Minimalism: It was once a German tradition, the modernist Bauhaus movement bringing us now cherished art, architecture, furniture and more, yet most things German have overcomplicated in recent years, especially within the automotive sector. Fortunately we have the Scandinavians to fall back on, creators of clean modern furniture design, tastefully styled clothing, elegantly simple horology, and Volvo.
Whether we’re talking Ikea, H&M, Daniel Wellington, or any number of other Swedish or Danish brands, some more luxury-oriented names being Andersen, Artek, BoConcept, and Lyx on the home front; House of Dagmar, Malene Birger, L’Homme Rouge, Filippa K, and Sondergaard among wearables, the latter category also including Bravur, Pansar, Epoch, Obaku, Skagen, and Triwa wristwatches, not to mention the latter company’s eyewear, the common theme being a less is more design philosophy that’s often combined with unparalleled value. Volvo is not only included in this reductivist rooted camp, but they’ve led the way for decades.
I’ve long felt that Volvos epitomized understated good taste and style, from the beautiful and extremely rare ’50s-era Sport P1900, gorgeous P1800s of the ’60s, P130s of the same era, elegant 164 from the early ’70s, stunning P1800ES hatch from the same time period, sturdy looking 240/260s series sedans and coupes, including the powerful turbos and chopped Bertone-built 262, and boxy but modernist 760 variants from the ’80s, which culminated in the elegant Bertone-designed and produced 780, again minimalism at its finest (although that one was Italian influenced). The ’90s saw the popular 800 and 900 series cars that transformed into the first S70 sedan and V70 wagon, these cars, including the earliest S40/V40s, the stunning S80 and ultra-popular XC90 being the first Volvos I experienced first-hand as my budding automotive journalism career took flight.
Volvo kindly sent me to Málaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol to drive the V50 and then the more cosmopolitan Barcelona to experience its design studio ahead of a flight to Palma to drive the then-new C30 throughout the island of Mallorca. It seems the Swedish brand has a thing for Spain, with even its freshest models, this S90 and the more practical yet still beautiful V90 wagon, introduced to the global media in the province of Málaga, although farther south in Estepona. Alas, this time around I stayed home to drive the S90 in and around my town, and while not as old and quaint as the comparatively tiny Spanish town, we enjoy a more modern take on beauty.
“Modern take on beauty” is a phrase that can be used for Volvo’s latest arrivals, especially this S90. It’s the latest and greatest four-door luxury sedan in the mid-size E-segment, or at least that’s my opinion. It combines those clean, crisp, almost stark Scandinavian design principles noted earlier, with one of the most beautifully imagined and exquisitely crafted interiors currently available, and moves it all with the industry’s most advanced lineup of powertrains, period.
The S90’s exterior design is unlike anything else on the road. The shape of its chromed waterfall grille isn’t all that unusual, per se, although it’s nice to see the classic Volvo crest slashed through the middle, but the Thor’s Hammer LED headlamps are two of the most distinctive design elements in the auto industry. Again, the lower fascia is attractively penned, but could be pulled from an Audi or any number of competitors, such the result of aerodynamics forming the cars we drive. The four-door sedan’s long, lean profile incorporates unique rear quarter windows that taper upward and downward near equally as they come to a squared off end, although the S90 truly stands out from the crowd when viewed from behind. A delicately arcing integrated spoiler finishes off the trunk’s trailing edge before falling away into a blunt, rectangular backside that appears to be paying tribute to its boxier ’90s-era S90 forebear, in a good way, while its unorthodox taillight design is downright radical next to others in the class, or anything else, but brilliantly executed just the same. Volvo dressed up my top line T6 Inscription AWD model with tasteful chrome detailing in key areas, while the interior was even more impressive.
Finding a more exquisitely executed cabin would be difficult in the S90’s segment. To this end Volvo hasn’t missed opportunity to cover nearly every surface in something soft and luxuriant, hard plastic near impossible to find unless it’s purposely applied. This Inscription model even goes so far to painstakingly stitch together seemingly handcrafted leathers, especially finely finished where the dash top pointedly meets up with the instrument panel below, the door uppers executed differently albeit with a similar level of artisan precision, while the wonderfully comfortable, superbly supportive, multi-adjustable front seats get tiny blue and yellow Swedish flags sewn to their inner sides; strange that we’ll likely never see Lexus do anything similar with the Japanese flag, Genesis with the Korean, Cadillac with the stars and stripes, or Buick with the Chinese (of course, I jest because Volvo could just as well wave a Chinese flag too, it’s ownership now Geely, but it designs and builds its cars in Sweden).
Back to those doors, rounded planks of open-pore hardwood hover in relief above the leathers and metals below, also stretching across the IP and lower console. Satin-silver metals add some twinkle throughout the cabin too, highlighted by drilled aluminum speaker grilles that provide a welcome view to the yellow and silver Bowers & Wilkins hardware behind (there’s a single speaker atop the dash that’s pretty cool too), while much of the switchgear is done out in piano black lacquer, not normally a favorite of mine due to its overuse in everything from the ultra-cheap Mitsubishi Mirage to the somewhat pricier Rolls-Royce Ghost, and its attraction to smudging, scratches and dust, but in the S90 it’s mostly used for switchgear (center stack surfacing aside) so I’ll try to keep an open mind.
In sharp contrast to the rest of the S90’s purposefully understated elegance is the blingy (once again) gloss black topped and diamond-pattern bright metal-sided ignition switch, and the equally flashy scrolling selectable driver mode button; Bauhaus it’s not. This bit of nouveau riche glitz is clearly targeting oversize wristwatch buyers that take pleasure in wowing novice horologists with their gaudy Breitling Montbrillants and even worse, Joe Rodeos, but it seems out of place in a car that’s otherwise so well thought out (although for some reason I’m in love with Volvo’s new leather-wrapped and diamond-pattern metal key fob, I’m so confused). Keeping up with its master of complications styling you’re forced to twist the awkward protuberance to the right to start the engine and to the left to shut it off, an annoying process that could be much more effectively managed by a simple button doing both.
Likewise, choosing Dynamic sport mode, Eco mode or the default Comfort setting requires pressing the other textured metal button and then using it to scroll through options that automatically pop up on the infotainment screen, a tedious process that would be much more effectively dealt with by a simple toggle switch or dial. In fact, Volvo should switch these contraptions around and use a fixed version of the scrolling switch for ignition duties and the rotating one for selecting drive modes. Of note, Audi previously used a similar two-step approach with its selectable driver mode system, but they’ve since abandoned it after coming to the realization nobody likes overcomplicating otherwise simple tasks, especially the busy executive types that pay big money for a premium ride.
It doesn’t take major money to tell the difference between high-quality electronic interfaces and poorly executed derivatives, with nearly everyone sporting a big screen smartphone and retina display tablet these days, and the infotainment interface just noted is among the highest caliber available in the auto industry. If you’re used to a tablet of any stripes you’ll feel right at home with the S90’s Sensus touchscreen, as it’s a matter of simple swipes up and down or from side to side, depending on functions, the process accessing myriad features from the usual navigation, climate control, audio, phone setup, and the list goes on, to downloadable applications, one even needed for playing AM radio that’s strangely not available. Everything is nicely laid out and extremely easy to sort through just the same. As for its graphics, the team responsible for creating the ignition jewelry was obviously not involved, as there’s hardly anything colorful to be found, unless you mistakenly consider gray a color. Then again, if your gearbox is slotted into reverse and you’ve paid extra for the upgrade, the best 360-degree overhead parking monitor I’ve ever experienced will let you pick out finely detailed images in their full, vivid, glorious original hues, this the high-resolution Google Earth of parking cameras.
The configurable TFT gauge cluster ahead of the driver is equally clear and crisp, and downright cheery in comparison to the infotainment system’s mostly monotone touchscreen, with blues, reds and metal chromes dressing up its brilliantly high-resolution display, Volvo not holding back on the latest, greatest technologies, like mentioned earlier in this review, albeit the brand doesn’t go as far graphically or functionally as Lexus, for instance; something in between would be nice.
There’s no sunglasses holder above, but an attractively designed overhead console provides LED lighting, SOS telematics, and controls for the conventionally sized moonroof. With no panoramic sunroof available, rear seat passengers are denied natural overhead light so they might as well block it all with side window sunshades, while they’ll also benefit from a fairly comprehensive auto HVAC touchscreen with integrated outboard seat heaters, B-pillar directional vents to increase airflow, a flip-down center armrest with a shallow lidded compartment, recessed tray, and fancy set of pop-out cupholders.
The rear seats are “phenomenally comfortable”, or so said my notes, although I probably wasn’t just caught up in the moment as this is expected in Volvos, while the rear compartment is as nicely finished as that in front. There’s no shortage of room in back either, with at least 10 inches of air ahead of my knees when the driver’s seat was set for my five-foot-eight medium-build body, plus at least four to five inches above my head. This means mid-six-footers should have room to spare, especially long-legged ones.
In a very unusual move Volvo incorporates powered switches above the rear seatbacks for lowering the headrests, a duplicate set up front to do likewise for improved rearward visibility, plus a second set for releasing the 60/40-split rear seatbacks from their mountings to access the trunk, but I couldn’t find any similar releases, or even mechanical ones, within the cargo area where they’re needed most (Volvo’s press material says they’re there, but they must be very well hidden). The trunk is nevertheless large with 17.6 cubic feet available, nicely finished with a carpeted load floor and sidewalls, but none of the fancy chromed tie-down hoops or brushed stainless sill protector plates offered by others in the class. There’s a handy center pass-through, however, but I’d rather have the benefit of a 40/20/40-split rear row so more gear, such as skis, can be loaded down the center while rear passengers enjoy the heated outboard seats after a day on the slopes.
I’d sooner be in the driver’s seat, mind you, and not only for its three-way heatable elements and equally numbered ventilation settings, which I used more during my mid-summer test, but rather to take control of its class-leading mechanicals. I know, “class-leading” is a big claim, and to Volvo’s credit they’re not making it, I am. Most luxury brands utilize four-cylinder powertrains in base trims these days, even in their mid-size offerings, the majority direct injected, some turbocharged, others supercharged, but none except Volvo incorporating all three technologies into one single engine design.
This version of its advanced new lightweight high-pressure die-cast aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve, 2.0-liter four-cylinder Drive-E engine, dubbed T6, is one of two powerplants currently available in the S90 line. The other is the T5, which only drives the front wheels with 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque; the T6 is standard with AWD. We can expect a T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid in the near future, probably identical to the 475 horsepower version used for the top-line XC90, but unlike some of the brand’s older models, there won’t be any five- or six-cylinder offerings available, and unlike the old S80, we won’t see a Yamaha-derived V8 (what a fabulous engine that was). Instead, this version of Volvo’s four makes 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, which are premium-V6 numbers these days, and it feels like it.
The S90 pulls off the line with gusto, much thanks to its Haldex-sourced AWD, although instead of frantic excitement it’s an ultimately smooth, creamy, whipped gusto, the latter at least partially due to its impressively refined eight-speed “Geartronic” automatic transmission, a thoroughly modern unit sourced from Aisin in Japan rather than Germany’s ZF, the usual go-to supplier for multi-speed autoboxes. It features manual Sport mode, adaptive shift control, and auto start/stop that, which when switched to Eco mode even disengages the engine when coasting at the 3 mph mark instead of the usual complete stop, these technologies helping the S90 achieve impressive fuel economy, with official EPA ratings being 27 mpg city/highway combined with FWD, or 25 mpg combined for AWD.
Volvo also claims that Drive-E AWD is the world’s cleanest combustion drivetrain relative to power, with an emissions rating of 148 g/km of CO2, which means it delivers more than 2 hp per gram of CO2.
The S90’s as-tested optional air suspension mixes a European firmness for rock solid stability and easily controllable handling, with extreme comfort. It really absorbs all but the worst big bumps and deep dips, while feels light and agile when pushed hard, and a lot easier to coax through a curve than some of its peers. Truly, the S90 is designed to take to corners more assertively than all but the brand’s most aggressive Polestar trims, while the engine has that classic four-cylinder feel I happen to love, complete with high-revving power and visceral delivery, albeit much smoother and more refined than anything from Volvo’s past.
I was a bit put off that steering wheel paddles aren’t even offered, but this may be due to only having base and Inscription versions available so far, R-Design trim typically set up with paddles at hand and other performance-oriented upgrades. Instead you can swap cogs via the shift lever, which when matched to Dynamic mode makes for a spirited drive, my tester’s upgraded 20-inch rims circled by 255/35R20 rubber that no doubt helps in every respect.
The well-priced $46,950 base T5 FWD model gets 18s, but is nevertheless equipped with much more standard kit than its German peers, including proximity access and keyless “twist-knob” ignition (I just coined that term, so don’t blame Volvo), fog lamps, adaptive cruise control, an eight-inch driver display within the gauge cluster, the big infotainment touchscreen with all the usual standard functions including the unusual inclusions of navigation with map guidance, road sign info, Volvo On Call with Hot Spot Wi-Fi capability, HD and satellite radio, a backup camera, plus more, while additional standard items include rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone auto HVAC, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear parking sensors, Dark Flame Birch hardwood inlays, powered front seats with four-way lumbar and driver-side memory, a moonroof, power-folding rear headrests, an alarm, the Pilot Assist semi-autonomous drive system, a lane keeping aid, powered child locks, tire pressure monitoring, Volvo’s renowned City Safety suite of electronic driver assistance features that even include large animal detection and run-off road mitigation, both world firsts, plus all the usual active and passive safety features (the outgoing S80 having earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating so the S90 will likely follow suit when tested), and so much more.
The move up to the $52,950 T6 AWD includes the aforementioned powertrain upgrades as well as a 12.3-inch fully configurable gauge cluster and heatable front seats, while along with 19-inch alloys, $3,300 Inscription trim ($3,500 with the T5) adds full-LED headlamps, cornering fog lamps, laminated side windows, upgraded LED ambient lighting inside, four-zone auto HVAC, a cooled glove box, Apple CarPlay added to the infotainment system, the Scandinavian-sourced Linear Walnut inlays I went on about before, ventilated front seats, power cushion extenders and side support seats, higher grade leather upholstery and interior trim, a leather key fob, rear side sunshades, plus more (I couldn’t verify if the leather used in the Inscription is sourced from Sweden’s eco-friendly Tärnsjö tannery that upholstered the stunning Volvo Concept Estate; the company also providing Elk hides for the appropriately named Volvo Tärnsjö concept of 1983 and more recently, watch straps for Triwa).
My tester included a $1,050 Climate Package with heated washer nozzles, a heated windshield, heatable steering wheel and heated rear seats; while my car also had the $1,950 Vision Package that adds visual park assist with a front “fisheye” view, power-retractable auto-dimming side mirrors, and blindspot information with cross-traffic alert; plus it also included a $1,000 Convenience Package with front parking sensors, automated parking, a compass integrated into the rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a powered trunk lid, and more; while standalone options included Crystal White Pearl Metallic paint for $560, the aforementioned 20-inch alloys for $750, the Premium Air Suspension for $1,200, a head-up display for $900 (which deleted the heated windshield), and last but hardly least the 1,400-watt, 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio upgrade that’s worth every one of its $2,650.
Other than a yearning for paddles to extract as much as possible from the fabulous powertrain, Volvo’s new for the sake of new, different for the sake of different, and oh-so un-Swedish fashion-first ignition system, and the juxtaposed near colorless infotainment design that seems like such a waste of all those pixels and the expensive graphics card within, I’m absolutely in love with the new S90. This is a superb car that not only deserves to be compared against luxury rivals from Germany, the U.S., Japan, and soon South Korea, it’s in many ways more advanced, more refined, and just plain better than the best in this segment. I’m able to look past some of its fashion faux pas for those headlights alone, as well as its avant-garde taillights, and I’m sure the Inscription’s interior will win award after award, but it’s the powertrain that hoists Volvo on top of the heap and has won my support.
Watch out Germany, the Swedes are back in a big way.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.