For years the Volvo saloons and estates were the lifeblood of the brand but of course, in 2020 all that has changed. In South Africa alone at least 80% of Volvo sales are SUVs or raised estates like the V40 CC. S90 sales are few and far between, a trend that is similar for many manufacturers globally.
The S90 then, since its introduction in 2016, has had a hard climb not just competing with dwindling popularity for stately saloons but also competing with those brands with larger badge-beseeching appeal such as Benzes and Beemers not forgetting the likes of Lexus and Audi. All of these manufacturers continue to ply their historical and formidable knowledge in creating executive saloons to rival the Swedish contemporary.
The Swedes, however, have continued with the S90 in the way only they can. There is an air of elegance and grace in the design, devoid of overt clutter or overt eye-drawing creases or fins or lines. Keen-eyed fans will even spot elements of the S90 in the Polestar 1 and 2 models. Rear taillight design cues for example and even the 'Thor’s Hammer' headlights are evidence of Volvo’s design thinking. The S90 is a large car. At 4969mm in length and just over 2019mm wide, its still manages to mask its colossal size quite admirably - such is its grace and unassuming presence.
In this D5 Inscription trim, it may be too unassuming for some. Whilst it does exhibit some chrome additions and 19-inch alloys, it doesn’t command a lot of attention blending in well rather than standing out. There is an optional R-Design package for a sportier look. Its ultimately dependent on preference but despite the options and styling packs, the S90 remains pretty understated to a point where I think it’s starting to age compared to its latest rivals.
You could go the classic woodgrain route or opt for the more modern and sporty metal and chrome look. Whatever you choose, you’re greeted by a classic yet fresh interior design approach. The seats are space-saving yet designed to reduce whiplash and still hold you in a premium level of comfort. The cabin is more evidence to piece together this relaxing drive narrative. The centrepiece of the dashboard is still Volvo’s smartest accomplishment in recent times, the Sensus Infotainment system. Essentially a tablet device, the Sensus system is as intuitive as they come perhaps because of its familiarity to using tablets and smartphones. The functions are accessed via swipes, touches and pinching finger movements. It works a charm and yes it does have the options of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay which essentially mirrors your smartphone interface onto the vehicle's infotainment screen.
The digital instrument cluster, meanwhile, shows the driver some more vital information and depending on the options, a vivid heads-up display is also available. It’s all pristine and neat and clutter-free. Modern but tasteful.
Ergonomically, the cabin is succinctly arranged and pleasantly spacious front and rear. A 1,97-metre passenger could get comfortable in the back seat with my driving position. That is telling.
Boot space of 500-litres isn’t class-leading but it’s a balance between the legroom in the cabin versus the loading volume in the boot. It does come with a small ski hatch opening that also adds a bit more in the way of convenience.
I do have one request on the interior though. Much like the strange and cumbersome ‘mouse’ system in any Lexus, the drive mode selector in the Volvos is not the best in user experience. It looks good, but you have to roll it to highlight the desired drive mode and then press it to select it. But sometimes if you’re doing this on the move, your pressure as you select something can mistakenly result the wheel turning again to the wrong drive mode. It’s not the end of the world but it is a standout note I had to make. And clearly I’m not the only one.
It’s immediately apparent as you drive the S90 that it’s not trying to be anything other than what its makers intended. It’s a charming and comfortable drive, stately in how it rides the curbs and undulations on its suspension. There’s a harmony in the drive especially at low speeds where the car is sedate, whisper quiet and so easy to drive.
The D5 derivative is powered by a 2.0-litre, 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine and its capable of delivering 173 kW and 480 Nm through its 8-speed transmission. It’s paired well with a car of this size delivering composed yet powerful acceleration. Volvo claims a 8,2-second 0 – 100km/h time, something we didn’t adequately test out. You just don’t want to do that sort of thing. Volvo has patented a technology called PowerPulse fitted to these engines. The tech makes use of a small electric motor that aims to keep pressure in the turbo for reducing turbo lag. It works to a certain degree, but you’ll still have the slight wait before the power comes on song. Those all electric Volvos will have it waxed I’m sure.
At speed though, the Volvo becomes slightly less confident with the engine silence and poise giving way to what I can only describe as a wavering behaviour. It’s mainly due to the steering I assume which isn’t as direct as some rivals, but you really only feel it or notice it at high speeds. Again, the case is made that the Volvo S90 chooses to play calm and serene cruiser rather than sporty sedan and I’m totally fine with that. Fuel efficiency is a claimed 4.8l/100km, although our urban driving route reading came in at 7.0l/100km.
Volvo’s plethora of assisted driving and safety systems must be commended and mentioned. There are quite a few of them at work on the car but the ones that require your attention are the Pilot Assist function, Lane Keeping function and Adaptive Cruise Control features. They work well enough continuing this theme of easy and relaxed driving, but once again we have to label these as a work in progress. In Mzansi, where the roads are not so predictable with taxis, cyclists, pedestrians and other motorists not necessarily all obeying the rules, the systems can get quite unpredictable. Add in street vendors and it gets even more interesting. The systems require an initial understanding of how they work, what they do and don't do well etc, but suffice to say that the more urban and chaotic it gets, the more the systems become erratic. Embark on a relaxing cruise to Durban on the freeway, however, and you’ll be treated to a fantastic bevy of driver assistance systems that serve you very well indeed.
At a starting price of just under R1-Million for the flagship Inscription model the Volvo S90 plays in a tough space. There are cheaper derivatives and packages available, but also remember that the options list can add at least R150 000 in bits and bobs to the price. We’d opt for the Premium Pack, a package of options that includes such niceties as the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto addition, things like 360-cameras which you need for a car of this size, as well as Keyless Entry, Premium Bowers & Wilkins Sound system and electric tailgate with foot motion sensor too. That’s a R75 500 option.
On the other side of the spectrum, you could find sportier competitors but the Volvo plays its own game and it plays very well indeed.
The Volvo S90 D5 Inscription is as unpretentious as they come. Its proud and classy but slips out of any arrogance and flattery. It’s a premium product no doubt and it rides with a cocooning comfort for easy, stress-free motoring. If anything, I worry about its design starting to age, especially as updated competitor rivals are introduced with more stand out features.
Of course, it’s a Volvo and so safety is big on the credentials list - not just engineered safety, but Volvo SA is also big on ensuring emergency assistance is there just when you need it. The Volvo on Call app suite of services is where this comes in, linked to your mobile devices and tracked to your car, the app is your link to not just your vehicle for smartphone access and pre-journey climate control settings, but also your link to emergency services in the event of a crash. I like this. A connected car to a connected world. We're getting there.