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Volvo S90 is not 90s anymore thanks to modern touches

In the past the higher you climbed Volvo’s range, the inverse effect it caused on desirability. Squarer, blunter, beiger… Models like the V40 and extinct C30 cocktailed renewed energy but even they carried the remnants of an unhappy marriage with Ford. Geely swooped in, Volvo created its scalable platform, trimmed the engine range down with a 4-cylinder Drive-E and the XC90 emerged as South Africa’s 2016 Car of the Year. A titanic transformation that has now spilled over into the S90.

The problem for Volvo is that their best products occupy the lofty echelons of the respective SUV and sedan brackets, so to access their best products you need to start with over R650 000. The current V40 is so far off these two we prefer not to view it as all that integral to the brand’s progression. But I digress, that’s a short-term problem and technology, as we know, generally gets deposited down the line so with some patience the entire plan will unfold.

The grille and headlights combination will stand Volvo in good stead and with optional 21-inch wheels, that for once do not scrub wheel arches, S90 conveys extravagance rather than foolhardy aspirations sold through optional Line or Sport packages. This is a big car, longer than the XC90 and E-Class, wider than the German too, so granted presence comes easy. A tweak to the turning circle is as important as the car’s myriad camera angles.

Volvo’s D5 PowerPulse engine is the strongest in its class, eclipsing the common 140kW with 173kW and another 50-80Nm where it counts. Loaded with anti-lag bells and whistles like the two-stage, series-sequential twin-turbocharger system with variable geometry. Any remaining lag is flushed out by compressed air fed through to the high-pressure turbo.

Being stuffed with radars, sonars, comfy leather and processing power carries a weight penalty so come the 0-100km/h Volvo doesn’t wear its power advantage quite as patently. It’s better in dynamic mode but where to from here? BMW, Mercedes and Audi all offer a 3.0-litre diesel lump, but slathering Volvo’s range with Drive-E 4-cylinders is commendable but not soul stirring.

Cars in this class are judged on the suspension’s ability to cushion against improperly repaired tarmac. The E-Class is particularly good at it but the S90’s overall suppleness without the optional air suspension didn’t wow us, being tardy when the road suddenly required more accuracy from its damping, highlighted by an all-wheel drive system capable of more.

Pilot Assist autonomous control is now at the point where it does more than the highway cruise. Top Gear gave it several back-road tests which obliged with queues of slow moving traffic but didn’t always meet the criteria for clear lane markings. You can put all your trust in the adaptive cruise control to not bump into the car ahead but Pilot Assist with steering control disengages without much warning, yet when the system has all the information the S90 is capable of small steering adjustments up to 130km/h.

Volvo’s standard entertainment system, a 9-inch touchscreen, requires a minute to master because some of the menu tiles aren’t visible from the home screen. Majority of screens leave the actual hard work to a separate touch point while Volvo recreates that tablet interface with pleasant haptics. It’s not filled with quirky animations or even a vibrant set of colours or fonts but any touchscreen that can command climate settings in the same length of time as a standard button is tremendous.

The attention to detail is superb. Any company that gives a cigarette lighter a diamond-cut finish has higher motivators for quality than what’s generally regarded as acceptable. In the grand scheme of things the drive mode selector isn’t often used, yet Volvo turned this unassuming little wheel into a feature of exquisite design. Multiply that approach all over the cabin.

Evaluate the Volvo for its quality, design, interface and outstanding value. On these gauges the S90 is peerless but once driving feel enters the discussion the Drive-E powertrain and shift response from the 8-speed box produces fairly mild, soccer mom amounts of excitement.

SPECIFICATION

1969cc, 4-cyl, twin turbodiesel, AWD, 173kW, 480Nm, 8-spd

4.8l/100km, 127g/km

0-100km/h in 7.0 seconds, 240km/h

1763kg

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