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Driven: Volvo S90 R-Design. Image by Volvo.

Driven: Volvo S90 R-Design
Volvo’s new SPA cars are marvellous, but is the S90 R-Design the first less-than-stellar version we’ve driven…?


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Volvo S90 R-Design

4 4 4 4 4

Good points: Elegant looks, wonderful interior, refined drivetrain, strong performance, good economy

Not so good: Rear lights a bit fussy, R-Design has excessive tyre noise and a firm ride, front-wheel drive limits sporty handling

Key Facts

Model tested: Volvo S90 D4 R-Design
Price: S90 range starts from £32,955; D4 R-Design from £35,455
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Transmission: front-wheel drive, eight-speed automatic
Body style: four-door saloon
CO2 emissions: 116g/km (£160 VED first 12 months, £140 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 64.2mpg
Top speed: 140mph
0-62mph: 8.2 seconds
Power: 190hp at 4,250rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 1,750- to 2,500rpm

Our view:

We make no secret of the fact that the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA)/Drive-E revolution that's taking place at Volvo, in which all its new cars will sit on the SPA chassis and use 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engines at most, is something we wholeheartedly approve of. So far, it has given us some absolutely belting - and in some cases, incontrovertibly class-leading - products: the XC90 seven-seat SUV, for instance, is our go-to recommendation for people wanting a big, glamorous SUV, ahead of anything German, British, Japanese or any other nationality; the all-new XC60, the smaller five-seat sibling, is similarly wonderful; and the V90 estate is a classic Volvo wagon - huge, classy and with a real air of being different, without having to swallow some savage quality compromises as a result. It's even better as a Cross Country 'soft-roader', too, which we'll review in the coming weeks.

The S90, though, has the toughest fight on its hands of all. It competes in the class alongside the likes of the BMW 5 Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Jaguar XF, which have been recently overhauled for all-new models, while there's a fresh Audi A6 en route as well. And, by sticking with 2.0-litre engines and - if all-wheel drive is not specified - front-wheel drive alone, has Volvo hobbled the poor S90 before it has even had a chance to wade into the executive car battle?

We'll start in the traditional manner with its appearance, which is in the main superb. Like all the new Volvos, the 'Thor hammer' lights define a sleek, smooth face and the R-Design bodykit suitably ups the desirability of the Volvo - especially if it's in one of the bright colours the company offers, like Bursting Blue (£1,000). But, while we understand the signature look Volvo is going for, this is the first time we have to say we're not fans of the, admittedly distinctive, rear lights. They're just not as attractive as the hook-shaped items on its 90-badged stablemates and they couple with the dropped number plate to make the back of the S90 look a bit awkward.

There's nothing awkward about the cabin, though, which is another sensation. Volvo is striking its own daring path with dashboard design and the TFT instrument cluster plus the large, portrait infotainment screen are just two glorious visual touchpoints in an interior that feels easily as good as anything Audi has ever punted out. The R-Design seats are also gorgeous, with an extendable thigh support and the traditional high levels of comfort engineered into them by Volvo. And the massive body (the S90 is almost five metres long) equates to an interior that will swallow five adults with consummate ease and a boot which'll take 500 litres of junk should you need it to.

On the move, the summation here is probably one you could predict - the Volvo is fast, accomplished and refined, but it's never hugely exciting to steer. By the same token, its handling is actually pretty good, especially on the R-Design's wider sports tyres and stiffer suspension, while the SPA models have excellent steering too. Yet you'll never forget it's front-wheel drive. The S90 remains resolutely four-square in corners and no matter what provocation you throw at it, either by lifting the throttle at an inopportune moment or bunging it in with brutal steering inputs, the rear axle refuses to get involved. It's all very proficient... and rather too pragmatic for our liking.

The S90 is, however, a beautifully refined car, save for two things - the first is slightly crunchy ride quality on poorer surfaces on the standard passive suspension, the second (and much bigger issue) is tyre noise. Maybe it's the acoustics of that boot in the saloon body, but there's a boom from the rear tyres at most speeds above 40mph on the S90. This is a shame, because in all other respects the car is suitably hushed. Wind noise is minimal and the engine keeps itself to itself, save for when you rev it past 3,500rpm, whereupon it becomes a touch more vocal. But you don't really need to do that; despite the D4 being the least potent S90 available, with 190hp and 400Nm on tap, the Volvo feels perfectly swift and punchy in a wide variety of traffic situations. There's a fabulous eight-speed auto gearbox, too.

So it would seem like the R-Design spec presents a dichotomy. On the one hand, it makes the exterior of the Volvo S90 look great and it improves the cabin ambience with the sports seats and steering wheel, as well as improving the body control/grip courtesy of the slightly tougher suspension set-up and wider rubber. But on the other, it introduces too much tyre noise and a low-speed ride firmness to proceedings that undoes a lot of the S90's best work at being supremely cultured and comfortable.

It's a great car, then, the S90, but like all the other SPA Volvos we can't help feeling that trying to up the dynamic stakes with R-Design's sportier suspension and tyres doesn't really work best with these sumptuous Swedes. You're much better off ramping up the luxury factor and sticking with bigger profile tyres, and then revelling in the sheer quality these cars exude. Thus, if our test Volvo had been an Inscription or a Momentum, we might have been awarding it more than four stars. But for the R-Design, we have to stay where we are for now. It's a pity, but it would appear the S90 is rather spec-sensitive - and, in this attractive if compromised R-Design guise at least, it's therefore not the finest machine in its class.


BMW 5 Series: Probably the new class leader in this cut-throat sector. Great chassis, loads of tech and plenty of refinement mark out the BMW 5 Series, at its absolute best as a 530d.

Jaguar XF: Like the S90, the XF is spec dependent - go for a modestly equipped 2.0-litre model and it won't feel that special. Get one of the V6s and it's a clear cut above the Swedish saloon.

Mercedes-Benz E-Class: The most similar dynamics to the Volvo, the E-Class majors on comfort ahead of speed - and is all the better for it. With the (optional) widescreen dash, the cabin is superb.

Matt Robinson - 18 May 2017    - Volvo road tests
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- S90 images

2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.

2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.2017 Volvo S90 drive. Image by Volvo.


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