RECENTLY a car company boss confirmed what many have long suspected… that respectability only comes when “you get your 5 Series rival right”.
That’s why Jaguar became relevant again only after the XF surfaced in 2007, Hyundai chose the G80 to go global with Genesis, and now social-climbing Volvo is targeting the BMW with its new S90 (and V90 wagon sibling due mid-2017). Like making it in New York, succeeding in the large luxury class is the Swedish brand’s ticket to premium legitimacy.
Sharing 40 percent of parts with the XC90 launched last year, the S90 actually drove initial development of Volvo’s all-new Scalable Product Architecture when work commenced during the dying days of Ford control in 2008.
“Sedan buyers are very fussy, so we had to get its proportions exactly right first,” says program director Kent Falck.
SPA is essentially a set of electrificationready components based around a fixed “wheel to heel” front-end structure, with everything else attached being flexible longitudinally and vertically.
Even Volvo admits that outside Sweden nobody was exactly clamouring for S80 and V70 replacements, so the S90 and V90 couldn’t just be BMW clones. They needed to be genuinely compelling. Longer, wider and lower than most rivals, the 54X project was benchmarked against “basically the Germans”.
Formidable opponents, but Volvo reckons it’s pushing boundaries. Though the S90 adopts the latest XC90’s safety systems, it debuts: ‘Run-Off Road Mitigation’ that senses the edge of the road as well as painted lines to help reign in a straying vehicle; ‘City Safety Large Animal Detection’ (specifically for identifying and avoiding moose); and ‘Pilot Assist’ – semi-autonomous radar-controlled acceleration, braking and steering at speeds up to 130km/h.
The big Volvo also continues the brand’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder powertrain strategy, from the entry-level 187kW/350Nm T5 front-driver to the T8 AWD petrolelectric plug-in hybrid (with about 407kW/640Nm) arriving in 2017. It’s all a tight fit, but the downsized engine policy has allowed the luxury of a doublewishbone front-end. As a result, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see sixes or a bent-eight shoved underneath the bonnet.
Only the higher-end T6 petrol (235kW/400Nm) and D5 diesel (173kW/480Nm) were available for trial at the S90’s international launch in Spain, powering all four wheels (a part-time Haldex system) via a conventional eight-speed torque-converter auto also found in the T5 petrol and 140kW/400Nm D4 diesel front-drivers.
Almost in defiance of its 1969cc capacity, the T6 AWD is no slouch, leaping into action and maintaining a cracking pace as long as you don’t spare the throttle.
Power tops out at a fairly high 5700rpm, but there’s little need to hear the four-pot turbo shriek since there’s a sizeable wad of torque and smartly spaced gear ratios to keep things humming along sweetly.
However, the auto’s occasional jerky downshifts, propensity to not upshift until the engine is screaming in Dynamic, and lack of steering-wheel paddles sully an otherwise slick mechanical ensemble.
The brawny D5 AWD is what really – and literally – blows expectations clean away, thanks to Volvo’s PowerPulse system. Conceived in just 18 months, it uses compressed air to multiply turbine speeds, slashing turbo lag for a strong and stirring stream of performance, without the off-boost blues to impede
The S90’s unusual tail-light design and bumper-level numberplate housing are designed to convey width and a ‘muscular arms’ stance.
Volvo went with them because they make a statement, even though they proved controversial in styling clinics. “Nobody liked them, but we did it anyway,” said project boss Kent Falck.
The signature LED headlight strip is said to evoke Thor’s hammer, while more Norse mythology can be found in the grille, which possesses Volvo’s long-lived shield-and-sash motif.
The wagon’s sloping rear rejects the look of boxy Volvo wagons of old (and of Swedish tastes) in order to lure more global buyers.
In Europe the V90 is expected to account for some 70 percent of total model sales.
Using a space-saving integral axle and transverse leaf-spring rear suspension design results in more cabin space, as well as a lower and wider cargo floor for greater practicality. Plus, an extended rear compared to the preceding V70 means the V90’s luggage volume total is only 15 litres shy at 575 litres.
And no rear-facing kid seats?
“We love them, but they’re not perceived as premium enough,” explained Volvo safety guru Lotta Jakobsson.
The S90’s rakish silhouette, concave grille and ‘V O L V O’ lettering (originally proposed with night-time downlighting until regs scuppered the idea) were inspired by a P1800 coupe parked in the Gothenburg studio.
Other influences include the ultra-short front overhang, cab-backward and extended dash-to-axle ratio proportions; all said to impart a premium feel – vital in its three key markets: the US, China and Korea.
progress. A neat 7.0sec to 100km/h isn’t too shabby.
Other models are slated for this tech in the near future, including the new GEP3-series 1.5-litre three-pot turbo-petrol in next year’s 40 Series hatch.
Better still, the more powerful of the twin-turbo diesel offerings is barely any less economical on the EU combined cycle, averaging 4.8L/100km, which is astonishing for a full-size five-seat luxury car.
But the biggest shock is how the S90 T6 has discovered levels of steering feel and feedback foreign to any previous large Volvo.
As with the XC90, Drive Select offers overly light and softly suspended Eco and Comfort modes, but in the pitch-perfect Dynamic setting the whole car gels terrifically. Thank the optional 20-inch rubber, lower centre of gravity or reduced mass, but poise and response are the happy by-products.
Turn-in is instant and linear, the handling receptive, the chassis planted. Even the wagon version shrinks around you blasting along a tight and twisting road.
Optional air-sprung rear suspension eliminates the V90’s transverse leaf spring for a supple and isolated ride, further boosting our admiration.
Neither model is actually sporty, but there’s a newfound athleticism that keen drivers can work with.
Volvo calls it “relaxed confidence”. Let’s hope such comfort and control translates to Australian roads.
Inscription spec equals interior sumptuousness, meaning the S90’s hushed cabin (thanks to optional double-glazing on our test vehicles) is more than a match for most rivals. The lack of wind and tyre roar was quite remarkable over the Spanish roads sampled.
Similar but better resolved than the XC90’s interior, the lush leather, walnut, brushed aluminium and chrome meld seamlessly with the tech-heavy (and initially intimidating until familiarisation sets in) multiscreen displays, gorgeous instruments, lavish seating front and rear, and detailing exquisite enough to worry Audi. A big audio volume knob is such a luxury nowadays. This thing reeks of opulence.
At nearly five metres long, the S90 comfortably accommodates five six-footers, despite the sloping roofline, while cargo volume – including underfloor storage – is on a par with a Commodore’s at 500 litres (only 60 litres less than the almost-as-swoopy wagon).
“In Sweden, people wanted square wagons like the old 700 Series just in case they needed to buy a washing machine.” Falck said. “And that was probably once every 20 years.” Seems the days of the boxy Volvo estate are gone.
Sore points include the $3K Tech Pack gouge that includes the distractingly awkward Drive Mode switch, gimmicky engine-start dial, digital radio (it should be standard), surround-view reversing system, head-up display and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
The $79,900 S90 T5 Momentum includes adaptive cruise, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, reversing camera, automatic parking, leather, four-zone climate control, keyless start, electric front seats with memory, electric bootlid, and LED headlights with bending tech.
Inscription in the D5 AWD ups the ante with more performance and grip, 19-inch alloys (up from the base 18s), Nappa leather and ambient lighting.
The T6 equivalent adds another $2K.
Expensive for a Ford-era Volvo perhaps, but the Geely-funded S90 might have just made it as a blinding BMW 5 Series botherer. Maybe not top of the heap, but certainly Vi-kings of the hill.
Model Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription Engine 1969cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo Max power 235kW @ 5700rpm Max torque 400Nm @ 2200-5400rpm Transmission 8-speed automatic Weight 1915kg 0-100km/h 5.9sec (claimed) Economy 7.2L/100km Price $98,900 On sale October