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Tested: Volvo's S90 lays on the Swedish charm

Road tests

Johannesburg - The S90 is Volvo’s latest attempt at laying some of that subtle Swedish charm on those who usually default to the German business class establishment that is 5 Series, E-Class, and to a lesser extent A6. 

Not that its previous attempt, the S80, was ever a bad car in its own right, but it certainly lacked the presence and prestige to really attract many second glances in the executive car park.

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Large grille and Thor’s hammer headlights make for an imposing front end. Pictures: Jason Woosey & Volvo SA.

The S90, which is the second ‘new-era’ Volvo built around the company’s SCA modular platform that the latest XC90 inaugurated, promises a whole new world of smart design and cutting-edge gadgets, but can the new sedan really hold its own against its formidable rivals?

It certainly has more parking lot appeal this time around, with its neat but imposing rectangular grille, ‘Thor’s hammer’ headlights and neatly-proportioned three-box side profile, but (and subjective as this might be) I find the rear a bit inharmonious and all-over-the-place by comparison. 

It’s as if the design team spent many sleepless nights perfecting the timelessly elegant front and side views and then had to rush their way through the back end as they started nodding off.

The interior quality revolution that the XC90 started gains further momentum in the S90. 

It has a more horizontal, cockpit-like design, and a tantalisingly elegant blend of plush leathers, soft and grainy slush-moulding and shiny metal surfaces. 

And there really is a lot of metal on the dashboard and inner door panels, creating a solid yet assertively upmarket ambience. 

That said, some of the inlays do look a bit tacked-on and the navigation display in the 31.2cm digital instrument cluster doesn’t curve snugly along the top of the virtual speedo and rev counter like it does at the bottom, but those are minor blemishes in the greater scheme of things.

The S90 is certainly practical, offering acres of rear legroom and reasonable head space, and this car is rather quiet on the road too, even when fitted with one of the two available 2-litre turbodiesel engines as per our D5 test unit.

This range-topping oil burner produces a wholesome 173kW and 480Nm. Of course, it’s not quite in the league of those six-cylinder German flagship diesels (530d and E350 CDi), but then at R786 198 in standard ‘Momentum’ form (or R830 198 in our Inscription test car’s case) it’s actually priced in line with the less powerful BMW 520d (140kW, R770 956), Jaguar XF 2.0d (132kW, R765 900) and Mercedes E220 CDi (143kW, R766 700). In fact to those you’d easier compare the front-driven 140kW/400Nm Volvo S90 D4, which costs just R705 500.

The D5’s twin-turbo motor provides satisfying, effortless performance. Like the D4 it’s mated to a reasonably-smooth eight-speed automatic gearbox, but in the D5’s case power is sent to all four wheels, although road holding remains safe and neutral rather than outright exciting. 

The D5’s engine has a rather simple but ingenious lag-combatting solution in the form of a 2-litre compressed air tank (bottom, left) that gives the turbocharger a handy little huff and puff at low engine speeds before sufficient exhaust pressure has built up. It works like a charm and not once did the D5 feel even remotely laggy off the line.

Our car’s fuel consumption amounted to 9.9 litres per 100km in an urban-heavy mixture of driving conditions, which is quite a bit higher than the manufacturer claims of 4.8 (mixed) and 5.7 (urban) but not too unreasonable for such a large sedan.

If there is one aspect that fell short of expectation it’s the ride quality - especially given that our unit was fitted with the optional (R17 500) rear air suspension system. Sure, on everyday surfaces it does feel cushier than the average car perhaps, but over smaller ripples and bumps it feels harsher than a luxury sedan should, and I’d apportion much of that blame to the oversized and under-profiled optional 21” wheels that were fitted to our test car - although even the standard rims (18” to 19” depending on spec grade) are hardly compact. Looking all swanky might be worth it to many owners, but there is a price to pay over the bumps.

On the safety and gadgets front, this Volvo is equipped to the hilt and even the most basic of S90s come with Volvo’s updated Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system, which can accelerate and brake for you at speeds of up to 130km/h, and if the road markings are clear enough (which is seldom the case) it will even help with the steering, provided you keep your hands on the wheel. Also standard is the whole barrage of hazard detection systems with autobrake but you will pay extra for the Blindspot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert.

Volvo has been quite generous with luxuries too, as you even get standard satnav as part of the huge portrait-orientated touch-screen command centre that’s fitted to every S90.

The interface is generally quite easy to use once you get used to it, but it’s not quite the epicentre of convenience if I have to nitpick. For one, it would have been nice to have all the main menu controls on one main screen instead of having to swipe sideways, although you can configure your own customisable shortcuts if you want. And while changing the temperature or fan speed is a relatively hassle-free two screen clicks away at all times, it’s never going to be as easy as a conventional rotary control. Not to mention how nice they are to touch now that Volvo coats them in metal.

VERDICT

Notwithstanding the slightly jittery ride, which could be mitigated to some degree if you stick to the smaller wheel options, the S90 represents a giant leap forward in Volvo’s sedan game and it’s good value when compared to its rivals. An interesting alternative it sure is.

FACTS

Volvo S90 D5 Inscription

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cylinder twin-turbodiesel

Gearbox: 8-speed automatic

Power: 173kW @ 4000rpm

Torque: 480Nm @ 1750-2250rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 7.0 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 240km/h

Price: R830 198

Warranty: 5-year/100 000km

Maintenance plan: 5-year/100 000km

IOL Motoring

Follow me on twitter @JasonWoosey

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