Volvo's Nordic luxury

The S90 brings a fresh style to premium motoring.

Automotive marketers are quite inventive in developing segment descriptions. Luxury used to be adequate to describe the top segment with brands that included Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Lexus among others. Over time, Near-Luxury and Premium were added to include more down-to-earth models and brands that didn’t quite reach the top tier of perception. Sturdy and safe Volvos lived in this last niche.

An Aspirational Parent

Volvo Cars began life in 1927 in Gothenburg, Sweden and over the years established an enviable reputation for safety, from the sturdiness of its products to innovations like three-point seat belts. And although a few Volvo models, such as the P1800 were stylish, the lineup exuded substance over fashion.

Volvo’s wagons, followed by its  SUVs have become the bread and butter of the brand with sedans a small part of the lineup. The full-size S90 sedan was developed after China’s Geely Holding Group acquired Volvo Cars in 2010. Geely wanted a premium European brand to co-create a flagship offering in its home market as well worldwide. The result takes a page from Apple, in this case it’s designed in Sweden, built in China.

Fresh Luxury

The typical path that volume automakers have taken to establish luxury status has been to create a new franchise and a flagship model derivative of Mercedes’ S-Class. Since Volvo has a well-established premium brand, it was relatively easy to develop a new, aspirational model. And the company didn’t have to copy luxury leaders since Scandinavian design is its trademark and heritage.

The result is a very stylish offering that competes head-to-head with Mercedes’ E-Class, BMW 5-Series as well as other sedans in the category. The S90 is not what Volvo would have created on its own, since there’s little volume in European or North American markets to justify the investment, but I’m glad they did since the result is stunning. From the lights that reveal “Thor’s Hammer” in both front and rear view to the clean sculpturing and airy interior, it’s a statement that’s uniquely Volvo.

Overachiever

I’m always surprised when I’m in a big vehicle that’s reasonably propelled by a small displacement motor. The E-Class is a great example, coaxing 255-horses from its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine with turbocharging added. Volvo takes that scheme a notch or two up by incorporating both a turbo and a supercharger to produce 316-horsepower from the same 2.0-liters. And it does this without the harshness that often accompanied that high a degree of tuning.

On the road, the S90 is solid and capable, with crisp handling and our all-wheel drive model would assure that feeling in every weather condition, since it’s fair to assume the Swedes know all about interesting weather. And Volvo’s suite of entertainment and safety electronics, while requiring a learning curve to operate seamlessly, are nicely done.

The S90 is available in three models, Momentum, R-Design and Inscription that are differentiated more by taste than trim level. The spending choice is really determined by a T6 or T8 choice. The T8 elevation adds plug-in hybrid virtues of up to 400 combined horsepower with even better fuel economy. And those benefits may well be worth the extra $10-grand MSRP.

THE FINE PRINT

2020 Volvo S90 Inscription T6

TYPE:  Front-engine, all-wheel-drive

ENGINE:  2.0-liter Turbo & Supercharged I-4

HORSEPOWER:  316 @ 5,700-RPM

TORQUE:  256 lb.ft. @ 2,200-RPM

BASE PRICE: $54,350

AS TESTED:  $71,480

FUEL CONSUMPTION:  21-city, 31-highway, 25-combined