Volvo’s big saloon still looks like the money they’re asking for it, and is lovely to waft around in, but its powertrain and chassis now have clear limitations

What is it?

The big, elegant luxury saloon may be one of the oldest vehicle concepts of them all, but it’s alive and well in the enduringly handsome shape of the Volvo S90. Contrary to what you might have heard, it’s also been doing some decent business. Five years after the S90 was launched, in 2020, the car remained more popular in the UK than the Volvo V90 wagon was.

Will it continue to be so popular, though, now that Volvo UK has taken the decision to remove the cheaper mild-hybrid combustion-engined versions of this car, and to offer it exclusively in Recharge T8 plug-in hybrid form? From the outside looking in, the decision to keep the cheaper engines on in the equivalent V90 (in which you can’t have the T8 PHEV powertrain, incidentally) but to remove everything but the T8 in the S90 does seem a strange call - turning this into more of a de facto halo model of a kind than a body derivative. It means that, while you could get into a diesel-engined S90 from less than £35,000 back in 2016, it takes a little over £55,000 to get into one now.

Equivalent tax-efficient plug-in hybrid versions of the latest BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class can be had a fair bit cheaper. So what is there to make saloon connoisseurs content to pay a premium for this car?

Volvo s90 t8 rearlight

What's it like?

Well, the S90's had a few styling tweaks for the latest model year, and they do seem to have been executed with a laudable lightness of touch (new bumpers, new wheel designs, new ‘dynamic’ indicators). Like so many current Volvos, this remains a really good-looking car. So there’s that.

The cabin's got that relaxing, lounge-like ambience as well, now with some fresh seat upholsteries and some useful new ‘connected’ functionality added to the infotainment system. It's predictably roomy and retains a really impressive aura of quality. The substantial ‘clack’ of the central locking and the ‘whump’ of the glovebox lid as it closes are particular highlights. Meanwhile, that ‘headrest fold’ function that Volvos have offered for years is such a clever feature when it comes to boosting rearview-mirror visibility that you wonder why other brands don’t copy it. It'd also come in very handy for the remote parental disciplining of insolent second-row teenagers, I dare say.

Volvo s90 t8 dash

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As regards the driving experience, the pairing of a near-300-horsepower petrol engine with a usefully torquey electric rear axle in this car dangles the prospect of more stirring performance than most PHEV saloons can offer, of course. The irony here, though, is that the S90 needs a near-400-horsepower powertrain about as much as it needs a depth gauge and periscope. This is not a sports saloon. It wasn’t five years ago, and even with this T8 hybrid powertrain and Volvo’s sportiest passive suspension option (adaptive suspension is another technical feature that V90 owners can choose, but S90 buyers can’t), it’s pretty emphatically not one now.

The S90 is good at being comfortable and mild mannered; never better, in fact, than when wafting around so quietly in electric mode, in which a fully charged battery is worth 25 to 30 miles of real-world range. There’s just a little bit of road noise on rougher surfaces from the standard-fit 19in wheels, and the occasional out-of-town fidget from the secondary ride, although the longer-travel ‘dynamic’ suspension of Volvo's extra-luxurious Inscription spec might help to dial those out.

But the harder you drive the S90, the clunkier, less refined and generally less assured the combustive half of its powertrain seems; and the more starkly its handling composure disintegrates. Compared with the latest plug-in hybrid set-ups, the unresponsiveness and noise level of the S90’s highly strung four-cylinder petrol engine can come as a bit of a rude awakening when you suddenly need to give it plenty of power. It feels fast once it has sorted itself out for gear selection and so on - but not very ‘together’.

Meanwhile, the body control drops away quite suddenly on country roads as you approach the national speed limit, with plenty of float and heave interfering with the car’s composure at times. It’s still comfy at 50mph, pretty much wherever you happen to be driving it, but long-wave, excess body movement can make 60mph feel like a lot more than a 10mph difference.

4 Volvo s90 t8 panning

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Should I buy one?

The S90 is very easy, pleasant and relaxing to simply stroke around, then. It's also really comfy on long-distance motorway hauls thanks to some excellent seats, but it isn’t well suited to, or comfortable at, a cross-country canter. It is, in short, a luxurious big saloon with a gentle, laid-back character about it; a pretty convincing and substantial old-school take on material quality; and some intelligent, intuitive onboard technology that really would come in handy when simply going about your everyday routine.

And the good news for Volvo? That in a car like this, you don’t feel much inclined to hurry around anyway – whether you’ve got nearly 400 horsepower under your foot or not.

Volvo s90 t8 static


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.

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BlahBlah43 28 March 2021
An over worked 4 cylinder engine in a luxury car just isn't luxurious. Neither is Volvo's fwd based platform for a large sedan like this. All style and no substance. Im actually happy that they capped that four cylinder at 112 mph. Can't imagine the ear bleeds from it going higher
Andrew1 26 March 2021
Autocar seems to run out of ideas on what to mark certain models down. In this episode... the powertrain is too powerful.
xxxx 26 March 2021
Andrew1 wrote:

Autocar seems to run out of ideas on what to mark certain models down. In this episode... the powertrain is too powerful.

They also mark it down by using words like clunky, less refined, unresponsive, noisey, rude awaking etc 

MkVII Golf GTI 28 March 2021

Volvo seems to have run out of ideas for how to make a luxury car. A front wheel drive four-cylinder full size sedan sounds like something you'd get from a cheap American Buick or Oldsmobile in the 80s, not the best Sweden/China has to offer. Volvo should've designed a RWD chassis for all of their 60-series and up cars and at least offered a 6-cylinder engine, while front wheel drive and 3/4-cylinder engines would be adequate for the entry level XC40/V40. I imagine the old 3.0L I6 could have been reengineered to provide equal efficiency and power that BMW or Mercedes offer from their equally sized engines. It's a real shame they didn't because I would really be interested to see how much better all of their cars would be with better engines, a real luxury car transmission, and a proper weight distribution. 

simonleecarter 26 March 2021

£60,525 as tested is absolutely ridiculous.  Autotrader has pre-registered S90 Inscription petrol with just 55 miles on the clock from an official Volvo dealer for...£26295!  This also gives a hint to the depreciation that will follow.