Our verdict after a week with the new Volvo V90 D4 Inscription [review]
23 March 2017
Our rating: 4.2/5 + Timeless, subtly classy styling + Superbly comfortable and spacious for people + D4 engine performs well, smooth ride and surprisingly good handling - Boot space considerably less than in some rival estates - Engine slightly more audible compared to German efforts * Lease from £338.99+VAT/mon
Amidst the global obsession with SUVs and crossovers, the car manufacturer historically synonymous with practical and safe estate cars has returned to its roots and brought back the V90 badge twenty years after it originally replaced the 960 as part of the Swedes’ updated nomenclature.
Long gone are former stereotypes over Volvo estates looking like boxes on wheels driven by mature people devoid of style who love them for their endurance and load-lugging abilities. Having witnessed the Scandinavian curve revolution giving rise to the V70, V50 and V60, with the word ‘estate’ banished in favour of ‘Sportswagon’ and each one notching up the svelte factor, Volvo has finally produced an estate deserving of being described as gorgeous – at least from the front and front three-quarters, that is.
The V90’s face is a work of art, Volvo’s Iron Mark logo sat in the centre of a concave grille in a nod to the iconic P1800, flanked by universally adored Thor’s Hammer daytime running lights that have a mesmerising effect on adults and kids alike. There is a modicum of aggression about the V90’s front end, even in non-R-Design Inscription guise as tested, but it’s far more subtle than many direct and tenuous rivals’ and is arrestingly beautiful enough to forgive someone mimicking ‘the thinker’ and pulling up a pew to simply gaze at it for a while. All the world’s prettier estates have a slightly extruded look to them owing to their sheer lengths and although the V90’s rear styling is cohesive and effective dead-on, it can look a trifle awkward from other angles depending on the exterior colour and alloys chosen, Luminous Sand doing our test car few favours.
On the inside, Nappa soft leather in Amber combined with linear walnut trim is the superlative combination for an aura of utmost exquisiteness, but the test car’s slightly more sombre charcoal and chrome theme has the advantage of hiding grubby marks inevitably resulting from family use or carrying business samples, sporting equipment or perhaps the odd antique grandfather clock around. The V90’s seats carry on Volvo’s reputation for supreme comfort, providing plenty of support and proving impressive on long journeys, while the driver-focussed cockpit heightens engagement for the person at the helm, perhaps leaving the front passenger feeling somewhat excluded. Head, shoulder and legroom front and rear are more than ample, although the transmission tunnel running down the centre impairs things slightly for the middle passenger. The sector’s boot space crown is no longer worn by a Swede, though, the V90’s curvaceous 565/1,526-litre capacity narrowly bettered by the A6 Avant and completely unable to hold a candle to the E-Class estate’s whopping 640/1,820-litre dimensions, or even the SKODA Superb. The V90’s boot is unimpeded by any real lip, though, the tonneau cover cleverly slinks backwards as the tailgate rises, and people with full hands will be pleased by the ability to open the electronic boot lid by wiggling a foot under the rear bumper.
Volvo has followed Tesla down the minimalist route and the V90’s dashboard includes very few physical buttons and controls, the tablet-size touchscreen handling the rest. Such an approach unarguably looks stylish but question marks remain over how distracting such omnipotent screens with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay (disappointingly an optional extra in this case) and virtual assistant technology may prove for drivers. Little details like the Swedish flag stitched into the side of the driver’s seat, and the uniquely-operated diamond-cut ignition switch are essentially superfluous, just like the rise-up rotary gear selector and motorised air vents in JLR products, but they endearingly further elevate the Volvo’s luxury ethos.
Whereas Audi and BMW’s undisputedly plush interiors can feel a little cold, akin to being sat before a parliamentary select committee, seating oneself in a contemporary Volvo conveys an unintimidating ‘home for Christmas’ vibe, like being hugged at the end of a taxing day by your significant other wearing a Sara Lund jumper.
Volvo’s diesel engines sound and feel quite distinct and the D4 typically isn’t the most refined and hushed unit around, diesel thrum audible on startup, in low gears and under load. The V90’s soundproofing is truly impressive, though, so rather like Rob Brydon’s ‘small man trapped in a box’ voice, it never really gets on one’s wick and sounds like it’s coming from another car.
There’s actually something reassuring about the tone of a modern Volvo diesel engine, especially when mated to a gearbox as smooth as the V90’s 8-speed Aisin Warner transmission. Comfortingly, it’s a ‘torque converter’ type rather than a fancy dual clutch gearbox like Volkswagen’s DSG effort which is notoriously expensive to fix if it goes wrong. It can’t be denied, however, that the D4 engine feels a little lumbering despite Volvo’s lag-busting efforts, particularly in Eco and Comfort modes. Selecting Dynamic by revolving the shiny Drive Mode function next to the electronic parking brake switch results in Volvo’s latest estate stiffening up its chassis, firming up the steering and endowing the engine with more grunt. It’s hardly exhilarating but sufficient to provide a morsel of engagement for drivers wanting to let off some steam after stop-start traffic tedium.
On country roads the ride is sublimely compliant and copes excellently with potholes, speed bumps and surface detritus, but some drivers may find their vision at junctions hindered by the thick pillars, and the brakes may feel oversensitive to some, even the lightest tickle sometimes resulting in a slight jolt. At A-road and motorway speeds, the V90 is largely faultless and immensely safe thanks to Volvo’s trademark focus on safety, Pilot Assist giving drivers a taste of semi-autonomous driving through adaptive cruise control, automatic speed and braking regulation and, most impressively, assisted steering. Blind spot warnings on the wing mirrors, forward collision warning, and even the detecting of pedestrians, cyclists and large animals finish off the smorgasbord of safety features fitted to this family-friendly estate. The steering is surprisingly responsive, too, with unexpected levels of feedback, quickness and solidity. No, the Volvo doesn’t put the wind up the BMW 5 Series Touring in this respect, but its steering is certainly a match for the A6 Avant and many other estates worthy of consideration.
Despite diesel attracting much venom of late and giving private V90 buyers/leasers plenty of fat to chew, accountants and fleet managers across the land still largely favour the test car’s tax-efficient 2-litre D4 engine. It produces 190bhp and emits 119g/km CO2, placing it statistically very closely to the E220d estate riding on 17” alloys and 255 tyres, the BMW 520d SE Auto Touring from which 2g/km more carbon dioxides pop out of the tailpipe, and the Audi A6 2.0 TDI ultra 7 speed S tronic, which shares the Volvo’s exact same peak power. Fuel economy is also very similar across the four cars, the V90 pledging upto 64.2mpg on paper, which everybody knows is always overoptimistic, making 50mpg in real world conditions pretty good. Squeezing north of 600 miles from a tankful is easily within reach of a typical driver, with even more parsimony achievable through particularly careful driving. D4 Inscription prices kick off at £39,115 and our V90 test mule totted up to £43,000 give or take, unsurprisingly placing the Swede firmly in executive territory alongside comparably-specified E-Class and 5-Series wagons. Volvo V90 business leasing prices start at £338.99+VAT per month.
Without a whiff of pretension, Volvo’s latest estate is stylish and should prove timeless aesthetically. In D4 guise on 17” wheels it’s undeniably more Labrador than greyhound, but that’s no bad thing in today’s frenetic world, and the engine and gearbox combo work very well indeed. With fairly respectable performance, with practicality features and creature comforts compensating for its no-longer-class-leading boot space, and with impressive safety credentials, the new Volvo V90 is a hugely likeable choice for private and business estate drivers who fancy something a little less ubiquitous.