Along with Absolut, Ikea and ABBA, Volvo ranks as one of Sweden’s most beloved and iconic exports. Its safety, reliability and tanklike construction resonated with families by the score around the world. Now owned by Chinese automaker Geely Motors (which picked up Volvo for a paltry $1.8 billion in 2010 after Ford shelled out $6.5 billion a decade earlier), the proud brand is thriving anew. Cutting-edge engines, flexible platforms, spectacular interiors and terrific build quality rival anything coming from Germany and Japan.
The 2016 XC90 SUV, for example, took the 2016 North American Truck of the Year award and helped the company record all-time-high global sales in 2015 and 2016, including an astonishing 18 percent growth rate in America.
And now there’s the new, startlingly good four-door S90 sedan. Thoughtfully designed and serenely beautiful in that minimalist Scandinavian way, the S90 is the best thing Volvo has done in years, maybe ever. From top to bottom, side to side, back to front, it just looks and feels right.
Low and wide, the S90 exudes confidence. The big scalloped grille is reminiscent of the classic Volvo P1800 two-seater, and the T-shaped “Thor’s Hammer” headlights lead the eye to the flared fenders and then along the refined body lines, culminating in a high, chiseled tail.
The light and airy cabin is equally elegant. The slim, sculpted front seats appear to be minimally padded, but plop yourself in and you feel like you’re in a big easy chair. Since most of the control functions are handled via the 9-inch console-mounted touchscreen system, dubbed “Sensus,” the dash and console are mercifully free of knobs and dials. Plus, the screen is vertically mounted for maximum visibility as well as design sensibility, and the glossy black finish minimizes reflection. Why hasn’t somebody thought of these things before now?
Volvo’s “CleanZone” technology means that the air you breathe inside is cleaner than what’s outside. Automatic filters catch most of the junk out there. If highway workers kick up a dust storm, the intakes shut automatically. It’s a small thing but speaks to the attention Volvo is lavishing on its new products.
Which brings us to another small thing. Two, actually — the 2.0-liter turbocharged engines. There’s the base T5 with 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. If not exactly lively, it’s perfectly adequate to propel the nearly 4,000-pound S90 around the carpool line. The standard eight-speed automatic transmission shifts unobtrusively in “Comfort” and “Eco” mode and noticeably more energetically in “Sport” mode.
That’s the mode you want for the T6 engine, which adds supercharging and cranks out 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Plus, when floored, it emits a distinctively undignified (for a Volvo) roar, eliciting gales of surprised laughter from driver and passengers alike.
Two trim levels are available — the base Momentum and upper-end Inscription. Momentum includes dark birchwood inlays and leather seats, while Inscription adds lower-body molding, chrome accents, 19-inch wheels, perforated Nappa leather and what Volvo calls “Linear” walnut wood inlays that look and feel like natural, minimally processed woods, which is what they are.
An extensive options list offers even more customization opportunities, like the 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system, a leather-wrapped wood steering wheel, a head-up display and other goodies.
The extensive list of standard safety features, many of which are options on higher-priced vehicles from other manufacturers, explains why the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety handed the S90 (and its sibling, the XC90) its Top Safety Pick designation for 2017.
• “City Safety” technology figures out if there’s a collision risk as you approach slow or stationary vehicles from behind and acts on your behalf if you’re not fast enough.
• “Run-off Road Mitigation” will alert you to pay attention, while steering assist helps get you back where you belong.
• “Pilot Assist” maintains a set speed or distance between you and the vehicle ahead.
• “Park Assist Pilot” does exactly that.
• Detection technology, which “sees” pedestrians and cyclists even in the dark, has now been fine-tuned to see large animals. Good news for Wile E. Coyote and Bullwinkle.
Pricing is surprisingly reasonable — the S90 T5 Momentum starts at $46,950 and goes to $56,250 for the T6 Inscription.
“The S90 is the best car Volvo has ever made,” says Matt Heidelbaugh, executive managing director at Cushman & Wakefield of Texas. He should know — having driven five S80s over the years, he appreciates Volvo’s understated elegance, value and safety.
Even so, he admits looking at both Mercedes and Lexus before choosing the S90. “I’ve been saying for years that they needed to make a bigger sedan. And they delivered. Add to that the incredible sound system, the beautiful interior, the technology, the understated looks — it’s all off the charts. Plus, with the supercharger, it’s fun to drive.”
With customers like Matt, the company’s plans to grow sales from last year’s 534,332 vehicles to 800,000 by 2020 look not just achievable but downright conservative.
Brian Melton inherited his love of cars from his mom: She drove T-Birds, Jaguars and a much-loved silver Mercedes 450SL with an unrepentant lead foot.
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