The 2017 Volvo V90 R-Design is the midsize station wagon that was sent from the automotive gods to roundhouse kick generic crossovers in the chest. It brings the already-stunning V90 wagon to a new level by adding sexy Swedish design cues and a healthy dose of hunkered-down sports car athleticism.
Volvo says its new R-Design is targeted at a “younger than average,” married-with-children driver who prefers wagons over SUVs, desires a more performance-oriented drive and a sportier look than the average family shuttle.
For fans of luggage space, practicality and performance cars, it’s basically a dream come true.
(Full disclosure: Volvo Canada invited me and other automotive journalists at Montréal’s ICAR racing facility for the North American debut of the V90 R-Design. Volvo also had a few V60 and S60 Polestars there for us to sample on the track, along with Polestar factory test driver and Touring car champion Richard Göransson.)
R-Design is more-or-less a handling and aesthetics package that can be grafted onto any V90 wagon except the Cross Country.
In the U.S., the kit is available for both T5 ($49,950) and T6 ($55,950) all-wheel-drive V90 models, while in Canada it’s only available for the T6 ($64,450 CAN).
What you get is a fiercer front grille, more aggressive front bumper with a lip spoiler, 20-inch sport wheels (19-inch on the T5), a choice of seven trim-specific paint jobs, an R-Design branded, leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, pedals, door sills, and leather sports seats which not only look like the thrones of heroes, but also hug you firmly into place when cornering hard in your gorgeous, fit Swedish estate wagon.
The only mechanical component that changes for the V90 R-Design over a regular V90 is the car’s chassis, which, according to Volvo, is “sport-tuned” through increased stiffness at key locations to improve the car’s overall agility.
Like in the V90 Inscription luxury model, air suspension is available for the R-Design, which, when set to Dynamic mode, gives this opulent Scandinavian sport wagon an aggressive, touring-car like stance.
Of course, this being Volvo, we were all given the full Swedish safety speech before we were allowed to drive it.
Volvo’s new semi-autonomous crash avoidance technology, introduced in the XC60 crossover and including new safety features such as oncoming lane mitigation and blind spot monitoring with steer assist, will make its way into all S90/V90 models for 2018.
But the V90 R-Design is so sharp, you shouldn’t need too many nannies helping you pay attention to the drive.
All the V90 R-Designs that we had for testing were fitted with the Polestar optimization package, something I would strongly suggest you add to your svelte Sweden wagon.
It’s essentially an $1,800 dealer-performed ECU reflash that cranks the T6 engine to a claimed 330 hp (from 316 hp) and 325 lb-ft of torque (from 295 lb-ft).
That tune also considerably increases the engine’s throttle response, stiffens up the electric power steering system and speeds up the transmission’s gear changes.
As I’m writing this, I’m driving around in a standard V90 T6, so I can compare both back to back. The R-Design does indeed feel slightly stiffer and seems to steer more quickly than the standard car. The R is also much more stable in the bends, cornering flat, with minimal body motions, and never feels bloated even if it weighs 4,350 pounds.
Much of the V90’s handling prowess has to do with the car’s double wishbone front suspension, an ideal setup when you’ve got lots of load resting on top of the front wheels - and the V90 definitely does.
During my short drive through Québec’s sinuous Laurentian roads, the V90 R-Design felt as much fun to fling around as a nimble little sports car to me, with the automatic gearbox hanging onto revs, almost predicting my next moves. Very seldom did it frantically downshift for nothing.
Practically speaking, the extra power from the Polestar tune doesn’t seem like a massively substantial change to the car’s performance. But the R-Design overall feels quicker off its feet, and generally more alive, delivering power in a similar fashion as the V60 Polestar. That 2.0-liter engine is always eager to rev and delivers a consistent delivery of boost all the way to redline.
There is some turbo lag in the lower sections of the rev counter until the turbo/supercharger combo kicks in, and I totally dig how the car drops subtle exhaust farts as it’s ripping through the gears.
All Volvo 90-cluster cars and trucks have the same problem: they ride hard and are considerably louder than the competition at highway speeds. Even in its most comfortable setting, the V90 R-Design was rock-stiff and reacted to road imperfections with sudden, undesirable jolts sent through its chassis.
Tire and road noise are also a Volvo weak spot. This would be acceptable if the V90 were priced like a Honda Accord, but it’s not. The damn thing sells for $55,000.
Although I have immense admiration for the power and fuel economy numbers that come out of this tiny engine (approximately 26 mpg in combined driving), it continues to sound somewhat harsh compared to the old T6, with a cheap “zing” to its exhaust note that feels low-rent, especially when it’s revving close to redline.
Before heading out on our V90 R-Design drive, we all strapped ourselves into a bunch of S60/V60 Polestars for some hot laps. Touring Car Champion Richard Göransson showed up to show us some moves. We followed him, no overtaking allowed, and were gradually given more bandwidth to push the cars harder and faster at each lap.
What I’ve concluded from the experience is that the Polestar cars are fast understeer monsters that brake hard and have tons of grip. As long as you remain patient when going around the apex, letting the car do its thing, once you apply power upon corner exit, that all-wheel-drive system will help the car’s rear gracefully slide out of a hairpin.
They also continue to look absolutely epic, especially in that blue.
Since I had managed to stay close behind Göransson the entire time, at the end of my track run in the Polestar I felt confident I could take him on.
It’s when I sat in the car with him for a hot lap that the man proved to me, no, I actually totally suck on a racetrack. The car was fun for me to drive, but in the hands of an elite pilot, it felt downright thrilling.
Finally, the people at Volvo gave me the Konami code to the S60/V60 Polestar’s “hidden” Sport+ mode. If you own such cars, and haven’t searched on YouTube yet:
- Hold the brake pedal.
- Move the gear lever to S position.
- Press the gear lever towards upshift (+) once.
- Pull the downshift (-) paddle on the steering wheel twice.
- A flashing S symbol in the gauge cluster indicates S+ mode is activated.
Sport+ alters the car’s transmission, changing its shift points and increases the speed at which it changes gears. The setting can only be used in full automatic mode.
After helping Volvo’s Swedish employees find the best poutine outlets in Montréal, I went along and asked them if there were definitive plans to release a real, V90 Polestar soon.
They all looked at me with a straight face and didn’t budge. Only one of them asked me in a monotone Swedish accent: “Would you like to see a Polestar V90?”
“Yes sir! I would love to see that, Mr. Volvo Man.”
Although nothing has yet been confirmed by Volvo, the simple fact that the Swedish carmaker invited a bunch of journalists to a racetrack to meet its racing driver and some baby blue wagons, as well as constantly underline the racing and engineering achievements of Volvo’s soon to be electric-only performance division, it seems obvious that there are concrete plans at Volvo to expand the Polestar lineup in the near future.
In the meantime, the V90 R-Design is yet another push to Volvo’s already steady momentum of competent, beautifully styled and intelligently engineered station wagons.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.