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2021 Volvo S90 Test Drive Review
Just your ordinary, everyday, plug-in-hybrid, full-size, Swedish luxury sedan.
When Volvo brought the S90 name back to the United States in 2017, it put an exclamation point on a refreshed lineup. The formerly staid Swedish brand was now competing in the luxury field. The 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge T8 Inscription shows off the best Volvo offers in terms of design, technology, safety, and luxury, making it a fitting flagship for the lineup.
Look and Feel
Refreshed for the 2021 model year, the Volvo S90 full-size sedan still rides on the same platform as the company’s XC90 SUV, with some updated details. The S90 wears a new front fascia, new grille, and an updated version of the Volvo Ironmark emblem. Similarly, the rear fascia, trunk lid, and taillights benefit from sharpened design, and new wheel styles are available. New exterior color choices have been added, along with more interior upholstery options.
The S90 has an elegant profile, with a long hood and a raked windshield that connects to a swooping roofline, ending in a pert, upturned trunk lid. Big wheels and a long wheelbase with short overhangs front and rear lend an executive look. The S90’s new front fascia and grille are simpler and cleaner than before. The striking LED headlight arrays inset flanks them with the Thor’s Hammer signature daytime running light (DRL) feature, one of Volvo’s most compelling design flourishes. The new trunk lid is distinctive but somehow inconsistent with the rest of the design. Perhaps we just need time to adjust to its appearance—your opinion might be different.
Inside, the S90, like most current Volvo offerings, is a showcase of Swedish design. Clean lines, beautiful materials, fine finishes, and superb craftsmanship abound. Form follows function in a dashboard arranged around the Sensus Connect touchscreen, a portrait-oriented infotainment interface inset at the center. Vertical “air blades” flank the screen, cleverly integrating the HVAC outlet into the design.
In our Inscription trim test vehicle, the front seats are covered with Nappa leather and get all manner of power adjustment, position memory, heating, and ventilation, and with the $1,300 Lounge Package, backrest massage as well.
The second row gets similar luxury materials and detailing. The whole cabin fits the description “Scandinavian Sanctuary.”
Volvo’s commitment to electrification is flourishing up and down its lineup, and the S90 Recharge benefits from this enlightened direction. Just a few years ago, a full-size luxury sedan needed a big V8 engine, or at least a turbocharged V6, under the hood to merit serious consideration. The S90’s T8 package uses a front-mounted 2.0-liter four-cylinder supercharged and turbocharged engine with a rear-mounted electric motor to generate 400 horsepower and 472 pound-feet of torque combined. A second electric motor, mounted on the crankshaft, acts as a starter-generator and modulates transitions between the engine and the rear motor. The starter-generator can also provide additional power in demand situations, adding up to 111 lb-ft of torque. An 11.6-kilowatt-hour battery lives on the center tunnel, a placement centralizing mass while offering protection in crashes.
If all that sounds complicated, it is. The good news for drivers, though, is that Volvo engineered transparent operation into the system. You don’t need to understand how it all works to take advantage of the performance on tap.
The S90 Recharge is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), a somewhat misleading designation. To fully exercise the powertrain’s capabilities, you can connect your S90 to power with the included charging cable. Using standard household current, you can charge the battery from empty to full overnight. If you have access to a 240-volt outlet, the charging time goes down to about three hours. If you aren’t near an outlet or charging station, no worry – the S90 can operate like a “traditional” hybrid, using its starter-generator and regenerative brakes to refresh the battery during operation.
If you do charge your S90, though, you have the option of using Pure mode, one of the five driving modes available. Pure mode maximizes driving on battery power, reducing some energy-consuming functions. Dynamic performance is reduced, and Pure mode only works up to 78 mph. In Pure mode, you can drive up to 21 miles without using a drop of gas, according to the EPA.
In addition to Pure mode, the other driving modes are Hybrid, Power, AWD, and Individual. Hybrid is the default mode and balances the gas engine and electric motor for efficiency, performance, and comfort. Power mode uses both the engine and motor in parallel for quick response and maximum performance and drives both the front and rear wheels. All-wheel drive (AWD) mode should be engaged in slippery conditions, as it distributes the power from front to rear to improve traction. Individual mode allows savvy owners to set up their own parameters. This mode is programmed to each key fob, so each driver of the S90 can save an Individual mode.
The EPA gave the S90 Recharge an efficiency rating of 60 MPGe combined on electricity, and a 30 mpg combined fuel-economy rating in gasoline-only mode.
Driving the S90 Recharge is a pleasure and can deliver thrills, too. The car has excellent balance, a smooth ride, and predictable power delivery via the eight-speed automatic transmission. The start/stop function of the gas engine is seamless, and the cabin is quiet and serene, even under heavy acceleration. Steering is direct and sharp, and the body stays flat through turns. This is not pillowy luxury; it is crisply tailored luxury.
Form and Function
With the rise of the SUV, full-size sedans like the S90 have fallen out of favor. But there are many attributes of a sedan to be treasured and admired. The S90 is at just the right height for people of a certain age to enter and exit in comfort and security—no climbing up or squatting down necessary. Even if you’re a spry young thing, your passengers will appreciate the ease of access in the second row, and if you must secure a child seat or booster back there, you’ll appreciate it, too.
A separate, secure trunk is another sedan attribute where the S90 excels. It can handle up to 15.4 cubic feet of luggage. The cargo floor is also just 21.6 inches above the ground, with a liftover height of 26.5 inches. The trunk lid opens widely, and the trunk floor is 45.2 inches long to the back of the rear seat. The second row folds down, opening up an 82.6-inch-long path to the back of the front seat. Since the trunk opening is 39.9 inches wide and 14.3 inches tall, you could slide a six-foot-tall by three-foot-wide bookcase into the S90 and still close the trunk lid. Who needs an SUV?
Volvo has created a functional space in the front cabin with ample storage in the glove compartment, door pockets, under the center armrest, and in the center console. Two cupholders serve the front passenger and driver. Second-row passengers get good legroom, headroom, and storage, with a pair of cupholders in the fold-down armrest and map pockets in the back of the front seats. Shoulder and hip room for three across is possible, depending on the three and the ride duration.
A panoramic moonroof with motorized shade can lend an airy feel to the entire cabin and slides for some ventilation, too.
Volvo’s Sensus Connect infotainment system was among the first to integrate tablet-like pinch-and-pull gestures, now almost standard with touchscreen infotainment interfaces across the auto industry. Still, a head start has benefitted Sensus Connect, as it has evolved into a reasonably-intuitive system. Some features are a little too nested in menus for a first drive, like climate control and seat-massage settings, but familiarity remedies that. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as well.
The instrument panel is a 12.3-inch digital display, which you can customize to display pertinent information. The $1,700 Advanced Package of options includes a graphical head-up display, a feature we’ve grown to depend on in luxury vehicles, along with a 360-degree surround-view camera system, which makes parking a breeze.
The Harman Kardon Premium Sound system included with the Inscription trim level is good. However, we were spoiled by having the available top-of-the-line $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound system, one of the best car-audio systems available. With 1,400 watts of amplification and 19 speakers, the system can recreate the acoustics of a small room to a large concert hall—specifically the Gothenburg Concert Hall in Sweden. Very cool, and a rewarding listening experience of audiophile quality.
In terms of connectivity, the S90 comes with a built-in 4G LTE modem, allowing for a WiFi hotspot in the vehicle. Bluetooth is standard for hands-free phone use and audio streaming.
Volvo is not coasting on its safety reputation—it pushes hard to improve safety with each generation of vehicles. As the brand’s flagship sedan, the S90 benefits from numerous safety systems, many included as standard equipment.
The S90’s body itself is a safety component engineered for strength and energy dissipation around the passenger compartment, according to Volvo. Critical areas use high percentages of ultra-high-strength steel, the automaker says.
Other standard safety features include LED headlights, daytime running lights, and taillights; blind-spot monitoring with steer-assist; cross-traffic alert with autobrake; collision avoidance; low- and high-speed collision mitigation; driver alert control; run-off road protection and mitigation; lane-departure warning; lane-keep assist; oncoming collision mitigation with braking; front, side, and curtain airbags; driver’s knee airbag; whiplash protection system in the front seats; powered rear-door child locks; slippery road/hazard-light alert; and more.
Volvo’s Pilot Assist driver-assistance system is standard, too, with adaptive cruise control. This system can control acceleration and braking, while keeping the car center in its lane, on highways, but drivers still have to keep their hands on the steering wheel. The S90 doesn’t drive itself, but it makes traveling on a long stretch of highway much more relaxing and safer.
The S90 is a Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the organization’s top rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has not released ratings for the 2021 S90, however.
Pricing for the 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge T8 Inscription starts at $60,050. Our test vehicle came with a few options, including the $1,300 Lounge Package, the $750 Climate Package, $645 metallic paint, the $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins Premium Sound, $1,200 Four-C Adaptive Air Suspension, 20-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels for $800, and a $995 destination price, adding up to an as-tested MSRP of $70,640. The starting point for the 2021 S90 is $51,550 for the base (gasoline-only) Momentum trim. The Inscription and R-Design trims start at $55,695, so we figure the plug-in hybrid powertrain adds about $4,300 to the bottom line over a conventionally-powered S90. Recouping the cost in fuel savings alone will take years, but the more miles you run in pure electric mode, the less you’ll contribute directly to air pollution and noise pollution. It’s hard to put a price on that.
If you’re considering an S90 Recharge, you should measure it against its competition, including the BMW 530e xDrive (starting at $57,850) plug-in hybrid and the Mercedes-Benz E 450 4MATIC sedan (starting at $62,000), not a plug-in hybrid, but a 3.0-liter turbo gasoline model with electric boost. Also compare the Audi A6 sedan (starting at $54,900), Genesis G80 (starting at $47,700), and the Cadillac CT5 (starting at $37,690).
Hybrids are a step on the road to full electrification, and a plug-in hybrid like the 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge takes you a step farther. We’re all going to find ourselves traveling this road soon. If we’re lucky, the road will be as smooth as the S90 is now.
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