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Sweden guns for Germany’s big-hitters with a new full-sized executive saloon, but Mercedes and BMW set the bar high for driving dynamics

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When Geely Holdings paid $1.8 billion to buy Volvo from Ford, it was the biggest single foreign acquisition that the Chinese car industry had made.

That was six years ago. However, Geely’s initial purchase was just the warm-up act for an investment plan that will eventually pour an incredible $11bn into new models, new platforms, new engines and new technologies for Volvo – some of which we’ve already seen and some of which we’ve yet to see.

It might sound like an Avengers movie reference, but Volvo is deadly serious about the ‘Thor’s hammer’ LED running lights

So having looked like a doomed failure under Ford, Volvo now has a very respectable, strong-selling family hatch in the V40, an excellent large SUV in the Volvo XC90, some very competitive Drive-E petrol and diesel engines and one of the most convincing plug-in hybrid powertrains yet developed.

Now, perhaps, for the acid test of this bold new era: a brand-new take on the traditional big saloon and estate cars that have represented the company’s lifeblood.

The V90 estate is due in the UK late this year, but the S90 can already be ordered and deliveries will begin in September.

Volvo claims the S90 represents a greater threat to the German dominance of the executive market than any of its cars have before. And it undergoes this road test in current entry-level form: a £33,000, 187bhp, Momentum-spec diesel.

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For now, the S90’s power comes from either that 187bhp D4 2.0-litre Drive-E diesel, mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and front-wheel drive, or a more fiercely blown D5 version of the same engine that produces 232bhp and 354lb ft and drives through eight automatic gears and four driven wheels.

Turbo 2.0-litre petrol engines with 184bhp and 232bhp are offered in other markets but won’t come to the UK, although a 44g/km T8 plug-in hybrid will make an appearance in the S90 and V90 before the end of this year.

To find out what our sister site, What Car? thought of the Volvo S90, watch the video below.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo S90 rear

Like the closely related Volvo XC90, the S90 exemplifies Volvo’s new design language, the upright grille and ‘Thor’s hammer’ headlights characterising a confident, expansive front end, while the broad shoulder line hints at the Peter Horbury-designed models of the recent past.

The car is based on the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), a modular and head-spinningly expensive piece of tech intended (like its rivals’ equivalents) to underpin a range of differently sized cars.

The new modular architecture uses aluminium and high-strength steel and is ready for front and four-wheel drive, as well as the Volvo's hybrid technology

The first, and largest, was the XC90. The S90 and its estate sibling, the V90, are the second. The S90 is significantly longer and wider than its S80 predecessor and shares its wheelbase with the seven-seat XC90.

Despite the size difference, the new model’s weight gain is negligible, thanks to smaller engines and the much more sophisticated mixture of aluminium and high-strength steel in the SPA’s monocoque.

As with the XC90, the S90’s chassis has double wishbones at the front and an integral link at the rear that is distinguished by the choice of a standard composite leaf spring or the option (fitted to our test car) of air springs – a self-levelling asset likely to appeal to those with towing in mind.

Adaptive dampers are equipped regardless, as are a plethora of safety items, including auto-stop City Safety (featuring a claimed world first in large animal detection), Pilot Assist (semi-autonomous cruise control) and Run-off Road Protection, which attempts to mitigate injuries involved during an unexpected exit from the asphalt.

While the sensors hidden in the body are concerned with preserving your life, those in the engine bay are chiefly preoccupied with saving you money.

The S90 marks another step towards fulfilling Volvo’s pledge to limit all its engines to a maximum of four cylinders. The UK line-up of D4 and D5 diesels and the upcoming T8 petrol-electric plug-in hybrid all rely on four-cylinder units, as do the petrol versions offered overseas. 

INTERIOR

Volvo S90 interior

Previously, big Volvos have been dependably spacious, conveniently laid out and generally very comfortable.

Certainly, the outgoing S80 was intended to whisk four adults up Sweden’s improbably long arterial A-roads without a murmur of complaint.

One press of the cruise control advance button increases set speed by 5mph, but you need to press and hold to add 1mph or 2mph. So you spend too long looking at the instruments. How un-Volvo

What they have lacked, despite statements to the contrary at the time, is the style, finish and panache to compete with rivals from BMW, Audi and Jaguar.

The S90 is intended to meet that challenge head on. It benefits from the approach taken in the XC90, a car formulated with Land Rover-challenging ambience in mind.

As such, the tall dashboard is dominated by the big portrait touchscreen, a system that reduces the requirement for physical switchgear elsewhere.

What’s left is neatly arranged and pleasant to use, despite the odd niggle. (The drive selector, a dimpled spinning wheel, needs rethinking.)

The trim materials in Momentum spec are uniformly worthy – although not every tester was convinced by the beam of faux metal running around the cabin – and conventional dials in the instrument cluster have been acceptably replaced by a standard 8.0in TFT display ahead of a first-rate driving position.

Seating, as you’d expect in a car of this size, is a problem nowhere. Rear passengers expecting a sitting room’s worth of knee clearance ought to be persuaded by the space afforded them and the boot – rated at 500 litres with the underfloor storage – is easily commodious enough for a family’s luggage.

These are traditional Volvo strengths and easy to appreciate – as is the S90’s dignified character and resolute build quality.

Whether the surroundings deliver that final layer of upmarket polish is debatable, though. Our testers were split between a reasonably satisfied yes and an Audi A6-preferring no.

Yet the perception that Volvo has taken a giant stride in the right direction was firmly universal. Few buyers – certainly those accustomed to the manufacturer’s past saloons – will have cause for any feeling north of warm and fuzzy.

There’s a debate to be had about Volvo’s infotainment. On the one hand, the system is admirable; the touchscreen is splendidly large at 9.0in, meaning that its swipe and pinch functions actually make sense and there’s space to accommodate all the features swept on to it from elsewhere.

On the other hand, because the software is not free from niggles and the menus aren’t nearly as intuitive as Volvo thinks they are, the screen does require an awful lot of staring at, head scratching and finger stabbing.

For a company that prides itself on safety, this is not entirely conducive to an eyes-on-the-road driving style.

That said, the Sensus system comes well stocked with desirable features (voice control, web connectivity and satellite navigation are all standard), and for an additional £450 you can get the Volvo On Call app for your smartphone, which allows you to indulge in such novelties as checking your door lock status, fuel level and maintenance warnings and more besides.

For legitimate entertainment, the Momentum features a thoroughly respectable 10-speaker, 330W sound system as standard, as well as a DAB tuner and Bluetooth connectivity. USB ports, though, are limited to just the one.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo S90 front quarter

Volvo’s all-aluminium Drive-E twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel has already proven itself a willing and frugal engine in various earlier models, and so it is in the S90.

What it might have demonstrated here, under the bonnet of this large upmarket business saloon, was its refined side, something it struggles, at times, to do.

S90 gives a rev counter only in Dynamic mode — and then it’s too small. No shift paddles, either. Seems they really don’t want you to enjoy driving

Idling is one of those times. After start-up, the S90’s engine settles into a rhythm that declines to disturb the cabin with much vibration, but it does seem a bit louder than the executive saloon norm. And it is.

Our noise meter confirms that a Jaguar XF 2.0d 180 is 1dB quieter here and a Mercedes-Benz E220d 4dB more hushed.

But traditional Volvo customers looking for a well-mannered and unobtrusive driving experience will find the S90 a more agreeable car on the move.

By 50mph, the refinement deficit to that like-for-like E-Class has halved. At maximum engine revs in third gear, the S90 is actually the quieter of the two cars.

Cabin isolation is good, with little in the way of wind noise admitted, and although the chassis can filter in a bit too much surface roar at times, it’s seldom enough to irk.

Although it’s on both the large and heavy side of the mid-sized executive saloon spectrum, the S90 has good accelerative pace.

Standstill to 60mph grumbles up in 8.2sec (exactly what Volvo claims for the car for 0-62mph) and the more revealing 30-70mph dash through the gears takes 7.9sec – more than a second quicker than an equivalent XF and less than a second off the four-cylinder diesel executive class’s outstanding performer, the E220d.

Acceleration is provided accessibly, smoothly and with good response. A typical modern twin-turbocharged four-cylinder diesel’s capacity to come up with big torque at low revs makes the car accrue and maintain speed easily, cruise effortlessly and cover distance efficiently.

And talking of efficiency, our testers recorded an average of 39.9mpg in typical day-to-day running.

A slightly soft but progressive brake pedal makes it easy to bring the car to a stop smoothly, taking so much effort out of the business of stopping and starting in traffic.

Meanwhile, should you be minded to take as much of the stress out of the driving experience as possible, you’ll find the car’s Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving functions helpful up to a point, although they’re not infallible or totally dependable. Tesla’s Autopilot works better

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo S90 cornering

Turning out a big car that’s comfortable, wieldy, easy to drive and yet also dynamically coherent takes every bit as much tuning effort and skill as setting up a performance saloon.

Often it’s on coherence where manufacturers like Volvo fall down – by mating an unnaturally fast steering rack with particularly soft suspension springing, for example, in a misguided attempt to make a car at once agile and supple-riding.

Body roll is fairly pronounced, but the steering stays true enough to keep the car near the apex

Not here, though. By and large, the S90 feels like a big, comfortable car that’s at ease with its identity, happy in its own skin, and is all the easier to get on with as a result.

That it isn’t quite the perfect, laid-back, well-mannered, long-distance-covering executive car has more to do with the details of the S90’s driving experience: the particular elasticity of its steering and the slightly hollow and occasionally excitable ride that the car has at higher speeds.

For all that, though, the car probably does an impression of a full-sized limousine that’s good enough to fool most who are treated to the expansiveness of its back seats – and the car’s lack of sporting edge will most likely come as neither a surprise nor a disappointment to its owners.

At three full turns between locks, the S90’s steering rack strikes a good compromise between handling response and stability. With inconsistent weighting and that aforementioned slightly woolly, rubbery tactile feel, it doesn’t have the sense of directional precision of certain rivals, but it’s light and usable.

The car’s ride is soft and particularly comfortable at low speeds, when it feels very compliant over bigger intrusions, such as sleeping policemen.

There’s a slight shortage of close wheel control at higher speeds and on bumpy B-roads, leading to a vague background fussiness to the rolling refinement at times.

Coarse surfaces can also elicit from the suspension a resonant buzz that just about penetrates the cabin and that our test car’s optional air-sprung rear axle may well have exacerbated.

Body control is perfectly respectable, though, and although the S90 certainly feels its size when negotiating tighter turns and spaces, it doesn’t roll excessively.

It grips moderately keenly and has a predictable, slightly nose-led cornering balance. On the motorway, there is also enough accuracy about the car’s handling to make it stable at high speeds.

It could be argued that it’s not a Volvo’s place to be any more adventurous than that on matters such as driver engagement and dynamism.

The S90’s grip levels are high enough that should you ever want or need to drive it hard, it’ll oblige. Its suspension is plainly biased to deliver stability over agility, and so in emergency situations, you can be confident of avoiding making a bad situation worse by over-reacting at the wheel.

Likewise, its stability control is always on (you can desensitise it slightly using a pseudo ESC Sport mode), and although it is more subtle in its interventions than you might expect, it simply and effectively prevents you from breaching the grip levels.

The car resists understeer better than you might imagine, considering its size and comfort bias, the traction neatly stopping you from forcing the car straight on with too much throttle. But the understated body control that manifests itself on the road quickly dissolves on the track, leaving the handling feeling inert and untidy through faster corners.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo S90

By giving people a bigger car, in terms of cabin and boot space, than they might otherwise have been able to afford, the S90 plays a value card.

From there, its hand only gets better.

Volvo’s sporadic presence in this market fuels a bit of scepticism from our experts

For a lower entry price than you’ll pay for either a BMW 520d or an Audi A6 2.0 TDI, Volvo gives you an automatic gearbox, adaptive cruise control, active LED headlights, TFT instruments, a 9.0in internet-ready infotainment system with full-screen sat-nav.

Also chucked in are automatic folding mirrors, a powered bootlid and a raft of modern active safety systems – almost all of which will cost extra on the BMW.

We would advise sticking with the D4 Momentum S90 and adding metallic paint, the Winter Plus pack, surround view park assist camera, Apple CarPlay upgrade and the 12.3in TFT instrument cluster all for a princely £3150 extra.

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VERDICT

4 star Volvo S90

As with practically every other product launched under Geely Holdings’ ownership, the S90 provides ample evidence of where a few billion dollars’ worth of investment have been poured.

This is a fine and likeable large saloon – one that Volvo most likely could not have made in any other circumstance and certainly not with such appealing modernity and value.

An easy car to like and rub along with, but one also stripped of driver appeal

If the broader journey is to provide a default option to buyers in this segment, though, the S90 also shows there is still some way to go.

Volvo has built the car to its own idea of the standard, making it comfortable, predictable, safe, spacious, efficient and generally hushed.

But its rivals harness these attributes, too, while simultaneously making cars that are more immediately pleasing to drive.

Arguably, that makes the big Volvo an unconventional option once again, a fact that doesn’t inhibit one bit the idea that its buyers will be getting the most well-rounded left-fielder yet produced.

Although it is a good-looking and well-mannered brute, the Volvo falls short of the German trio – Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Audi A6 and the brilliant Jaguar XF.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volvo S90 First drives