Volvo's S90 full-sized executive saloon only comes in PHEV form these days. And it offers something refreshingly different in its segment, thinks Jonathan Crouch.
Ten Second Review
Volvo has never really cracked the full-sized executive sector and this S90 model hasn't done so either, but it has its charms, especially in the Recharge T8 Plug-in hybrid AWD form that customers now have to have. Based on the brand's well established SPA platform architecture and 2.0-litre drivetrain format, this electrified Swedish saloon aims to tempt company customers with what Volvo describes as 'elegant and functional' appeal.
If you're thinking of buying a full-sized executive car, then you're probably thinking of a BMW 5 Series, an Audi A6 or a Mercedes E-Class. Other brands have tried and failed to upset German dominance in this segment, Volvo being one of them. The Swedish maker's old S80 never managed to make much of an impact here - but then that was a car from a different era of Volvo ownership.
These days, the Gothenburg marque has huge Chinese investment to drive it forward and the result is a much stronger range of product - cars in fact like this one. Volvo itself reckons that this improved S90 (and its V90 estate counterpart) represent even more of a step forward than the second generation XC90 SUV did - and sure enough, this car showcases the Gothenburg brand's latest Plug-in hybrid tech.
This S90 uses Volvo's more powerful 'T8' plug-in hybrid powertrain with 455hp on tap. You're certainly never really prompted to exercise all that power, but if you ever did, you'd find that 62mph could be dispatched in just 4.7 seconds on the way to the governed 112mph maximum that all Volvos these days share. Once you've discovered where the drive modes reside (they're buried away in a 'Driving' menu on the centre screen), you'll find that ultimate speed is delivered by a 'Power' mode that sees both petrol and electric units permanently working together. Alternatively, there are three other drive choices: a 'Hybrid' setting that sees the two power sources cutting in and out as necessary: a 'Constant AWD' mode that gives you permanent 4x4 traction: and a 'Pure' setting that only uses the battery power and can take you up to 54.7 miles (way more than most people's daily commuting distance) on a single charge.
That the handling doesn't serve up anything that encourages much driving involvement has a lot to do with the rather vague steering. But if you wanted a sports saloon, you wouldn't have chosen an S90 anyway, so it's best instead to settle back and enjoy the super-smooth 8-speed auto transmission and this Volvo's unruffled poise and exemplary refinement. There's no adaptive damping system - and that's disappointing because you'd ideally want it in this car: the extra weight of the plug-in hybrid powertrain has robbed the S90 of the supple suspension feel we remember it delivered in the un-electrified versions available at the original launch.
Design and Build
This remains the most credible full-sized executive saloon Volvo has brought us to date. The design language here is apparently taken from contemporary Scandinavian culture and from most angles, the resulting shape still looks elegant and sophisticated. With its short overhangs, long wheelbase and low roofline, there's an air of confidence assurance here, yet also a look that's uniquely Swedish. Visual updates to this more recent S90 model turn out to be minor - restyled front fog lights, a fresh spoiler design and a revised lower front bumper.
Step inside an S90 and it'll all be pretty familiar if you're conversant with Volvo's current design language, though a difference over the brand's SUVs lies with smart air blades that stand vertically on each side of the Sensus centre monitor user interface. The tablet-like 9-inch centre touchscreen plays a key role in creating an interior that remains modern, spacious and uncluttered. You'll glimpse more hi-tech screen technology through the three-spoke multi-function steering wheel, where the binnacle houses a 12.3-inch 'Progressive Driver Display' screen, which can show almost full-width navigation mapping as one of its two customisation options. There's also a standard head-up display.
Out back, there's luxurious room for two adults. And the 461-litre boot is big for an executive saloon PHEV but if that's not enough, then the brand also offers a spacious V90 estate version of this design.
Market and Model
You're looking at prices starting from around £63,000 for one of these and there are two trim levels - 'Plus' and the more luxury-orientated 'Ultimate'. This model is directly aimed at full-sized executive segment PHEV rivals like BMW's 530e and 545e, Audi's A6 50 TFSIe and the Mercedes E300e. Standard S90 equipment includes 19-inch alloy wheels and leather upholstery.
Inside, the tablet-like touch screen in the centre console drives the minor controls and a whole host of Internet-based products and services. Audio services in the plushest 'Inscription' variant comes courtesy of a monster Bowers & Wilkins stereo. The electronically controlled air suspension has choice of five modes, including one where the driver is free to tailor the settings to his or her personal taste.
S90 safety gear includes a run off-road protection package which tightens seatbelts and activates energy-absorbing technology in the seats when the car detects challenging terrain ahead. Another system is the auto-braking feature, which cuts in if a driver pulls out in front of oncoming traffic. Plus the S90 also features a large animal detection set-up capable of detecting large animals such as elk, horses or moose, night or day.
Cost of Ownership
The Recharge plug-in S90 variants achieve an EAER-rated all-electric driving range of between 31.7 and 54.7 miles, assuming you limit yourself to the car's 'Pure' all-EV mode. As for the WLTP fuel and CO2 stats, well the figures are up to 104.6mpg and between 19 and 61g/km. As with any plug-in hybrid, there's little point in purchase unless you establish a regular recharging regime for the battery pack, which in this case is 11.6kWh in size. Customers will be able to buy a wallbox from Volvo that will charge their cars on 16-amp power in about two and a half hours. If you're out and about and find a 10-amp pubic charging point, the charging time will be slightly longer - three and a half hours - while connecting up to a normal domestic three-pin 6-amp supply will take six hours.
The important thing of course, is that the government believes the fantasy-land CO2 stats, so business users will be able to write down as much as 100% of the cost of an S90 T8 against their tax liability. And thanks to a BiK rating of 7%, a 40% tax payer could be driving this variant while incurring a BIK tax bill of no more than around £100 a month. If you're a business buyer browsing in this segment, these are figures that'll reward a bit of thought if you're just about to blindly sign on the dotted line for a conventional six cylinder diesel model from a rival brand.
What else? Residual values? They're key in this segment of course and you'd expect those of a big, relatively expensive Volvo luxury saloon to lag severely behind the kind of figures you could realise in a rival BMW or Mercedes. You'd be wrong though. The S90 is selling here in very restricted numbers and that, along with this model's many other attributes, has turned around Volvo's performance in the Executive sector when it comes to depreciation. To the point where independent experts reckon that after owning a typical B4 model for the usual three year/60,000 mile ownership period, you'd get around 38% of your original purchase price back, depending in the trim level chosen. That's pretty close to the kind of return you'd get from a rival Mercedes E-Class.
Here's a Volvo rarer than a Ferrari - but it doesn't deserve to be. In this S90, the brand has a properly credible and rather charismatic flagship saloon that will complement the discernment of the relatively few business buyers likely to choose it. This car's reach will be severely curtailed by the restriction to plug-in power. But if that's what you wanted anyway from a saloon in this segment and your priorities lie with comfort rather than sportiness, then it's worth a look.
Inside, there's properly distinctive luxury, rather than merely the kind of upgrade from a smaller, cheaper model that rivals offer. Sure, not everyone will like it. But then there won't be enough S90s imported to satisfy everyone anyway.
Those who do choose this car can justify their decision not only on the basis of wanting something different but also through a range of more foundational attributes. Things like impressive levels of standard equipment, class-leading safety and a very high-end quality cabin feel. All combined with a rather unique blend of performance and efficiency. It's all quite unexpected. From a car that may well make you rather like the unexpected.