel and six-cylinder petrol and diesel power, with the cleanest six-pot diesel emitting less than 110g/km of CO2. An e-tron hybrid edition is also on the way.
Q&A with Nick Connor - Volvo UK Managing Director
Large saloon sales are declining, so why launch the S90?
“Although it is a declining segment, it is still huge in the US and China and significant elsewhere. Furthermore, it’s pretty clear that, with the exception of Land Rover, you can’t claim to be a premium manufacturer without a large sedan in the range.”
The S80 is Britain’s most highly discounted car, and the large executive car one of the most discounted. How will you resist cutting prices?
“We are not doing this to drive volume. Selling a few hundred more S90s won’t make the difference between success or failure - we can treat it as a proper halo model. I know what some of the rivals do, but we won’t play that game. I can honestly say we have no volume aspirations. We’ll supply only what the market wants.”
Presumably your experience with the XC90 helps?
“Yes. The old XC90 was heavily discounted at the end of its life. However, that generation XC90 and the S80 were extremely old. Now we have new cars in each segment and our price will be our price. We won’t be manipulating the market.”
Why should someone buy an S90 over more traditional rivals?
“It will sell because it’s not ubiquitous. It’s a little different, and at around 2000 sales a year you will never see one on every street corner. It is also a very thoughtful proposition - one that makes a statement and challenges - especially with the T8 plug-in hybrid option.
“What’s more, it won’t be all about the dynamics. While it will drive well, the emphasis is on comfort. It will stand out from the segment norm.”