Test Drive: Five minutes with a Volvo S90 R-Design

What is it?

One of the two 90-badged models that make up Volvo’s ‘second wave’ of SPA/Drive-E new-era cars. Following on from the sensational and class-leading XC90 seven-seat SUV introduced in 2015, the Swedish company is trying to repeat its ‘Scandi trick’ in the class occupied by some true executive heavyweights, like the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6 and Jaguar XF.

To that end, the S90 (saloon) and V90 (estate) twins want to tempt you into something a little bit different from the corporate, typically Teutonic norm. What we’re driving here is the S90 in lesser-powered D4 specification (190hp and 400Nm, instead of 235hp and 480Nm in the D5) but wearing attractive, sporty R-Design kit.

Why are you driving it?

We want to know whether Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (which is what SPA stands for) revolution is going to work beyond SUVs; the next model in this offensive is the XC60, which is already winning plaudits from critics who have enjoyed early test drives.

But can the more prosaic mid-sized saloon and estate cars from Volvo really be as good as the XC variants? Especially as, at the time of writing, there are no petrol choices and no engines with anything more than 2.0-litre and four-cylinders in the S90/V90?

What do you like about it?

Volvo’s current exterior styling trend, which majors on clean, unfussy and swoopy shapes plus those distinctive ‘Thor’s hammer’ running lights/indicators at the front, is really distinctive and with the body kit and bigger alloys of the R-Design model, the S90 looks absolutely superb from almost all angles.

It’s also a big car, at nearly five metres long, which translates into an interior that’s hugely capacious for five people, while there’s a massive boot out the back. But it’s not just a giant interior; it’s beautifully made and appointed, too. A large portrait touchscreen dominates the dash, while digital instruments reside in the driver’s cluster.

Knurled metal finishes to much of the switchgear couple with superb haptics and a feeling of light, classy airiness, and Volvo’s traditionally unsurpassed skill in making the comfiest car seats known to man, to make the S90’s cabin every bit the equal of anything from Audi; high praise, indeed.

Luckily, the car drives wonderfully too. The 190hp diesel engine is smooth and powerful, propelling the big Swede with ease in all situations, and there’s a real elegance to the way the S90 rides and handles. It’s not necessarily the most thrilling thing to steer quickly in the world – a BMW 5 Series or Jaguar XF would be far more fun for the keener driver – but in terms of unflustered luxury, the Volvo is next to impossible to beat, save for buying an air-suspended Mercedes E-Class… and that would be much, much more expensive.

We also particularly like the weighty, reassuring steering of the S90, which makes it more composed in the bends than you might imagine for a luxury Swedish car.

Any issues?

The lack of any six-cylinder engine choice might be a bit of a hindrance at this exalted level and the D4 Drive-E unit does start to sound a little coarser when you demand full power from it; beyond 3,500rpm, it loses its civility and betrays its four-cylinder diesel heritage.

Also – and this is not limited to the S90, as we’ve experienced the same thing when driving other R-Design Volvos – those wide, sporty tyres on the big alloys do seem to generate more tyre roar than on non-R-Design models; the week after this S90, we had the closely related V90 Cross Country and despite it too being on 19-inch wheels, it didn’t have half as much rubber noise as the S90, mainly because its tyres are focused on poor-weather agility over any sort of road-holding tenacity. However, the S90’s main bugbear are those divisive rear lights.

There’s no doubt the V90 is the more attractive car of the pair because it has neater lamp units and we absolutely commend Volvo for being brave with the design of the S90’s back end, but they are fussy clusters that make the rear of the car look convoluted.

What’s it like as a business vehicle – are there any tax benefits?

Keenly priced and running clean, efficient four-cylinder diesel engines results in the S90 having plenty of performance – 0-62mph in 8.2 second and a 40mph top speed represent more than enough punch for most end-users – and yet proper green credentials to go with it.

Therefore, the Volvo S90 is a very tempting business proposition. This R-Design retails at £35,455, which – with a P11D value of £35,400 – means a 40% taxpayer would be paying just £271.40 in tax per month on the Swedish saloon.

It’s also extremely competitive on VED costs (£160 in year one and £140 every year thereafter, if you can avoid ticking options to take the car past the £40,000 threshold), residual values are expected to be impressive and it returned a genuine 40mpg or thereabouts during our week with it; not a great figure, on the face of it, until you realise it never went anywhere near a dual carriageway in that time – so we’d budget on 50-60mpg on motorways being the norm.

Where does it rank in class right now?

We absolutely love these new SPA Volvos and the S90, along with its V90 sibling, is definitely up there in terms of quality when compared to its trailblazing XC90 cousin. However, whereas it’s easy to crown the Swedish SUV as king of its particular market segment castle, making a case for the S90 being class-leader is harder.

It’s certainly a car which majors on quality and luxury, and despite its lack of six-cylinder engines, we’d definitely prefer it to the current alternatives from Audi (the A6 is ancient now and due for replacement imminently), Jaguar (the XF is lovely to look at and drive, but its interior ambience can’t quite match the Volvo) and Lexus (hybrid power is the GS’s speciality, yet there are significant compromises to swallow if you opt for the Japanese machine).

Which just leaves the BMW 5 Series and the Mercedes E-Class. The Beemer is the better car to drive than the S90, the Merc is possibly even comfier than the Swede. But both are more expensive spec-for-spec, while you could argue that neither looks as good as the Volvo inside and out (the S90’s challenging rear lights notwithstanding).

What the BMW and Mercedes both offer is vastly more engine choice than the Volvo, which could be the clincher in any potential deal… and yet, there’s just a certain something about the S90 that makes it incredibly easy to love; its particular blend of attributes is a highly appealing mix. So while we might not be able to unequivocally say the S90 is best-in-class, what we can conclude with is this: buy the big Volvo and you most definitely will not be disappointed. It’s an excellent, exceptional machine.

TECH SPEC

  • Model: Volvo S90 D4 R-Design
  • Price: S90 range starts from £32,955; D4 R-Design from £35,455
  • Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel, eight-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
  • Economy: 64.2mpg
  • CO2 emissions: 116g/km – £160 VED first 12 months, £140 annually thereafter; 23% benefit in kind
  • Top speed: 140mph
  • 0-62mph: 8.2 seconds
  • Power: 190hp at 4,250rpm
  • Torque: 400Nm at 1,750- to 2,500rpm