I picked up the Mussel Blue Metallic 2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription at JFK airport on a cold, blustery night in January. If the name sounds lofty, that’s because it matches the car’s ambitions. For decades, Volvo has wanted a place on the global luxury stage. With the S90, it’s well and truly earned it.
Case in point: A few miles West of JFK lies Brownsville, an economically depressed area of New York City that’s still addled with 1980s-era levels of crime. Sitting at a stoplight, a ratty old gray Ford Fusion pulled alongside the car. Suddenly, the Fusion jerked forward into the crosswalk and made a hard stop as the driver’s side tinted windows began to roll down. “This could be interesting,” I thought. One, two, three heads popped out of the windows; the driver clearly mouthed “what is that?” They wanted to get a better look at the car, and then they saw the big Volvo badge on the grille.
I got three big smiles, then three thumbs’ up as the heads and hands disappeared back behind the tinted glass. The light turned green, I waved, and we were on our way again. I was merely 30 minutes into spending a week with Volvo’s newest flagship. It wouldn’t be the last time it drew looks and double takes in the following days, but none were as extreme — or as rewarding — as that first one.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Volvo has recently figured out how to do sexy in a very big way, and it’s starting to pay off. The brand’s sales have taken off over the past two years (around the time it introduced its current styling language on the XC90 SUV), and with a number of compact cars and crossovers on the way, its future is looking bright after a long era of uncertainty.
But even amid all the action, the S90 stands out as something special. Throughout its 90 year history, Volvo has only ever tackled pure luxury in fits and starts. In the ’60s and ’70s there was the pug-nosed 126 sedan, followed by the Lego-like 700 series of the ’80s, which evolved into the equally Lego-like 900 series of the ’90s. It’s last luxury flagship, the S80, was a radical departure for the brand, but it served admirably from 1998 until last year, withering on the vine for years before production finally ended.
So as you might expect, a new range-topper was a long time coming from Volvo. And despite its best intentions in the past, the folks at Gothenburg had never quite fielded a legitimate rival to take on Germany’s best — until now, that is. We expected the S90 to be a giant leap from the S80 and the most competitive Volvo on the market. What we didn’t expect is just how good it really is. Can it compete with the Germans? You bet. Will it make you jump ship for Volvo? Well, yeah, actually. It just might.
The S90 is that rare production car that still looks like the concept it was based on. Even in a sedate color, it will turn heads (quick, what was the last Volvo that could do that?) It will make you look back at it after you’ve parked it, you will make a little noise when you see it for the first time in the morning, and no, you won’t get sick of looking at it — at least we haven’t in the nearly two years since Volvo pulled the wraps off of it.
Using design language introduced on the Concept Coupe of 2013, the S90 has all the new Volvo hallmarks — long hood/short deck proportions, scalloped grille, “Thor’s Hammer” headlights, and C-clamp taillights. Add it all up, and you’ve got one of the most beautiful sedan designs in the world.
Exterior pros and cons
+ In the immortal words of Jeremy Clarkson: “Look at it!” We’re crazy about its styling.
+ Beautifully proportioned, and the Inscription 19-inch alloy wheels are elegant and understated.
+ The S90 wears its dimensions with pride. It’s a big car, but it looks important and imposing, not lumbering or fat.
– Even in a sedate color, the S90 will attract attention. If you don’t like the sound of that, get an BMW 5 Series or something.
– If we’re being nit-picky, there are flourishes of the Audi A7 and Jag XJ, especially in rear quarter view. Still, we wouldn’t dare claim that Volvo’s new styling language is anything but its own.
Volvo has been betting big on its E-Drive engine of late, and with good cause: The 2.0 liter inline-four has made Ward’s 10 Best Engines list three years in a row. In the T6, the 2.0 is both turbocharged and supercharged, giving you 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque to play with. But while the XC90 we recently tested got a throaty growl and a sprightly six second zero to 60 sprint out of the same powerplant, the S90 is a different beast.
Despite sharing an engine with the SUV, the S90 just isn’t a sporty car. It’s not slow — in fact, zero to 60 comes in around 5.6 seconds, significantly quicker than the heavier Volvo. But compared to sportier fare in its own segment, the S90 won’t wow you with hammer-down acceleration. This car is engineered to offer a smooth, refined and luxurious ride; performance isn’t on the menu. Mated to a eight-speed automatic transmission, the S90 gets out of its own way, but it won’t leave you breathless.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ E-Drive offers all the benefits of turbocharging and supercharging, with none of the downsides.
+ Power delivery to all four wheels is smooth and direct.
+ Engine and eight-speed play nicely together.
– If you’re really jonesing for a fast S90, you’ll have to wait until the T8 hybrid comes out later this year…
– …But even then, unless Polestar gets involved, it won’t be an AMG, M-Sport, or AudiSport fighter.
– 22 miles per gallon city, 31 highway isn’t bad for a sedan this big. But when you realize that there are a number of six- and eight-cylinder engines in the S90’s segment, you could be left wanting more than middle-of-the pack performance and fuel economy.
The Swedes have long been champions of minimalist interior design, and with the S90, it’s finally made its way to Volvo. Our test car’s blonde Nappa leather upholstery and linear walnut inlays felt even more upscale than the near-loaded car’s $65,105 price tag (The T6’s base: $52,950) should allow. Accented with aluminum trim, big Sensus infotainment screen and digital instrument panel, the S90 looks and feels like the future luxury car we were all promised since we were kids.
Interior pros and cons
+ 10-way heated and cooled power front seats are a great place to spend a lot of time in. In back, there are are acres of leg room too.
+ Aluminum trim and walnut inlays reminded us of the Rolls-Royce Wraith – no joke. Fit and finish is outstanding; every button and switch feels substantial. Simply put, this is one of the best interiors in the world.
+ Proves once and for all that luxury interiors don’t have to be bogged down with acres of black plastic (we’re looking at you, Germany…)
– We’d be anxious to see how that light leather holds up.
– Lack of physical controls may take some getting used to.
Tech and Safety
Like the XC90, everything from seat temperature and radio tuning to lane keep assist is controlled by the big nine inch touchscreen and Sensus infotainment system. Had we not tested that SUV earlier, this may have thrown us for a loop. Volvo has long been known as “The Safety Brand,” and as a result, it’s betting big on this latest round of electronic nannies.
Our car came with a Head-Up Display, park assist, collision avoidance, pedestrian and animal detection, lane departure warning, and semi-autonomous Pilot Assist. The good news is they all work to keep the car on the road and keep its occupants safe. The bad news? Sometimes they step on each other’s toes, and become a distraction for the driver. Nonetheless, a quick few swipes of the iPad-like screen to turn the ones you don’t want off, and you’re good to go.
On top of the electronics, the S90 earned a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS, and while it hasn’t gotten an official rating from the feds, Europe’s EURO NCAP gave it a five-star rating.
Tech and Safety pros and cons
+Digital instrument panel is beautifully modern, but its white on black dials are classic Volvo.
+ Sensus infotainment system is big, beautiful, and easy to use.
+ Bowers & Wilkins premium stereo is a pricy ($2,650) option, but it’s one of the best in the industry.
– Despite being easy to master, adjusting settings in Sensus can be cumbersome, especially in traffic.
– We love the clean, simple row of analog controls, but physical climate controls would be nice.
– Unless you’re ready for driving to be a collaborative effort, Pilot Assist feels pushy in stop-and-go traffic, second guessing your inputs and steering.
The S90 can run around town with sporty alternatives from BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Cadillac, and Lexus all day. Then you hit the straightaway and it falls to the middle of the pack. Not that this is a bad thing; there aren’t many people out there who are out tracking their luxury sedans. Still, plenty like to have all that power in reserve, and knowing that the Volvo doesn’t quite have that might stick in your craw. Then you drive it a little more.
Around town and on the highway, the S90 is marvelous. It’s quiet and smooth, and if you want to take a corner a little quicker than normal, its well-balanced suspension makes the car feel sporty in real-world scenarios. On long trips, that great interior and those near-perfect seats mean you’ll likely arrive feeling more relaxed then when you got in. And while the E-Drive can drone a little at highway speeds, it’s nothing the fantastic Bowers & Wilkins sound system can’t handle.
Wrap up and Review
In terms of design and comfort, Volvo, possibly for the first time ever, has got the Germans beat at their own game. The S90 is safe, practical, and comfortable like any good Volvo should be, but it also has a swagger and charisma that’s new to the brand. For buyers who are looking for something with sporting pedigree or a bigger engine, the S90 will fall short. But if you’re looking for one of the most stylish cars on the planet that can get you where you want to go in comfort, then Volvo’s new flagship is a winner.
In many ways, the S90 reminded us of the new Lincoln Continental. Both big and imposing, with an emphasis on all-out luxury over performance, these flagships signal a new direction for their brands. As much as performance has come to factor in the marketing of full-size luxury sedans, in the real world very few drivers are buying them to roast Mustangs at stoplights. So instead of paying lip service to industry norms, both Volvo and Lincoln are hoping that they can appeal to buyers on a more emotional level.
But here’s the thing: After a week with the Continental, we were thoroughly impressed. After a week with the S90, we were still swooning.