After Ford sold Volvo to Chinese automaker Geely in 2010, the Swedish company’s first order of business was to fashion a new-product lineup that would update its aging fleet of vehicles and catch up to the other luxury brands, which were surging. Geely had plenty of money to invest in Volvo, but even so, the automaker had to plan this new portfolio around flexible engines and platforms that could be widely used in a brand with barely half a million global sales in 2015. We saw the first vehicle to emerge from this process last year, the new XC90 three-row SUV. This S90 luxury sedan is the second new product of the Geely era.
The S90 is designed to do battle in the mid-size luxury-car class in which the strongest players are the BMW 5-series and the Mercedes-Benz E-class—both of which are new for 2017. Other competitors (in order of sales for calendar year 2015) are the Hyundai Genesis, Lexus GS, Audi A6, Cadillac CTS, Jaguar XF, Infiniti Q70, and Acura RLX.
At 195.4 inches long and riding on a 115.8-inch wheelbase, the S90 is smack in the middle of these cars in size. However, at 74.0 inches wide and 56.8 inches high, it’s a bit wider and lower than most of them. That’s because the S90’s styling cues come from the Concept Coupe that Volvo revealed in 2013.
The goal was to give this S90 a stylish look while retaining four-door-sedan functionality. That translates into a lower roofline, more steeply raked windshield and rear glass, and a longer side-glass area than the hoary S80 that it replaces. The S90’s front appearance also was previewed by the Concept Coupe, incorporating Volvo’s updated concave grille that recalls the classic P1800 and presents the updated Iron Mark Volvo logo, along with the now familiar Thor’s Hammer daytime running lights.
Coupled with a shoulder line that runs the length of the car, a neatly sculpted hood, and finely developed surfacing on its side panels, the S90 presents an attractive look in a typically understated Swedish way.
Underneath its sheetmetal, the S90 employs Volvo’s SPA (Scalable Product Architecture) platform, which debuted on the XC90 last year. That means a transverse front-drive layout, with unequal-length control arms in the front suspension and a multilink layout in the rear. Conventional shocks are used all around, along with coil springs in front and a transverse composite leaf spring in the rear. However, an optional suspension adds air springs in the back and adjustable dampers.
Motivation comes from two versions of Volvo’s Drive-E engine, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, coupled to an eight-speed Aisin-Warner automatic transmission. Entry-level T5 models have a less potent Drive-E, developing 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque and driving the front wheels, while the T6 has all-wheel drive and a more powerful version of this engine, with 316 ponies and 295 lb-ft.
The additional power comes mostly from a larger turbocharger that develops more boost at midrange and high rpm. Normally that would also come with greater turbo lag, but Volvo addressed that problem by fitting a supercharger. At low revs, the supercharger produces immediate boost and responsiveness, while the turbocharger is doing all of the heavy lifting above 3500 rpm
This setup worked pretty much as promised in the fully equipped T6 models we sampled. Floor the accelerator from a dead stop and the S90 moves out smartly and pretty much immediately. Brake-torquing the powertrain can trigger a launch mode that will blast off a little harder, but there’s no need for that in everyday traffic.
The eight-speed automatic shifts smoothly, logically, and frequently to extract the best from the smallish engine. You can significantly alter its behavior by using the S90’s drive-mode selector. In the default Comfort mode, gearchanges are unobtrusive and as expected. Select Eco mode, and the transmission upshifts a bit earlier and is noticeably less eager to kick down when you’re toeing into the throttle. Pick Sport mode and the opposite occurs, with the transmission upshifting at higher rpm, kicking down two gears with the slightest provocation and also taking into account cornering and braking behavior to minimize inconvenient shifts when you’re driving aggressively on a winding road.
Four Is Enough?
Although four-cylinder engines are becoming common in this expensive class of cars as manufacturers reach for fuel efficiency, most of the S90’s competitors offer six- and even eight-cylinder alternatives. Not so in the S90, where performance will leave you disappointed if you want a zero-to-60-mph time that starts with a 4. The best the T6 is likely to be able to do is 5.1 seconds, according to our estimates. On the other hand, while EPA fuel-economy ratings have not yet been released, we expect a combined figure of at least 27 mpg combined with the T5 version and 25 mpg or so with the T6.
Moreover, while the Volvo’s engine might have only four cylinders, it’s happy in its work. Idle quality is very smooth and quiet, and we noticed only the occasional hint of a four-cylinder drone in normal driving. Push the car hard and the 2.0-liter sounds purposeful and harmonious as it shifts between 6000 rpm and the 6500-rpm redline. Credit effective active noise cancellation coming through the sound system for the lack of discordant notes. A slightly sportier soundtrack is available by selecting Sport mode.
It was hard to evaluate ride quality on the supersmooth Spanish roads we experienced, but body motions were well controlled and the S90 was comfortable, stable, and reassuring even in rapid driving. Both wind and road noise seemed low.
Unfortunately, the electrically assisted steering makes the S90 feel a bit ponderous; the effort builds up quickly as the steering wheel is eased even slightly off-center. Volvo engineers contend that this pronounced self-centering enhances the driver’s sense of straight-line stability, but other cars achieve the same effect with a less overbearing feel. While overall steering effort can be adjusted to one of three levels, the heavy off-center characteristic never goes away.
The S90 also can steer itself, using the standard Pilot Assist function. This feature now works at speeds up to 80 mph in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control, and it works very well on highways with clear lane markers. However, you can’t remove your hands from the wheel for longer than 15 seconds, and the system can’t keep up with sharper turns on winding roads.
Brake feel is excellent, with a reasonably firm pedal and no dead motion. You can erase exactly as much speed as desired and do so very smoothly. Interestingly, the brake pedal responds a little more immediately in Sport mode, although the feel remains progressive. The shocks also stiffen in Sport mode, but we’ll have to wait until we drive the S90 on U.S. roads to see how much that degrades the ride.
Inside, the S90 continues the Scandinavian design theme with a clean and uncluttered layout. The vertically oriented dash vents—Volvo calls them Airblades—look terrific, as does the polished metal on the dashboard’s lower edge. The key element in this interior is the 9.0-inch, portrait-oriented LCD screen. It controls several of the usual functions, including the climate-control system. As a result, the number of buttons and knobs on the dashboard has been greatly diminished. Moreover, this upright display works ideally for the navigation function, as it makes visible more of the map depicting the road ahead than does a landscape-oriented screen. In our opinion, this orientation should be the industry standard.
Please Be Seated
The driving position in the S90 is excellent. Unlike in many cars, the steering column can be adjusted sufficiently low without obstructing the instrument dials. Oddly for this class of car, the steering-column adjustments are manual, which means they can’t be saved to the standard seat-memory system. Volvo says it’s looking to rectify this oversight in the future.
Volvo seats have a reputation for comfort—and those in the S90 do not disappoint. In addition to their standard seat-cushion-length and side-bolster adjustments, the Volvo seats are well shaped and properly padded—important factors many automakers can’t seem to get right. The rear seats also are good, although the rear-seat cushion is a tad low and the front seat doesn’t leave a lot of space underneath for rear passengers’ feet—at least when it’s adjusted all the way down. But rear headroom and legroom are generally excellent and more spacious than many competitors’.
Trunk space also is plentiful and nicely finished with a regular shape. If you order the optional power-operated trunklid, it has a hands-free opening function, activated by waving your foot under the left side of the rear bumper.
Both T5 and T6 versions come in two trim levels: Momentum and Inscription. Base prices for these four models range from $47,945 to $57,245. Standard equipment is generous; every S90 comes equipped with Volvo’s full portfolio of safety features, including the Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving capability, a power sunroof, LED headlights and taillights, fully adjustable power seats, navigation, a proximity key, and quite a bit more. An extensive options list lets you add more than $10,000 to the price of even the top-of-the-line T6 Inscription. Even so, the prices are a bit short of the nosebleed levels one can achieve with the German competition.
T6 models will start appearing for test drives at Volvo dealers in late June and go on sale by July. The less expensive T5 models won’t show up until September. Next year, a T8 Twin Engine model will appear with the 400-hp plug-in-hybrid powertrain already offered in the XC90. A wagon model based on this sedan, the V90, will arrive at around the same time.
More new Volvos sharing the S90’s design themes and technology are on the way. The brand promises that its entire range will be revamped by 2017, and Volvo will have the youngest product range in the industry. As for the S90, it’s solid, comfortable, beautiful, and practical and should make Volvo a player in the mid-luxury segment for the first time in a long while.