Imagine you’re a Volvo engineer who has been with the company for more than 20 years. You were devastated when Volvo AB sold off Volvo cars to Ford, you were furious when the Americans limit what can and cannot be done, and all of a sudden, you’re the employee of a company that you haven’t even heard of from China. Just as you thought the worst has come, you witnessed your good friend who works in Saab became jobless. But you stayed on, for hopes that one day, you and your talented fellow colleagues can do what you’re capable of. Like a Joshua tree that never shed its leaves, withstanding the harsh desert to bear the fruits that resemble the beauty of perseverance and resilience. To me, I believe I’m witnessing that very moment with the cars that Volvo is churning out.
by BOBBY ANG
can still vividly remember how genuinely surprised I was when I drove the new XC90. On paper, it sports a puny little 2.0 litre engine fitted within ‘2 tonnes of metal and lithium ion batteries’ - not exactly the by-word for describing high performance. I approached it with a doubtful squint of my ‘sepet’ eyes that couldn’t go any more ‘Chinese’. The official figures doesn’t help my scepticism any better. “407hp from a four pot two litre?” I thought. “Maybe they should include the time for turbo lag as well, denominated in minutes instead of seconds.” I thought.
And then the XC90 blew me off my socks the moment I drove it. “Is this even Volvo? What alchemy is this?” Imagine the immediacy of most German premium cars in ‘Sports mode’, but without the transmission dragging on perpetually, and a suspension that’s pliant and comfortable for every situation except when the 21” wheels sends in some occasional thuds. The Start/Stop system works so perfectly that I can hardly feel the transition. After the first XC90 turns out to be a Billboard smash hit, the second XC90 hits Platinum straight away.
Now imagine all the great thing about what I just mentioned about the XC90 fitted within a body that’s 300kg lighter, and with a centre of gravity sitting roughly 5 inches lower. Sounds brilliant right? That’s exactly what Volvo engineers had in mind when they develop the Scalable Platform Architecture (SPA) for the XC90, S90 and V90. There’s no intention to keep things exclusive for the flagship, every best bit of the XC90 will be transplanted to both the S90 and V90, a car that will enter a segment with volumes so much higher that it actually carries the burden of the task to amortise the huge development costs for its larger XC90 sibling.
But with greater responsibility comes bigger challenges. While the V90 is in a segment where it’s not difficult to capture sales, as Volvo enjoys a strong dealership network in the V90’s primary market - Europe; the S90 is a very different story, as it carries a much larger task to penetrate the US and Asian markets where there’s a huge market for executive sedans. However, both these markets are currently dominated by the German Trio, both in brand perception, and outright dealership network. Put it this way, when it comes to premium SUVs, both Volvo XC60 and XC90 has always been amongst the top choices. But when it comes to premium executive sedans, Volvo would be lucky to be ranked within top 5 in terms of top of mind consideration. It’s a huge uphill battle.
‘After the first XC90 turns out to be a Billboard smash hit, the second XC90 hits Platinum straight away.’
And that’s why Volvo is bringing out all its ammo for the S90, and key of which, will be a strategy that I very much agree with. Forget the low end discount bloodbath of E200 vs 520i vs A6 1.8Ts. Volvo is planning to focus its firepower on the T8 Inscription Plug-In Hybrid AWD. Think about this, 407hp, 640Nm, 35km of pure electric driving, sub 3L/100km efficiency, Bowers & Wilkins sound system, all wheel drive. All for RM380 road tax each year. On paper, there’s virtually no competition at all. And this should pique the market’s interest.
For this reason, I flew to Spain to test drive the new pre-production S90 and V90s. While the T8 Plug-In Hybrid isn’t available, I get to drive the T6 AWD for two days. Without the T8’s Plug-In Hybrid system, the T6 is ‘just’ a 2.0 litre sedan with 320hp and 400Nm of torque powering an AWD system through an 8-Speed transmission. I also get to drive the V90 in the D5 configuration, a 2.0 litre diesel with 235hp and 480Nm - despite the fact that the D5 won’t make its way to Malaysia.
Volvo has some tricks up their sleeves with regards to extracting more performance. The T6 is twin charged as we’ve come to familiarise with the XC90, the D5 on the other hand, features a unique solution Volvo dubbed ‘Power Pulse’. Marketing rubric aside, this is an ingenious solution in that Volvo houses a separate air compressor and a pressurised tank that compresses air using electricity obtained from brake energy recuperation. What this does is it compresses the air linked to the exhaust manifold. Whenever there’s a kick down requiring immediate acceleration, a valve opens and the compressed air spools the turbo. This effectively removes the ‘expected’ diesel turbo lag at low RPMs.
The result is immediately noticeable, cutting short the diesel turbo lag tremendously. And the best part is that it works in a simple, plug and play manner, and requires little reverse engineering of other components around the engine bay. Swedish engineering at its best? Wait, there’s more. By default, from the T6 petrol and D5 diesel onwards, all S90 and V90 are fitted with a set of electronically adjustable hydraulic coil spring suspensions. This is to suit the different driving modes of Comfort or Dynamic selectable via a roller toggle behind the Engine Start Knob. Rear air suspension is optional in the T6 and D5, standard in the T8 Inscription. Apart from the double wishbones at the front, there’s a very unique solution at the back. Using a transverse mounted composite spring at the back, the engineers figured out a way to not only save space, but with a suspension at the rear that gives a more stable suspension geometry.
So how all these tech-gizmos translate to real world driving? First of all, the car feels extremely pliant, more so when you consider that all our media test drive cars are fitted with 20” rims. Yes, t-w-e-n-t-y inches of Swedish industrial doughnuts fitted on sedans. Outrageous they may be, but they complement the proportions of the S90 and V90 extremely well. In fact, the cars were designed to look best with the optional 21” rims. Given how well the S90 and V90 cope with those 20” rims, I can’t see how significant will the 21” rims rob away comfort in any measurable way.
On the move, by default, the cars will start in comfort mode. Immediately there’s one thing that I noticed that differs from the usual German premium marques - in that Volvo did not programme the car to behave like a complete sloth under this mode - something the Germans do, as if they’re guilty for the sport mode to be overtly aggressive, they made the throttle response in Comfort mode behaving almost like limp mode. The Volvo on the other hand, gives a light and neutral steering and throttle feel, whereas the suspension is noticeably softer. Flick it to Dynamic mode, the S90 and V90 sharpens up the steering without adding too much artificial weight, and the suspension tightens up too, while the transmission holds the gears in slightly longer.
There’s really so much about the S90 and V90 that I can discuss here end to end, because as a contender to the segment, Volvo didn’t just bring on-par substance and performance like how Infiniti or Lexus’s lacklustre attempt at this segment trying to challenge Audi and BMW (Audi is this segment’s leader in Europe). Volvo brought with the S90, class leading technology in terms of usable, practical applications. Innovations with real-world practicality is hard to come by as opposed to fancy party tricks like stepping out of your car and parking it with your cellphone as you stand in the parking lot. Volvo triumphs over here in terms of safety, and they’re all really practical. In fact, I believe in recent year, the most innovative (why-haven’t-we-thought-of-that) solution to me, is Jaguar’s new Activity Key. It’s basically a car key in the form of a wristband, so you don’t have to carry your car key while you exercise. It’s simple, innovative and solves real world problems.
Volvo S90 & V90
Engine 2 litre Turbo Charged
Power & Torque 254hp and 350Nm
0-62mph 6.8 seconds
Top speed 230km/h
Fuel Consumption 6.5 litre/100km
Engine 2 litre Turbo Charged
Power & Torque 320hp and 400Nm
0-62mph 5.9 seconds
Top speed 250km/h
Fuel Consumption 7.2 litre/100km
Engine 2 litre Twin Charged
Power & Torque 407hp and 640Nm
0-62mph 5.2 seconds
Top speed 230km/h
Fuel Consumption 1.9 litre/100km
Engine 2 litre Turbo Diesel Power Pulse Air Compressor
Power & Torque 235hp and 480Nm
0-62mph 7 seconds
Top speed 240km/h
Fuel Consumption 4.8 litre/100km
‘Volvo triumphs over here in terms of safety, and they’re all really practical’
‘...the Volvo is the allure of a beautiful girl sitting beside a pond reading a wonderful story book and smiling along’
‘There’s no intention to keep things exclusive for the flagship, every best bit of the XC90 will be transplanted to both the S90 and V90...’
My book cover judgement actually stems from the fact that the new XC90 looks fantastic both inside out. The svelte exterior penned by Thomas Ingenlath provided such a depth of imagination for outsiders that we can’t help but begin imagining the language applied to the rest of Volvo’s lineup. And that interior by Robin Paige, Bentley’s ex Head of Interior Design isn’t just luxurious and beautiful to look at, it’s also genuinely original, unmistakably Swedish, and extremely welcoming too, you feel comfortable just looking at it.
And the more I love how everything looked in pictures, the more I hate what’s printed on paper - “Why would Volvo ruin all this with such a high strung configuration of its drivetrain? There’s going to be massive turbo lag, it’s going to feel unsorted, the little mill of an engine won’t be able to take it. Who do they think they are? M Division? Quattro GmBh? AMG? A 3.0 litre in-line six or the 2.5 five pot would’ve do the job well enough.” Bla-bla-bla I continued on in my mind. I love the XC90 so much and wants it to succeed so dearly that I begin going all negative in my mind about it.
In my opinion, I really liked how the suspension continues to soak up bumps and undulation effectively even in Dynamic mode. And in fact it is under the Dynamic mode that the suspension feels the best. It results in the car rolling less in corners, but the suspension never ran out of depth. Moreover, when dealing with rougher roads or undulations.
There’s very little variation in between both modes to be honest, and I reckon its due to the fact that they carefully calibrated the ‘default’ demeanour of the car, and wouldn’t want to deviate too far from it. One thing I believe Volvo should look into is the transmission at upshifts, as its obvious in both S90 and V90 that I drove, that they do a better (smoother) job downshifting than upshifting. That being said, the slight detachment I felt during second to third and from third to fourth gear happened intermittently. Maybe its just they’re pre-production test cars.
As the driving gets more intense, I can’t help but wanting to cry out loud that Volvo should include paddle shifters in all their cars. To Volvo, the omission is to make a statement, that cars isn’t meant for racing. But I beg to differ, to me, paddle shifters are a safety device, simply because most car owners have got used to them be it from Mazdas to BMWs. Hence at times of emergency, a double downshift is possible - whether it’s more effective or not on paper - it serves as assurance. Moreover, if Volvo wants to make an impact with their new cars, familiarity for customers in the showroom is a must.
Back to driving, there’s a series of 45km/h to 55km/h bends that we can push to 70km/h, and I’m happy to announce: dull, nose heavy Volvos is a thing of yore. The S90 has a very nice flowing turn in under Dynamic mode. (In fact it does so in Comfort mode too, albeit with more body roll that even if it didn’t unsettle the car, it robs you off confidence). You can tell that the engineers wanted this feel, and worked hard to achieve it. It’s very different from Audis, where you feel the weight pushing the outer wheels and then you understand the grip and traction fights with the momentum that wants to push you out. The S90 has none of that, it gives an impression of a light front end, the impression that the front tyres aren’t interrupted when it’s doing its job. Of course, I’m not pushing the car either cause there’s no need to.
Next up, the party piece. The one thing that the S90 one-ups the XC90, is the Pilot Assist semi autonomous driving mode. When activated, the Pilot Assist takes over steering and throttle, but requires that you keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times. Failing to do so, the car will deactivate it after a few warnings. Now what this system does is to basically let you relax on long highway drives or extended traffic jams. By constantly monitoring everything around you, the car steers, brakes and accelerates itself.
Now it might sound familiar to what other car makers offer, but Volvo one-ups them by greatly improving other aspects of safety, regardless they’re activated or not, they’re by default active if specced. For example, there’s a function called ‘Large Animal Detection’, where the car will brake in the event a moose or a bear suddenly crossing out to the road when its dark. Why ‘Large’? Because the severity of hitting one is deadly as opposed to the minor injuries one might have with sudden full braking. You won’t want your car braking drastically for a small dog wandering off the streets do you? Next, Run Off Road Mitigation. And this is a life saver, because many accidents occur during driver fatigue or inattention, resulting in the car wandering off road. And these can have serious consequences as most often than not, it can be ditches, road signs, trees, cliffs etc. I can see Run Off Road Mitigation as something that many car makers will offer in due time, but now, it comes as standard with the new S90 and V90.
Lastly, what I really want to talk about is the interior, while we’re all very familiar with the standard teutonic German quality interiors, and the ‘default’ layout like what was shown by Audi and BMW. Of course Mercedes’ recent new interior is a breath of fresh air for the segment, but it’s more high fashion, in that you can imagine the E-Class with the backdrop of Pavilion and shopping bags, but not so in its element when placed against beautiful skies, a river or even a picnic out in the open. Volvo’s interior on the other hand, is not only beautiful and luxurious, but there’s also a distinct Scandinavian design to it, a form of restrained beauty that simply attracts you. If the flamboyant E-Class is a sexy girl in a long v-neck walking down the red carpet with her sharp poise and posture, the Volvo is the allure of a beautiful girl sitting beside a pond reading a wonderful story book and smiling along.
Having studied every single fatal crash in Sweden for the past 40 years, logging in each and every data, how it happened, why, and so on - Volvo has the most comprehensive database the human race has ever collected about the biggest killer of human beings - which is car accidents. But do we buy cars solely for its safety features? Of course not, and for that, and that’s why the Volvo S90 and V90 also has the best interior of the segment, the best four cylinder engines of the segment, the luxury to match, performance, and what is, the only car in its segment designed from the ground up to be a compatible Plug-In Hybrid vehicle. Volvo might not have the sales network of its rivals that are 3 to 4 fold in size, but they certainly have a winner at hand - and we’re glad they did .