Good: handsome looks, lovely interior, lots of safety kit as standard
Bad: smaller boot than V70, Pilot Assist feels half-baked
Price: from £34,555
Swedish company Volvo began life as a manufacturer of ball bearings; its name in Latin means “I roll”. So if you’ll pardon the pun it seems that Volvo is on a roll at the moment. The XC90 off-roader has been a big hit, the company’s recent concept cars seem to be bursting with confidence, and now we have a handsome new full-size saloon and estate in the shape of the S90 and V90.
Both S90 and V90 have a lot in common with the bigger XC90. Under the skin all three are built using the same modular platform, helping the company to cut costs through sharing of parts. It’s a fairly flexible kit, thankfully, so none of the 90-series cars has wound up with awkward proportions dictated by the demands of another model. Quite the reverse – all three cars have an impeccable balance of length, wheelbase and overhangs, with a solid glass-to-body ratio and a suitably imperious stance.
The one thing all the 90-series cars have in common is the horizontal distance between the front axle and the start of the cabin. This region contains a lot of hidden components including the heating and ventilation system, where cash can be saved by spreading outlay across multiple models. Upcoming new 60-series Volvos such as the next XC60 will also adopt this constraint, along with the rest of the shared platform, suitably downsized.
Inside, the new V90 provides a very tasteful interior with appealing details such as the bright knurled finish on the centre console switches and air vent controls. The optional open-grain walnut trim looks especially good with dark leather. I’m not sure I would recommend the pale interior pictured if you have any sticky-fingered offspring to transport.
The central tablet-style screen carries over from the XC90 and remains both impressive and frustrating. It’s responsive and intuitive to use once it gets going but it takes a long while to warm up from cold. It feels like I could switch on my iPad and answer a couple of emails while the Volvo’s screen is still getting its pixels in a row. Why it doesn’t go into hibernation rather than full shut-down between journeys is beyond me.
At a glance the rest of the V90’s cabin might seem identical to that of the XC90, but while there are details in common the two are actually very different. Partly as a result of necessity: the V90 is 11cm narrower and 30cm lower than its big brother, sitting on a slightly shorter wheelbase.
Compared to the outgoing V70 estate, the V90 is longer, wider and lower, with a slightly stretched wheelbase.
Luggage volume has fallen a little, however, from 575 litres with the seats up to 560, and from 1,600 to 1,526 litres with the rear seats folded. By way of compensation, there seems to be more legroom for rear-seat passengers.
The boot is usefully square in shape, partly because Volvo has replaced the coil springs you might normally find holding up the rear suspension with a transverse plastic leaf spring that takes up a lot less space.
The V90’s overall weight has also fallen by about 100kg compared to the V70. The company has used no less than five different grades of steel – including hot-stamped ultra-strong stuff – plus aluminium to provide a strong and rigid body without adding unnecessary heft.
Volvo says its customers want relaxed confidence and that’s a reasonable description of what you get. The V90 is not set up to be as sporty as a BMW and doesn’t feel as if it wants to be hurried. But it is pretty swift – it will get to 62mph in 8.5 seconds even with the entry level D4 engine. The D5 option, which features PowerPulse, a clever compressed air system to spool up its turbo from low revs, will get to 62mph in just 7.2 seconds – assuming it isn’t towing a horsebox, of course.
The V90 feels surprisingly light on its toes for a 1.7-tonne estate. Quick, direct steering helps and at low speed you’ll find a relatively tight turning circle. Despite a comfort bias the standard suspension is still firm enough to corner smartly. The car does tend to thump over bigger bumps but across most surfaces it’s easy to appreciate its smoothness.
Oddly, I thought the extra-cost adaptive air suspension transmitted a few more bumps, even in its featherbed setting. However, I suspect the more expensive setup would come into its own whenever the V90 is put to full use with a family’s worth of kids, dogs and luggage.
UK buyers are not currently offered a manual gearbox. The smooth-shifting 8-speed auto transmission will adjust its behaviour to suit the driving mode selected – the standard setting is Comfort, but there’s also a neck-wringing Dynamic mode and a more miserly Eco mode.
In Eco setting the gearbox will allow the car to coast on its own momentum rather than providing any engine braking as you lift off the throttle, which can be surprising if you’re not expecting it. Helpfully the digital instrument panel will adjust its dials as you switch modes, to keep you better informed – providing a rev counter in Dynamic mode and a demand gauge in Eco mode, with a “coasting” alert.
A crisp and colourful head-up display is also available as a £1,000 option, which reflects directly onto the windscreen and provides the prevailing limit alongside current speed and satnav directions.
Engine stop-start is provided as standard, operating slightly differently depending on whether you have activated the auto-hold function of the electronic handbrake. With the handbrake set to manual, the engine will wake as soon as you step off the brake pedal. With the handbrake set to auto, the engine will wake when you brush the throttle. The latter option is probably preferable in a traffic queue as you can give your leg a rest.
Another labour saving feature was not quite as reassuring. Volvo fits its semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system to the V90 as standard. This offers the familiar functions of adaptive cruise control with the addition of lane-keeping on motorways and dual-carriageways. Radar is used to keep tabs on the cars ahead, adjusting throttle and brakes to match, while a camera spots the edges of the lane and provides fairly firm steering adjustments to keep the car centred.
It does feel odd to start with, as the wheel turns in your hands with a life of its own, but you soon adjust and stop fighting it. The software can tell (from the lack of resistance to its movements) if you let go of the wheel, and is programmed to sound a warning after a few seconds of hands-free running. It will also, apparently, squawk and deactivate after about 20 seconds without supervision, to ensure the driver remains in control. I turned out not to be brave enough to test whether this procedure works as advertised.
When used as intended, on the gently curving lanes of a dual carriageway, Pilot Assist works reassuringly well with one significant caveat. I felt as if the car was kept too far to the left in its lane. When overtaking trucks on the motorway in particular I would have liked a much bigger gap.
A Volvo spokesman told me that Pilot Assist tracks lane markings on both sides but will prioritise one over the other. Perhaps this explains its fondness for the left. Another explanation may be the human tendency to give danger a slightly wider berth, meaning we don’t normally travel in the very centre of the lane as we pass a lorry. Whatever the reason, it was enough for me to switch off after a few miles.
There are of course a bevy of other safety systems fitted to the V90, from lane departure to blindspot detection to impending collision warnings and collision mitigation, most of which you’ll presumably receive quite warmly if you’ve chosen a Volvo.
Alas we must wait until spring 2017 to sample the upcoming plug-in variety of V90. The T8 Twin Engine edition will be the quickest of the range, sprinting to 62mph in 5.2 seconds courtesy of a petrol-electric powertrain mustering 407bhp and 620Nm of torque. It will be rated at 47g/km, to the delight of company car users, and will be capable of running for up to 28 miles on mains charge alone.
As with the XC90 T8, the battery pack will be unobtrusively mounted along the car’s central tunnel. This means the plug-in V90 will lose no luggage space in the rear, though the centre console cubby will, I’m told, be noticeably shallower. With which I think we can all cope.
The T8 will also receive the most twinkly interior, including a crystal glass gearstick as seen in the XC90.
For now the 2.0-litre D4 diesel engine provides 190bhp and 400Nm, married to front wheel drive. It offers a CO2 rating of 119g/km and combined-cycle economy of 62.8mpg. The D5 PowerPulse diesel engine has an identical capacity and is paired only with four-wheel-drive. It is rated at 129g/km and 57.6mpg.
Prices for the V90 start at £34,555 for the entry-level D4 in Momentum trim, which is expected to be the best seller. The top-spec D5 Inscription AWD costs from £44,055.
There’s lots to love about the new V90, providing you can live with a few minor niggles and the slightly surprising news that its boot isn’t quite as big as that of the V70 it replaces.