Volvo S90: Niche for Now, But…

The 2017 Volvo S90 leverages all of Volvo's most recent major vehicle-development investments: an all-new platform and engine family and its latest autonomous-driving innovations.

It’s no secret the reconstituted Volvo, since 2010 owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely, is doing interesting and innovative things—one of the most intriguing, maybe, being that it’s survived and in some senses thrived (particularly if fellow Swedish auto brand Saab is used as a measure) under Geely’s control.

With roughly the exterior size of the BMW 5-Series or Cadillac CTS, the S90 cabin is spacious and comfortable, although the "depth" of some luxury details isn't up to the standards of costlier competitors.
Part of owner Geely's massive investment in Volvo is a range of high-tech modular 4-cylinder "Drive-E" engines. This range-topping variant uses supercharging and turbocharging to mitigate turbo lag.
The 2017 Volvo S90's styling is distinctive and discreet and only mildly as adventurous as some of Volvo's recent concept cars.

Fact is that Volvo and Geely have shut up the naysayers: in the nearly seven years Geely’s been in charge, a studied and benevolent guidance (not to mention $11 billion in product-development funding announced in 2012) has delivered a Volvo that’s somehow managed to evolve its brand back to a relevancy few thought it could ever recover.

Geely and Volvo well know the auto business maxim that “product is king” and after a transition period that left showrooms thin with transition product, the new-generation Volvo is emerging. First (and perfectly timed for a crossover-crazy U.S and Europe) was the XC90 fullsize crossover ( built on the company’s new, widely-adaptable Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform.

Now the S90 sedan—also based on SPA—is ready and the dwindling interest in sedans in every market segment will only add pressure on Volvo’s latest attempt to tackle the German luxury-brand triad to which every luxo-sedan is compared.

"Not a sport sedan"

Volvo wisely is trying to play off its reinvented brand—a niche image to which the “former” Volvo could never fully accept—saying matter-of-factly at a recent media launch that the 2017 S90 “is not a sport sedan.” With that off the table, the S90 can go about being what it is: a roomy, comfortable and safety-focused luxury car that’s more about safety and minimizing environmental impact than carving backroads.

Beyond the apparently wide size flexibility that its SPA architecture imparts, the S90’s Drive-E engines perhaps are its most fundamentally impactful engineering. For the U.S., the gasoline 4-cylinder 2.0-L Drive-E engine comes in two configurations: a turbocharged variant for front-drive S90 T5 models that develops 250 hp and 258 lbft (350 Nm). The all-wheel-drive S90 T6 is fitted with a turbocharged and supercharged version of the same 2.0-L that cranks up output to 316 hp and 395 lbft (536 Nm). Next year, Volvo will offer the wonderfully complex plug-in hybrid variant of this setup for the S90.

At 195.4 in., the S90 is marginally longer in overall length than the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class and is almost exactly the same length as Cadillac’s CTS, but the Volvo weighs at least a couple hundred pounds more than any of the three, so the energy with which the T6 engine propels the S90 is practically a dynamic revelation. This and the Drive-E engine’s smoothness and isolation from the passenger compartment means any concern about cylinder count and refinement effectively is not a concern. The supercharged/turbocharged 4-cylinder is, as claimed, all but free of perceived turbocharger lag and the AWD system ensures that no uncouth torque steer reveals to the driver that there’s a hard-working 4-cylinder up front.

The standard 8-speed automatic is an agreeable collaborator and helps this mighty engine to settle in enough to deliver a 34-mpg highway rating and 27 mpg combined.

Refinement and technology focus

The S90 interior follows the inevitable trend towards larger touchscreen driver interface. The S90 touchscreen has brilliant resolution and integration into the dash, but its operational logic can be perplexing.

The T6s Automotive Engineering tried also displayed rewarding ride quality—particularly those cars with the optional air suspension to augment the car’s distinctive independent rear-axle design that employs a single transverse leaf spring to augment the hydraulic or air dampers. The front suspension for all S90 models is a double-wishbone layout that delivers the fine steering precision expected of this typically more-expensive design.

So the 2017 Volvo S90 is large enough inside to telegraph true luxury—even if, frankly, some of the interior trim and equipment don't totally seal the deal—and offers enough performance to back up the luxury claim. So Volvo thinks its competitive edge—apart from openly not trying to compete on “sporting” credentials—will be in its envelope-pushing use of autonomous technology.

The S90, Volvo claims, is the first car in the world to offer a standard-equipment semi-autonomous driving system (—Pilot Assist II—a “hands-on” configuration that steers and brakes on highways and at speed up to 80 mph, though Volvo is careful to say it’s mainly designed to reduce the fatigue of driving in stop-and-go traffic. The system is augmented with the S90’s “road-edge detection,” which Volvo similarly said is the world’s first system to eliminate accidents caused by running off the roads.