Sunday 26 February 2017

Second chance saloon for Volvo's new S90

Trails some rivals but big advance

Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

Impressive cabin: Volvo S90
Impressive cabin: Volvo S90

I might as well tell you my real story behind this car because it is the only way I can clear my head about it. A few months ago a respected colleague and I drove the Volvo S90 saloon at its inaugural international launch in Spain. I didn't like it much; neither did he.

We much, much preferred our subsequent drives in the excellent V90 estate version.

Few others concurred with our verdict but Volvo's accommodating engineers and executives did everything in their power to explain, understand and cope with our specific gripes.

These were, simply, that the car felt soft and woolly on the road, that it lacked dynamics.

So it was with more than usual interest that I took it for test in Ireland last week. I drove it and drove it. Admittedly it didn't have the same engine output as before (they always go for the more powerful at foreign launches). But it had two-corner air suspension (rear). And, anyway, the overall basics remained.

It got a lot of everyday work - five cases in the boot (long and shallow as opposed to deep and short) and five adults in the cabin comprised by far the biggest loading it endured.

Strangely for a car of modest exterior exuberance, I was queried many times by owners of Mercs, Beemers and Audis especially - the very ones Volvo want to get into the S90.

One dear lady sat in and left me in no doubt she would buy one, while a Mercedes E-Class driver (161-reg) resolved to 'get back to Volvo' next time around. I told them both I hadn't been that mad about it but they were 'sold'; the man by the look of it, the lady by the interior. And rightly so with the latter, I must say, though my three rear passengers could be forgiven for seeking just a little more room in what was an truly lovely cream-leather cabin with bronze-grained insets.

What brooks no contradiction is the level of equipment that adorns this newcomer. What you see in the accompanying panel of Facts & Figures is minuscule compared with the official list.

The amount of safety equipment, in particular, is mind-boggling. With semi-autonomous driving, it will 'steer' itself (it demands hands on wheels though) and it will will keep you a safe distance from the car in front. There is no doubting its credentials as a thoroughly modern mid-size executive saloon (and estate when it arrives later on).

Technically underpinning it is the same platform as the large XC90 SUV but, more importantly, is the attendant commitment that no one will be killed or injured in a Volvo by 2020. That is an extraordinary challenge when you consider how swiftly that deadline is approaching

I had just a few examples of its warnings and avoidance prowess in the course of a mixed-bag of driving. On three occasions it warned me of being far too close to the car in front and alerted me audibly and visibly. In mitigation, I must tell you the cars 'in front' had savagely cut in from other lanes.

And yet, for all its laudable attributes - not least the exceptionally easy-access central 'iPad-like' display, the discordant Spanish memory hovered.

I was aware of the air suspension and the low-profile 20in alloys on my test car. I was aware too of different road surfaces, camber and quality. And I was careful to switch between Comfort and Dynamic modes in the drive control so that I could feel the difference in response time.

And so the mystery deepened because, yes, I did feel this was markedly better. It was not as sharp or responsive as the Jaguar XF or BMW 5-series; not as solid feeling as the Audi A6 or as downright outstanding as the Mercedes E-Class but it was a significantly better proposition than previously assessed. It had a lightness of touch in steering and cornering that turned everyday drives into enjoyable sojourns. It conveyed real energy. Yes, there was more thud from the tyres over rough roads but you get that with any 20in lower-profiles. And yes, in basic Comfort mode, it lacked bite. But in Sport it was sharp, clean and got instant response from the 2-litre diesel that kept quiet unless violently pushed.

It is the best mid-size saloon they've made. It will, I am sure, tempt serious consideration from posh-marque owners. It may not sway the 'drivers' but with a cabin like that it will win over those who put comfort and luxury ahead of 'petrol-head' considerations like mine.

And if the estate translates as well to Irish roads, I'm in for a treat because, stubborn me, I still think it's better.

Facts & figures

Volvo S90 2-litre diesel saloon, 190bhp, 116g/km, tax €200, 8spd auto. From: €48,400; test car/options: €75,195. Standard: adaptive cruise control, Pilot Assist, 2-zone air con, 8ins TFT, leather-faced upholstery, City Safety (pedestrian/cyclist detection, front collision alert, etc), 9ins touchscreen, Sensus Connect. 'Inscription' adds Nappa leather, etc. Test-car: 360º view, bending LED lights, 4-zone air con, 20ins alloys, Apple CarPlay, 2-corner electronic air suspension (rear).

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