No More ‍‍‍Why

In just one model generation, Volvo’s flagship leapfrogs from mediocrity to become a legitimate challenge‍‍‍r to take on the segment’s heavy-weights – the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

words by BOBBY ANG


s enthusiasts, we know one truism better than most – the car is more than just a mode of transport, it is an expression of our per‍‍‍sonality. Where premium makes are concerned, however, the car then becomes a symbol of success, a recognition of one’s achievements in life.

In this segment, it’s no longer enough to merely produce good cars. Everybody says the 3 Series is the best driver’s car among premium compact execs, but we all know the real reason people snap these things up is to show off the roundel and double kidneys.

Premium buyers are not just after good cars – they expect that as a matter of factly. The Datuks and Tan Sris of the world pay top ringgit for their metal, and your car goes out of contention immediately if it is the type that elicits the dreaded ‘why’.

As in, ‘Why didn’t you buy a Mercedes-Benz instead?

’A person who just lavished the price of an apartment on a set of wheels is not likely to be in a mood to entertain questions on the luxury credentials of his vehicle. This is where brand recognition comes in, and this is why upstart luxury brands like Lexus and Infiniti have a long way to go before they are viewed in the same league as the big boys.

But what about Volvo? Those of us born in the 1980s will remember a time when BMW was a left field choice and Volvo was the next default luxury brand alongside Mercedes-Benz – the rich man’s car was either a Volvo 240 or a Mercedes W123.

The 1990s came and Volvo slowly ebbed away, relegating itself to becoming a second tier luxury brand in the process. Still an upgrade from a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, but not quite E-Class or 5 Series level anymore. Didn’t help that Ford only gave them a Mondeo chassis to build their last flagship model – the thoroughly mediocre S80.

Those days are thankfully long gone, however. Although initially greeted with trepidation and no small degree of skepticism, the acquisition of Volvo Cars by Geely in 2010 has turned out to be the best thing to have ever happened to the company. Led by the charismatic Li Shufu, Geely has ambitions to be world-beaters, they have money to spend, and they have the wisdom to trust Volvo’s expertise. The results, thus far, have been spectacular.

Liberated by the freedom provided by their new Chinese masters, Volvo has found a new lease of life with a stunning new range of products waiting to be unleashed to the world. It started with the second-generation XC90 that was introduced in 2015, and it continues with the all-new S90 sedan and V90 wagon that are being featured on our pages here.

Looking at these new cars, we immediately see a proud and confident new Volvo, no longer encumbered by Ford’s bureaucracy, but instead emboldened by a newfound sense of self-belief. We are looking at a company no longer fearful of the competition, but rather one that is comfortable with its own identity and believes in its own value. They damned well should; after all, they gave us the seat-belt, for free.

Whether it is the sleek three-box profile of the S90 or the practical silhouette of the V90, Volvo has produced a pair of stunning looking vehicles fit to lead the range of any premium brand you care to name; and it does not matter if you choose the entry-level T5 or the sporty T6 R-Design trim, either path ways lead you to picking a very handsome car.

The design details, too, are stunning. The Thor Hammer DRLs ensure that you will never mistake a Volvo for anything else; whilst the concave grille of the T5 model with exactly 27 vertical slats pay homage to the iconic P1800 sports car – one of the most beautifully-designed automobiles of all time.

Curiously, despite this office’s well-known partiality toward wagons, we actually found ourselves won over by the S90’s design – a doubly-impressive feat considering what a beautiful piece of work the V90 already is. But where the V90’s rear end is handsome and well-resolved, the S90 stands out for being unconventional – those unusua‍‍‍lly-shaped LED-lit tail lights, in particular, are unlike anything else out there in the market. We did not like it at first glance, we’ll admit, but kudos to Volvo for having the courage to design something that breaks away from the norm.

‍‍‍Inside, the S90 and V90 cabin is a successful mix of elegant design, meticulous detail, and peerless selection of materials. The portrait-oriented touchscreen, through which even climate ‍‍‍control is operated, initially invited skepticism on its viability of use on the move. Critics questioned if the driver can navigate the screen intuitively enough without needing to take his eyes off the road. Volvo obviously given this question serious thought; in practice, we found that most critical functions can be accessed without needing to dive through layers after sub-layers of menus. Also, there is voice command to help you out if needed.

Such is the attention to detail that Volvo paid to the user experience of this car, the leather used on the upholstery is matched to the finishing on the car key. Across the cabin, we could hardly find any material that we could call cheap; everything that we can see and touch simply look and feel good. It comes as no surprise that the interior designer responsible for this cabin was ex-Bentley staff Robin Page. The man obviously carried over some habits from his ex-employers.

As we will soon see in all upcoming Volvos, powertrains for the S90 and V90 comes are all built off the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder block. In the T5, one turbocharger is strapped on to generate 254 hp; whilst the T6 adds on a supercharger to push out 320 hp. To compare, the T5 matches both the BMW 530i and Mercedes E300 on outputs; the T6 is more of a match with six-cylinder 540i and E400 variants that are not presently available in our market.

Both engine configurations are paired to an 8-speed automatic gearbox. The transmission lacks the fast-shifting slickness of BMW’s ZF box with the same number of ratios, but never felt wanting overall. It is an Aisin-sourced gearbox, so at the very least you can count on it to continue shifting cogs with dependable smoothness for years to come.

Neither powertrain option is likely to disappoint on the road, with both offering more than adequate mid-range punch to help you zoom past urban traffic. It is only when pushed hard does the T6’s horsepower advantage truly come into play. The hi‍‍‍gher model’s all-wheel drive system also ensures more effective deployment of its superior performance around corners.

There is no doubt that even on performance alone, the T6 AWD variants convincingly justifies its higher price positioning over the T5. We don’t quite agree with removal of paddle shifters from the T5 models, however. Paddle shifters today have become important pieces in the modern driving experience – it is quite unfortunate that Volvo felt the need to ‘spec-punish’ the T5 here just to give the T6 extra room to exert its sportiness.

Ride comfort, unsurprisingly, is superior in the softer-s‍‍‍prung T5 models that do without the T6’s harder R-Design sport suspension. Given the same powertrain, however, it is the S90 sedan that feels sharper and more agile at the helm, unsurprising due to the V90 wagon’s extra rump over its back.

To‍‍‍ rank the S90 and V90 against the competition, we’d sum up by saying that the Volvo finishes a close second behind the BMW 5 Series in driving dynamics; given how thoroughly competent Munich’s latest mid-sizer is, that’s akin to winning an Olympic silver medal behind Usain Bolt, which is not bad at all. On exterior design and cabin quality, the S90 and V90 can legitimately claim to be best-in-segment.

On their own, the S90 and V90 are excellent cars; in the bigger picture, they are emblematic of what Volvo has now become – a revitalized car maker with a newfound confidence to take o‍‍‍n the world. Looking at these cars, it’s as if as Volvo never spent all those years in the doldrums; like those nightmare years in the Premier Automotive Group never happened.

In one fell swoop, the S90 and V90 catapults Volvo back into contention amongst the big boys. Together with the XC90 launched earlier, these cars have restored the legitimacy of Volvo’s luxury credentials. For the first time in years, your purchase of a Volvo flagship will not be met with questioning gazes of ‘why’.

photography by BOBBY ANG & KEEGAN DORAI