What is it?
The return of the big Volvo estate (and saloon). The Volvo V90 (and its booted, four-door S90 sibling, more on which another time) is back, as part of Volvo’s resurgence. Last year the XC90 SUV was launched, becoming the newest car Volvo makes. In three years' time, it’ll be the oldest.
All large Volvos – from the S60 upwards – from now on will share an architecture that the XC90 introduced; the new V90, then, is the second car to be built on this Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform. It’s a mostly steel monocoque with aluminium in places - Volvo sees no point in wedding itself to a particular material when a mix of metals, in the right places, is stronger, just as light and cheaper.
Like the XC90, the V90’s front suspension is by double wishbones and the rear suspension is an integral link, with either a composite leaf spring or, as a £950 option (and fitted to our test car), rear air springs. Adaptive dampers are standard.
If modularity is key to the V90’s body and chassis, it’s even more crucial to the drivetrain. Volvo has adopted a new engine regime - nothing more than 2.0 litres or four cylinders. In the UK we get a D4 and a D5, both 2.0 diesels, which share the same block as each other and the T8 twin-engine petrol-electric plug-in hybrid that’ll arrive later. Our test car was a D5, which means it makes 232bhp and returns 57.7mpg combined with 129g/km of CO2. It also has four-wheel drive as standard.
There was a time when Volvo perceived itself as being not quite in the same prestige league as the big three German manufacturers, but that time is now passed. Today Volvo sees the V90 as a very direct competitor to the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6, even though it doesn’t offer a six-cylinder diesel. Does that matter? We’ll see.
But what that means is that Volvo is not afraid to charge more than £40,000 for a D5 V90. The D4 (187bhp) starts at £34,500, but a top-spec D5 (like, unsurprisingly, the one they said we could test) is £44,000 before options. Call it more than £50k by the time you’ve got 20in alloys, electrically adjustable, massaging leather seats, a long sunroof and a kick-arse sound system. Fifty grand on a 2.0-litre diesel estate, remember.
Other details of note before we get into the V90, then? It’s a 4.93m-long car offering five seats and a competitive boot of 560 litres, which could have been bigger but, well, look at the raked rear window. Style is in, boxyness is out.
What's it like?
Style remains ‘in’ inside, too, no question. Some Volvo people will tell you that Volvo hasn’t had a true premium competitor “for some decades”. The company boss, Håkan Samuelsson, goes further than that, saying that the new V90 is “the very first time we have a true premium competitor”.
The cabin duly follows the theme set by the XC90 last year, with materials to at least the same grade and easily as stylishly designed. The big touchscreen in the centre console responds quickly – to smartphone-style touches, swipes and zooms – and the driving position is bang on and as good as any German rival.
What’s less so, you might argue, is the noise that the engine makes. It’s not a nasty noise, or even a loud one, by 2.0 standards. It’s just that at fifty grand, the rivals give you more cylinders. The eight-speed automatic gearbox’s shifts are clumsier than in some rivals, too. Volvo is unrepentant. Those big diesels are “gas guzzlers which we are never going to see in our cars again”, says Peter Mertens, senior vice president of research and development.
To keep the performance up, then, the D5 gets a novel trick: it keeps a small tank of compressed air, some of which it empties into the air intake as soon as you hit the accelerator (it charges the tank again quickly, too). That way the cylinders receive compressed air – which gives more power – and the air helps the turbo to spool before exhaust gases would have reached it. It’s a neat way to reduce turbo lag – and without adopting the 48V electric compressor used by the new Audi SQ7.
It’s reasonably effective. Volvo claims a 7.2sec 0-62mph time for the D5, but don’t fret about the time too much. The nice thing is that some response is there at low revs.
The engine is more responsive – and more rewarding – if you put the drive select mode into Dynamic rather than Comfort. Do so and the steering and brake weights are increased, too, some engine noise cancellation is reduced (although at a cruise the diesel’s sound is indeterminable either way) and the adaptive dampers become firmer.
Which brings us neatly to suspension response. The V90, whether in Comfort or Dynamic, and even on 20in alloys, rides better than we’ve come to expect from recent Volvos, including the XC90.
In Comfort mode there’s some real float over crests and dips, which combines with a compliant secondary ride over surface imperfections. Stick it in Dynamic and body control is more impressive – although comfort, inevitably, is less so. There’s a happy medium somewhere, probably in Dynamic on smaller alloys.
But Volvo says it’s no longer making cars that are boring to drive, and, to a point, it, er, has a point. Don’t go looking for German poise and dynamism. The steering is positive, but the V90’s best dynamic trick is when the suspension is already loaded and you ask more of it. Given that it’s floaty, you’d expect multiple inputs to give it difficulty, but they don’t. Composure is good: it easily shrugs off doing many things at once.
And if you do find the V90 boring, Pilot Assist is standard. This is one of a few things Volvo is concentrating on at the minute: it likes safety (as always), electric drivetrains and autonomous driving. Pilot Assist, Volvo says, is semi-autonomous. You’re in charge – any other suggestion is dangerous given current available levels of technology – but Pilot Assist is there to help you out.
It works at up to 80mph and is, in effect, adaptive cruise control combined with automatic steering control, which isn't just a lane keeping assistant that gives you a nudge if you’re drifting out of lane, but a system that reads white lines and keeps you firmly between them. You have to keep a hand on the wheel,though; it’ll remind you to do so and, eventually, give up on the whole idea and hand the whole shebang back to you if you don’t.
But you can drive along a motorway without adjusting the controls. Throw in steep curves or busy traffic and the car’s use of brakes and steering has about as much finesse as a learner driver on their third lesson, but it’s effective. So there’s something I didn’t expect to be doing when I started writing about cars: reviewing a car’s ability to get along just fine without a driver. But here we are.
Should I buy one?
There are compelling reasons why you would, and some remarkably rational reasons why you wouldn’t. For? It’s a pretty nice thing; sensible, practical, economical, connected, relaxing and clever. Against? Neither of the two driving modes quite nails things, and Volvo really hasn’t been shy in the pricing department.
Volvo is right, though: in feel, certainly inside, the V90 is a genuine premium contender now. And it’s a bold car, the product of a confident company. It dares you to like the cut of its not inconsequential jib. It asks if you like its way of doing things. And, I’ll admit, I do.
Volvo V90 D5 Inscription
Location Spain; On Sale Now; Price £44,000 Engine 4 cyls in line, 1969cc, diesel; Power 232bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 354lb ft at 1750-2250rpm; Gearbox 8-spd automatic; Kerb weight 2000kg (est); 0-62mph 7.2sec; Top speed 149mph; Economy 57.7mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 129g/km, 25%