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Marking Volvo’s return to the large executive sedan segment, the Swedish brand’s S90 blends luxury and elegance with good performance, safety and efficiency. Wynter Murdoch reports
There’s a stretch of road in the Western Cape that, over the years, motoring journalists have got to know well. It’s the Franschhoek Pass – completed in 1825 and billed as South Africa’s first properly engineered mountain road – which is incorporated often into vehicle launch schedules by motor manufacturers.
Dramatically positioned on the side of the Middagskransberg, the pass is long and steep with a succession of tight corners –including hairpins and circular curves – interspersed with flowing sweeps and short straights. Enticing to drive but demanding, the road is quickly capable of showing up the slightest imperfections in a vehicle’s dynamic behaviour or its powertrain responses.
Since the base chosen for the launch of Volvo’s S90 is the village of Franschhoek – from which journalists can determine their own test routes – it makes sense to me to use the pass to assess the two derivatives that make up the initial range; the diesel-driven D5 and the petrol-fuelled T6, both of which feature all-wheel drivetrains.
Incidentally, the models will be joined later this year by front-wheel-drive D4 and T5 derivatives – and later still by the range-topper, the hybrid powered T8. Whether petrol, diesel or hybrid, all of the models feature engines from Volvo’s newly designed Drive-E family of powertrains, the basis of which are lightweight, four-cylinder units that displace 2,0 litres, coupled with eight-speed Geartronic automatic transmission.
In D5 form the engine is boosted by a sophisticated, twin-turbocharging system which is fed by compressed air to minimise lag. For similar reasons, the petrol-fuelled T6 counterpart is equipped with a combination of turbocharger and supercharger.
The diesel unit is reassuringly receptive to throttle inputs, producing 173kW at 4 000 revs/min and a meaty 480Nm of torque between the 1 750 to 2 250 rpm marks. The turbo system, called PowerPulse and patented by Volvo, features two sequential Borg-Warner turbines – a high-pressure, 38mm unit that feeds a low-pressure, 53mm equivalent.
With the help of a pulse of compressed air injected into the exhaust manifold, the smaller turbo spools up from 20 000 rpm – the speed at which it idles – to a fully operational 150 000 revs/min in just 0,3 seconds.
An electrically-driven compressor draws air from the air-filter housing and stores it at a pressure of 12 bar in a 2,0-litre tank, constantly replenishing itself to ensure there’s a supply on hand whenever the throttle is prodded with intent at low engine revs.
During my test runs over the Franschhoek Pass – all conducted with the car’s drive mode selector set to Dynamic to sharpen responses – the engine answers immediately to every demand made on it. Though I know the small turbo is predominant until around the 2 750 revs/min mark – which is where the large turbo, spinning at 160 000 rpm, takes over – I can’t discern when the transition occurs since there’s no step in the power delivery.
That element of seamlessness is apparent across all reaches of the rev range, the engine’s progressive smoothness reminiscent of the characteristics found in a long-stroke, six-cylinder unit – except for the exhaust note, which is a disappointing barp!
Similarly, the incorporation in the T6 derivative of a supercharger that works in unison with a turbocharger until the 3 500 revs/min mark does wonders to overcome lag. There’s no bogging down off the line or when coming out of corners – on the contrary, the car feels muscled and eager through all stages of the test runs though, once again, to my ears the exhaust note lacks conviction.
With 235kW on tap the car accelerates quicker than the D5, completing the zero to 100km/h sprint in 5,9 seconds – about 1,1 seconds ahead of its stable mate. It’s also faster at the top end, with speed limited to 250km/h as opposed to the D5’s terminal 240km/h.
Over the pass, the T6’s pick-up pace out of corners makes it exciting to drive, its responses feeling less languid than those of the D5. However, if it’s frugal fuel consumption you are after, opt for the diesel. Volvo quotes a combined cycle figure of 4,8 litres per 100km against the T6’s 7,2 litres per 100km, with carbon emissions pegged at 127g/km as opposed to 165g/km.
From a dynamic perspective, each of the vehicles impresses for high levels of mechanical grip. Their four-wheel drivetrains disperse up to 50% of propulsion forces equally to front or back axles depending on the amount of slip detected at either end though, when cruising on a dry road, almost all of the power goes to the front.
Through the twists and turns of the Franschhoek Pass the S90 in either guise maintains good composure, its ride stable and its steering accurate. On the downside the chassis jars slightly when wheels encounter sharp-edged bumps, the low profile tyres on optional 21-inch rims fitted to the test cars probably responsible for the lack of compliance.
Gear shifting is quick whether going up or down the cogs, the closeness of the ratios helping to smooth out changes. Brakes are excellent, with no fade apparent during any of the test runs. What’s equally impressive is the agility each of the cars displays.
There’s a nimbleness about both versions of the S90 that’s not usually associated with luxury sedans for, despite its sleek, coupé-like looks, the model is large, tipping the scales at about two tons.
It is longer and wider than many of its competitors, with an expansive bonnet, a boot that holds 500 litres of luggage and an exquisitely appointed cabin that comfortably accommodates up to five people.
Despite the low roof, the interior is light an airy, the seats wide, supportive and plush. However, foot room for rear seat passengers is limited and manual steering-column adjustment is unusual in a segment where many competitors offer an electrically adjustable system.
While the dashboard layout is minimalistic, it’s not sparse. There’s a good mix of light and dark leather, matt-finished wood trim and polished aluminum, all of which ooze quality. Dials are digital rather than analogue, but are neatly and logically presented and easy to read.
The cabin’s centerpiece, though, is a vertically oriented LCD infotainment screen which operates much like a tablet. By swiping, pinching or tapping the screen – and dragging down menus – all of the car’s many features can be accessed. A word of caution here; since there are many features – and many menus – it may take new owners some time to acquaint themselves with the operational system.
That said, voice control is also fitted as standard to all derivatives and is effective in managing aspects of navigation, phone, climate, media and other functions.
Which brings me to another high-tech point: allowing the S90 to drive itself. At speeds of up to 130km/h, the car can be programmed to take over driver chores simply by engaging semi-autonomous mode.
I didn’t try it when negotiating the Franschhoek Pass, but I’m assured that, provided the road is well marked and that I keep at least one hand on the steering wheel, the vehicle’s new-generation Pilot Assist system – which has been available locally since last year in a sister model, the XC90 – will safely take control of steering, brakes and throttle inputs.
Designed primarily to allow drivers to relax on the daily commute – especially if stuck in a traffic jam – the system uses radar and a host of other sensors to get the car to its destination, stopping, starting and following the road without input from the driver.
While it’s the type of feature you’d expect to find in a luxury limousine, for my part I’d rather drive the S90 one more time over the Franschhoek Pass – just to see if I can better finesse some of the corners.
PRICES VOLVO S90
D5 Geartronic AWD Momentum R777 700
D5 Geartronic AWD Inscription R821 200
D5 Geartronic AWD R-Design R806 700
T6 Geartronic AWD Momentum R828 400
T6 Geartronic AWD Inscription R871 900
T6 Geartronic AWD R-Design R857 400
All models are sold with a five-year/100 000km full vehicle warranty, full maintenance plan and roadside assistance, as well as Tracker Connect as standard.