Like the redesigned XC90 SUV that debuted last year, the S90 is another piece in Volvo's strategy to remake the brand as a distinctly Swedish luxury offering. Though the S90 is Volvo's flagship sedan, it's closer in size to mid-size luxury cars like the Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class than to full-size German flagships like the Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The S90 starts at $47,945, including a $995 destination charge, for the base T5 Momentum trim with front-wheel drive and a 250-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder gas engine. We tested an uplevel T6 Inscription model with all-wheel drive and Volvo's supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine, which is rated at 316 hp. The T6 Inscription starts at $56,445 including destination, but a healthy list of optional features raised our as-tested price to $66,365.
Exterior & Styling
Even though the S90 uses a front-wheel-drive platform, it has the eye-pleasing proportions of a rear-wheel-drive car. The passenger compartment is set farther back, with a long hood stretching out in front of it. The wide grille doesn't dominate the front of the car like some brands' grilles, but it's elegant and distinctive in its own way.
Volvo also has some of the coolest headlights around in the S90's standard "Thor's Hammer" lighting. The standard LED headlights incorporate daytime running lights that approximate a hammer. Many brands have their own light signatures, but Volvo's is one of the more distinct ones.
With such an eye-catching front design, the car's generic rear styling is surprising. The wide taillights stretch inward across the trunk lid, like horizontal versions of the tall lights used on Volvo SUVs, but the otherwise-conventional shapes don't create much visual interest.
How It Drives
The supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder is a strong performer. The little engine has plenty of power to spare for a quick pass at highway speeds, and it works with a responsive eight-speed automatic transmission that's quick to kick down for passing. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd think there was a turbo six-cylinder under the hood.
While the four-cylinder's performance impressed, the sounds it made did not. The engine's gravelly sounds are out of place in a car that competes against established luxury sedans. The fact that the engine noise is so pronounced in the S90 speaks to another of the car's issues: a noisy cabin in general. Besides the unappealing engine sound, tire and wind noise intrude at highway speeds.
Our test car had the standard suspension, but Volvo offers an optional air suspension with either engine. If the S90's air suspension is as effective as the one in our long-term 2016 XC90 — which plays a significant role in that SUV's serene driving experience — I'd pony up the $1,200 for it. That's because the S90's regular suspension is overly firm and lacks the kind of refinement expected of a luxury sedan.
The S90 includes Eco and Dynamic driving modes in addition to the regular Comfort setting. Dynamic keeps the transmission in a lower gear than it'd otherwise be in and gives the steering wheel a heavier feel. A unique metal thumbwheel on the center console changes the driving mode. At times the wheel can feel slippery, making it harder to use than a regular button or rocker switch.
The base 250-hp, front-wheel-drive model gets an EPA-estimated 23/34/27 mpg city/highway/combined, while the 316-hp, all-wheel-drive version is rated at 22/31/25 mpg. Premium gas is recommended for both engines.
The S90's cabin design takes after the layout in the XC90, and it works just as well here as it does in the SUV. Our test car's interior was finished in rich-looking Nappa leather, low-gloss walnut wood and chrome. It's a unique look that sets the S90 apart from other mid-size luxury cars.
Both the front bucket seats and the three-passenger rear bench have firm cushioning that offers good support. Our test car's numerous driver's-seat adjustments included seat-cushion length and side bolster snugness. The rear doors are a little small, making it harder to get in and out of the car, but the backseat is big enough to seat taller adults comfortably. The interior is also roomy enough for a group of 6-foot-tall passengers to ride comfortably in the front and rear seats at the same time. There's a large floor hump between the rear seats, however, which minimizes middle-seat foot space.
Ergonomics & Electronics
A vertically oriented 9-inch touchscreen does away with most buttons and knobs in the S90. There's just a slim strip of buttons — and one large knob — below the screen for things like the hazard lights, stereo volume and rear defroster. Most other systems, including climate control, are accessed through various touchscreen menus.
The system is very slick overall. It responds quickly when making selections and switching between menus, recognizes smartphone-style gestures — like pinching to zoom the navigation map or swiping to a different menu — and both graphics quality and camera-image clarity are good.
The S90's cabin has a unique look that sets it apart from other mid-size luxury cars.
There was one thing, however, that I wish wasn't part of the touchscreen interface: temperature settings. A set of buttons or a knob below the screen would make adjusting the temperature easier.
My iPhone paired easily with the multimedia system using Bluetooth, making it available for both calls and streaming music through the S90's speakers. Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, which lets iPhone users interact with select apps on the dashboard screen using a familiar smartphone-style interface, is optional. The Android equivalent — Android Auto — is not currently offered.
Cargo & Storage
The S90's trunk measures 13.5 cubic feet, which is about the same size as the cargo areas in the Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. (See a comparison of the three cars' specs here.)
The S90 has a 60/40-split folding backseat with a trunk pass-through behind the fold-down center armrest. On the shelf behind the backseat on the driver's side are two buttons that release each section of the seat; the backrests fold flat to create an extended cargo floor. The opening between the trunk and seating area when the seats are folded is wide but not tall.
Cabin storage includes an average-size glove box, a small center console bin and small door pockets for loose items.
Standard active safety features include City Safety low-speed automatic emergency braking and Volvo's Pilot Assist system. Pilot Assist is a semi-autonomous driving system that's designed to reduce driver fatigue by automatically controlling vehicle speed and steering (when lane markings are visible) up to highway speeds. Unlike fully autonomous driving technology that's still in varying stages of development, Pilot Assist requires the driver to remain engaged in the act of driving; the system will turn off if you don't keep a hand on the steering wheel.
We've been mostly impressed with our long-term XC90's Pilot Assist feature but didn't think the S90's version of the system worked as well. One editor had problems with the system making erratic corrections and ping-ponging between lane markings.
Optional features include a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert and lane keep assist. The lane keep system is more aggressive than the norm; it will actively try to steer you back into your lane if you try to change lanes without signaling. A head-up display is also optional, but the system's image disappears when wearing polarized sunglasses.
Value in Its Class
When Volvo was sold to Chinese company Geely in 2010, there were questions about what would happen with the Swedish brand. With new models like the XC90 SUV and now the S90 luxury sedan, we know what Volvo wants to be: a true luxury brand that's rooted in keeping people safe. (The automaker's stated goal is that by 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo.)
With a high-quality interior and impressive safety technology, the S90 is evidence that Volvo is well on its way to redefining itself in the luxury segment. In this case, the car just needs a quieter cabin and a more forgiving ride to get the brand all the way there.