Pass through a high-end shopping mall's parking lot or drive around any well-heeled neighborhood and you're almost guaranteed to see a horde of luxury vehicles. In that mix, it's a good bet products from Germany will be well represented.
Cars and crossovers proffered by Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are more popular than Matlock reruns in an assisted-living facility, and for good reason. Their vehicles are almost universally stylish, well built and pleasant to drive. Throw in passenger-coddling cabins, high levels of brand prestige as well as the latest automotive technology and it's easy to understand why motorists purchase so many vehicles from Germany, Inc.
But there are options if you'd rather stand out from the crowd. And one of the best is Volvo's S90, a welcome alternative to other large sedans like the E-Class or 5 Series. Even a few model years after its introduction, the current generation of this suave and sophisticated Swede is still more than worthy of your consideration, even if not very many drivers have yet taken notice.
Through September of this year, Volvo dealerships in the US delivered fewer than 2,300 copies of the S90, a pitiable showroom performance, especially for such an appealing machine. But don't let lackluster sales deter you. This just makes the car more exclusive. It's a good bet nobody on your subdivision cul-de-sac or racquetball team will have one. Can the same be said of Audi's A6? I think not.
Even in sporty R-Design trim, the S90 is an exercise in subtlety. Its lines are clean and elegant, the interior sumptuous and indulgent. Plus, with a heavy emphasis on safety, it ends up being more Swedish than lingonberry preserves or flat-packed furniture.
Gracing the S90 with dramatic proportions, designers lengthened the dash-to-axle measurement to provide rear-wheel-drive proportions in a front-drive package. With clean flanks, a perky rear end and Volvo wordmark spelled out in a classic serif font on the trunk lid, this is a seriously attractive sedan.
But it's not only nice to look at, this car is more secure than a main battle tank. Delivering a knockout crash-test performance, this stately sedan is built on the Volvo Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), a platform that underpins nearly all of the automaker's current lineup. This granitic foundation helped the S90 ace every one of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's rigorous evaluations, allowing it to drive away with a Top Safety Pick rating. A bevy of other advanced safety features like blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, collision mitigation support and lane-keeping assist don't hurt, either.
Adding an extra measure of sport, R-Design models are slightly more aggressive looking than either the base Momentum trim or higher-end Inscription variant. They're dressed up with special mirror caps, a unique grille and five-spoke, 19-inch wheels. All these exterior elements are finished in black for a jaunty look.
Inside, there's a special R-Design steering wheel, metallic-mesh trim on the dashboard and doors, sport padding for the seats plus a few other tweaks. These models also gain a premium Harman Kardon sound system with a subwoofer, though an even fancier Bowers and Wilkins arrangement is optional for $3,200. Keeping everyone comfortable, quad-zone climate control is included as well along with laminated window glass for reduced noise intrusion, power-operated rear sunshades and cushion extensions for the front bucket seats.
As one would expect in a high-end car like this, the standard-equipment list is longer than a roll of raffle tickets. Even entry-level Momentum models feature loads of goodies, things like a 12.3-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster, Volvo's Sensus infotainment system with integrated navigation, adaptive cruise control and heated windshield-washer nozzles. Beyond all that, dual exhaust tips and a panoramic moonroof are included at no extra charge.
But regardless of trim, the S90's cabin is beautifully designed and built. The leather is creamy smooth, the speaker grilles look like they belong on high-end furniture and everything is built with uncompromising precision. A thoughtful touch, the metal seatbelt latch plates have "Since 1959" stamped into them, a nod to Nils Bohlin, an engineer at Volvo who invented the modern, three-point safety restraint, which has saved untold lives.
Comfort is another high point here; the multi-adjustable front bucket seats are supple yet supportive and the back bench offers stretch-out quantities of legroom, even for the gangliest of passengers.
One downside to the S90's interior is the usability of some of its features. For instance, a few of the buttons on the steering wheel are incomprehensibly labeled. The Sensus infotainment system is also not one of my favorites, being likewise cumbersome to use, though it does seem more responsive than it has in the past, so that's good.
Another thing that's plenty alert is the S90's powertrain. If you find a four-cylinder engine in a luxury car to be simply vulgar, this Volvo just might change your mind. With a lung capacity of 2.0-liters, this four-pot is absolutely heroic, cranking out 316 horsepower with 295 pound-feet of peak torque. Helping deliver the goods from such limited displacement, this tiny tot is boosted to within an inch of its life by both a supercharger and turbocharger, the former providing low-end punch until sufficient exhaust flow gets the latter blower up and running.
Still, this over-pressurized engine is a little gem. No matter the driving situation, it's always incredibly smooth and quiet, with scarcely any noise or burdensome vibration breaching the car's NVH defenses. It also pulls with admirable vigor no matter where the tachometer needle is pointing, hustling the S90 with ease. Thanks to technology, a larger engine is simply not required in this car, as the performance is entirely adequate.
An eight-speed automatic transmission helps enable the S90's impressive performance. Shifts are almost always prompt and polite, though on one or two occasions during my week-long test it did get a bit flustered, but this was a rare occurrence.
That mostly likable gearbox, along with a seamless engine stop-start system, enhances fuel economy. With power aplenty and standard all-wheel drive, the US EPA rates this large four-door at 21 miles per gallon around town and 31 mpg on highway drives. Combined, it should average 25 mpg, not too shabby.
For drivers who want more giddy-up (it's debatable whether you need more), Volvo also offers the S90 with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. It's available in midrange R-Design and top-shelf Inscription models, though not the base Momentum trim. That twin-charged, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is the foundation of this system, though it's augmented by an 87-hp electric motor that's juiced by a 10.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Altogether, this system cranks out 400 hp with 472 lb-ft of twist. Electric-only driving range is estimated at 21 miles.
The S90 is plenty quick in nearly any driving situation. It's also quiet and comfortable, though the car's handling is unremarkable, even in R-Design form with the optional, $1,200 rear air-suspension system. You get no thrills driving this Volvo, not that it's intended to wow with scalpel-sharp steering. Its dynamics are entirely competent, perfectly class competitive.
Pilot Assist is essentially Volvo's version of adaptive cruise control with lane centering. It can accelerate and slow the vehicle down as dictated by traffic conditions. It can also steer the car around corners, helping reduce driver fatigue in the process. Pilot Assist can be extremely handy on long trips, but what it is not is an autonomous-driving solution. You must keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times.
For the most part, Pilot Assist works well. It's particularly adept at following other traffic, seamlessly maintaining a safe following distance, even in rush-hour congestion, however, the steering component of this system's functionality could use a little work. Yes, it will navigate corners, and, yes, it's mostly accurate, but it feels janky, the wheel often sawing left and right as it negotiates turns.
So, what does all this Scandinavian goodness cost? Well, sidestep every single option and you can drive home in a Momentum model S90 for as little as $52,190, a price that includes $995 in destination fees.
Naturally, the midrange R-Design variant tested in this review cost a bit more. It checked out at a still not-unreasonable $64,290, a figure that seems slightly more affordable than similarly equipped versions of the BMW 5 Series and E-Class Mercedes. That MSRP, of course, includes options like metallic paint, available 20-inch wheels, the abovementioned Bowers and Wilkins sound system, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel, the Advanced Package and a few other things, meaning you could get an R-Design for even a few grand less than that.
With sleek styling, a spacious, upscale interior and smooth-running powertrain, the Volvo S90 is a commendable luxury sedan and a warmer, friendlier-feeling option than some of the German competition. It's just a shame they don't sell more of them, but perhaps the S90 is just too subtle for its own good.