Volvo is enjoying a new renaissance of late, buoyed by the strong sales of its latest XC90 - but that car was always going to do well for the Swedish brand, thanks to its reputation for building big, comfortable SUVs. With the introduction of the S90 executive saloon, though, Volvo is heading back into territory dominated by German giants like the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class. It's a difficult area of the market in which Volvo's previous offering - the S80 - was comfortably outclassed.
Auto Express has been to Volvo’s winter testing facility to sample a couple of pre-production versions of the S90 in snowy conditions. The UK line-up will be dominated by diesels, with two on offer initially: the D4, with front-wheel drive and 188bhp, and the four-wheel-drive, 232bhp D5 tested here.
The petrol line-up comprises the T5, a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder with 251bhp and front-wheel drive, and the T6, which adds supercharging to the mix and brings 315bhp and four-wheel drive. We’re unlikely to be offered either of those in the UK, but we will get the T8 hybrid, which mixes the T6’s engine with an electric motor to produce 402bhp but lower CO2 emissions to just 44g/km. If you’re not prepared to go hybrid, the cleanest S90 is the D4 auto, with 116g/km; a manual-gearbox version will follow later on.
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The D5’s 2.0-litre motor features PowerPulse, a small electrically driven air compressor that helps to spin up the turbo for improved response. The motor certainly feels punchy enough for a car of the S90’s size. The engine is impressively refined when cruising and reassuringly smooth when worked hard. The standard eight-speed auto has quick shifts and kicks down smartly.
Our car was fitted with air suspension - one of three possible set-ups, along with conventionally sprung Touring and Sports configurations - and the ride felt pretty firm throughout, with a little bit more head toss over rougher snow and ice than we’d have liked. Body control seems solid enough, though, and while the steering is perhaps a little light, it is accurate and quick to respond.
The S90 brings new safety kit that hasn’t even been introduced on the XC90 yet, including a sensor that watches for large animals (it’s designed for moose and reindeer, but engineers say it could also spot regular deer in the UK), and ‘run-off road mitigation’, which uses the line or the sharp edge of the road as its guide and tries to steer you back onto the correct path if you’re veering towards the ditch.
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Just as the S90 shares lots of chassis parts, engines and gearboxes with the XC90, the cabin also builds on the big SUV’s materials and design. That’s no bad thing, though, because it brings the same pleasing mix of quality leathers and natural materials. We’d want to put it back-to-back against the latest E-Class to see which is the more sumptuous, but Volvo’s offering definitely feels a classy place to spend a long journey. Rear packaging is excellent, too; the S90 can cope with four six-footers without any complaints about head-, knee- or legroom.
At the heart of the fascia there’s the same portrait-layout display that we’ve seen in the XC90. It controls lots of the car’s functions - everything from music and satellite navigation through to heating and ventilation - but the interface is slick, quick to respond and easy to use.
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Order books for the S90 will open in mid-March, but the first cars aren’t due in showrooms until in July. Volvo has yet to confirm pricing but expect the line-up to start at around £32,000; that’s not as cheap as some BMW 5 Series, although the Volvo’s standard kit list is likely to be a little more generous.
Our brief experience with the car on snow makes it impossible to say if the S90 is a class leader - but it already looks like a quantum leap over the old S80, and worthy of inclusion on any company car shortlist.