The improved version of Volvo's S90 full-sized executive saloon offers something refreshingly different in its segment, thinks Jonathan Crouch.
If you're thinking of buying a full-sized executive car, then you're probably thinking of a BMW 5 Series, an Audi A6 or a Mercedes E-Class. Other brands have tried and failed to upset German dominance in this segment, Volvo being one of them. The Swedish maker's old S80 never managed to make much of an impact here - but then that was a car from a different era of Volvo ownership.
These days, the Gothenburg marque has huge Chinese investment to drive it forward and the result is a much stronger range of product - cars in fact like this one. Volvo itself reckons that this improved S90 (and its V90 estate counterpart) represent even more of a step forward than the second generation XC90 SUV did - and sure enough, this car showcases the Gothenburg brand's latest Plug-in hybrid tech.
Because this S90 uses the same 'Scalable Product Architecture' as its XC90 SUV stablemate, it also uses many of the same engines too, or at least it did. This car is now only available in our market with the brand's PHEV Plug-in tech. Only the T8 Plug-in package is available
This powerplant comes with 303hp, plus an extra 87hp of boost on demand, so 62mph from rest can still be dispatched in just 4.8 on the way to a restricted maximum of 112mph. Yet there's also the potential for the kind of fuel and CO2 readings that theoretically could equal those of a frugal supermini.
Which of those two extremes you reach in an S90 T8 will depend on your choice between the five driving settings that owners of all Volvo Plug-in hybrid models are offered. Ultimate speed is delivered by a 'Power' mode that sees both petrol and electric units permanently working together. Alternatively, there are four other drive choices: a 'Hybrid' setting that sees the two engines cutting in and out as necessary: an 'AWD' mode that gives you permanent 4x4 traction: plus a 'Pure electric' setting that only uses the battery power and can take you up to 28 miles (more than most people's daily commuting distance) on a single charge. There's even a 'Save' option so that on a longer trip, you can hold that charge until you get to the city driving you might have to do at the end of the journey.
On the move, the drivetrain with its smooth 8-speed auto transmission doesn't serve up anything that encourages much driving involvement -blame the rather vague steering for that - but in compensation, there's unruffled poise and exemplary refinement. You get supple standards of ride comfort from the soft suspension too. And if you do push on a bit, grip and traction are actually quite impressive and cornering bodyroll decently well controlled.
Design and Build
Visual updates to more recent versions of this car are minor - new fog lights, a fresh spoiler design and a new lower front bumper. Otherwise, the look of this car is as before. This remains the most credible full-sized executive saloon Volvo has brought us to date. The S90 has a proud yet non-aggressive face, characterised by a concave grille - apparently a homage to the Volvo P1800 - that's home to the brand's distinctive 'Iron Mark' logo. The T-shaped 'Thor's Hammer' lights are recognisable from the XC90 and deliver a powerful sense of direction that makes this car unmistakable on the road.
Step inside an S90 and if you've previously tried the brand's second generation XC90 model, it'll all be pretty familiar, though a difference lies with smart air blades that stand vertically on each side of the Sensus user interface. This massive tablet-like touch screen control plays a key role in creating an interior that is modern, spacious and uncluttered. Changes made to this updated model are minor. You can now specify seats with an exclusive tailored wool blend, there's an improved version of the premium Bowers & Wilkins surround sound system and there are now double USB-C charging points in the rear. The 461-litre boot is big for an executive saloon PHEV but if that's not enough, then the brand also offers a spacious V90 estate version of this design.
Market and Model
You're looking at around £56,000 for one of these and there are two very similarly priced trim levels - sporty 'R-Design' and the more luxury-orientated 'Inscription'. This model is directly aimed at full-sized executive segment PHEV rivals like BMW's 530e and 545e, Audi's A6 50 TFSIe and the Mercedes E300e. Standard S90 equipment includes 19-inch alloy wheels and leather upholstery.
Inside, the tablet-like touch screen in the centre console drives the minor controls and a whole host of Internet-based products and services. Audio services in the plushest 'Inscription' variant comes courtesy of a monster Bowers & Wilkins stereo. The electronically controlled air suspension has choice of five modes, including one where the driver is free to tailor the settings to his or her personal taste.
S90 safety gear includes a run off-road protection package which tightens seatbelts and activates energy-absorbing technology in the seats when the car detects challenging terrain ahead. Another system is the auto-braking feature, which cuts in if a driver pulls out in front of oncoming traffic. Plus the S90 also features a large animal detection set-up capable of detecting large animals such as elk, horses or moose, night or day.
Cost of Ownership
The Recharge plug-in S90 variants achieve an all-electric driving range of up to 36.7 miles, assuming you limit yourself to the car's 'Pure' all-EV mode. As for the WLTP fuel and CO2 stats, well the figures are up to 148.7mpg and 44g/km. As with any plug-in hybrid, there's little point in purchase unless you establish a regular recharging regime for the battery pack, which in this case is 11.6kWh in size. Customers will be able to buy a wallbox from Volvo that will charge their cars on 16-amp power in about two and a half hours. If you're out and about and find a 10-amp pubic charging point, the charging time will be slightly longer - three and a half hours - while connecting up to a normal domestic three-pin 6-amp supply will take six hours.
The important thing of course, is that the government believes the fantasy-land CO2 stats, so business users will be able to write down as much as 100% of the cost of an S90 T8 against their tax liability. And a 40% tax payer could be driving this variant while incurring a BIK tax bill of no more than around £100 a month. If you're a business buyer browsing in this segment, these are figures that'll reward a bit of thought if you're just about to blindly sign on the dotted line for a conventional six cylinder diesel model from a rival brand.
What else? Residual values? They're key in this segment of course and you'd expect those of a big, relatively expensive Volvo luxury saloon to lag severely behind the kind of figures you could realise in a rival BMW or Mercedes. You'd be wrong though. The S90 is selling here in very restricted numbers and that, along with this model's many other attributes, has turned around Volvo's performance in the Executive sector when it comes to depreciation. To the point where independent experts reckon that after owning a typical B4 model for the usual three year/60,000 mile ownership period, you'd get between 39 and 41% of your original purchase price back, depending in the trim level chosen. That's pretty close to the kind of return you'd get from a rival Mercedes E-Class.
In this S90, Volvo has a properly credible and very charismatic flagship saloon that will complement the discernment of the relatively few business buyers likely to choose it. Inside, there's properly distinctive luxury, rather than merely the kind of upgrade from a smaller, cheaper model that rivals offer. Sure, not everyone will like it. But then there won't be enough S90s imported to satisfy everyone anyway.
Those who do choose this car can justify their decision not only on the basis of wanting something different but also through a range of more foundational attributes. Things like strong residuals, much higher levels of standard equipment and class-leading safety. Overall, with an S90, you'll get yourself a unique blend of performance and efficiency. It's all quite unexpected. From a car that may well make you rather like the unexpected.