Volvo S90 D4 Inscription review
Volvo's S90 has really thrown the executive car market asunder. The German defaults are no longer the defaults.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe
Pics by Dave Humphreys

Published on November 15, 2016

Good: gorgeous inside and out, comfort, refinement, quality, technology.

Not so good: lacks the outright chassis sophistication of rivals.

I am a motoring journalist. Bit of an obvious point to make, that, but one that comes with a bit of baggage. You see, for the past three decades, maybe more, it has been the group-think opinion of most motoring journalists that German is best. Whether it is a sporting saloon, a family hatchback, a luxury barge, an SUV or a rear-engined, flat-six sports car, the received wisdom is that the Germans just do it better. Fair enough really. After all, if you look back at the long lines of BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Porsche 911, Mercedes S-Class, Volkswagen Golf, BMW X5, Audi A3 and so on and so on it's a pretty hard thesis to upend. Never more so in the executive car class, where if you were really looking beyond a 5 Series, an E-Class or an A6 for your needs, you were possibly a bit wrong in the head.

However, that has, to a very large extent, changed a bit in the past year. For a start, Both Jaguar (with the XF) and Lexus (with the revised GS) have made some very serious inroads into the exec saloon class, in critical - if not in outright sales - terms. But if the Anglo-Japanese assault on the executive north face of the Eiger was the equivalent of throwing cats into groups of pigeons, then Volvo has just lobbed a hand grenade into an aviary. The S90 saloon is really that good.

Well, it's almost that good. To say that the Volvo S90, driven here in front-drive 190hp D4 diesel form, is as outright technically good as the Germans is most definitely not correct. Drive one back-to-back with, for instance, the new E-Class, and you can feel the extra Deutsche-Euros spent on things, especially the suspension. But the S90 is so good in almost every area, and ahead of the Germans in a couple of key points that it makes a far more compelling choice than you might have expected.

First off, the tech stuff. The S90 uses the same SPA (Scalable Product Architecture) that we've seen under the Volvo XC90 SUV and it's a good basis from which to start. Light and flexible in what it can do, SPA means that the S90 is huge (damn near BMW 7 Series size), but relatively light. That means it's hugely roomy inside (more so than all its German competition) and can get away with using 'just' a four-cylinder diesel engine. That D4 unit has been around a couple of years now and it's still excellent. If Merc's new 195hp 2.0-litre diesel has overtaken it at the top of the class, then the Volvo unit runs it a close second - it's smooth, mostly very refined (once cold-start grumbling has dissipated) and decently economical. Tied to the eight-speed automatic gearbox (Volvo's own, not bought from ZF), it's a relaxing companion, albeit one that fails to provide a really solid overtaking kick. You'll need to upgrade to the 235hp D5 for that; the D4 is a better cruiser.

As is the S90 in chassis terms. Now, roll the little tactile switch across from Eco and Comfort modes to Dynamic, and it's actually not bad. In spite of slightly long-winded steering that's rather short on genuine feel, the S90 can be hustled with some success, even net of the fact that its rear suspension is actually provided by a massive leaf spring. A carbon-composite one, but a leaf spring nevertheless. Body roll is there, but well contained, and while the S90 naturally understeers when pushed, it never becomes untidy nor unruly. But you can tell that this is not what it's for. Go and find a motorway...

Once on a multi-lane road, the S90 settles down to its core competency - annihilating distances while leaving you unruffled and un-cramped. The front seats are magnificent and add greatly to relatively soft suspension settings (albeit the suspension sometimes gets annoyingly noisy and fidgety over urban bumps) and the S90 salves away the worries of the world as you drive. And it can even drive itself, a bit. The Pilot Assist system can take over many of the primary driving duties on a main road, from lane-keeping to active cruise control and emergency braking if needs be. It's not a hands-off system (you still need to watch the road and keep your hands on the steering wheel), but it does take some of the pressure off you on a long haul, and once you're used to the system and what it's good and not good at, it's a real bonus. Standard equipment too.

Inside, the S90's cabin is basically that of the XC90 with the lifts taken out of its shoes. The same, massive, portrait-oriented touchscreen still dominates the centre of the dash, looking as if you've accidentally ram-raided an Apple Store at some point. It does take a bit of learning to get used to all its functions, but once you've mastered it, you'll never go back, and it makes the infotainment setups of BMW, Audi and Mercedes look clunky and cheap. Best function of all is, with the optional Bowers & Wilkins stereo, the ability to replicate the sound ambience of the Gothenburg Concert Hall from Volvo's home town. Bliss for music-heads. 

Quality is utterly excellent too - Audi levels if not better, and the blonde leather and pale wood highlights are a welcome relief from black with more black. The all-digital instruments are nice too, and comfort is simply off-the-scale good. The boot's big too, but folding rear seats are optional, which is a shocker. Perhaps a ruse to get you to upgrade to the even-better looking V90 estate?

Speaking of options, Volvo has seriously cottoned on to the German technique of wallet-diving on the options list. A basic D4 Momentum costs from €48,400, while this D4 Inscription clocks in at €52,900. To which someone at Volvo Ireland had added more than €20k worth of optional extras, making this a €75k Volvo saloon.

The thing is that the S90 is so good that it manages to wear even that inflated price tag with ease. So comfortable and refined is it that you can genuinely imagine it duelling with cars from a class up. It is probably the ultimate long-haul car right now, and if it's still behind the German Big Three in terms of outright dynamic performance, it's close enough or ahead in so many other areas that you simply cannot ignore it if you're lucky enough to be shopping in this market. This motoring journalist is switching his allegiance to Sweden.


Tech Specs

Model testedVolvo S90 D4 Inscription
Price€75,195 as tested, S90 range starts at €44,800
Engine2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel
Transmissioneight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Body stylefour-door saloon
CO2 emissions116g/km (Band A4, €200 per annum)
Combined economy64.1mpg (4.4 litres/100km)
Top speed225km/h
0-100km/h7.9 seconds
Power190hp at 4,250rpm
Torque400Nm at 1,750rpm
Boot space500 litres
EuroNCAP ratingnot tested
Rivals to the S90 D4 Inscription