Most people in the States who are in the market for a European luxury sedan have the Teutonic Titans BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi on their mind. The vast majority will choose from that triumvirate without giving any other marques a second thought, and in discarding all other options they would be doing themselves a disservice by not sliding a little farther north to take a look at the Swedes.
The S90 is Volvo’s answer to those German giants. Intended to compete with the Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6 and BMW 5-Series, it combines a raft of luxury features with all the personality a Volvo fan would expect. Having owned BMWs and Audis in the past and driven several Mercedes over the years, I was interested to see what the Swedes were able to do. After all, until the S90 came along, nobody really considered Volvo when it came to a real luxury sedan. They were more the path followed by those who lived a little outside the norm, concerned more with safety and uniqueness than conformity or comfort.
Full disclaimer: I’ve been a Volvo admirer since I was a teenager. The parents of my girlfriend during my sophomore year of high school had a well-worn ‘70s sedan and even more worn ‘70s wagon, and I was allowed to drive them on many occasions. There was something about the combination of rock-solid straight line road feel – This was in Houston, TX, where significant curves are an anomaly – Swedish quirkiness and overall functionality that appealed to me in some strange, unexplainable way.
Six years down the road, my new wife – not the same girl, thank goodness – and I borrowed her brother’s manual transmission 740 wagon for our honeymoon trip to Charleston, SC. It was the first time I’d driven a Volvo since my high school days, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that things hadn’t changed for the worse. Volvos were still weird. They still felt like driving a tank, but the handling was significantly better than the previous Swedish bricks and the shifter in the 740 helped give the car a slight touch of sportiness that my now-adult brain wanted.
Twenty-six years after that honeymoon jaunt and still married to the same beautiful girl, a shiny blue/silver – Volvo calls it Mussel Blue– 2017 Volvo S90 T6 Inscription showed up in my driveway on a cool, bright Friday morning. The first thing she said when she saw it was, “So, what are we doing for our date tonight and where are you taking me for dinner?” Challenge accepted.
As I walked around the car I couldn’t help but note how big the car seems. For what is considered a mid-sized car, it just looks huge. The multi-faceted headlight design, with DRLs that Volvo calls “Thor’s Hammer”, are about as unique as you can get in this class of car. Optional 20-inch wheels, up from standard 19s, don’t seem too large for the car, a common problem when you start upsizing from original factory specs. A simple, clean rear end rounds out the tight lines that are a step up from older designs while still maintaining a certain look that is unmistakably Volvo.
As we headed to dinner, I was struck by how comfortable the soft, supportive Nappa leather seats were. Adjustable bolsters helped me feel snug without being cramped, and the ability to extend the thigh support cured one of my biggest complaints about a lot of modern car seats. Getting those seats adjusted can be a bit confusing until you master the “one knob does a lot of things” design, but once I got the hang of it I was in love.
Volvo’s massive center infotainment system, known collectively as Sensus, was extremely easy to navigate at a glance, which makes it orders of magnitude better than their traditional “every button looks the same but does something different” method of dashboard design in previous models I had driven. At times it suffered a bit of lag, which could be frustrating if trying to find something in a hurry, but all the buttons on the screen did what they were supposed to do and were surprisingly easy to find.
Occupant luxury is the order of the day in the S90, and it does it well. Everywhere I touched felt solid and well built. The steering wheel, while a little thin for my tastes, was comfortable, although the steering effort was way too light at low speeds for me. I’d opt for a different interior color than the blond interior my tester came with because the two-toned steering wheel gets filthy fast if your hands are any dirtier than a brain surgeon’s freshly-washed money makers. Every knob, button and dial felt solid, and fit and finish was almost perfect. Though it sounds like a small thing, can we talk about that rear view mirror? It’s like jewelry. I know it’s weird to wax eloquent about something as simple as a rear view mirror, but it truly is a thing of beauty.
There’s no normal start button for Volvo. Not strange enough, I guess. It’s a knob that you turn, and it’s in a really weird place between the seats instead of the conventional dashboard placement. It’s more what I would expect from a Saab than a Volvo, if Saabs were still made and they had gone from keys to start buttons. My only other real interior complaint was that I kept grabbing the air conditioning vent knob to turn down the radio, only to realize the actual volume control is way down low, in front of the shifter.
The optional Bowers and Wilkins sound system looks like a million dollars and sounds almost as good. The back seats are comfortable, even for someone who’s long of leg and over six feet tall, as verified by two of my taller-than-average friends. All of these niceties combine to make it obvious Volvo put a lot of thought into making sure this car could compete with the big dogs when it comes to cosseting the passengers.
I intentionally chose a circuitous route to get us to one of our favorite restaurants so that I might better understand how the S90 handled. A leg-stretching run on the Interstate, a couple of clover-leaf exits, a roundabout and twisty back roads made for the perfect getting-to-know-each-other drive, and most of what I got to know was good. There was a bit of fore-to-aft rocking over expansion joints on entrance ramps, which I found to be annoying but not a deal breaker. Road noise was louder than I anticipated and the ride was unsettled on uneven pavement. The noise and ride may possibly be attributable to the upsized wheel package, but without another car to test it back-to-back, I’m going to assume it’s more a trait of the car.
At times the 2.0-liter, twin-charged four can get a bit buzzy and feel strained. It’s not that it doesn’t accelerate fairly rapidly. The T6’s 316 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, transmitted to all four corners, will keep all but the sportiest of us content. It just seems to work hard to do it, making raspy noises to punctuate all that effort. Downshifts as you slow down are fairly rough when slowing, banging through the lower gears with a jolt, behaving much rougher than I’d expect in a car that costs over 66 grand, but upshifts were silky smooth. All said, the S90 is comfortable and I wouldn’t hesitate to take it on a long road trip knowing that I’d feel almost as refreshed on arrival as I did on departure. It’s very good at most of what it does.
Around town the car was quicker and nimbler than its size would suggest. Panic braking when the car in front of me decided they were going to stop quickly revealed that the S90 is quite capable in the stopping department. There was no drama. The car tracked straight and the ABS dragged the car down from speed with absolute composure, the nose dipping gracefully and assuredly and then getting us back to the house in complete comfort.
I turned the keys over after my time with S90 and walked away more impressed with Volvo than I had been in years. They’ve addressed many of the concerns I had with their previous cars while still keeping much of the uniqueness I’ve come to love. Though Volvo doesn’t have the same standing in luxury circles as the big three, if you’re not married to the idea of a German luxury car you owe it to yourself to try out the S90. It’s really that good.