What is it?
The Volvo S90 is a refreshing Scandinavian alternative in an executive saloon segment filled with big-hitting German rivals. This new R-Design trim is, for now at least, its sportiest variant.
Available with either of the 2.0-litre diesel D4 or D5 engines at launch (with a hybrid T8 to join later), R-Design gets a black grille, 18in alloys, dual exhaust pipes and sports seats, as well as a sporty suspension set-up and a lavish leather and nubuck interior.
We’re driving the D5 variant, which isn’t a full-blooded Polestar performance model (although a Polestar Optimisation Pack is available) but still offers a 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel engine with 232bhp and 354lb ft, all-wheel drive and eight-speed automatic transmission.
In the UK, R-Design is expected to be the joint most-popular trim in the S90 range, alongside entry-level Momentum. It offers head-turning looks, a plush interior and the promise of a sportier drive, but it faces tough competition from all-wheel drive BMW M Sport and Mercedes-Benz AMG Line rivals in its class.
What's it like?
It looks the part, but - as with the V90 R-Design - the lowered suspension doesn’t do many favours for its ride. It’s 15mm lower, the springs have been shortened and stiffened, and it also gets passive monotube dampers which use one valve to deliver compression and rebound damping.
That translates into a ride that delivers sharp jolts and thumps over imperfections, especially around town and on B-roads. It's much better on smooth surfaces though, offering a more compliant and relaxing ride. The stiffer suspension does also offer a trade off for better driving dynamics, with tighter body control and sharper cornering, but as the improvement is only minor it’s still worth ticking the £1500 option to get adaptive dampers with rear air suspension. This removes the lowered ride height and will generally make the S90 more comfortable - which is surely one of the main reasons why you'd be considering this car anyway.
The S90 R-Design is adept at cruising over long motorway stretches, with an interior that remains quiet apart from some tyre noise over coarse surfaces, and the semi-autonomous Pilot Assist function is a great asset for removing some stress from particularly monotonous treks. But when you hit some country roads, this R-Design model ultimately doesn't deliver the same levels of engagement as its German counterparts, even if it is still enjoyable in its own right. The all-wheel drive system offers lots of grip, but the steering doesn’t offer much feel and its self-centring occasionally feels overly keen as well, especially in the weightier Dynamic mode.
Performance is impressive and it'll munch through overtakes without any problem, but it doesn't feel properly quick or agile like a BMW 5 Series 530d xDrive (which is a noticeable 1.6sec quicker from 0-62mph) does. The D5 engine does, however, have a clever PowerPulse air compressor which reduces turbo lag. This means response is good even at low revs, and power is delivered smoothly, with only the slightly sluggish eight-speed auto gearbox impeding the slickness of the acceleration.
The S90’s interior is beautifully crafted. Aside from the impeccable fit and finish there’s plenty of space for all, the boot is a good size, the 9.0in touchscreen infotainment system is incredibly intuitive and R-Design adds a crystal clear 12.3in digital instrument display.
Should I buy one?
The S90 is an excellent, classy car, but this R-Design trim compromises some of the standard car's best qualities - chiefly its ride comfort. Not only that, but the quality of the competition - the excellent BMW 5 Series M Sport and Mercedes-Benz E-Class AMG Line - only highlights the lack of cohesion to be found in the R-Design's harsh ride quality and slightly flat-footed handling. Even so, in most areas, the Volvo shows itself to be a very credible contender and it does undercut its rivals on price (even if almost £50k after a few options is pretty steep for this version).
The R-Design range costs from £32,955 for the front-wheel-drive 187bhp D4 model, which is considerably cheaper and more efficient, if slower, than this D5 model. So unless you need that all-weather security and extra oomph from the engine then you’re probably better off going for the D4, and spending some of the money you save on adding air suspension. The excellent entry-level Momentum variants of the S90 still make more sense overall, though.
Volvo S90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design
Location Birmingham; On sale Now; Price £41,955; Engine 4 cyls, 1969cc, twin-turbocharged, diesel; Power 232bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 354lb ft at 1750-2250rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1763kg; 0-62mph 7.0sec; Top speed 145mph; Economy 58.9mpg (combined); CO2 rating & BIK tax band 127g/km, 27%; Rivals BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class