2019 Volvo S90 T8 review: Hold the charge

  • Engine Turbo/Supercharged, 4 Cylinder Engine
  • Drivetrain All Wheel, All Wheel Drive
  • MPG 29 MPG
  • Passenger Capacity 5
  • Body Type Sedans

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.1 Overall
  • Performance 7.5
  • Features 8
  • Design 9
  • Media 8

The Good Gorgeous looks inside and out make this midsize luxury sedan stand proud among strong competitors.

The Bad The poor brake modulation of the T8 model is a deal-breaker.

The Bottom Line The S90 is one of the best ways to turn heads without appearing as though you're trying too hard.

The Volvo S90 is a smart-looking and super compelling midsize luxury car. Even with attention-getting gaudiness at a minimum, the S90 is still one of the most seductive sedans on the market. It's also incredibly comfortable and relaxing to drive.

You'd think that its fastest and (potentially) most fuel-efficient T8 variant would be the ultimate S90, but I'm not so sure. After a week with the top-tier S90, I think a less-is-more approach might be best if you're considering filling your garage with this salient Swede.

Rush vs. hush

The S90 T8 plug-in hybrid is talented at jolting you back into your seat. With 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque, the nearly 4,600-pound sedan can scoot to 60 miles per hour in 4.8 seconds. On its own, the turbocharged and supercharged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is great at delivering off-the-line torque, but is a little more lively thanks to the 87-horsepower electric motor mounted at the rear axle. All that instant, electric power is especially useful if you need to dart ahead of traffic to make a lane change after the signal turns green.

Once you're on your way, the eight-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly. The ride is comfortable and the interior is quiet, as well, but neither of those two attributes stand out as best in class. My S90 is outfitted with the $1,200 rear air suspension, but despite that, the car still feels like it's riding on nothing more than a good set of steel springs. Perhaps that has something to do with the huge, 20-inch wheels and low-profile tires that come on this T8 Inscription test car. When moving quickly through a turn, its steering lacks accuracy and feel. Keeping things down to a cruise is more the S90's speed. Unless you're darting away from a traffic light, this sedan would rather be hushed than rushed.

That said, the brakes really feel like they need to go back to the drawing board. Under initial braking, you feel normal pedal pressure and everything goes smoothly until you're about 25 percent through the pedal's travel. Then, as though the car has pooped out a parachute, top-fuel dragster-style, you and your passengers jolt forward as the car stops with greater force. The S90 T8's regenerative brakes are to blame here -- the transition from regen to mechanical braking is really jarring. Every other T8-spec Volvo does this, too.

This sort of poor braking modulation is a deal breaker for me. Luckily, the non-plug-in-hybrid Volvo S90 doesn't have that problem, so I'd recommend getting a T6 model instead.

The S90 T8 works best if you plug it in often.

Keiron Berndt/Roadshow

Keep your money secured

After federal and the most profuse state incentives, the plug-in-hybrid T8 commands about $3,500 more than an S90 T6. But even with the government's help, I don't think the T8's extra fuel efficiency warrants the price.

According to the EPA's annual fuel cost estimates, with the money saved on gas, it would take the average consumer more than six years to recoup the extra dough spent up front on a T8 versus a T6 (again, factoring in federal and generous state incentives).

During my week with the T8, I often used the Save Mode that allowed me to recharge the battery while driving. Charging the S90's battery on the go used a lot of fuel, though, and as a result, I achieved less than 23 miles per gallon after 500 miles of mixed city and highway meandering. Had I never employed Save Mode, I would have gotten closer to the EPA's 29 mpg combined estimate. And had my trips been short enough to use electric power only, I would have approached the EPA's 71 MPGe figure. The T6, meanwhile, is estimated to achieve 25 mpg combined, without having to plug in.

Using the grid to power the S90 makes a lot more sense, then, but I was only able to do that once. After a full work day of 110-volt charging (240-volt charging takes around three hours), I was able to complete a 17-mile trip on electrons alone, easily keeping the car strictly electric even at highway speeds. The S90's gas engine is quiet, but driving in silence on e-power alone (Pure Mode) elevates the car's luxurious appeal. I wish I could have had it in Pure Mode more often.

This sultry Swede oozes curb appeal.

Keiron Berndt/Roadshow

Stricken by Thor's Hammer

The S90 is striking. Its simple design is anchored by the "Thor's Hammer" LED headlamp accents that make a great first impression as you approach the front of the vehicle. But no matter the angle, Volvo's midsize luxury sedan carries an imposing but approachable presence. Dimensionally, it's long, low and wide, with design features that amplify its confident stance and proportions.

The interior is just as impressive. My tester is outfitted with Maroon Brown perforated Nappa leather, complemented by walnut wood trim that lends to a high-quality cabin that's as good-looking as it is comfortable. The S90's seats are cosseting, and activating the available massage function for the driver and front passenger seats dials the comfort up to 11. That heavy-hitting comfort lasts whether you're behind the wheel for just a few minutes or a few hours.

A 12.3-inch instrument cluster display sits ahead of the driver, while a 9-inch Sensus Connect touchscreen atop the center stack can run Android Auto as well as Apple CarPlay.

Keiron Berndt/Roadshow

Safe and sound technology

The interior's elevated plushness is bolstered by a laudable 1,400-watt, 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system, but surprisingly, I was a little more impressed by the version of the system I tested in the Volvo XC60 earlier this year. Still, for the level of sound you're getting, upgrading to the top-spec audio package is a bargain for $3,200.

Infotainment is managed via Volvo's Sensus Connect interface that's a bit busy with its bevy of menus. I found myself tapping and swiping more than I felt necessary on the center stack's 9-inch touchscreen, but overall, it's not a bad system. My favorite thing about it is how Apple CarPlay or Android Auto take residence in the lower portion of the screen while Sensus menus are always at the ready near the top. As much touching as Sensus Connect requires, it's nice that you at least don't have to click out of smartphone mirroring to get access to the car's native interface.

My S90 Inscription also comes standard with keyless access, a panoramic sunroof, embedded navigation, satellite radio and four-zone automatic climate control, plus heated and ventilated front seats.

Standard driver-assistance features include collision-mitigation braking, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beams and blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert. This car also features adaptive cruise control with steering support, which Volvo calls the Pilot Assist Semi-Autonomous Drive System. It works about as well as most radar-guided cruise control systems with automated steering, but it could do a smoother job of keeping me between the lines along gently curved sections of freeway.

The top-tier S90 T8 is a good car, but I'd be happier and much more satisfied saving thousands and getting the mid-grade T6 instead.

Keiron Berndt/Roadshow

How I'd spec it

For about $11,000 less than my car's $82,190 as-tested price (including $995 for destination), I'd have an S90 I'd be much happier to live with day to day. I'd start with the all-wheel-drive T6 Inscription at $58,600. With 316 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque and a 0-60 time of 6.0 seconds, that's plenty of power and traction for me.

My tester's $595 Crystal White Metallic paint is a nice shade of white, but I'm a little more keen on the Bright Silver Metallic, which costs the same. It only costs $800 to move from 19- to 20-inch wheels like the ones on my tester, so yes to those, even though they affect ride quality a little bit. Instead of the Maroon Brown, I'd opt for the much brighter Blond Perforated Nappa Leather that makes the walnut trim pop a lot more. T6 models come with a leather gear-shift knob as opposed to my tester's Orrefors crystal knob which I absolutely detest -- it feels so cold and uncomfortable in my hand, and it's a design trend I'd like to see dead and decomposing.

When it comes to available option bundles, I swear by the $2,550 Convenience Package which includes features like automated parallel parking, a 360-degree camera and a power trunk lid. The $3,450 Luxury Package adds massaging front seats, heated and ventilated rear seats and an upgraded rear-passenger center armrest that I actually don't like because it prevents the rear seatbacks from folding. For me, though, the lack of a folding rear row is a bullet worth biting in order to gain those front-seat massagers, but be advised that the S90 -- even the base, front-wheel-drive, 2.0-liter turbo, 250-horsepower model at $48,100 -- offers a stingy 13.5 cubic feet of trunk space, so if you need the extra room with the rear seats folded, you may want to skip the Luxury Package.

Notable options I'd choose in addition to the B&W audio include the $900 head-up display and the $300 heated steering wheel, which makes us arrive at $71,390 including destination.

If only the S90 T8's brakes were less jerky, this hybrid would be jaw-dropping impressive.

Keiron Berndt/Roadshow

Not electrifying enough

The Volvo S90 T8 could work for a sliver of consumers who stick within a 21-mile radius of a 240-volt charger, or perhaps those who just want the greatest-possible straight-line performance. But if Volvo wants to make its top-of-the-tree T8 a real winner, it needs to work on that braking feel.

The S90 T6, meanwhile, is a car I'd happily welcome into my garage any day.

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